A new interview with me is up at Wordgathering: A Journal of Disability Poetry and Literature. Lots of stuff about So Lucky and disability, of course, but also much about my work in general, thoughts on Hild (and Hild and Menewood), and why I believe characters should only be hollowed out by sadness in order to be filled with joy.
WG: With respect to So Lucky, what kinds of things do you think you were able to do in that book that as a novelist that you would not have been able to do as a memoirist.
NG: With So Lucky I wanted to explore how chronic illness and disability affects us—our decisions, our friends, our place in the world—without confusing that exploration with my specific personal experiences. I needed the clarity of fiction. Fiction allowed me to compress time and so intensify the experience for protagonist and reader. To build a narrative structure that helps the reader experience ableism, its internalisation, and eventual deconstruction. And, importantly, to make metaphor concrete.
So Lucky takes place over the course of a single year. In that time, Mara learns about ableism what took me twenty years to learn. I make that possible by accelerating the course of Mara’s MS in order to lead her and the reader through an equally accelerated series of realisations. When we meet her, she is a woman on top of her world, who’s never met a challenge she couldn’t deal with—until, in the space of a single week, she’s diagnosed with MS, divorced by her wife, and loses her job. She then goes on to create a nonprofit, fall in love, and fight monsters, human and otherwise.
So Lucky is a story about a woman with MS written by a woman with MS. The first word of the book is It, and It is a monster. But the monster is not MS, the monster is ableism.
Ableism is the story we are fed from birth: Crips are less, crips are Other because of our physical impairments, our deviation from some imaginary norm. Ableism is a crap story but one we all—disabled and nondisabled—absorb and internalise. Mara learns that ableism is not only a crap story but a wrong story; it’s not our impairments that make us feel less, feel Other, but society’s attitudes to those impairments. She realises just how much she has internalised that message, and understands that if she does not acknowledge that internalisation, and find a way to counter it, ableism will kill her.
To show that dawning understanding I move the narrative focus from interior to exterior. So Lucky is a thriller of the body—a changing body, and how bodily change, in turn, changes our understanding of life, the universe, and our place in it. But before I was disabled, if I read that description of my novel on someone else’s book cover I might not have picked it up. It sounds claustrophobic: all internal angst and victimhood rather than a thrilling read. I like to read, and to write, books in which characters do things, not just feel things, and whose bodies are sites of delight rather than difficulty.
So I gradually steer the narrative from inside to out, beyond Mara’s specific, individual problems and into a plot involving nonprofits and how they work—their hierarchies and politics. Plus, of course, a bit of love and sex, some murders, and those monsters. The monsters, human and otherwise, are kind of the point.
This gradual metamorphosis is also a way to externalise Mara’s fears and so avoid the cliché that women—women going through a divorce especially, chronically ill women even more so, and disabled women most of all—spend our time marinating in misery; I wanted an active character, one with agency. Someone who takes action rather than stews in her own anxiety.
So much previous disability fiction has been gentle and elegiac. I wanted So Lucky to be a spear-thrust of a novel, more bolero than nocturne. Rather than Chopin, think Grace Slick singing “White Rabbit.” The whole point of the novel, the whole arc is about the crescendo: facing the monster right at the end. You can’t do that with memoir.
It’s been fascinating to watch how many nondisabled readers, whether they call themselves critics or not, find this story structure discomfiting.