Friday, August 13, 2010

BLIND AMBITION: INTERVIEW WITH NAN HAWTHORNE

When US author NAN HAWTHORNE decided to review my first novel, Libertas, she kept me up to speed on her (astonishing) progress and fired the occasional question across the Atlantic ether. It became apparent that she needed to be sure of certain facts and phrases because she is legally blind… and that led to a number of questions of my own. It's a privilege to have one of the most prolific reviewers of historical fiction with us for this Blog's second interview...

Q Nan, you read an incredible amount and yet you are virtually blind. How do you do this?

A Let me define blindness as it applies to me in particular.  I have a condition that completely obscures my central vision, sort of the opposite of tunnel Vision.  Instead of seeing a narrow tunnel of whatever I am looking at, it is what I am looking at directly that is blocked. For a while, many years ago, I could just barely manage to read with peripheral vision… try it… it ain't easy. But that was quite a while ago.  It's not what is popularly known as age-related macular degeneration, which is a growing issue for aging Baby Boomers, but a congenital and hereditary condition. I didn't even know I had it until my twenties. By then I had already formed my lifelong obsession with historical novels.

Up until recently I was pretty much confined to the audiobooks provided by the National Library Services for the Blind and Physically Handicapped of the U.S. Library of Congress.  They have been around for as long as there has been manageable recording technology.  There was Braille before that but I am not a Braille reader.  The selection of books though immense is still limited compared to the selection someone who can read visually has access to.  So I have been pleased at all the new tools for reading that give me an opportunity to read even more.  Besides the NLS's latest, digital talking books, which are just audiobooks available in a digital format, there is the Kindle 2 with text-to-speech, a wider selection of unabridged commercially produced audiobooks, TextAloud, an application that converts plain text into speech, and my latest tool, a Plustek Bookreader, a sort of scanner that turns text on paper into speech, so I can now read any book.

Nevertheless, I mostly rely on digital talking books, audiobooks, and my Kindle 2.  The Bookreader can read anything, but it is a tedious and labor intensive process, so it is not my first choice.

As for reading a lot of books, I always have.  Remember, I can do dishes and housework and lie in bed in the dark and read... and the only time I don't have a book going is when I need to concentrate on writing!

Q You've also written a very long book, An Involuntary King, and you have another soon in progress. Tell us how you go about achieving so much.

A My desktop computer is equipped with unforgivably expensive software that not only increases the size of the text on my monitor but also reads aloud to me.  It is reading aloud each word as I type it now.  Really, most disability is no more than a mechanical problem.  A matter of how I get something from my mind into the computer.  That's not difficult with the tools available now.  The hard part is being able to write a ripping yarn, and I've been able to do this since I was seven.  The hardest part for me is research, but as more and more material is becoming available on the web.  I am not afraid to find a scholar and email her or him and ask questions, and they rarely are anything but pleased to reply.  With the Bookreader I can read library books.  But doing what, say, Sharon Kay Penman does, going to England or France and poring through early records... that I would need help with, not to mention money to travel!

Q And your blogs... how do you make appearance choices and, dammit, where do you find the time to do all this?

A I can see, just not detail.  I am also artistically and visually inclined.  The hard part is that the way the screen magnifier works is that it only shows a fragment of the view on the monitor at any given time.  Here is a screenshot so you can see what I mean. 



The result is that I don't get the overall effect until I turn the magnifier off.  I have been startled by how small my font is and how my blog borders, for instance, are so wide.

As to the second part of that question, I am a workhorse.  I love to work.  I find it hard to be idle even for a few minutes, though I do dearly love naps.  I do not have a "job" so that is not in the way, and unlike many other people I know, I don't let other people make demands on my time.  I don't have to ferry kids here and there, and since I can't drive, I have no errands.  My cats are quite happy to have me home with them all the time.

Q You seem to depend on new technology (such as your talking Kindle) and old (your husband!) - if you could ask the world's best electronic engineer for something more, what would it be?

A Oddly, I have never thought of this before.  I think I would like a mobile device, meaning something easy to tote about, that can access books remotely either from a store or a library, that has a speech synthesis program that as much as possible mimics the human voice.  We are close now, but unfortunately publishers are balking at making their books available out of fear people won't bother to buy their audio books.  This is ridiculous since anyone who does not have any choice will listen to the dreadful speech synthesizer on, for instance, the Kindle.  The other part of this is that I would want every single book ever written formatted so that it could be read digitally.  I am still somewhat at the mercy of someone who "chooses" books for me.  For good or ill, the NLS has a limited collection.  They have to choose what they think people want, and believe me, a book on the development of Anglo Saxon towns is not among that group.

Another cool device does exist, a handheld reader that you can move across a page and convert it to speech, but like most products for the blind it is highly overpriced.  I can't afford one.

Q Does being visually impaired make you angry and frustrated? How do you manage to remain positive?

A I used to be better at being positive, but losses in acuity and therefore independence have made that harder of late.  Fortunately I am so restless that I tend to forge ahead just to keep busy.  I would say my greatest frustration is not being able just to walk into a bookstore or library, pick up a book and peruse it.  Others are frustrated by not being able to drive.  Not me.  I am quite  happy cruising the Internet superhighway.  Sir Timothy Berners-Lee, who invented the web,  is my big hero.

Angry?  With whom or what?  What would make me angry is anyone who does not see the Nan behind the lousy vision, who admires me but not because I am bright and witty and resourceful but that I am all those things in spite of my vision loss.  I get angry with people with disabilities who don't strive for excellence or fall back on "they won't let me..." and with non-disabled people who do not see that making the world accessible is self defeating, since the one minority group everyone is eligible for is disability.  It will happen to you, and it could happen overnight.  Don't you want the world already prepared so you can go on with your life?

Q You are not afraid to speak your mind. Have you made any enemies?

A  I don't see the point of a book review unless you tell the truth as you see it.  It happens I actually know what I'm doing so my reviews are not the sort of "loved it/hated it" pap that abounds on the Internet.  Reviews are written for readers so they can decide whether to bother with a book, not to encourage authors, as the editor of one review blog I got kicked off of for my candor insisted.  That being said, I'm not willfully critical, never nasty.  Of course, there are a few authors who might not be so sanguine about my reviews, but I find that if an author really cares about her or his work, as, for example, you do, they want the truth.  Since I clearly am able to see under the surface of their work, I can offer views of both the depth of a work and also suggest better ways something could be written.  If even after that they hate my review, then so be it.  At least it was intelligent.

Q Of all the historical fiction you've read and reviewed, which three made your heart beat most passionately with their sense of time and place?

A Hmmmm, let's see.  Edward Rutherfurd's "The Dublin Saga", really two novels, "The Princes of Ireland" and "The Rebels of Ireland", while not consistently, had me riveted and emotionally involved.  I fell in love with Ireland after first seeing Disney's "The Fighting Prince of Donegal", and like Robin Hood, who turned me into the person I am today in terms of values, pursuits, identity, I am quite passionate about that land's history.  Rutherfurd's sense of the flow of history as it affects individual lives spoke to something in me.  I felt what it would be like to be part of that turbulent history.

Bernard Cornwell's "King Alfred" novels (Saxon Series - ed) really caught my imagination as well, not surprising with my fascination with Anglo Saxon and Norse England.  His gritty guts-all-over-the-place dramatization overcomes the tendency of novelists of the medieval era to make that time pretty.  I also find his willingness to aver the more savage aspects  of human nature refreshing.

One obscure novel that fits this discussion is Brandy Purdy's "The Confession of Piers Gaveston".  Within three sentences I knew I was reading something insightful and skillfully rendered.  I am not generally that big a fan of first person narrative as it, I believe, should only be used only if that style will reveal something important.  This is one case where it was perfect.  Purdy manages to convey that even the narrator, Piers Gaveston himself, doesn't know everything about himself and his motivations, knows perfectly well he is lying to himself and others, and this says more about his character and a more honest look at his time and life than just telling his story would.  It is sad to me that of Purdy's novels, this one gets so little recognition.

Q And have you ever read about a character in historical fiction that made you feel as though you were meeting them in person?

A Oh yes, and in Francis Crawford of Lymond's case, it scared the bejeesus out of me!  In the first volume of his Chronicles by Dorothy Dunnett, "Game of Kings", I was blown away by the breadth of his characterization, from irritatingly clever and caustic to utterly destroyed.  The succeeding five novels took me from admiration to anxiety to downright alarm.  I would not have thought any ending could seem to work with all that constant turmoil, but Dunnett managed it exquisitely.

Another one that deeply affected me is William de Braose in Edith Pargeter's trilogy "The Heaven Tree".  I know from Sharon Kay Penman's exhaustive fact checking and accuracy that the character in Pargeter's novel is heavily embroidered, was not the tragically romantic figure the latter paints, but nevertheless what happens to him had me mourning literally for more than two weeks.  I was almost afraid to read Penman's recounting of what really happened, but am pleased to say I was able to accept Pargeter's de Braose as a great character if not accurate.

It saddens me that I have not found a female character that has stirred me that way.  Maybe it is because I have so little in common with the women I know.  The characters they write have values and experiences I simply cannot relate to.  I even had a dickens of a time with the female characters in "An Involuntary King".  I much preferred the men.  That is why I decided to write the novel I am calling "Beloved Pilgrim", whose protagonist is a woman who wants to live as a man in her time, the Crusade of 1101.  I found writing her that I could not write anything but a lesbian, however, since I could not find a relationship with a man would not throw Elisabeth's character askew.  Maybe in another era, but not in 1101.  Perhaps someday I will be able to find or write a female character under 50 I can relate to.

Q How many books have you reviewed?

A If you just count my blog, That's All She Read, somewhere around 150.  It sure feels like more.

Q And finally, tell us about your next book...

A Working title "Beloved Pilgrim" is, as I mentioned above, about a woman who chooses to go on crusade as a man.  She disguises herself as her late twin brother in order to get away from a brutal impending marriage and to complete her brother's vow to go to Jerusalem and to find their missing father.  The Crusade of 1101 was a farce and revealed the worst in its leaders, like Raymond of Toulouse (a cartoon I did has Byzantine Emperor Alexius II  saying, "Raymond, Toulouse is your name, not your mission."). I am presently completing the second draft.  I hope to have it to an agent this fall.  I know the lesbian relationship may ruin my chances of getting the book published, but as other novelists know, characters simply do not let you choose who they are.  And there was no way Elisabeth was going to be heterosexual.  I admire her for sticking to her, um, guns.

Thank you Nan, for your amazing insight!

Nan Hawthorne has several blogs worth visiting, listed and linked below, but she is also a songwriter and runs an online Celtic music station, Radio De Danann.

Nan Hawthorne's Booking History (Facts and more)
That's All She Read (Reviews)
Today in Medieval History (Calendar)
Random Biographies (Short bios of the somewhat less celebrated)
Historical Blogs: Fiction and Fact (A bloglist of dozens of of historical and historical fiction blogs)

And for a review example, of which this blog's author is particularly proud, click here.

1 comment:

Nan Hawthorne said...

Just for the record, I'm not a lesbian. Not much, anyway.

The screenshot of what the adaptive software remders on my screen doesn't tell you much. There's a better image on my current article about "Unlooked for benefits" on http://allsheread.blogspot.com .

Thanks for this interview, Alistair.. you are a real pleasure to talk with.

Nan Hawthorne