FOTW author Clayton Lister looks at writing about disability in fiction
We spoke to Clayton Lister (short story writer as part of anthology 'Of Myths and Mothers') about what he was currently preoccupied with writing. A little birdie told us he has a novel out soon...
About a million-billion years ago, I signed up for an extramural short story writing course. It would be my first experience of constructive criticism. The story I shared was narrated by an autistic boy who didn’t speak but enjoyed sounds and sensations. I cleverly suggested the eponymous Spectacles’ neurodiversity with unconventional punctuation and rare typographical marks. I know. Radical.
One of our group was so spittle-flinging outraged by Doofing! Spectacles that all around me our fellow tutees and tutor Brian Stableford, God bless them, flung up their brollies in defensive stances. Although, in fairness, it wasn’t so much my cutting-edge stylistics that had so offended as Spectacles’ joyful appreciation of the escalating harm he suffered whilst standing in for a missing goalpost.
~aw, hit the post. again! that was jonesy said that.
~ohhh, jonesy, don’t.
me: ~doof. doof.
~see. he loves it.
i do. i loves it, jonesy loves it, i loves it. Doof!
I’ll confess I rather thrilled to that classroom squall. My heroes all upset people. Can’t be a literary rebel and not rile folk. What would be the point?
Except that I am a sensitive soul. I’d thought Doofing! Spectacles a highly moral story, sympathetic to all goalposts.
And right there is the rub. I love irreverence. I love stories that really get under the skin, especially those that make you giggle whilst chewing your fist in horror. But I want to be the good guy, too. Living dangerously and doing the right thing is a fine and risky line to walk. For me, I’ve always feared one slip might be professional suicide. Doofing! Spectacles, you see, was based on my earliest experiences of working with people with learning disabilities.
If, with a story I intended to be sympathetic to its autistic protagonist, I was capable of so offending a reader that he’d leave his seat to shout at me, how could I possibly trust my own judgment? I was going to have to tread very carefully.
Fast forward a million-billion years or so, I am now the safeguarding manager for that same organisation I started out with as a support worker. We’re a charitable organisation that supports people with autism and learning disabilities. You’ve probably never heard of the Dimensions Group, but we support over 3,000 people. And not one of my published stories is about a person with a learning disability.
Except that, things are about to change. I have a novel called The Broke Hotel coming out with Stairwell Books later this year. It features a good many people with all sorts of conditions. It’s about a disability hate crime. And guess what. It’s not without a few irreverent laughs.
I’ve grown up a bit since writing Doofing! Spectacles. I’ve learned a bit. Just a bit. I understand that that fellow tutee of mine might have been angry for any number of reasons. His anger might actually have had nothing to do with me or poor Spectacles whatsoever. Whatever, there is sometimes just no accounting for sensibilities. I’ve learned that, too. Some people don’t want to see people with disabilities, let alone read stories about them. Oh, and down the years, walking that fine and risky line of mine, I think actually I should probably have been a bit braver.
And I’ll tell you what else.
I’m writing this piece at the invitation of Isabelle Kenyon. You’ll likely know that Isabelle is managing director of Fly on the Wall Press, a ‘publisher with a conscience’. That strapline is what drew me to FOTW Press. Having accepted my story How to Dress a Rabbit for the Of Myths and Mothers anthology, Isabelle directed me and The Broke Hotel to Rose Drew of Stairwell Books. Stairwell like to ‘touch on big themes and bring new insight into ourselves’.
What a better place this world is for all its varied human conditions — and those presses brave enough to champion them. Hurrah for them!
Or should that be
~back of the net.