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Special Needs in Strange Worlds: An Interview with Teresa Frohock

A few weeks ago I interviewed my disabled brother about reading SF/F  and what the genre means to him. This week I decided to balance it out by interviewing author Teresa Frohock, who has not only contributed her amazing book, Miserere, to the genre, but also is hearing impaired.

I hope you enjoy this interview as much as I did.

SARAH: Why speculative fiction? What attracts you to this genre? I’ve always loved speculative fiction.

TERESA: My father was big on Saturday-at-the-library and that is where I found Patricia McKillip’s Forgotten Beasts of Eld. After she opened that world to me, I started reading speculative fiction non-stop.

One thing that always drew me to speculative fiction was that the stories usually seemed to begin with the outsider, someone who didn’t quite fit in. I always (and sometimes still do) felt like an impostor, someone who looks okay on the outside, but who doesn’t quite fit in with regular folks. The works of Vonda McIntyre and Patricia McKillip showed me that there were other people out there in the world who had the same thoughts and ideas that I had. They expressed their views through their stories and really told me it was all right to be an assertive young woman.

SARAH: A common thread I see through all of my interviews with authors and readers is the fact that SFF often features isolated, alone, or atypical characters, and that’s one reason why we, as readers, love the genre so much. You, however, are the first one to mention that it showed you that it was all right to be an assertive young woman. Being able to relate to characters similar to us, and learn from them, seems to be so important to all of us. Can you name some characters that you’ll never forget, and maybe some of the ways you related to them, or learned from them? 

TERESA: Killashandra Ree (from Crystal Singer by Anne McCaffrey), Snake (from Dream Snake by Vonda McIntyre), and Morgaine (from Mists of Avalon by Marion Zimmer Bradley).

What I loved about Killashandra (other than that rocking name) was that she wasn’t the most talented or the most special person in her field of choice. She was second-best, and rather than be second-best in the chorus, she decided that she would leave singing behind and would use her voice to be the absolute best in her field–that of a crystal singer. She taught me that life was about choices. I didn’t have to fit myself into other people’s paradigms, but that I could change my own fate so long as I was able to assess and accept responsibility for the consequences of my actions.

Morgaine taught me to remain true to my beliefs–even when staying true meant losing in the end. Dignity was not about winning but about integrity.

I saved Snake for last, because she made the most profound difference. Snake taught me the importance of knowledge and self-confidence. She defeated her adversary, not with a sword, but with her brains–by knowing his fears and his weaknesses. Knowledge trumps physical strength, because the smart woman can outwit her duller adversaries.

SARAH: My brother mentioned that books were a way that he could relate to people, and express himself, as well as helping others learn about people with disabilities. As a reader and a writer, do you feel the same way? 

TERESA: This one made me think, probably more than I should.

In The Shadow of the Wind, Carlos Ruiz Zafon compares books to mirrors. He says, “Books are mirrors: you only see in them what you already have inside you.”

I think this is the key.

When a story helps a reader to think differently or to relate to other people, I believe that the seed for that belief–the ability to be open to new thought processes and experiences–already lies deep within the reader. So in this respect, your brother, and many people like him, already possess an open mind and heart, and in being open to new experiences, the reader finds pieces of themselves in both the stories and the characters.

I don’t believe that genre fans and readers are average readers. I think most readers and fans of genre fiction look at life and the environment much more deeply than the average reader. It presents an interesting challenge to the writer to come up with new and interesting works.

Now to the part about disabilities. I’m not sure how to answer, to be honest. Remember, not all disabilities are physical. I have a character now who, for all practical purposes, is physically sound. However, spiritually, he is quite broken. So yes, in a lot of ways, I can use my stories to educate, but not only about physical limitations.

SARAH: You mention physical limitations here, I wonder if you think that physical limitations are highlighted enough, or used enough in SFF books?

TERESA: I’m not sure, to be honest. I just haven’t read widely enough to say yes or no with any degree of certainty. I think it is becoming more prevalent.

As to whether physical limitations are used enough, that’s a hard call to make, because then I am judging other people’s stories based on representation of a certain class of individuals rather than the story. I don’t believe that throwing a character into a story to meet reader expectations is the answer. I think it should be an author’s discretion.

I will say this: if an author intends to write a character with physical disabilities, then be realistic. I know I really liked the way that Abercrombie handled Glokta’s infirmities [in Before They Are Hanged]. The way Glokta moved, the permanence of his disabilities, and most importantly, his attitude about his disabilities made him very real and believable as a character.

I know that Elspeth Cooper had a disabled character in her series. Others have used disabled characters as well and portrayed the character’s emotional and physical limitations with skill.

For me, overall representation doesn’t lie in how many or how much, but in how well the character and the disability is portrayed.

SARAH: Do you relate to disabled characters more, and does your struggle with a disability make it more important to have disabled/imperfect characters in the books and stories you write?

TERESA: I’m going to break this one in two if you don’t mind.

As to the first part of that question (Do you relate to disabled characters more?), I actually have to say no–I don’t always relate to disabled characters for many reasons. I do understand and appreciate the frustrations and difficulties of being disabled; however, when I’m reading or writing a story, I am looking to connect with the characters on an emotional level. That is so much more important to me.

I try very hard not to pigeonhole myself. I don’t want to be remembered because I’m deaf. I want to remembered because people enjoyed or found value in my stories. I want people to see me as a whole person, and by wholeness, I mean that I want people to see Teresa the mother, wife, employee, author, adoptee, all these things that I am. Each and every dimension of my life adds different aspects to my character. They make me what I am.

I learned, sometime around age forty, not to narrow these aspects of my character into categories, but to broaden my acceptance of myself. This way I embrace both my good qualities and my limitations, and these include any and all defects of my character that impedes my ability to function with other people. I finally learned, after many frustrating years, how to accept myself as I am. It was probably one of the most liberating experiences that I ever had.

As to the second part of that question (Does your struggle with a disability make it more important to have disabled/imperfect characters in the books and stories you write?): Yes and no.

I think about my characters in terms of the story. I will say that the one thing that always tripped me up in a lot of speculative fiction was the miracle cure. The healer takes the injured warrior into her home and miraculously heals him, or medical advances rebuild a person’s body with no adverse issues, or Avatar.


When I wrote Miserere, I toyed with the idea of a miracle cure for Lucian and quickly cast it aside. We talk about “realism” in fantasy, this was my idea of realism in fantasy. You get hurt and some hurts simply don’t disappear. In the real world, there are deaf people, people with mobility issues, people with visual issues …the long and short of it is that the world is not made up of 20-something people in perfect health. I want my work to reflect a representative population and in a “realistic” population, you will see a large variety of people.

All of my stories begin with my characters, and not all of my characters come to me as disabled. I don’t consciously think of portraying disabled characters or injecting a disability unless it is necessary to the plot and the story. The first time I imagined Lucian, I saw him with a cane and a limp. His biography and character developed from that point.

In Garden in Umber, Guillermo, Diago, and Miquel are all healthy and whole. In Cygnet Moon, Makar is seventeen and healthy as horse–physically. He is broken spiritually though, and the story revolves somewhat around that.

I don’t think I answered your question very well. Sorry.

SARAH: You mention that you don’t want to be pigeonholed because you are deaf. You want to be remembered because people enjoyed your work. Do you feel that being pigeonholed is something that you struggle with? Is that something that you think a lot of disabled people struggle with?

TERESA: Yes to both questions.

And people don’t do it to be rude or due to prejudice. For most people, it is the same kind of internal cataloging the we do with everyone as a form of mnemonics. If I allow people to only associate me with my hearing loss, though, then it becomes a label.

The only reason I tell people about it is for face-to-face and telephone communications reasons.

SARAH: My cancer battle taught me that half of the disease was physical, and the other half was mental. The things my body struggled with seemed to transcend into my psyche somehow. The characters you write always seem to suffer from disabilities on a number of levels, in numerous different ways. What kind of research goes into creating these characters, and how do you make sure they deal with their mental/physical limitations so realistically?   

TERESA: As to research, I talk to people who have the disability that I am using. I also use Google and find blogs or articles. That is the easy part. As to the mental, we all are going to deal with things differently. How people mentally meet a physical limitation is often predicated on their upbringing, their own spiritual state (not to be confused with a religious state), and their philosophy.

I generally have extensive character biographies on my characters that go into class, race, birth order, religious beliefs, spiritual beliefs, the character’s relationship with parents, siblings, extended family, their favorite book, music, etc. I do these because those all of these seemingly little things give me insight into how an individual might react in a stressful situation (and physical limitations can be extremely stressful).

Then I do what every writer does: I imagine how I would react in that same situation.

SARAH: I think one thing most people who struggle with a disability have in common is their battle with having certain aspects of their disability or lives understood by people who don’t have that limitation. Being deaf and an author, I can imagine some of your publicity would be somewhat challenging, like conventions. On your web page you specifically say that you don’t know sign language – so I am guessing people make assumptions about being deaf. Does being deaf affect your career, and how does it impact your writing? 

TERESA: Oh, yes, definitely–all those things. Phones are limited for me–I can’t participate in podcasts and other promotional online activities that require the telephone. I have to use a Captel service, which means delays while the operator captions the other person’s words. The technology has improved immensely, but it’s still cumbersome for rapid-fire discussion.

Cons are very difficult for me, because I don’t hear the same way other people do. Also, most cons don’t utilize assistive listening devices, so that makes it very, very difficult to follow panels. When I let the moderators know, they are very wonderful about the whole thing. I haven’t had a bad experience yet. As a matter of fact, at WorldCon, one gentleman, who had a question, moved closer to the podium so I could lip-read. I still remember him for that.

Discussion is difficult in crowded lobbies and con floors. Sometimes people say hello to me and I don’t hear them, then they think I’ve slighted them. I absolutely hate that, because I very rarely snub anyone. It’s just that when I’m in a loud, noisy area, I am concentrating on navigating the crowd without stepping on someone. I’m rather large and I can’t hear people coming up behind me. I don’t get offended when people move into my line of sight and wave to get my attention, and if someone wants to talk, I will often move us to a quieter corner to talk.

However, I love Twitter, Facebook, and Google+, because these platforms allow me to interact and enjoy the fans in ways that I can’t do face-to-face. So I compensate by using blogging and social networking. That helps me a lot.

I think the biggest assumption that people make about me being deaf is that by exaggerating their words and yelling, they’re helping. I don’t get angry when someone does that to me, because usually, after I explain that speaking normally and enunciating helps me much more, they do it. Sometimes it can be really funny and we both laugh about it.

I mentioned the sign language issue in my bio, because of cons. A lot of con committees think that having a sign language interpreter is the magic cure for helping the deaf, or hard of hearing, follow the con. That is only good if: (a) all of the deaf people know sign language; and (b) there are no foreign deaf people at the con. ASL is American Sign Language and there are several off-shoots of ASL (Signed English, for example). Deaf people in other countries use different signs, so it’s not a one-size-fits-all cure, I’m afraid.

All of these things are costly (assistive listening devices and interpreters), and most deaf people understand that. I’m like anyone else–as long as there is a reasonable attempt to accommodate my loss, I am happy and try to work with the con. I’ve noticed that some cons have started saving seats near the front for the deaf and hard of hearing. That is just awesome and it really helps so much more than people think.

Being deaf really doesn’t impact my writing very much. In some ways it helps. I can take my hearing aids out in an airport and write without distraction. I don’t miss my flight, because the airline knows that I need special assistance, and they are always wonderful about making sure I get on the right plane. Of course, if I ever wind up in Bangkok, I’m sure there is a story in that. If I ever get home, that is.

SARAH: This might be a ridiculous question, but you mention that you read lips. How did you learn how to do that? You say that a lot of cons are starting to save seats at the front for those who are hearing impaired. In general, are things changing so those with limitations are being better accommodated, not just at conventions, but anywhere? 

TERESA: Learning to read lips was really a subconscious thing. I didn’t even know I could do it until an audiologist pointed it out to me when I was in my twenties. If you want to learn how to do it, just turn the sound on your television down real low, until you can barely hear it, then watch people’s mouths move.

Ta-da, a new life-skill.

Seriously, it’s not as easy as it looks. It requires a lot of concentration and can be very tiring when I have to do it for long periods of time. That’s why I disappear into quiet corners during cons, to refresh and recharge my mental batteries.

I think people are becoming more conscious about others who have physical limitations; however, accommodation has a long way to go. We are lucky in the U.S., because of the A.D.A.; however, the A.D.A. doesn’t cover all situations and is only as useful as the courts allow it to be. Not all countries have a version of this law, so accommodation often simply isn’t thought of or anticipated. I think we need to be vocal and help others to realize that disabled people want to enjoy life and have fun just like everyone else.

SARAH: Do you think there is enough discussion about disabilities in literature, and attached to that, do you think there is enough discussion about mental limitations in literature?

TERESA: I think that when an author uses disabilities in their stories, readers and reviewers pick up on it, so in that respect, yes, people pick up on those aspects of characterization and talk about it.

Mental limitations are another matter. I don’t think we discuss mental limitations as much as we should, but that is less a literary issue and more of a societal issue (to my thinking, anyway). We’ve got a long way to go in all these areas.

SARAH: What, if anything, do you hope that discussing limitations and disabilities in the genre can accomplish?

TERESA: I think that heightened awareness is the best outcome of any of these discussions, because I believe that understanding dilutes fear and helplessness. Sometimes able-bodied people don’t know how far to go to help others, and this leaves them feeling helpless and frustrated. Some people have been told that disabled people NEVER want assistance because doing things ourselves gives us a sense of independence. While that may be true for some, I’m always very appreciative of any assistance that people give me. I’ve rarely seen anyone berated for sincerely wanting to help someone. I think when in doubt, ask. “May I help you?” If the answer is no, then stand back and respect the other person’s space.

So discussing disabilities in literature or through literature can eliminate these fears and uncertainties. I think the more open the discussions the better we can educate people.

SARAH: In your opinion, does any aspect of disabilities in literature need more attention? If so, what?

TERESA: That’s kind of a hard one to answer and I think it goes back to one of my previous answers about needing to be more thoroughly read. However, I will say this: I don’t think that authors should shy away from having disabled people in their novels. Disabled characters can be more difficult to write, but that doesn’t mean they should be nonexistent. They can sometimes be the most rewarding characters to write due to the innovations they must make in both their attitudes and their lifestyles to ensure their survival.

Thanks so much to Teresa for her illuminating interview.

6 Comments on Special Needs in Strange Worlds: An Interview with Teresa Frohock

  1. Great interview, and some good food for thought!

    “It requires a lot of concentration and can be very tiring when I have to do it for long periods of time. That’s why I disappear into quiet corners […], to refresh and recharge my mental batteries.”

    That’s how I feel about hearing in general. I have an auditory processing disorder, so while I can hear and communicate verbally, I mishear a lot and have to rely on a lot of contextual clues (and occasionally nothing makes it through to my brain and I just have to make vague noncommittal sounds and hope that I figure out what I missed as the conversation goes on). It’s tiring as all get-out, and while I can do it and pass as someone who doesn’t have as many issues as I do, it takes a toll after a while, and sometimes I just have to hang up my hat and go away for a while and let myself detox from verbal communication.

    I’m lucky in that I can still function for the most part, but, well, passing is an exhausting thing, and it’s not often that people make mention of that, so I really appreciate you saying what you did there.

    • Hi, Bibliotropic! I can relate to what you’re talking about too. I think that is one nice thing about talking about disabilities. People feel less alone. Thanks for commenting!

  2. Hi Teresa,

    I’ve read your books for a long time and spoken to you via blog and e-mail on several occasions. (I wrote Uninvoked, which you were so very supportive on and I will never forget that.) I didn’t know you were hearing impaired until I read this. I’ve gobbled every one of your books I could get my hands on, and forced as many friends as possible to read your books too. They’re awesome, and real, and touching. 🙂

    When I was young, I had a problem similar to Bibliotropic in that at least once a day my ability to communicate would abruptly switch off. I knew who ever was speaking to me spoke English. I knew that I spoke English. I had no trouble hearing their words, but it might as well have been Greek. Repeating the sentence did no good, the only way to break it so I could understand was to have the person speaking to me rephrase the sentence in a new way.

    I never got help for this issue, and it has since gone away, but it has left me very sensitive to how people feel when they’re having trouble communicating. Nobody likes to feel left out. I’ve even gone as far as to learn a few ASL words even though I have never gotten a chance to use them. (I can’t hold a conversation but I know the word “Restroom” when I see it! :D)

    That being said, I think it would be hard to pigeon-hole an author for their disabilities because no reader that I am aware of cares about the physical condition of the author. I as a reader care about one thing only—your voice. I will shamelessly judge you on that voice, remember if you re-use a word several times close together, or create scenes that are only funny because you’re the author. I will judge you mercilessly for twisting the ending just because you can and to prove you are the author. (I HATE that.) I will critique your writing brutally with my friends. I’m not going to bring up a disability the author has because the only time I discuss an author as far as their physical form is to gripe about a photo taking up the entire back of a book instead of a description of the story. (I hate that too. A picture and a zillion rave reviews is not going to convince me to buy a book when I don’t even know what it’s about!)

    Do you truly have your every day reader bringing deafness into it? Or is that more an experience of cons and places where you are physically there?

    • Hi, Andrea! I do remember you, both as Uninvoked and as Andrea! 😉

      Thank you so much for all your kind words.

      I hope you are still writing! You had the coolest idea with the way you inverted the magical tropes in your story. I loved that.

      To answer your questions: “Do you truly have your every day reader bringing deafness into it? Or is that more an experience of cons and places where you are physically there?”

      No, I haven’t had readers associate my deafness with my writing. My answer to that question was more in terms of generalities. It is easy for people who aren’t disabled to sometimes apply labels to others (the same way people sometimes apply labels of ethnicity and social class on others). It’s not something that is overt.

      I think that statement also goes back to how I view myself too. I have to remember that each aspect of me is merely one part of a greater whole.

      Most people don’t know I have a hearing impairment unless I say something. I’m very open about it, because so much of our communications nowadays relies on hearing and phones and videos, but also to make people aware that others might have communication issues too. I think knowing this makes other people less likely to jump to conclusions–not just about me, but about other people as well. Maybe we’ll become just a little more tolerant of one another.

      Or so I hope. 😉

      • We can always hope. 😀

        I think it is human nature to want to label things. If you can name it, than it isn’t a Big Scary Nothing anymore. If you look at old maps and such, the unknown was always painted as some wickedly frightening place of monsters and dragons. Perhaps that same fear is what makes people jump to conclusions about other people. Who knows?

        As for writing, yes I am still writing! The passion for making up stories has never really gone away, although life has significantly slowed my pace. I’m hoping to get my newest novel finished sometime in 2014. Wish me luck! 🙂

        • “I think it is human nature to want to label things. If you can name it, than it isn’t a Big Scary Nothing anymore.”

          I think you’re absolutely right there.

          Insofar as your writing: I’m so glad you’ve stayed with it. I wish you all the luck in the world and I hope that 2014 is your best year ever!

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