Alex Bledsoe grew up in west Tennessee an hour north of Graceland (home of Elvis) and twenty minutes from Nutbush (birthplace of Tina Turner). He has been a reporter, editor, photographer and door-to-door vacuum cleaner salesman. He now live in a Wisconsin town famous for trolls, write before six in the morning and try to teach his three kids to act like they’ve been to town before. If you want to keep up with Alex in real time, follow him on Twitter as @AlexBledsoe, on Facebook, and/or on Google+.
by Alex Bledsoe
When I first had the idea for Tanna Tully, the Firefly Witch, it was a totally different time. I wrote a novel manuscript* in the late 80s/early 90s that established the character and her world, and that conception remained essentially unchanged going forward. When I started writing short stories about her in the mid-90s and continuing through today, I saw it as a continuity with those original ideas.
Tanna is a college professor and a Wiccan high priestess. She’s also blind, and has been since birth. When puberty hit, however, she developed the ability to see whenever fireflies were around, hence her (witch)Craft name, Lady Firefly. She’s married to the editor of the local newspaper, and they have adventures that often involve some sort of paranormal or fantastic threat. I usually describe them as “a supernatural Nick and Nora Charles.”
I don’t know why I made her blind. Like many of my best ideas, she sprang to life in my head fully-formed: red hair, witchcraft, parapsychology, adorable giggle and blindness all included. It definitely wasn’t just to write about a disabled character. Truthfully, I don’t consider her disabled: it’s just another character trait to me. Tanna is blind; Eddie LaCrosse, the hero of several of my novels, is sarcastic; Bronwyn Hyatt of The Hum and the Shiver is short-tempered. The other characters aren’t defined by those single traits, any more than Tanna is by her blindness.
I don’t think I was overly motivated by the “traumatic blindness of the hero” idea, although I can’t deny it totally. As a child of the Seventies, I saw it everywhere: as the website TV Tropes says, “This plot was absolutely standard in Seventies action drama, showing up on Mannix, Hawaii Five-O, and numerous others.” So I might have absorbed it through pop-culture osmosis. I certainly read Daredevil comics, particularly Frank Miller’s run in the early 80s, in which the the trope of, “if you lose one sense, the others increase to compensate” was the central conceit.
But I wanted these stories to be more grounded in reality. Since she could see only in the presence of fireflies, the majority of Tanna’s existence was as a blind person. For example, she attended a fictional all-blind school in the South, a refuge from the ignorance and prejudice she encountered elsewhere. And I stressed that even when she saw, it was not the same way that sighted people do. Her vision is more a magical state than a physical sense, in keeping with the stories as fantasy and horror tales.
But the most crucial thing was, I didn’t want the stories to hinge on her blindness as a McGuffin. She was a strong, funny, sexy character who was blind, and that’s the order of importance I gave those qualities. Blindness impinged on her reality, but never defined it. At the time, that seemed like a far more radical notion than making her blindness the central aspect of her personality (in a similar way, I had her getting along with the local Christian clergy, rather than constantly butting heads with them).
So to me, the Firefly Witch stories are about a hero (I use that in a genderless way) who happens to be blind. I’m not making a statement about blindness, or disability in general: I’m telling stories about a specific character. Because that, ultimately, is my job. I’ve gotten positive responses from blind readers, and if someone gives me a legitimate criticism in the future, I’ll try to adjust accordingly. Because while my first priority is always to tell a good story, that can’t be done if I get the details wrong. And all the research in the world is no replacement for lived experience.