I'm proud to be on the Blog Tour for Owl Song at Dawn today, with a Q&A with author Emma Claire Sweeney. You can read my review of the novel here.
Emma Claire Sweeney has won Arts Council, Royal Literary Fund and Escalator Awards, and has been shortlisted for several others, including the Asham, Wasafiri and Fish.
She teaches creative writing at New York University in London; co-runs SomethingRhymed.com – a website on female literary friendship; and publishes features and pieces on disability for the likes of the Guardian, the Independent on Sunday and The Times.
Owl Song at Dawn is inspired by her sister, who has autism.
V: Hi Emma, welcome to my blog, and thank you for the opportunity to ask you questions about your fabulous new book, Owl Song at Dawn.
I've read that you were inspired to write this book by your sister, who has cerebral palsy, and also your Grandma, who provides the inspiration for the main character, Maeve. The story of Maeve's life, dominated by her family's determination to care for her 'severely subnormal' twin sister is heartbreaking. Though the quality of the way the authorities care for people like Edie has, one would hope, changed for the better, in what way is Maeve's life similar to your own in caring for your sister?
E: The positive aspects of the relationship between Maeve and Edie are quite similar to those shared by my sister and me. Lou has an amazing capacity for happiness, which rubs off on other people. Just the other night, after the northern launch party for Owl Song at Dawn, Lou persuaded three of my friends, my parents and me to parade around the living room in a human choo-choo train. Her lack of inhibitions gives the rest of us a great excuse to shed our reserve too.
Some aspects of care tend to get over-emphasised in narratives of disability. I’m thinking particularly of toileting. Most people who support someone with disabilities don’t feel defined by this aspect of their role, nor do they see it as a demeaning part of their loved one’s life. In my novel, I have tried to show that these aspects of care are simply a small part of a much richer and more complex relationship, which involves listening with the heart.
One of the things that I have learnt from Lou is that there can be dignity and kindness for all of us in seeking and accepting care.
V: Do you think society has changed that much from when your book is set (in the first half of the 20th Century) in the way able-bodied people look at those with disabilities? How would you like to see it change, and do you think it ever will?
E: Maeve and Edie were born in 1933, the year Hitler became Chancellor of Germany. Before long, the Nazis had begun trialling methods of mass murder on people with disabilities. These deaths have never been adequately commemorated. What’s more, Britain played a role in this shameful history since the Nazis were inspired in part by some of the eugenicist ideology prevalent in the UK. When a forced sterilisation bill was debated in parliament in 1931, it was successfully opposed only in favour of incarcerating people with learning disabilities in asylums. One of those who spoke out against forced sterilisation, nonetheless described people with learning disabilities as having “infantile and puerile minds, with perversions, with anti-social tendencies”.
On many levels we have clearly come a very long way since then. People like my sister can grow up in loving families, surrounded by supportive friends. People with learning disabilities and autism have achieved high-profile positions as actors, for instance, and as social activists. Couples with learning disabilities have married and some have raised children of their own.
Yet, these are the exceptions. Even now, learning disability is under and misrepresented in the media. Most people with such disabilities still face great opposition from family and state if they try to forge romantic and sexual relationships. Young people with disabilities are three to four times more likely to be sexually abused than their non-disabled peers and disability hate crime rose last year by 41%. Only 6.6% of adults with learning disabilities have any kind of paid employment. These are troubling indicators that we have yet to learn the lessons of the past.
Even on the more benign end of the spectrum, our attitudes to learning disability can be damaging. When I mention my sister’s cerebral palsy and autism, I am usually offered sympathy on the assumption that her life must be miserable and my childhood must have been tough. This is hardly surprising given that as recently as 1983, when Lou was diagnosed, the doctor told my parents to focus their love on her twin, Sarah, and on their eldest daughter, me; put Lou in an institution; forget there had ever been three.
Sarah and I are both profoundly grateful that our parents ignored the doctor, daring instead to share their love and attention between all three of their girls. Far from a miserable existence, Lou has a compelling joie de vivre that defies preconceptions about disability, and even calls the term itself into question.
V: Maeve comes across as a very strong character, but her life doesn't seem to have moved forward for years, including the denial of her own chance to have a family. Was she punishing herself through guilt at being able-bodied, or guilt regarding the incident in the bath?
E: Good question! If the lives of the twins had panned out differently, I suspect Maeve would have come to terms with her guilt at being born the non-disabled twin. Her situation taught her that life is unfair, so she would have learnt to accommodate this knowledge. It’s her feelings of guilt at her brief yet devastating neglect of Edie that really cause her life to stall. I wanted the novel to speak of how a life may be damaged and restricted by forgivable mistakes and wrong beliefs – a few moments of inattention, a poor choice of boyfriend, a misperception of the reasons why he deserted her, an excessive self-blame.
V: Have any other writers influenced you? Is there one you'd consider to be a mentor?
E: Two writers in particular spring to mind: one a mentor and the other a peer.
Jill Dawson taught me at UEA well over a decade ago, and I’ve considered her a mentor ever since. She played a hand in pretty much every positive development of my early writing life. Nowadays, Jill runs Gold Dust mentoring scheme, so lots of emerging writers get to benefit from her refreshing combination of warm encouragement and tough straight-talking. But, more than anything, it was Jill’s writing itself that influenced me. I’ve always admired the way she writes technically ambitious novels about complex subjects, and yet does so with a deceptive lightness of touch. Wild Boy was a particular influence because it is also a novel that questions stereotypes of disability. Set in eighteenth-century France, the novel is inspired by the real-life story of the wild boy of Aveyron. Through the portrayal of both this child, Victor, and Doctor Itard, who attempted to educate him, Jill Dawson explores the varied faces of autism with nuance and insight.
The ethos of Jill Dawson and Michèle Roberts, who both taught me at UEA, centered around collaboration. As a result, I have a fantastically supportive circle of writer friends. One of these friendships actually has its roots in pre-UEA days. Emily Midorikawa and I met during our early twenties, when we were living in rural Japan, working as English teachers by day and scribbling stories in secret by night. Back then, we were so shy about our ambitions that we could not even speak of them to each other.
After almost a year of friendship, over plates of Japanese pasta in a garlic-themed restaurant within a small-town shopping mall, we finally ‘came out’ to each other as aspiring authors. In the decade-and-a-half since then, we have shared every one of the uphill struggles and celebratory moments of each other’s creative journeys: offering encouragement, critiquing work-in-progress, sharing news of publication opportunities, being there to empathise when the going got tough.
Our own experiences as writer friends prompted our interest in the female alliances of our favourite authors of the past. We set up a website, Something Rhymed, on which we post our findings and now we are writing about the subject in greater depth. It is a particular pleasure that my next book, A Secret Sisterhood: the hidden literary friendships of Jane Austen, Charlotte Brontë. George Eliot and Virginia Woolf, will have both mine and Emily’s names on the cover.
V: How hard did you find writing Owl Song at Dawn, with it being linked to your own circumstances?
E: There were certain areas that I couldn’t let my imagination inhabit: sexual or physical abuse, for instance. It was just too painful for me to bring to life such a scenario. However, I came to feel that there were perhaps some benefits to my reluctance to write about this subject. Sometimes a novel’s depiction of abuse in asylums can overshadow the primary trauma of incarceration itself.
I discovered that even at the height of institutionalization from the 1930s-1950s, only one-third of people with learning disabilities were ever sent away. This sparked my interest in the two-thirds who tried to remain together as families, and the pressures that might have been brought to bear on them. Such matters were difficult but therapeutic to write about because I was rehearsing various scenarios about my own future with Lou – some of which I hope might come to pass and others that represent my deepest fears.
V: You describe the setting for the book, Morecombe, very fondly. Have you lived there, or do you have fond memories of it as a seaside resort?
E: My story began to emerge when I could hear the voices of my main characters: twin sisters born in 1933. Maeve is fêted as the cleverest girl in town and Edie is diagnosed as ‘severely subnormal’. But they both spoke with Morecambe dialects. This posed a problem because I had never set foot in the town.
Since I hail from Birkenhead, I tried to relocate my novel to the Wirral’s coastline. But, try as I might, Maeve and Edie refused to morph their Lancashire dialects into Scouse.
At this point, I accepted that I’d simply have to put in the hours, investigating Morecambe’s history from 1933 to the present day. No more excuses: I’d simply have to get it right.
I had been drafting and redrafting for some time before the reasons behind my fascination with the town finally dawned.
My sister had spent a few years at Beaumont College in Lancaster – a college for people with cerebral palsy and associated disabilities – and they used to take trips to the seaside. On some subconscious level, Morecambe is a town that I associate with my sister and her disabilities: a welcoming place where she experienced the happiest of times.
V: I love the way the book is told through Maeve, as if she is telling it to her sister. With the switching between telling their story in the past, and the present day, did you plan the majority of the story out or did you find yourself developing the story and characters as it went along?
E: I’m so glad that you liked this aspect of the novel because I really wrangled with the structure. I always knew that I wanted to piece together a patchwork narrative because I feel that our minds are made up of fragments of memories, reflections, visceral experiences and the voices of others that we’ve internalised. I did plan the story out first, but, as I wrote, the characters’ lives evolved and I had to change the plan radically with each of the novel’s many redrafts.
V: Are you writing a new book now?
E: I am in the midst of writing A Secret Sisterhood: the hidden literary friendships of Jane Austen, Charlotte Brontë. George Eliot and Virginia Woolf with my own writer friend, Emily Midorikawa.
After that, my next book will be another novel. But it will bring together both my fascination with female novelists and my interest in disability. I discovered that the sister of one of my favourite authors was diagnosed with ‘imbecility’ and written out of the family history. My next novel will be narrated by her.
Thank you, Emma, for a fascinating insight to your writing!