Earlier this year, Merrie Haskell‘s MG fantasy novel Handbook for Dragon Slayers, which is about a princess with a clubfoot, won the Schneider Family Book Award for its representation of disability. For our one-year anniversary, we invited Merrie Haskell and previous Disability in Kidlit contributor Sara Polsky to the blog to discuss the book.
To make things even more exciting, we’re giving away a signed hardcover of Handbook for Dragon Slayers! Details at the end of the post.
Merrie Haskell: Essentially, Tilda, a girl who thinks of herself as a “princess librarian” goes on the run with her servant and a disgraced apprentice dragon slayer. They encounter the Wild Hunt and magic horses and an evil knight and Hildegard of Bingen, and several dragons.
Sara: What kind of research did you do to write about Tilda’s disability?
Merrie: I dug through pretty much every medical and history database I could find to discover articles on how clubfoot was treated medically in the past. Mostly, for the actual feeling of life from Tilda’s point of view, I just relied on my own experiences with mobility issues, or stories from, and observations of, my grandmother (who was in a terrible car accident when my mom was young and almost never walked again).
Sara: Did you ever have to rethink a scene to account for Tilda’s disability, or find that you had unintentionally used certain tropes? If so, can you give an example?
Merrie: There was a point in one draft where Tilda was falling down quite a bit–which, given the way her foot is situated and the rough terrain seemed likely to me. But my editor was concerned that this wasn’t doing the things I wanted it to do (mostly, I wanted it to heighten tension). I spent some time thinking on that. Had I ever seen my grandmother fall? Actually–no. And I spent many whole summers with her, in the garden, not always on great terrain. The only time she fell to my knowledge was disastrous, and that was at the grocery store, on wet tile. She was always very careful about her footing, and fell less than most people, I think. So rethinking that was good; it was lazy writing.
Sara: What advice do you want to have for writers who want to write diverse characters that are outside their own experiences?
Merrie: The notion that people should write what they know is very limiting. Imagination is one of the most powerful tools we have. I use research to guide my imagination, and then I try to find people who can tell me where I’ve imagined wrong. This applies to all of writing, and it’s really no different for writing a diverse character. People fail at this when they abandon research, imagination, and expert assistance for tropes, stereotypes, and “what everybody knows,” and when they don’t approach the writing humbly, as a learning experience. That said, I’m no expert! Nisi Shawl and Cynthia Ward have a book called WRITING THE OTHER and I know Nisi is involved in some workshops on that topic as well.
Sara: Since the book has a pseudo-medieval setting, I’m curious how any historical research you did intersected with research into disability. Did you research medieval attitudes toward disability? How did you adjust your portrayal of Tilda’s disability so that it felt “period” to the setting?
Merrie: Interestingly, it was a book on childhood in the Middle Ages that delved into the subject of disability the most, and as my heroine was still in her childhood, this was useful to me. She’s born with her disability, and has not acquired it through warfare, accident, or disease. But while I strive for a good deal of historical authenticity in my settings, it is sometimes difficult to research the things you want to be authentic about. It is simultaneously hard to find out something that goes against the popular conception of the Middle Ages, and it’s rather like rolling a rock uphill to write against expectations like that (I had trouble trying to explain the specific flavor of German pre-1100’s feudalism I’d researched for the book, for example; most Americans run around thinking of feudalism as basically a version of English manorial life and not much more. Or at least I did, until I studied more). In the end, the rock I chose was that I would people the world with some superstitious characters and some jerky characters, but the vast majority of people who are more practical and see a complete person and not merely a disability. Tilda has a perception that the superstitious and the jerks outweigh the practical, but I think it’s relatively clear by the end of the book where the balance lies.
During my undergraduate courses in anthropology, when I was learning about identifying human skeletal remains, I ran into a particular femur from the bone lab several times. It was a bone that had been badly fractured and then repaired with barbed wire. Someone had basically tied the bone back together with the wire by drilling into the bone and threading the wire through. The patient must have been incredibly resilient, because they had clearly lived long enough for the bone to repair and heal over completely, just a great knob of bone that had grown around the wire. The femur dated from the late 1800s. This kind of thing is not something you read about in books, at least–I never have. That femur–that response to the wound and the situation and what that person’s life must have been like–speaks to me when I think about disability throughout history. People make do. People are practical. Jerks find the thing to poke at that makes them feel strong, and the superstitious find the thing to hate that makes them feel safe, but in ordinary times, the rest of us remain practical.
Sara: What’s next for you?
Merrie: My third book, The Castle Behind Thorns, which I tried very hard NOT to make a Sleeping Beauty story and failed, came out in June.
Thank you, Merrie and Sara!
Merrie has generously donated a signed–and personalized, if desired–copy of Handbook for Dragon Slayers to be given to one of our followers. To enter, simply leave a comment here on WordPress or reblog our Tumblr post. (Yes, doing both increases your chances!) In one week, we’ll select a single winner from one of these locations to win the book. This giveaway is open to international addresses.