It’s rare for our co-founder Kody Keplinger to be impressed with the portrayal of a blind character, so when she raved about Eric Lindstrom’s recently released Not If I See You First—which we reviewed this morning!—we knew we wanted to interview the author. We’re very glad that Eric agreed to join us for the blindness-themed week we’re running. Take it away, you two!
Kody Keplinger: Let’s start at the beginning. Where did the idea for Not If I See You First come from?
Eric Lindstrom: My thinking about Not If I See You First started with a desire to write about trust, vulnerability, and fear of rejection in relationships both platonic and romantic. I wondered how I could make these concerns particularly challenging for my protagonist, Parker Grant, and it occurred to me that social interactions consist of exchanging and evaluating information, much of which comes from observing facial expressions and body language. It struck me how daunting it would be to reach out to people, or even trust them on the most basic level, if I couldn’t see any of these indicators, and that’s when Parker became blind. She ended up taking me to some unexpected places, but that came later.
Eric: The most difficult thing for me to write in Not If I See You First takes some explanation. Parker’s blindness doesn’t really stop her from doing anything; it just makes her do things differently than she would if she could see. She can’t drive cars, but the goal of driving is to go somewhere, and she’s perfectly able to go places by other means. Parker surfs the internet and achieves the same results as everyone else; it’s just her process that isn’t typical. This led to a number of concerns. For one, while it’s perfectly correct to just say Parker walks down the hall at school, many readers can easily forget that she is also tapping and sweeping with her cane. So, in many cases, I say that Parker tapped down the hall, both as an authentic description and also a gentle reminder for those readers who have maybe dropped that element from their mental depiction. A more complicated example is Parker texting on her phone, which is a more elaborate process of typing and listening combined. To go into all that detail would not only distract from the story at hand, it’s also not how Parker thinks about it. She just thinks of it as texting.
Said another way, Parker’s story is told in the first person, therefore she is the storyteller and also the only audience she’s aware of, and she wouldn’t narrate her own story to herself using descriptions you would only use when talking to someone who wasn’t blind; i.e., most readers. I had to find the right balance between telling Parker’s story the way it seems to her, where she wouldn’t explain her own processes to herself much, but artfully including enough description to allow all readers to share her point of view where it differs very much from their own.
Kody: We talk a lot about tropes and stereotypes here at Disability in Kidlit. Were there any you tried to avoid or were worried about while writing?
Eric: I should first say that I deliberately used a particular trope, and this is the best place to explain it. It’s not common knowledge that most blind people can see light to some degree, and that their blindness is about various amounts of visual clarity or distortion. It’s actually pretty rare to see zero light at all, yet this is how the vast majority of blind people in fiction are included. This binary thinking might come from a perspective of ignorance, of storytellers not knowing that blindness is a spectrum, but I can’t speak for others. I had specific reasons for choosing to make Parker completely blind. If I sat down to write a story about a blind girl, I probably would have given her some ability to see along the spectrum, partly to reflect common reality, but also to avoid the trope of how most blind people in fiction see nothing at all. But I sat down to write a story about a girl with major trust issues, and her blindness came after that decision. Because I wanted to write a story about a girl who had to function with zero visual cues in her social interactions, I needed her to see zero light.
Also, because this was to be a story about relationships, not the trait of blindness, Parker seeing no light at all allowed me to keep the focus on her non-vision-related experiences without diving into the more complex world of partial sight. I felt a bit bad at first about adding another blind character who sees zero light to the world of fiction, but I did so deliberately, for what I believe are good reasons, and not from ignorance—and I also explain in the book that Parker’s type of blindness is unusual.
Aside from that, the issue of mindless tropes and stereotyping is harmful for society and individuals both, but it’s also an issue of bad or lazy writing. Stereotyping makes two-dimensional characters and stories; even if stereotypes were statistically true, they are oversimplifications by definition. This trivializes populations and also constitutes weak writing because real people are complex and multifaceted. And tropes can be the result of inappropriate meta-thinking, too, like if I make Parker blind I should make her a saint or at least very wise as some kind of cosmic compensation, or out of some misguided sense of balancing a “bad” trait with a “good” one, or worse, an agenda along the lines of “you’d expect a person with this condition to be less than, but surprise! She’s more than!”
All of this thinking is skewed by the false assumption that certain traits have special status, but someone being blind is only different from someone being blonde when it comes to the details. Blindness, like all traits, has no special status, so it doesn’t require different calculus. I’m hearing reviewers praise Not If I See You First because it has a blind main character who isn’t defined by her blindness, and I’m very glad that I didn’t screw it up, but at the same time it makes me think, why would that define her? Why would anybody be defined by just one thing, whatever it is? It’s because we still live in a society where people define a norm and compare everything else to it. Hopefully we’ll make a world soon where the entire breadth of our variation is our norm.
Kody: Do you have any plans for reaching out to blind readers once the book hits shelves?
Eric: This process has already started, but like all things in publishing, it takes time. The audiobook for Not If I See You First is in stores now, and we are also talking with organizations about making it more available for blind readers, as well as pursuing the publication of braille editions next year. We’ll announce these efforts as they come together. But I also consider myself an ally, not a driver, to support and contribute to anything coming from the community of blind readers who know far better than me what change they want to see in the world.
Kody: I know it’s early, with Not If I See You First fresh of the press, but what’s next for you?
Eric: I’m actually just now finishing up my second book. It’s a YA novel scheduled to release in fall of 2016, to be announced soon!