An Interview With Sarah Chorn, of Bookwork Blues and SF Signal

bookreadingSarah Chorn uses her blog, Bookworm Blues, and her column, “Special Needs in Strange Worlds” at SF Signal to bring attention to authors with disabilities and characters in speculative fiction with disabilities.  She interviews and hosts guest blogs with people who experience mental and physical challenges and explores how people with disabilities are represented in genre fiction.  I’m so happy that she was able to do this interview!

On both Bookworm Blues and SF Signal, you feature guest posts and interview by authors with disabilities and/or authors who feature characters with disabilities.  What led you to focus on this aspect of writing and representation?

A few things, really. Two of my brothers introduced me to fantasy when I was a teenager, and my brother Rob really kept me involved in the genre for quite a while after that. We’d always trade books and talk about what we read. My brother Rob is disabled. He was born with part of his brain missing. He has seizures and now he is paralyzed as well. A few years ago Rob had a horrible seizure that really ripped his mind apart, and rocked his body into temperatures of 107 degrees for five days. It was terrifying. As a result of that, he can’t read anymore, but we still talk about books a lot and he still loves the genre despite the fact that he can’t really participate in it the way he used to. A few years ago I was talking to him about one thing or another and he said, “I really wish that someone would talk about how people like me can be important in books, too.” That sentence is where the whole idea for my column sprang from. I did some research after that, and I realized that there are lots of people talking about gender, and race in the genre, religion and other aspects of diversity, but I really couldn’t find anyone talking about disabilities in the genre, and how people like my brother Rob can be important, too.

I decided to change that.

And I’m beyond thrilled that so many authors and bloggers and readers are willing to help out.

Can you talk about one particular post that really got your attention – something that made you see things in a different way or have a new idea?

It’s hard for me to pick a few that stand out because they all move me so profoundly. This is an incredibly complex topic, and the more people write about it, the more I learn. However, if I had to choose one piece that really sticks out to me the most is an interview I did last November with my brother Rob. was neat to be able to talk to him, to see why reading is so important to him, and how he uses books as a way to inform and educate others, as well as to get out of his own skin. Reading isn’t just about escape, for my brother it is a lifeline, and it really took me having that candid discussion with him to grasp that.

Jim C. Hines wrote a piece recently about writing with depression. That also really touched me because he was so open about his struggles, but he also candidly talked about how he was trying to integrate it all into his writing. Struggles aren’t just physical, and Hines really did a great job at delving honestly into some mental and emotional issues, but also showing readers how, despite his battles, there is always hope. It was really touching, and quite empowering.

Contributors to Special Needs in Strange Worlds (on SF Signal) talk about a huge range of disabilities.  Are there any common threads you observed?

I am truly amazed at the strength of the human spirit. Each article that someone writes absolutely astounds me by how strong, how positive, how hopeful that person is, whether they are disabled, or know someone who is. People in general are amazing. It truly humbles me to see how many people are willing to participate in my column, and support my effort to keep a dialogue going. A lot of people open up about a lot of personal, emotional, deeply touching details when they write for Special Needs in Strange Worlds. That takes very real strength, and it takes a kind of courage that really boggles my mind.

That’s probably what has stood out to me the most while my column has run. People are so much stronger than they give themselves credit for. I find myself constantly inspired and enlightened by the email I get, the articles that have been written and are being written, and the subjects people talk about. You are all so amazing and so strong. Every last person involved in Special Needs in Strange Worlds has touched me profoundly, and inspired me.

In your experience, is SFF more or less open (or about the same) as other genres of fiction when it comes to talking about people with disabilities in a sensitive way?

I think it’s a work in progress. In general I tend to think that speculative fiction is a progressive genre. The whole purpose of it is to play pretend, to explore things that might not be, and see how life would change if those things existed. What if we had magic, or space ships, or governments that spanned species and planets, or could shape shift? It’s a progressive genre, but I think that we have our issues just like anyone. If we didn’t, there would be no reason to have people fighting for diversity, or equal representation.

That being said, I do think that things are getting better. It’s the natural flow of progress. I see fewer authors inserting the token disabled person in the books they write. Fewer are fixing (or curing) disabilities unnecessarily. It seems like more authors are realizing that it’s okay for their character to suffer from depression – that’s realistic. It’s okay if their protagonist has asthma – it doesn’t need to be fixed. It also doesn’t need to negatively impact what those characters are capable of achieving. Someone with asthma can be important, too. Someone in a wheelchair, as Stephen King proves in his Dark Tower series, can be just as badass as anyone else.

We read for a number of reasons, and we write for a number of reasons. We like to see bits of ourselves in the books we read, but we also like to get out of our own skin and live someone else’s life for a time, face different challenges, see the world through different eyes. I am loving this trend of authors really embracing that, and realizing that the world (ours or a secondary one) isn’t homogenous. Diversity is beautiful, and vibrant, and oh-so-important. Diversity makes a book real. It’s important to insert that in the books we read and write and I’m thrilled that so many people realize that.

Though as a genre, there is room to grow. That’s part of what I love about speculative fiction. There is always room to grow, room to improve, and room to change. Speculative fiction is always changing. That’s why it’s such a fantastic, exciting genre to be part of.

However, I do get disappointed by how frequently disabilities get overlooked and underrepresented in important genre discussions on diversity and equality. I’m not sure how to fix that, and I guess that’s a big reason why I started my column. I want to get the discussion going. I want people to realize that diversity is so important, and so is equality, and there is a huge group of people who really almost never get a seat at the table, or a voice in the conversation when these discussions are raging. These are people like my brother who just wants the world to realize that he might be paralyzed, but he can be important, too. It breaks my heart. It’s about tolerance and understanding, about realizing that limitations don’t necessarily mean that the person is limited and incapable, and certainly not helpless. We need to see that in the books we read, just like we need to understand that in real life. It isn’t about glorifying anyone. It’s about realizing that the world isn’t homogenous, and everyone can be important. Everyone is important. We are all the protagonists in our own novels.

People keep meticulous track of how many books written by women they read each year, and while I truly and honestly applaud that (never stop!), I look forward to the day when people pay as much attention to the representation of disabilities in the genre. Occasionally I’ll hear someone say, “At (insert convention here) there was a diversity panel and (insert author here) talked about disabilities” – I don’t hear it often enough. Change happens slowly, and I really hope that eventually disabilities will get as much attention and discussion as anything else.

Can you tell us some more about your other projects in the writing and blogging world?

There isn’t much to say, really. I wish there was, but there isn’t. I’m pretty boring. I continue to write reviews on Bookworm Blues, and my column Special Needs in Strange Worlds will push forward on SF Signal until people run out of things to say. I hope that never happens. I’m currently working with Shaun Duke (Of The Skiffy and Fanty Show podcast) on a Special Needs in Strange Worlds anthology where all proceeds will go to charity. Occasionally someone will ask me to podcast, which I always welcome. I have a few writing projects in the fire, but until I have a set publication date and all that, I’m keeping my lips sealed rather tight. Other than that, I’m anxious to start participating in conventions, and whatever else comes my way.

History’s Hidden Heroes: Sophia Jex-Blake and Margaret Todd

Sophia Jex-Blake

Sophia Jex-Blake

This may be the most personally exciting History’s Hidden Heroes installment ever.  Why is the story of Sophia Jex-Blake and Margaret Todd not a series on BBC?  Can I make it one?  Can David Tennant be involved somehow?  Seriously, how is this not a movie?

Sophia Jex-Blake was born to traditional parents who refused to allow her to attend college.  Once she overcame their objections, she attended Queens College, alongside future education reform leader Dorotha Beale.  Sophia befriended leading feminists and suffragette.  She decided to pursue becoming a doctor, but had to go to the University of Edinburgh because British medical schools did not allow women to attend.  Sophia was one of the Edinburgh Seven – the first seven female students at the University.  The seven women faced great opposition including being barred from the gates and attacked by a mob.

Once Sophia passed her exams, she was forbidden to practice medicine in Britain because of her gender. In 1877, Russell Gurney convinced parliament to pass a law that empowered medical school to issue degrees to both male and female students.  Sophia became a practicing doctor in 1877 and opened a clinic that served low-income women.

Margaret Todd became a student at the newly opened Edinburgh School for Women in 1886.  while she was studying, she was also writing a novel: Mona Maclean, Medical Student.  She graduated from medical school in 1894, and Mona was published under the name Graham Travers in the same year.  Margaret was a friend of chemist Frederick Soddy and she provided him with a word that is vital to discussion of radioactive particles today:  “isotope”

Margaret Todd

Margaret Todd

Margaret and Sophia were romantic partners until Sophia’s death in 1912.  Margaret died shortly after publishing a biography of Sophia.

For a great article including political cartoons of the time and some excerpts from Margaret’s book, go to Women in Science.  I cannot wait to read Mona Maclean, Medical Student!  I also used the site Celtic Life International, which pointed out the injustice in the fact that Margaret Todd, medical practitioner for years and author of six novels and a biography, is only remembered for a word she suggested to a male friend.

Between the Lines Book Club: John Steinbeck

between the lines book club logo

This month on Between the Lines we are discussing The Grapes of Wrath by John Steinbeck.  Leave comments here, or better yet join us at Arden Dimick Library in Sacramento, CA at 2PM on September 28, 2014.

John Steinbeck’s life and writings are deeply tied to California.  Steinbeck was born in Salinas, California, in 1902.  He attended Stanford University on and off for six years before officially dropping out.  After trying to earn a living as a freelance writer in New York City, he came back to California, married Carol Henning, and became a caretaker at Lake Tahoe.  During the Great Depression, he moved to Pacific Grove, where he fished and crabbed and wrote with paper and money provided by his parents.

Steinbeck family home

The home in which Steinbeck was raised is now a museum and restaurant.

Steinbeck’s first hit was his fifth book, Tortilla Flat.  This book concerns a group of friends who live in an impoverished  neighborhood on the outskirts of Monterey.  Although the book was a commercial success, Steinbeck felt it was misunderstood, claiming that he did not mean to belittle or patronize his characters.  Steinbeck’s next three novels, In Dubious BattleOf Mice and Men, and The Grapes of Wrath directly addressed the Great Depression.  His next book, Cannery Row, was a fictionalized description of life in Monterey.  The character “Mary Talbot”, the depressed wife of a struggling writer, is based on Steinbeck’s wife, Carol.  The character “Doc” is based on Steinbeck’s best friend, Ed Ricketts.

Carol and John

Carol and John

Steinbeck was a war correspondent in WWII.  He travelled through Europe, North Africa, and Italy, writing human interest pieces about the lives of soldiers.You can read more about his service in WWII in this article from San Jose University.  Steinbeck also covered the war in Vietnam.  Despite his life-long leftist leanings, Steinbeck was in favor of the Vietnam War, which two of his sons fought in.

Steinbeck in Vietnam

Steinbeck died at the age of 66 in 1968, of heart failure.  He had written 29 books as well as plays and screenplays.  He cited William Faulker and Ernest Hemingway as the authors he most admired.  He is buried at Salinas, California, home of the John Steinbeck Museum.

You can see a short video about Steinbeck’s life on

Science With Julia Child

WednesdayVideoThis is sweet, funny, and thought-provoking.  Julia Child teams up with Phil Morrison to teach us something important about Carbon.  This was for his six part miniseries, “The Ring of Truth:  An Inquiry into How We Know What We Know”, which he produced and wrote for PBS.

Morrison was a physics professor who worked on the Manhattan Project and later became a prominent speaker against nuclear proliferation.  As a child he has polio, and he wore a leg brace until the later part of his life, when he used a wheelchair.  As an astrophysicist, he pioneered gamma ray astronomy.

One hopes Julia Child needs no introduction!  Here’s Julia and Phil:


First Impressions From an Outlander Virgin: A Guest Post by Heather Thayer

poster for Starz Outlander seriesI’ve been reviewing Outlander at Smart Bitches, Trashy Books, along with my fellow Smart Bitch reviewers.  We have a blast watching the show, but we’re all influenced by having read the books.  I’ve been dying to get the perspective of someone who has never read the books, and Heather was kind enough to share her thoughts.  No spoilers in the comments – we don’t want to ruin her fun!

I don’t quite know how it happened that a geeky girl like me who is a sucker for romance somehow missed the whole Outlander phenomenon. Perhaps I was so busy lusting after Conall Maccon from Gail Carriger’s Parasol Protectorate series that I missed that other Scottish object of carnal desire– Jamie Fraser. The first time I ever heard of Outlander was in the episode of Orange is the New Black where two characters are working in the library and one of them picks up a book and says, “Outlander! You ever read this? Lady travels back in time to Scotland, hooks up with this big, sexy, outlaw type, and they be gettin’ it … day in and day out. Yo, it’s hot!” I had it mixed up with Highlander, so while this summary bemused me, I didn’t think much of it at the time.

Thus, when the word out of Comic-Con was that Outlander was the show to watch, I noted it in passing, but didn’t put it on my calendar or check to see if Starz is part of my cable package. The fact that Ronald D Moore was involved was the biggest draw, since I knew nothing about Outlander, but BSG is one of my favorite shows in the history of ever. When Starz posted the first episode online for viewing, I decided it was as good a way as any to spend a rainy afternoon. Well played Starz, well played.

Outlander, Claire

Now we are five episodes in, and this has become my favorite show, and yes –of course I am madly in love with Jamie, although I note that he is in some ways too perfect. He is kind and funny and smart and educated and brave and noble and handsome and strong. He always says the right thing at the right time. He looks dashing in a kilt and I could happily spend hours contemplating his muscled chest by the firelight. His smoldering looks and deep voice with its Scots burr make me lightheaded and a bit swoony. As a love interest, he is ideal, but as a character, I am starting to find him a little bland. Does he have no flaws? I do like that in the episode “Rent” he is protective but critical of Claire – not quite the “boy with a crush” mooning about as in earlier episodes. He also is not careful with Laoghaire’s feelings (one senses that there will be fallout from that), but that aside, one might wish for less perfection and more complexity from the character.

Claire and Jamie

Dougal, Colum, Geillis and Ned Gowan, on the other hand, are quite interesting characters and I want to know more about each of them. Dougal is strong and ruthless, sensitive and loyal, but is potentially dangerous to Claire and Jamie. Colum is smart, direct and powerful – commanding loyalty despite his physical infirmity. Geillis obviously knows or suspects a great deal more than she is letting on about Claire’s situation. One wonders if she is a druid, a forebearer of the women dancing around the stones while Claire and Frank watched, or whether she knew someone who fell through the stones. And Ned is just plain interesting.

Geillis also provides an example of something that puzzles me about the show. Sometimes the people in the series do something that is anachronistic and I am not sure whether it is a plot point or a mistake. For example, in one scene Geillis tells Claire that the key to having freedom for a woman is to get married. The problem is that in that time, that would have gone without saying – that is something that every woman would have known. So is this a plot point showing us that Geillis knows that Claire needs to be told this, or is it a gaffe? Since there are other slip-ups in the show, such as a plot point turning on mistaking Lily of the Valley for ransom but the plant shown doesn’t bear even the slightest resemblance to either of those plants, or Claire having a new outfit in every scene at a time when most women would have had only a few dresses, I don’t know what to make of Geillis telling Claire this obvious thing.

Gellie Duncan

Which brings us to Claire. I like that Claire is a strong capable character who speaks her mind – often when she shouldn’t – but the incessant voiceover drives me to distraction and makes me think she’s not very bright. Also, “Jesus H Roosevelt Christ” is too annoying for words. If the show would just let us experience Claire through her actions, I would think better of her character, but the plodding narration sometimes makes me think she is dimwitted. Without the voiceover we could impose a myriad of possibilities; we could experience Claire’s experience for ourselves and put our own interpretation on things — but the pedestrian narration doesn’t allow for that. It would also be more interesting for me to see what is different about living 200 years ago through Claire’s eyes, but as far as we know, everything is pretty much identical except for having to wear a bum roll and a lack of understanding about infection control.

One interesting thing about the voiceover, and one that has gotten me thinking a lot, is the issue of “show, don’t tell.” In a book, the words have to guide us through. In television and movies, it is the dialogue, the visuals and the actions. Contradictory words in a voice over cannot overcome what we are seeing on the screen. Claire keeps telling us that she wants to return to Frank and her own time, “or die trying.” The problem is that as a viewer I see her adjusting perfectly well to Castle Leoch, forming friendships and a rapport with a man who is perfect in every way. Although Frank seems like a perfectly nice if dull fellow, Claire didn’t seem particularly connected to him, thus, as a viewer I have hard time believing Claire’s absolute need to return, notwithstanding the voiceover’s insistence upon it. Perhaps more flashbacks showing Frank as a loving husband (like the scene from the train station) would help convince me. I do like that as Claire goes about the castle the music playing is from the 1940s, which gives us some clue that she is a woman lost in time. Unfortunately, that is the only clue. I wonder if in the book Claire’s desire to return was more believable without having the pictures and actions to belie the words.

Claire a

So, why do I love the show despite the criticisms above? Bear McCreary’s music and the beauty of the Highlands themselves are a start. The acting is great, all of the actors inhabit their world and their characters, making us believe that a woman really could fall through time and find herself in a real, if younger, world. Sam Heughan, Caitriona Balfe and Graham McTavish are particular standouts. Even Angus and Rupert are no longer just comic relief but starting to feel like real people. I am worried for them and the upcoming Jacobite wars. I like that the show is took its time introducing the characters – the payoff is in the later episodes where things are actually happening, particularly in “Rent.” Now that we are finally set in history and things are happening that have larger implications, I can forgive some of the earlier plot points that seemed contrived. Since we feel like we know these characters, their dire situation now resonates, and Claire’s competing loyalties and priorities truly draw us in. The cliffhanger at the end of “Rent” has me on the edge of my seat wondering what Claire will say to the English soldiers. All that said, it is Jamie and Claire’s relationship that is the overwhelming draw. Their chemistry is palpable and the slow burn as they draw closer is irresistible. As I said, I’m a sucker for romance, and Outlander delivers more than just a handsome man in a kilt.

What do you think of the show?  No spoilers, please!

Book Review: The Girls at the Kingfisher Club, by Genevieve Valentine

cover of The Girls at the Kingfisher ClubThis is the most magical non-magical book I’ve read in a long time.  The Girls at the Kingfisher Club is a loose retelling of the fairy tale “The Twelve Dancing Princesses”.  The Girls is set during the Roaring Twenties, and although there is not a single supernatural element to the story, the flitting setting and the fairy tale imagery create a beautiful magical atmosphere.

The Brother Grimm version of the story goes something like this:

Once upon a time there was a king with twelve daughters.  He kept them locked up at night, but every morning their dancing shoes were worn out as though they had been dancing all night.  The king announces that any man who can solve the mystery can marry one of the princesses, but the princesses, who are cold and heartless, drug the princes so that they sleep all through the night.  At last a soldier successfully follows them for three nights and collects a souvenir from each night.  When he presents his evidence to the king, the princesses confess and the prince marries the eldest princess.

In The Girls at the Kingfisher Club, the princesses are the daughters of a wealthy businessman in Manhattan during the 1920s.  Their father wishes to conceal the fact that he has only daughters, so he keeps them on the top floor of the house and forbids them to leave it.  Jo, the oldest daughter, becomes the de facto parent to her eleven siblings.  When the siblings threaten to run away, Jo begins sneaking them out of the house every night so that they can dance all night in the speakeasies of the city.

Then language of this novel is simple, yet poetic.  Here’s a quote:

By 1927 there were twelve girls who danced all night and never gave names, but by then the men had given up asking and called them all Princess. “Hey, Princess, dust off your shoes? It’s the Charleston!” The men would have called them anything they wanted to be called, Dollface or Queenie or Beloved, just to get one girl on the dance floor for a song. But in that flurry of short dresses and spangles and ribbon-tied shoes, Princess was the name that suited; it seemed magical enough, like maybe it was true. Wild things, these girls; wild for dancing. They could go all night without sitting, grabbing at champagne between songs, running to the throng at the table and saying something that made them all laugh, light and low together like the parts of a chorus. It wasn’t right, all those women sticking together so close. Something about the wall of bob -haired girls scared the men , though they hardly knew it. They just knew they’d better dance their best with a Princess, and no mistake. No need to worry, though, as long as a man could dance. The nights were long and drink was cheap, and sometimes the Princesses’ smiles were red-lipped and happy and not sharp white flashing teeth, and there were so many that if one of them turned down a dance, it was easy to wait and try again with another one.

I loved the language in this book, and the images of the barren attic, the opulent downstairs which the girls so seldom see, and the speakeasies, some of which are dark and grimy and some of which sparkle like the spangles on the girls’ dresses.

What I loved most was the character of Jo, and the relationships between the sisters, who fight “like wolves” but stick together in times of crisis (or when a man attempts to “get fresh”).  In this story, it’s up to the women to save themselves from captivity.  Men may be enemies or allies, but they are never the focal point of the story.  The father, who is unbearably horrible, has no idea that he’s horrible – he thinks he’s provided a good home for the girls, with ample pampering and protection.  A dreaded suitor who comes calling is actually quite delightful (others are as dreadful as expected).  The men are layered, complicated characters, but they are always off to the side, while Jo struggles with how to keep her sisters safe from her father without actually becoming her father.

The heart of the book is Jo, who fiercely loves her sisters and whose efforts to make a life for them usually go unappreciated.  In her attempts to protect them from their father’s wrath, she is strict and unyielding:

Never tell a man your name. Never mention where you live, or any place we go. Never let a man take you anywhere; if you take one into the alley to neck, tell one of your sisters, and come back as soon as you can. Never fall for a man so hard you can’t pull your heart back in time. We’ll leave without you if we have to.

Jo’s journey from a  helpless child, to the iron leader her sisters refer to as “The General”, and ultimately to a sister instead of a dictator, is the heart of the book.  I wept for Jo and I rejoiced in her victories.  What a gorgeous book.