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May 08

Special Needs in Strange Worlds | Elspeth Cooper

You can find the original post here.

About the author

Elspeth Cooper was born and raised in Newcastle upon Tyne in the north-east of England. Her parents read her Ivanhoe as a bedtime story, which was, she says, their first mistake. An inspired primary school teacher introduced her to Beowulf, and by age 11 she’d worked her way through every book in the house, including her Dad’s Penguin Classics editions of The Odyssey and The IliadThe Lord of the Rings was pretty much a natural progression, and an epic fantasy adventure fan was born.

Elspeth describes herself as a voracious reader, and cites amongst her influences Susan Cooper, Alan Garner, Guy Gavriel Kay, Robert Holdstock and Tad Williams. She currently lives in Northumberland with her husband and cats, in a house full of books.

Songs of the Earth‘ is her first novel, and the first in The Wild Hunt series.

Author’s webpage

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In her review of Songs of the Earth, Sarah picked up on a theme in the book that intrigued her enough to invite me here to discuss it further: most of the principal characters in my debut novel are physically impaired in some way.

This was intentional, but not in the way you might be imagining.

Genre heroes and heroines have a tendency to be clean-limbed and strong. Physical disability rarely gets a look-in, and scars are usually sexy rather than disfiguring, or else they’re lazy-writer-shorthand that a character’s a real badass. Now I didn’t write the book to address this, or even with any kind of disability-awareness agenda in mind. In 1997, when I started writing what eventually became Songs of the Earth, I simply had a story I wanted to tell.

The savage scar on Gair’s hand was a deliberate choice: I wanted him to have an ugly, lasting reminder of his trial at the Motherhouse, and I wanted it to be something that couldn’t always be easily hidden, that through carelessness or inattention could get him into trouble.

Similarly, I gave Ansel, the Preceptor of the Suvaeon Knights, arthritis and a chest complaint. To have risen to that position he needed to be a grizzled veteran, but men of action don’t always age well, so I made him unable to sit, stand or move without pain. This meant he had not just plot-related obstacles to overcome, he also had to contend with the nagging awareness of his own mortality.

Gair’s friend Darin has a chronic illness too: diabetes. It made him especially vulnerable to another character’s manipulation that affected his awareness of the passage of time, when eating regularly was important to his continued health. I rather downplayed the impact of this (you’ve got to make the reader do *some* of the work!) but for me it added a satisfying extra dollop of tragedy to Darin’s arc as a character.

And then there’s Aysha. It made a delicious twist, I thought, to have the hero’s love interest be, not some unattainably perfect virgin princess, but an older woman, and a foul-mouthed, selfish, sensual and crippled one to boot. Of all of the characters, she was the one I identified most closely with. She was me on my best day: confident, independent, and always ready with a snarky comeback of the sort I usually think of only after the argument’s been well and truly lost.

At the time, I didn’t think holistically about what I was doing. I didn’t think any farther afield than each character’s arc, and what felt right for them. Some of the characters just sprang onto the page fully-formed, impairments and all, like Athene from the brow of Zeus. Their genesis happened on an entirely subconscious level, a kind of creative cron job running overnight on the servers in my brain (please forgive the computer analogy – 21 years in IT tends to leave its mark on a girl).

It’s only now, looking back at how the book evolved over the 12 or so years of its gestation, that I can see all this and make sense of it. At the time, it just felt like the right thing to do – I do an awful lot of my writing on feel and gut instinct. I am not a natural planner, and find the idea of writing character summaries on index cards then pinning them to the wall above my desk about as attractive as a root canal.

Anyway, long after these characters were established in early drafts of Songs, and years before I ever dreamed that I might one day find a publisher for it, I became disabled myself: in 2004, I was diagnosed with relapsing-remitting multiple sclerosis. I now walk with a cane, and I am unable to stand unsupported for very long. I fatigue easily, which leads to a lot of stumbling and occasional falls.

How strangely prescient of me, then, to have written a novel in which physical impairment is so prevalent, and in which my favourite character resembled a future me more closely than I ever would have imagined. A cosmic joke, perhaps – or a case of life imitating art.

If only I could have predicted the lottery numbers . . .

3 comments

  1. Bibliotropic

    It’s funny how many people would look at that list of characters and say, “You deliberately made them with some kind of disability to prove a point!” You know, instead of making them like real people, you intentionally wrote characters to be lessons. I can never quite wrap my head around that mentality, because looking at any random sampling of “real people” that anyone knows, you’re going to come up with a list of disabilities or chronic conditions that’s at least half as long. Asthma, diabetes, a bad back, anything! Having characters with conditions like these doesn’t make the story some great big morality play. It makes it more real than anything, because what’s in the world as we know it is reflected within the pages of a book.

    And on an unrelated note, how did I never know before that Elspeth Cooper was born in the same area that I was?! I always love finding people who lived around Newcastle, because it makes me think so much of home.

  2. Elspeth Cooper

    Anyone who thinks I was trying to make a point with these characters hasn’t paid attention to what I’ve said about how I wrote that book. I just wrote down the people who appeared in my head, and it took a third party (Werthead’s review) to draw my attention to the number of impairments my cast had.

    Most of my characters appear like that, actually. It’s rare I sit down and construct one from the ground up; I usually have to make them form an orderly queue ;o)

    *gives Bibliotropic the secret Geordie handshake* We get everywhere, don’t we?

  3. A.E. Marling

    Thank you for writing this article. It sounds like you’ve created a host of believable characters for your novel, of fallible flesh as well as fantasy. And best wishes living with your own condition.

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