Friday, August 22, 2014

What Inspired the Deaf Maidservant in Shadow on the Highway? Q&A with Deborah Swift #FREEBIE

Deborah SwiftWhen I heard about Ms. Swift's new book, the story of a highwaywoman with a deaf maidservant who grows suspicious, I immediately wanted to read it and I also had a few questions for her. Until I can through my review pile and reach Shadow on the Highway, here is a Q&A to whet your appetites.

Tara: Did the real Katherine have a deaf maidservant?

Deborah: No, I’m afraid not. She is purely fictional – but real to me! The idea of using a deaf girl as my main character for this book came when I came across a fascinating article about a boy called Alexander Popham, a 17th century deaf child who had been taught to speak. I was trawling the internet for some information on the Royal Society, and the article just caught my eye. This was apparently one of the first attempts to educate deaf children in any systematic way, and the notebook detailing this method still exists. What a wonderful discovery! So the idea of using a deaf protagonist for Shadow on the Highway gradually took root, initially from my interest in Alexander Popham, especially when I realised that it would make for a lot of tension if my character Abigail, Lady Katherine Fanshawe’s maid, was deaf.
As the book is about a highwaywoman, and would probably involve a lot of night-time action, I imagined that this would be even more challenging for someone who relied on their vision to communicate. Although Abigail is deaf, I did not want this to be her only defining characteristic, or for the book to be only about her deafness – though perhaps her deafness makes her notice more than her peers, and I needed this observant quality. I wanted the deaf character to be integrated so that the book was more about Abigail as a person; her journey as a character. I looked around for historical fiction books featuring deaf characters and found there were hardly any, so it spurred me on to create Abigail, who is a purely fictional character. I imagined her as a sister to Ralph Chaplin, who is mentioned in the legend as Lady Katherine’s lover.

Tara: I presume you are a hearing person? If so, was it intimidating, writing a deaf POV?

Deborah:I am a hearing person, but this did not deter me from creating a deaf protagonist. After all, I often have men in my books but I’m not a man. A writer must be able to imagine themselves into someone else’s shoes. For me this is one of the joys of researching, and the privilege of being a writer – it gives you a window into a wider, richer, more interesting world. The challenge was to make Abigail believable to deaf readers who might be looking for her to reflect their experience in some way, and this made me nervous, that I might not be able to fulfil those expectations!

I looked to memoirs and biographies for my inspiration first, and then to websites and associations, and finally to talking to deaf people about their teenage years when I felt I had enough knowledge not to appear completely stupid! I have a few friends too, who are deaf or HoH, so I collared them for interviews!
It soon became clear that every person uses their own unique strategies depending on their personality, their degree of deafness, and on whether they are born deaf or became deaf later in life. In the 17th century there was no formalised schooling or assistance for deaf or hard of hearing children, so people had to rely on their own resources to make themselves part of the community. In my novel, Abi used to be a hearing child, but caught the measles (called ‘messels’ in the 17th century) and the fever made her deaf. She is still coming to terms with her deafness, but I did not want this to be a ‘sob story’. Abi has a very practical character. For her, I thought that lip-reading would be the first choice, as she had already some facility with spoken words, and came from an educated family where she had seen them written down. Her mother teaches her to read so she can communicate by writing, and her brother Ralph also helps her out in conversation with simple home-invented signs. The potential of signing as a proper system was only just beginning to be recognised.
I needed to know how much a deaf person could learn to read lips, and how feasible it would be for Abi to understand complex conversations. My research into this revealed that (as probably most hearing people do) I had actually underestimated her capabilities. The memoir ‘What’s that Pig Outdoors’ by Henry Kisor showed me that for someone like Abi, her lip-reading was likely to be extremely sophisticated – given a clear speaker, (who is not shouting or mouthing at her) a known context, and not too many unfamiliar terms of reference. Of course for today’s deaf teenagers, who are usually signers too, and have been given the benefits of better education and the chance to build communities through signing, this degree of facility might seem unlikely, and indeed most want to preserve their signing as their first language. But this option was not open to Abi, and as Henry Kisor shows, with determination and with little other choice, lip-reading combined with perceptiveness could lead to a high degree of understanding from watching lips and expressions alone. After all, people are often amazed by magicians on TV such as Derren Brown, who can read subtle signs in our faces and body language after intensive training.

But – how to make it believable in a novel? I put the references to how Abi reads lips early on in the story, and then by the end when the plot is heating up, I assumed that people would have understood how she ‘hears’ and regard her ability to lip-read as normal. What was interesting as a novelist was to become aware of Abigail’s visual clues – obvious things such as the fact she sees movement in the trees as riders approach, rather than hearing hoof beats. She feels vibrations through her feet as people come upstairs; she is very aware of shifts in light and shadow. These skills have become so automatic she hardly thinks of them, but what I definitely did not want to do was give her superhuman senses to ‘compensate’ for her missing hearing, but to keep it within the bounds of reality. Did it work? Well, like all novels it will probably work for some and not for others, depending on their own life-history and imagination.

But for me, I gained huge insights by talking to deaf people about their challenges. One or two things stuck – such as, one girl told me that as a deaf person, you do not know exactly how much noise you make, or how loud your voice is. This is a source of worry to Abi, who is trying to attract a particular boy, and would rather whisper and mumble than risk being too loud. These are the small insights that I tried to include, without them being too obtrusive. I am well aware that Abi’s experience will not be that of most deaf 
teenagers – yet neither will 17th century life in England!  The way Abi reacts is tempered by the attitudes of the day to religion and disability. Some people would no doubt like my novel to focus on her disability more, but the plot is about Abi’s growth in confidence, her courage, her persistence through her insecurities, and her coming to terms with herself as an adult, rather than about her deafness. Her character and her story are what make her special, not her deafness, so I hope it will entertain deaf and hearing readers alike.
Here are just a few resources that I found incredibly useful; These are all designed for hearing people who might be reading this, rather than deaf or HoH people, who will probably roll their eyes at how basic they are!

Tara: Oh, I can totally relate!!!!! I cannot count the number of times someone told me to stop yelling at them...and I was so embarrassed! I can't wait to read your book, Ms. Swift. Thanks so much for sharing this with us!

Books: Memoirs
What's That Pig Outdoors? A Memoir of Deafness – Henry Kisor
Books: Novels
Invisible - Cecily Anne Paterson
The Raging Quiet – Sheryl Jordan
Read My Lips – TJ Brown
Lots of YouTube videos  - try these
And of course helpful organisations such as

Shadow on the Highway (The Highway Trilogy, #1)
Abigail Chaplin has always been unable to find a position as a maidservant like other girls, because she is deaf. So why do the rich Fanshawes of Markyate Manor seem so anxious to employ her? And where exactly does her mistress, Lady Katherine, ride out to at night?

SHADOW ON THE HIGHWAY is based on the life and legend of Lady Katherine Fanshawe, the highwaywoman, sometimes known as The Wicked Lady. A tale of adventure and budding romance set in the turbulent English Civil War, this is a novel to delight teens and adults alike.

Shadow on the Highway is FREE on Amazon for a few days!

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