About The Author
Emma Claire Sweeney teaches creative writing at New York University London. Her journalism covers the arts and disability and has been featured in, among others, the Guardian, Mslexia and The Times.
Among the writing residencies she has undertaken was one at Sunnyside Rural Trust, which offers opportunities and training in horticulture to adults with learning disabilities; Emma subsequently published The Memoir Garden, a collection of poetry based on the words and experiences of the trainees.
She is the co-founder of somethingrhymed.com, a website exploring female literary friendship. She and her own friend Emily Midorikawa will publish a book based on their research, A Secret Sisterhood, in 2017.
Her first novel is Owl Song at Dawn, a book inspired by her sister, who has cerebral palsy and autism.
Seventy-nine-year-old Maeve Maloney still runs the Morecambe bed and breakfast in which she grew up with her parents. Among her staff are Len and Steph, both of whom have Down's Syndrome. Their budding romance draws the attention of the local authorities.
As Christmas approaches, Maeve is alarmed by the arrival of Vincent Roper, the only person still alive who knew her twin sister Edie - a girl full of laughter and music, but whose disabilities mean she would never have the opportunities available to the academically-gifted Maeve.
But as she recalls the secret past that only Vincent knows, she begins to wonder if Edie had something to teach her all along.
Owl Song at Dawn is a poignant, sharply observed debut novel about learning to love and be loved that upends preconceptions about the disabled; it's ideal for fans of Maggie O'Farrell and Kate Atkinson.
Exclusively for Foyles, we interviewed Emma about her unusual setting of a boarding house staffed in part by people with learning disabilities, female literary friendships, and the desire to mind-read.
Questions & Answers
What were the greatest challenges in writing a book from the point of view of someone much older than you?
Funnily enough, the voice of seventy-nine-year-old Maeve came very naturally to me! Once I could hear her, I knew I had a novel. I have always been interested in the 1930s-1950s, and I’ve absorbed stories over the years from my parents and grandparents, who grew up in Liverpool and holidayed in North West seaside towns. Whenever I checked up on facts about gimlets or milk bars or polka-dotted dresses, my imagination always seemed to have been based on authentic facts about the fashion and food of the time. But it still gave me a great excuse to immerse myself in the films, music and books of the era.
The idea of Maeve's boarding house, staffed in part by people with learning disabilities, was inspired by a real-life example in Somerset. What did your research trips there reveal?
I watched an unfortunately-titled TV show called The Strangest Hotel in Britain and this gave me the idea for my setting: a family-owned seaside guesthouse that now employs staff with learning disabilities and caters mostly to the disabled community.
Sensationalist documentaries often spark ideas for me because I think about different approaches to the same subject matter. The place featured on the Channel 4 programme was Foxes Hotel down in Somerset. I called the hotel to ask whether I could interview the owners and some of the staff. It turned out that they now felt wary of journalists so they refused to speak to me. However, when I explained that I was writing a novel and that my sister has autism and cerebral palsy, they changed their minds.
I booked into Foxes Hotel and journeyed down there alone. One night at dinner, I got chatting to the married couple at the next table, both of whom had Down’s Syndrome. ‘Could you not find anyone to come with you, love?’ asked the wife sympathetically. It’s this encounter that got me thinking about what love really looks like and who gets to see it. Maeve in Owl Song at Dawn may have been fêted as the cleverest girl in town but it takes her until she’s nigh on eighty to appreciate the love that Edie, her ‘severely subnormal’ twin, might have spotted all along.
You did a great deal of research into attitudes towards learning disability in the past. How much progress do you feel has been made since Maeve's youth?
Maeve and Edie were born in 1933, the year Hitler became Chancellor of Germany. Before long, the Nazis had begun trialling methods of mass murder on people with disabilities. These deaths have never been adequately commemorated. What’s more, Britain played a role in this shameful history since the Nazis were inspired in part by some of the eugenicist ideology prevalent in the UK. When a forced sterilisation bill was debated in parliament in 1931, it was successfully opposed only in favour of segregation. One of those who spoke out against forced sterilisation, nonetheless described people with learning disabilities as having 'infantile and puerile minds, with perversions, with anti-social tendencies'.
On many levels we have clearly come a very long way since then. People like my sister can grow up in loving families, surrounded by supportive friends. People with learning disabilities and autism have achieved high-profile positions as actors, for instance, and as social activists. Couples with learning disabilities have married and some have raised children of their own.
Yet, these are the exceptions. Even now, learning disability is under- and misrepresented in the media. Most people with such disabilities still face great opposition from family and state if they try to forge romantic and sexual relationships. Young people with disabilities are three to four times more likely to be sexually abused than their non-disabled peers and disability hate crime rose last year by 41%. These are troubling indicators that we have yet to learn the lessons of the past.
Even on the more benign end of the spectrum, our attitudes to learning disability can be damaging. When I mention my sister’s cerebral palsy and autism, I am usually offered sympathy on the assumption that her life must be miserable and my childhood must have been tough. This is hardly surprising given that as recently as 1983, when Lou was diagnosed, the doctor told my parents to focus their love on her twin, Sarah, and on their eldest daughter, me; put Lou in an institution; forget there had ever been three.
Sarah and I are both profoundly grateful that our parents ignored the doctor, daring instead to share their love and attention between all three of their girls. Far from a miserable existence, Lou has an infectious capacity for happiness that defies preconceptions about disability, and even calls the term itself into question.
Despite her great intelligence and the freedom to make choices about her future, Maeve has been gravely disappointed in her life. Has growing up with your sister Louise - who has both cerebral palsy and autism - been an inspiration in your own approach to life?
Lou reminds me that joy can be found in all sorts of places if only we are prepared to seek it. She’s also taught me a lot about stamina. Lou’s cerebral palsy and autism make everyday tasks at least ten times harder for her than they are for me. After years of hearing me talk nineteen to the dozen, she kept on sounding out words in front of the mirror until she eventually said them clearly enough for us to comprehend; while I cartwheeled around the garden from a young age, she managed her first steps at six.
More remarkable still, Lou undertakes her daily graft with such aplomb that it rarely comes across as onerous. She’ll introduce herself to strangers, trying out her favourite phrases, and she’s invariably the first one on the dance floor and the last one off. Lou’s zest for life is never based on achievement or competition, her sense of self-worth never reliant on beating someone else.
And yet, despite having such a role model in Lou, I have made several of the mistakes that I gave to Maeve. I think the character of Maeve developed in part from a vision of the person I feared becoming.
Have you encountered other presentations of disability in fiction that are worth investigating?
The Sound and the Fury by William Faulkner
Any such list must start with this modernist classic. The first person narrator of the novel’s opening, Benjy, has profound and complex learning disabilities. His capacity to feel the full spectrum of emotion is revealed through his limited yet ingenious means of expression. Benjy’s narration is far more than literary acrobatics. It serves the purposes of a nuanced and complex characterisation that is discernible in the text even if unacknowledged or disowned by its author himself, who later claimed that, ‘You can’t feel anything for Benjy because he doesn’t feel anything’.
Skallagrigg by William Horwood
This is a book that has meant so much to me – and it has cult status in the disability community. My parents thrust Skallagrigg into the hands of their friends, and I could tell that here was a book that had moved them both in a way that was unusual and profound. It tells the history of disability from the 1920s to the 1980s and is as unflinching in its portrayal of abuse as it is uplifting in its depiction of redemptive love.
Wild Boy by Jill Dawson
An ambitious and complex novel set in eighteenth-century France and inspired by the real-life story of the wild boy of Aveyron. Through the portrayal of both this child, Victor, and Doctor Itard, who attempted to educate him, Dawson explores the varied faces of autism. Such a nuanced depiction was ahead of its time when it came out in 2003. I hope we might be ready for such novels now.
Grace Williams Says It Loud by Emma Henderson
Full of humour, passion and verve, Grace Williams Says It Loud upturns stereotypes of disability. The eponymous heroine can only utter sentences of two syllables, yet the richness and creativity of her life shine through. It is an ambitious, experimental novel and yet it somehow manages to retain its heart and be immensely readable too.
The Hunger Trace by Edward Hogan
I stayed up all night reading this book. The characterization of curmudgeonly Louisa, who has armoured herself against intimacy after early experiences of unrequited love, reminded me of the importance of flaws. I loved Louisa because of her imperfections and this gave me the confidence to write a deeply flawed character too. Another of the characters, Christopher, is on the autistic spectrum, and here I learned from Hogan’s deft use of humour. This is a funny novel and simultaneously a deeply sensitive one.
The Reason I Jump by Naoki Higashida, translated by David Mitchell and Keiko Yoshida
Having always yearned to read the mind of my sister who has severe autism, I jumped at the chance to enter into the world of this autistic memoirist. The author finds conversation almost impossible, but he writes by pointing to letters on a grid, revealing his exuberant spirit. Despite the Herculean effort of translating the autistic experience into language, The Reason I Jump reads effortlessly, each page challenging preconceptions that autistic people lack empathy, humour or imagination. My sister may never have Higashida’s access to language, and he can never speak for her. But through him I have glimpsed a tiny corner of their world, and for that – however vicarious, however bitter-sweet – I jump for joy.
You're the co-founder, with Emily Midorikawa, of somethingrhymed.com, a website exploring female literary friendships, as well as a forthcoming book on the subject, A Secret Sisterhood. Why did the two of you decide to focus on this topic?
Images of literary friendship have become the stuff of legend: Samuel Taylor Coleridge and William Wordsworth trekking through the Lakeland Fells; Lord Byron and Percy Bysshe Shelley trading tales of free love on their European escapades; F. Scott Fitzgerald and Ernest Hemingway surviving riotous drinking sprees.
But the English-speaking world’s best-loved female authors are mythologised as solitary eccentrics or isolated geniuses: Jane Austen, the spinster, modestly covering her manuscript with blotting paper when anyone entered the room; Charlotte Brontë, the devoted sister, scribbling away in a draughty parsonage on the edge of the windswept moors; George Eliot, the honorary man, shunned by respectable Victorian ladies; Virginia Woolf, the depressive, loading her pockets with stones before stepping into the River Ouse.
Our own experience as writer friends led Emily and me to question these accounts of extreme seclusion. Ever since we met fifteen years ago in rural Japan, back when we were working as English teachers by day and scribbling stories in secret by night, we have shared every one of the uphill struggles and celebratory moments of each other’s creative journeys. Hopeful that female authors of the past shored each other up as we do, we set out to investigate further.
You've also published a collection of poetry, The Memoir Garden, based on conversations with adult volunteers with learning disabilities at the Sunnyside Rural Trust. How did that come about?
Most writers, I suspect, share a yearning to mind-read. After all, the novels we devour as teenage bookworms give us the impression that we can enter into the thoughts and feelings of someone else. But, of course, our lives off the page frequently remind us of the impossibility of this: the unfathomable lover; the silent father; the hurt friend. As the poet Rainer Maria Rilke would have it, ‘even between the closest of people infinite distances exist’.
I especially yearn to step inside my sister’s mind. Because Lou’s access to language is limited, perhaps I have a heightened sense of the distances between people. But, at the same time, I am fiercely aware of the common humanity that binds us.
My longstanding desire to mind-read lies at the root of The Memoir Garden – a project that combines my most profound interests: my belief that writing can give voice to the silenced; my personal interest in listening to the stories of those with learning disabilities; and, finally, an opportunity to work in the community in which I live. So, when the Arts Council offered generous funding of my writing residency at Sunnyside Rural Trust, the award felt more like a gift than a grant.
Can you tell us anything about where your writing might take you next?
After A Secret Sisterhood, my next book will be another novel. But it will bring together both my fascination with female novelists and my interest in disability. I discovered that the sister of one of my favourite authors was diagnosed with ‘imbecility’ and written out of the family history. My next novel will be narrated by her.
Emma was intervivewed exclusively for Foyles by Jonathan Ruppin