Authentic Experiences: An Interview with K.C. Finn About Disability in Literature
Finding books featuring characters with disabilities isn’t hard, but finding realistic ones is a challenge. In an effort to promote more diverse and authentic texts about disability, particularly in young adult literature, I sought out an author who brought realistic experiences to the page. I found and interviewed K.C. Finn, the award-winning author of The Mind’s Eye and many other best-selling novels. The Mind’s Eye, the first book in the SYNSK series, follows Kit Cavendish, a teenage girl sent to live in a safe house following the London bombings during World War II. Kit is wheelchair-bound and possesses telepathic abilities, often exploring the minds of friends and strangers. She stumbles upon Henri, another teen enduring the Nazi occupation of his hometown of Oslo. Together, they uncover many secrets and create a unique bond.
In the interview, I asked about everything from the background of the book, annoying Y.A. lit tropes, and tips for success in writing and beyond.
What inspired you to write the story?
The original inspiration for the story started after I went on a cruise to Norway and visited a military museum in Oslo. Reading the history and seeing the artifacts in the museum helped me envision Henri’s story [first], but [I] knew he wasn’t going to be the main character. Kit Cavendish, the main character of The Mind’s Eye, came later. Welsh heritage happens to be my heritage, and my grandparents were connected to the war. So I wanted to bring Henri’s story back home. I am also fascinated by World War II, especially all sides of the military theater. I wanted to represent all sides of the war, which is why Dr. Bickerstaff and Henri are sent to the African theater for combat.
What research went into writing the book?
A great deal of historical research went into the book, of course. When I go on museum trips, I’ll take photographs, notes, and follow up on research online. Kit also suffers from the same ailment as I have, which is M.E. / C. F. S. But I needed to understand the context of how it would be treated back in 1940s Europe, which is where Dr. Bickerstaff’s character comes in to play with his treatment methods for Kit.
I have to admit I wasn’t a fan of Bickerstaff for the first half of the book, but I appreciated his new character dynamic towards the end of the novel!
[Laughs] Yes, he’s quite despicable at first. But he was one of my favorite characters in the book. I like for my characters to change over the course of the book, and Bickerstaff was no exception.
What are some of your pet peeves about Y.A. lit in general?
It irritates me when you do find characters with disabilities are there because it’s a gimmick. It’s a hindrance and it is never to their advantage. Gender, sexuality, and disability tend to become vogue topics in literature, and it’s interesting to see when people use it as a story device. I recently read book about a girl who can’t speak or write, and someone tells her a terrible secret. The entire story relied upon this girl’s disability and how she can figure out how to tell someone. People are more dimensional than that. Disability is more than that. You need find the balance to make a realistic story. As for literature featuring realistic portrayals of people with disabilities, it’s not a genre that is easy to discover, but it has been an emerging one.
When did you decide to make it a series?
It came about during the writing of the story. I wanted the main characters to have a genetic link. The interesting thing about that series is that it jumps from family member to family member, so it is a new character with a new story while still including favorites from other books. The sequel to The Mind’s Eye is Leighton’s Summer, starring Kit’s younger brother Leighton. An interesting thing about Leighton’s Summer is that the girl Leighton meets in the book is on the autism spectrum. It is never explicitly mentioned in the book, but her behaviors are modeled off of the first time I met my best friend who is on the autism spectrum.
Has anyone reached out to you and thanked you for your portrayal of disability in your books? What was the reception?
It actually happened in reverse. I also wrote a M.E. / C. F. S. nonfiction book. Someone read that book first and then read The Mind’s Eye out of curiosity. One person said, “Whoa, it’s nice to see somebody like me who can still be heroic and brave with positive qualities who feel physically weak.”
What was it like trying to find a publisher as opposed to self-publishing?
It very much has to do with luck. There is a huge pool of people who want to do the exact same thing you are doing. I had previously written a few novellas, and self-published them, too, to see what kind of response I would get from them. When my self-published pieces were well-received, I started talking to other writers about their experiences and spotted a publisher I thought would be a particularly good choice. It was an indie Texas press that did very interesting things with different authors and books around the world. I thought to myself, if I think of a story that could work, I’ll send it to them. When I sent The Mind’s Eye, I had an acceptance in two days, a publishing contract in six, and two months later it was available for preorder.
What is your writing Kryptonite?
If I figured it out entirely, I suppose I’d never stop writing. I think there’s a particularly rampant problem with “second book syndrome,” which happens after your first book is so well-received. When you sit down to write another book, you’re tempted to include certain scenes because you know which characters [your readers] like and who they don’t. It can be a constraint knowing what people expect and think about your books. You’ll start writing and think to yourself, “If I do this, people will not be happy,” or “They’ll like this scene.” When the author has become too aware of the audience, it can be a hindrance. It personally jilts me, and I have to remind myself to go back to focusing on what it is like without the audience’s expectations to remain true to the story.
What’s your favorite under-appreciated novel?
I always say that my favorite book is Lolita. It’s a very sinister book and the least child friendly one I can think of out there. But I like things that challenge convention. With Humbert, you go into the book viewing him in a certain way and come out with an entirely different attitude about him. Nabakov is the master of changing your mind and showing another side of despicable characters.
Many people believe that success in the writing field is being a best-selling author who makes a ton of money. I’ve come to realize that success looks more along the lines of being able to live day-to-day while still pursuing your craft. But what does literary success look like to you?
I think fairly similar to your own experiences with writing. I have been a best-seller on many occasions, but it’s all relative to the marketing you do. I’m not rolling in money, but 80% of the time I get to be a writer and 20% of the time a teacher. I had always thought I would be a teacher with writing as a hobby. The privilege of being successful in writing is that it has afforded me the opportunity to teach writing. I actually used to be a mathematics teacher before I taught English linguistics and writing.
As a soon-to-be-educator, I’m curious. What was the process for you to get your licensure in teaching in the U.K.?
I graduated with a B.A. in English, Language/Literature, and Writing. I had already planned to teach, so while enrolled in University, I started tutoring other people who came to me needing help with their assignments. I also got my certification for teaching English as a foreign language, my first formal teaching qualification. I then had to pursue my PGCEE, or the government-recognized teaching qualification. At the moment, I’m currently studying for my doctorate in education. My thesis explores how creativity can be used as a tool in education.
What advice do you give to your writing students?
In terms of practical advice, I tell my students about technical conventions and what the writing market likes at the moment. I’ll tell them about working in the industry, what agents want, and what publishers want, and people are always very interested in that. For me personally, I would always say [write] for the love of it first. [Even being a best-seller] doesn’t pay the bills in the way you think. So for the amount of dedication you put into writing, you should love it. At the same time, teaching is also an incredibly demanding job, yet in a different way. Writing is a very insular process. Teaching is all about giving, while writing is completely selfish.
Any extra words of wisdom to offer?
When it comes to disability and diversity, the most important thing to me is that when writing about those topics, [the writing] comes from somewhere real. It’s best to have real personal experience of the disability or have someone close to you in your life with the condition. If you want to write diversely, that’s fine, but make sure you are diverse in your activities.
Check out more of Finn’s work on her website, check out the whole SYNSK series, and follow her blog.