I first encountered Alice Eakes in her Huff Post opinion piece: “Yes, Blind People Read Books. We Write Them, Too.” I immediately knew I wanted to meet her. But I’m shy, so I quoted her instead.
Then my editor broke the news that Huff Post wanted like several hundred dollars for me to quote a few lines, and so I decided I would reach out to Alice for an interview.
I’m so glad I did! We remain friends. Alice agreed to be part of the Monster Book Tour for There Plant Eyes. (I’ll paste our YouTube conversation at Women and Children First Book Store at the end of this interview.)
Alice founded Blind Authors Info and Support group on Facebook that’s small but mighty. We let each other know about opportunities, which is how our stories ended up in Artificial Divide, a first-of-its-kind own-voices anthology featuring fiction by blind and low-vision authors.
Although we had a lovely get-to-know you phone chat a few days beforehand, this interview was conducted over email in 2020.
Alice Eakes Interview
LG: How did you begin writing professionally? Was there a moment when you decided to try to make a living as an author? Did your blindness play any role—positive or negative in making you think you could have a career as a writer?
AE: I think I was nine or ten when I decided I wanted to be a professional writer. Not knowing anything of the business of writing, of course, I thought one could write a book and get it published. The innocence and naivete of being a child.
When I got a little older, I acquired books from the library about how to be a writer. They covered the business aspects, as well as the how-to stuff about writing, and that discouraged me for a number of reasons. The major one had a great deal to do with my blindness.
Though, at the time, I had some usable sight, it wasn’t of a great deal of practical use as far as reading went. I was a Braille user, so could write with a Perkins Brailler or slate and stylus, and I did—copiously. I also knew how to type. Unfortunately, I couldn’t proofread my typing once I transcribed something from Braille to print. I could do what I did in college—pay someone to retype for me, but a dollar a page—the going rate at the time—was fine for a 20-page paper, but not a 400-page manuscript. I just didn’t have that kind of money.
Another setback from my blindness—under employment right down to unemployment. I had a college degree in English literature, but no one was hiring blind teachers, not even certified ones, as I was. When I finally got a teaching gig, it was part-time at a private school and paid in peanut pieces, or so it felt.
Yet the writing bug had gotten ahold of me, and I spent my first summer off from school writing my first novel. Getting it into print would have to come when I got access to a computer, that blessing and bane to blind people everywhere.
Another drawback was research. I wanted to write historical fiction because that’s what I loved to read. That proved difficult. I couldn’t just go to the library and pick out books for research. The National Library Service for the Blind and Print Impaired had some useful resources, but not nearly enough. As a college student, I was a client of a volunteer provider of books. Again, the resources were limited. Not until I got a computer with “screenreader” software did I get a scanner, which opened a whole new world to me. Then the Internet sent me into whoops of joy with things like the Gutenberg Project and Google Books and the thousands of original documents at my fingertips and computer screen.
I remember writing a short story for a contest and needing to know one detail from the Treaty of Ghent, which ended the War of 1812. I went hunting online and discovered the Avalon Project, with digital documentation of every treaty the U.S. had ever entered into. It was three in the morning, but I still called my friend, who was 200 miles away, to express my delight.
Other resources have cropped up online, as well, like archive.org and bookshare.org. Original documents and scholarly works for the downloading.
I still have trouble with things like maps, and I have gained an online community of other history nerds who are willing to help. I also tend to write more contemporary stuff now than historical, which makes research easier and still necessary. Whoever said just write what you know and then you don’t have to do research was out of his mind or very lazy. I know my backyard, but not the names of the flowers or plants in it. Or didn’t. With my iPhone, I can take pictures of things and email them to people to ask what something is or what it looks like. Writers can be amazingly helpful colleagues.
Thus, many years after I decided to be an author, I finally got there, but not until I paid my dues in lots of frustrations, tears, and gnashing of teeth over more than the usual barriers to publication—which is something like only four out of every ten thousand manuscripts actually get an advance-paying contract. Altogether, nineteen years passed between me putting my first full novel onto Braille paper with a Perkins Brailler, and my first advance-paying book contract because, in-between, I got a computer, learned I still needed help with proofreading, and acquired the resources to get that assistance that made a manuscript good enough to send to an editor. Well, an agent then an editor.
LG: How many traditionally published books have you authored? How many in the works right now? Please briefly describe your genre—I think you said it’s shifted a bit over the years?
AE: I have twenty-five traditionally published novels in print and three more under contract. Actually that’s twenty-two novels and three novellas that appeared in collections. I have four untraditionally published novels. Some of my earliest books are now published by me, as I acquired the rights back and had them reproduced for the E-book market alone. Totally worth it to keep them in print.
As for genre, that is complicated. I say, in general, I write women’s fiction. That’s a kind of code for I write romance, except romance tends to conjure half-dressed men and women on steamy covers and the term “bodice ripper”, which is offensive to most romance authors. Nowadays, they’re more likely to be the lady doing the ripping off of clothing.
My books are squeaky clean. At least my traditionally published ones are. My three that were briefly published as E-books before the Kindle made that respectable and before I knew the market, have a bit more physicality than the later ones.
Several of my books fall into the inspirational field. With one or two exceptions, these are what is called “spiritually light”. In other words, I talk more of forgiveness and loving oneself than actual faith. Maybe I shouldn’t admit this, and I’ve said it on Twitter, which is like telling the world, so I will confess I hate being labeled a “Christian” author. I don’t read Christian fiction, have found little to my liking when I tried it, but my agent at the time, had strong ties to the industry subgenre, so I wrote it and sold fairly well in it.
Six of my other books are secular. If people go to church and pray it’s because that was what people did at the historical time in which they are set. One of those was my Masters Degree in Writing thesis novel, True as Fate, and still one of my favorite books. I won’t say these are “sweet” because they contain a measure of violence and death and. Even my inspirational ones have a bit of blood and gore. I am a suspense author, after all. One of my books, The Mountain Midwife, is women’s fiction as the market now defines the term, a book that focuses more on women’s issues and relationships between women than the romance. These are about women finding their place in the world. The Mountain Midwife has done the best of all my books in recognition and sales.
“I catch things others don’t by reading with their eyes”
LG: Can you tell me a little about your process of reading and writing? About accessing books, how you read/write, what programs/technology you use. Do you think your blindness affects how you read, research, write, edit, etc.?
AE: The answer to the last question is a huge Yes! I’ll try to make clear how.
From the time I was small, I was a Braille reader. I just couldn’t focus long enough to read print. Hardly anyone ever saw me without a Braille book under my arm or under my fingers. Those volumes were anywhere from two, to three inches thick and are always a standard 12 by 12 inches tall and wide. They’re not really heavy, though, due to the air between the pages.
Now, however, I sit so much at a computer writing and using social network and shopping, etc., I don’t sit to read Braille. I mostly listen. I get recorded books from NLS, from Hoopla through my local public library, and through Audible.com. They love me at Audible. I’ve spent a fortune in the ten years I’ve been a platinum member.
I’ve talked a great deal about research already, and the same still goes—scanning, online books and other resources, and live readers both paid and voluntary.
As for proofreading, I do much of it by ear using the screen reader—a screen reader reads; it is not dictation, as many people think. I think this lends a unique cadence to my writing voice, and I catch things others don’t by reading with their eyes. I had a Braille display, but it broke and I keep having other priorities for spending that much money like buying a house. I see the necessity for one, though, so it has become a priority once again, probably when I get the next portion of my advance next month.
And I have a regular person for proofreading for me. She’s a retired English professor and an author herself, so knows the sorts of things to look out for like fixing my commas. I always say I was a literature major, not a grammar major, and in creative writing, I tend to throw most rules out the window when the rhythm and tone of the story requires something different than subject, verb, etc.
But I digress…
I especially like digital books because I can make notes in them, mark the places I want to be able to find once I’m writing. This works in academic and creative writing for me.
This is time-consuming, even so. One just can’t skim well with a screenreader, so I am not fast in research or writing. To compensate for that, I tend to write one draft. Other than correcting typos, what I write first is what my editor gets. That makes me a planner. I have to plan ahead a great deal as a blind person because, frankly, just life takes longer, from following recipes, to going anywhere without being able to drive.
One of the biggest drawbacks for being a writer in today’s world is marketing. We are expected to market ourselves, which is difficult at best. This is a visually oriented world, and, though Facebook and Twitter are pretty usable platforms for blind people, the more popular ones like Instagram and TikTok are not. I can take pictures with my iPhone. They are pretty good thanks to the Apple technology; however, I don’t know if they’re good. I am never sure how good or embarrassing the picture is, so don’t dare put it up on something like Instagram. In addition, designing ads, brochures, etc., is just beyond my ability. I pay someone to do everything like that. It kind of eats into the profits, and the reward isn’t always worth it. I don’t have an author newsletter, though everyone says one should. But the idea of having to come up with content, get someone to format it for me, and keeping up with a mailing list is just too daunting. Attractive layout, along with graphic and things to make the newsletter attractive, just won’t work for me. Those same authors who say one needs a newsletter admit they can’t trace many sales to them, so what’s the point? Engagement with fans. That would be great. I’d do it and many other recommended marketing steps if I could see what I’m doing.
LG: Please tell me about your early encounters with agents and editors. When and how did you disclose your blindness and what were some reactions?
AE: My first encounter with an agent was shocking. She called to say she would take me on, then proceeded to mention how vivid my writing is. I disclosed. And never heard from her again. She wouldn’t take my calls or respond in any way.
After a while, when I had the nerve again, I tried for another agent. I didn’t disclose my blindness to this one. She was great until she met me at a conference, where I couldn’t avoid disclosing, as I and my guide dog met her for lunch. It didn’t help that she was terrified of dogs, yes, even my gentle as a lamb golden retriever. After that, she stopped sending out my stuff for consideration. Worse, she lied to me. I made contact with editors at conferences, and my agent managed to never send that editor anything, though the editor had requested it.
Neither of these women ever mentioned my blindness as the cause, and I thought it pretty obvious why they’d dropped me without a word.
Then I did get an agent who knew ahead of time and worked hard for me. Editors suddenly became the problem. One flat-out said she didn’t think a blind woman could go through the publishing process. I was already published. A few years later, when I had more books published and had been recognized with a couple of awards, that same editor was asking me to endorse her authors. I still don’t think she would have bought anything from me.
Then we have the two most infamous stories:
The first one nearly drove me to quitting writing. I had written a contemporary romantic-suspense novel with a blind heroine. In her backstory, this woman had discovered she was going blind the same time period in which she discovered she was pregnant. Thinking a blind woman couldn’t possibly be a mother—this has been all over the internet in the past few years due to a call-in radio show in NYC where the hosts and many callers said this—so the heroine gave up her baby for adoption. Years later, she is about to meet her child.
The editor rejected the manuscript because She said no blind woman would ever do such a thing. She knew because of what she’d seen in the media. I knew because I’d read about it in articles and, because, as a blind woman, I had so many doubts about being a mother I chose not to be one.
That the editor didn’t know of the prejudice against blind women being mothers existed commends her. That she assumed I didn’t know what I was talking about made me so angry I told my agent I was quitting. She told me to write a sweet Regency romance, and I sold my first book—to a different editor.
The next horror story is worse. On my twentieth book, my line edits came in. No problem. I rather like being edited. I think editors are vital to authors and good books. But this woman had sent me two copies of my line edits with a note that said she had marked her suggested changes, then, in the one copy of the manuscript, accepted all of them. She thought I should just turn that one in. “Due to my visual difficulties.”
What visual difficulties? The gray coming into my hair? The excess size of my posterior from sitting on it too much to write and deal with ableist editors?
I was pretty devastated. Ok, I cried for about three hours, then got my agent out of a conference and cried on her shoulder for another hour. This is a new agent, who has been worth her weight in gold-pressed platinum.
She got my main editor out of a meeting and we figured out a few things, but it ruined that book for me. I think it came out all right because I put my foot down so hard on the changes the line editor wanted. They were terrible. She tried to rewrite my story in her own image, and her writing sucked. She’d edited some big names and needed to stick to editing, not writing fiction.
Other issues with publishing personnel have been more subtle like the marketing rep who walked through a book signing at a conference and talked to every author there except for me. The time I was a finalist for the Rita, which used to be the highest honor in romance fiction, and my editor completely ignored me, while praising others from the publisher who were finalists. I didn’t get invited to the publisher party. But then, my fellow authors kind of forgot to congratulate me too, though I wore the ribbon and pin proudly on my badge.
At another conference, where I was also a finalist for a major award, I was congratulated for being a finalist in the unpublished contest. I had six books published at that time, but the person couldn’t believe I was published at all.
The only time I’m asked to join workshops at conferences is if they are related to diversity or disability specifically. Once I was told I was welcome to speak at their conference, but they didn’t recommend it because the building had steps. Um, what? What does being blind have to do with steps, and why in the world were they having a conference with steps anyway? They may as well have put in their brochure, “No disabled people welcome.”
“I’ve been told I’m rude, as though talking to a dog instead of me is polite”
LG: Tell me about the blind character you mention in your HuffPost piece, and the editor’s reaction. Did you ever find a home for that storyline?
AE: I’ve mentioned this above, and, to elaborate, the editor learned about a year later that was my manuscript. The woman who told her said she was quite embarrassed, but she never spoke to me to apologize.
My heroine was realistic. I had people be ableist to her, and had her express her annoyances and frustrations and hurts. Taking the advice of writer extraordinaire, Laura Kinsale, I made her drop-dead gorgeous and talented, as Kinsale said things like that tended to counter huge flaws. She was referring to her book “Flowers in the Storm” about a man who has a stroke. A hero with a stroke? Wow! She pulled it off.
I never forgot that advice, so applied it to my blind heroine. But I made her a visual artist, so she lost her career, an artist who worked in metals, so had to use high heat at times. Kinda dangerous for a blind woman. I gave her parents who never accepted her blind ness. Realistic. Believe me, I know it happens. She also had a guide dog people talked to instead of her. And, yes, I put some of my snarky comments into her mouth.
“Hello, doggy. What’s your name?”
Me/Heroine: “Do you expect her to answer?”
“Hello, person, there’s a person on the end of this leash.”
I’ve been told I’m rude, as though talking to a dog instead of me is polite and I should be nice no matter what. Yes, in a perfect world with a perfect me, I would be, and I do try, but somedays my Midwest sarcasm gene bubbles to the surface.”
But I digress again…
I have never found a home for that book. I’ve wanted to. It has the potential to be a good women’s fiction novel. But even my agent isn’t interested in such realism in a novel. Publishing still prefers the inaccurate garbage that passes for sensitivity with a blind or disabled character written by people who have no clue or the will or ability to research even a little.
I’ve discussed one idea with my current editor and she is open to it. But this would be more of the romantic-suspense fluff I’m writing now. I want to write something more serious. More women’s fiction than romance, something that can touch and maybe even change a few readers’ hearts. Just not sure if I can convince my uber-supportive agent it’s got a place in the market.
Then again, with the push for more “own-voices” for authors of color, maybe an “own-voices” for a blind author will work. Some black authors I love, Farrah Rochon and Kwana Jackson, to name two, have their black characters talk about the prejudices and racism they encounter, and I think it makes good stories great because it is so realistic and honest. But people fear blindness. ‘they just fear it for the wrong reasons, so maybe writing realistic lives of blind characters would help educate without a documentary.
I had a history professor that had us read historical novels. He felt people remembered more what they read in a novel than a textbook. People remember that with reading about any topic, so when it’s wrong, they get the wrong impression and perpetrate the myths and misconceptions that lead to ableism and downright bigotry against blind people.
If I read one more blind character who wants to feel someone’s face, I’ll tell the author it’s sexual harassment and disgusting. And how does one count steps? One’s gait changes enough with each pair of shoes due to heel height, or condition of the walkway changing with snow and ice, or dryness, etc., to make that illogical. Besides, my brain has better things to do than constantly count. Yet I read blind people counting steps again and again.
And don’t get me started on how guide dogs are misrepresented in books. So much research is available, authors have no excuse for talking about picking out the puppy and raising it to be a guide dog, as though all that entails is teaching it to sit. Most of the schools have videos and books about the training and what these puppies go through from birth, to career. It’s so much better than what I read in books. What a dog can do for a blind person is so much more than companionship, too. White canes are misrepresented, too. Again, do a little research into how the blind person employs a cane for mobility. They are pretty effective in the hands of a trained blind person, and that training is not quick, as in overnight, or easy. No one expects a blind person to just say, “Hey, your blind now, here’s a dog. Good luck.” Adapting to not being able to see can take months, even years, and, of course, must face the stages of grief for the loss.
And, oh, yes, the blind character so often ends up with the ugly partner, if they get one at all. Or they are miraculously healed by the end of the story because, you know, you can’t have a happily ever after if one character is blind. Blind people aren’t allowed happily ever afters. And let us not forget that the blind heroine never ends up with a hot guy, unless she gets her sight back. Or vice versa.
LG: I would love to hear your thoughts on the way the media depicts blind characters generally! And what kinds of blind characters you’d like to see represented that you never have.
AE: Blind characters I’ve encountered in movies, books, TV shows, etc., tend to be dependent and pretty useless, with a couple exceptions of the superhero. Dare-Devil, for example. He has to have super powers.
The media perpetrates myths that have little to no basis in reality; e.g., the feeling faces, the counting steps, being afraid of crowds, wearing dark glasses, always hanging onto someone’s arm, either unemployed or superemployed… A friend called me one day because she saw a movie in which the blind woman was walking through an airport to which she had never before flown, but she was counting steps, while holding the harness of her guide dog, and holding onto someone’s arm. She said she wanted to throw things at the
TV because they were making so many mistakes at once. Seriously. How do you count steps in a wholly unfamiliar place? And in an open space like an airport or mall, etc., those steps would always have to change due to moving obstacles.
But I rant.
Actually, I tend to avoid books and movies with blind characters they make me so angry.
I’d like to see more blind characters who live normal lives—normal lives disrupted by whatever drives the story, but normal before then. I consider my life pretty normal. I get up and sometimes walk on the treadmill. I always make coffee, feed the cats and dogs, make breakfast smoothies, see my husband out the door. My blind husband, who’s an attorney, walks to the train, takes it downtown to his office. Takes it home again.
I work at home, but don’t stay here. Sometimes I go to coffeeshops to work, or have lunch with friends. I go shopping at malls or downtown, getting their by bus or train or Uber, and meet my husband for lunch or dinner. We go to movies and plays and people’s houses.
I cook. I clean. I do laundry. I’m a person first. Blindness is a characteristic. The limitations come from the way society chooses to set itself up with barricades to those who can’t see.
I’d like to see characters who talk about this and push against it. We have more and more characters of color doing this, so why not characters with disabilities? Are we still not allowed to speak up for ourselves and how society holds us back without being called angry or not accepting our disability? Does accepting our disability mean accepting how society suppresses us because of our disability?
“She thought making fun of disabled children was all right, and not one person in the class spoke up against her”
LG: Could you talk a little about your experiences in professional settings with other writers? At conferences—I think it was a Romance Writers conference–you were telling me about how event organizers and fellow authors treated you like something other than a professional colleague and preferred to talk to your guide dog. (you mention the “cut direct” in the HuffPost piece, which I love.) Since, I think you said that you’ve learned others with disabilities (and people of color) also experienced discrimination.
One writers organization to which I used to belong realized they had a diversity problem. But they only mentioned members of color or LGBTQ+ members. I said that they needed to include members with disabilities in this push as well and was told: “Wait your turn.” My turn? Really? In the twenty-first century I have to wait my turn to be accepted as an equal?
When conferences went virtual this year, one conference for which I had already paid, chose a platform that was minimally accessible to my screenreader. It seemed to get worse as the weekend went on, probably because the software couldn’t handle the usage. Whatever the reason, I was upset. I just wanted to participate like everyone else. Instead of apologizing, the conference coordinators got nasty with me, as though inaccessible software was my problem, not theirs.
Then I will tell you about the class I took on writing romantic comedy. The teacher was explaining running gags. Her example was how she and her children made fun of the kids who had the ride on the “Little bus, the bus for disabled children. She thought it was a joke worthy of a running gag and good enough to share with her children and perpetrate through them.
She had ignored me all class, so when she went there, I walked out and filed a formal complaint against her.
She thought making fun of disabled children was all right, and not one person in the class spoke up against her. It wasn’t like they were being graded and would be flunked if they did. This woman was a multi-published author.
LG: What kinds of things do you think need to change in the publishing industry generally to make it more welcoming to blind/disabled writers?
AE: The editor at the Huffington Post asked the same thing. It’s still a conundrum to me. We can start with more blind and disabled people in the business as editors. Editors can give as much diligence to making sure their authors are qualified to write the subject as they would be with nonfiction. In other words, editors need to stop thinking that nondisabled people are qualified to write books with disabled characters. They are closing to anyone but persons of color writing characters of color, but no one, and I mean no one, mentions “own-voices” referring to disabled characters as well. Anyone but me that I’ve heard of anyway.
But the walls are high. I applied for a job once as a “reader” for a publisher, the person who takes a manuscript and screens it to see if it fits the publisher guidelines. I never heard back from the editor who knew I was blind. They did hire someone I knew who had far less industry experience than I. Maybe I wouldn’t have been good at the job, but I was never given a chance.
I see web sites listing people who will do “sensitivity” reading for other minorities such as persons of color and LGBTQ+. Not sensitivity readers for disabled characters. I have contacted a couple of these sites to get my name listed. I never hear back. I wish this meant that disability is so ubiquitous that it’s no different than writing about a blonde character. Sadly, what it means is that no one cares if myths and misconceptions that perpetrate prejudice are what is happening.
People aren’t disabled by their physical limitations. They are disabled by the restrictions society has chosen to set in place that create limitations.
Alice Eakes and Leona Godin at Women and Children First