SURVIVAL OF THE FITTEST – SHEER DOGGED DETERMINATION

I have learnt a bitter lesson in the last few days about how easy it is to lose contact with an agent who likes your work. Let’s face it, to find an agent who likes your writing is an achievement. To lose contact is disappointing. How could I be so careless? But a variety of reasons can bring about this situation from the agent disappearing on to maternity leave, retirement, moving to another agency or long term illness. When at a writers’ conference in June I heard the words ‘I’d love to see more’ my hopes lifted – well, actually I went WOW!  I thought perhaps now someone would look further into my book about two sisters growing up in the fifties – one deaf, the other, the narrator, hearing.

But, over the next few months, I became distracted by a brilliantly hot summer, a seaside home town with the nearby sea swimming, a constant stream of school holiday visitors and the lure of the beach, cliff walks, ice creams and coffees in local cafes with friends. Recovering from a serious illness I put quality of life ahead of tapping away on the laptop polishing the next few chapters. All this ensured I did not work as hard on producing ‘more’ at a required standard as perhaps I should. The interested agent was covering someone’s maternity leave but had she assured me she would be at the agency until October and would then talk to the returning agent when she had seen the ‘extra’. She had seen the synopsis, first two chapters and assured me, when I asked, that I was ‘doing it right’ and that she loved the voice of the child narrator which she found strong and engaging.

How time flies. When in late October I did eventually send the first third of the ms off I received a short reply from the other agent now back from maternity leave saying that she would read it when she had caught up on everything. Her later response did not echo the first agent in any way other than her use of the word ‘engaging’.  She cited a lack of narrative thrust, the problem that it fell between memoir and fiction and that it read more like memoir whereas I had sent it as a novel. In fact, I am not sure I had called it that. Imaginative memoir is more like it. Everything in the book has been experienced by myself or others related to deaf people and even by deaf people themselves. To add these dimensions gives the book more depth and covers more issues about the lack of deaf awareness in society and the rift between the oral education favoured in the 1950s and the schools that used signing as a medium of learning. This great divide has lessened in recent years while cochlea implants cause young literati some bemusement at the concept of profound deafness and the devastation caused to the person and their family.

So I was heartened to read Melissa Benn’s article Survival of the Fittest (SOF) in the current MsLexia, Issue 59 that she has, in the past, similarly lost her champion.  To quote her ‘the most significant difference between a writer and a would-be writer is simple bloody-minded persistence.’

Benn’s words have reaped results. I have, at the moment, three of her books borrowed from my local library. Her latest, What Should We Tell Our Daughters, is so popular that I shall not be able to renew it so must fire away with my reading specs. Not that it will be difficult to do. She writes fluently about topics close to my heart and her style is easy to read.

Benn reminds us of how long it can take to get published. She cites Kerry Young who struggled for a decade to get Pao published. Young described her novel as a gift for her father of a better life than the one he had. This resonates with me. My own novel Deaf not Daft is a gift to my long-since dead mother who was a founder member of the Deaf Children’s Society, a charity formed by a handful of parents in a meeting in Westminster in 1944. The parents present refused to accept that their deaf children could only aspire to manual, boring work. In fact it was difficult in the 1950s to get these young adults into rewarding and satisfying occupations. Telephones and face-to-face communication were essential in any career. These days, internet, twitter, facebook, blogging, websites and email have made a difference to opportunities. As well as the technology, attitudes and legislation ensure that many deaf school-leavers can work in the field of deaf education as support assistants and interpreters. However, there is still much ignorance about deafness and what deaf people can achieve. This is the essence of my book. As I believed I was emailing the agent who had, of all the submissions she received prior to the conference, selected mine and two others for further consideration, I did not attach the synopsis as she already had that. This may have been my biggest mistake. Without the synopsis the returning agent had no idea about the problems caused when an oral deaf girl falls in love with a signer, the rift that would arise between two families and why this would occur. Another writer mentoring would-be published writers at the same conference also read a chapter of the book and the synopsis and heralded it as a wonderful idea and very much suited to the YA market. My other work, a nearer the truth memoir of growing up in the fifties in a working class background without the benefit of private education, was also heralded by another publisher as ‘worthy of readership’. So, I tell myself, I must be doing something right.

I am not deterred, although my Facebook status did read ‘two declines in one day. I shall sulk for a while and  move on. Like falling off a horse I will get back on. Pity the keen agent had finished her maternity cover.’

Which is exactly what happened to Melissa Benn. She lost her champions on more than one occasion through retirement and maternity leave, agents moving jobs and other reasons. She describes the agent who inherited her two-book deal as a chicklit agent who was not interested in the slightest in her books and gave them scant attention or marketing opportunities.

So perhaps this is a good sign. I really didn’t want an agent who inherited what someone else liked and who would only give half her attention to my work. Now I think I would rather self-publish and market my own work.

I know that out there somewhere is someone who is interested enough in disability and particularly in deafness to see that this book shows both how devastating and isolating this sensory loss can be and how a family can be affected. In the 1950s people stared without any remorse at my sister. These days there is more awareness and politically correct behaviour where disability is concerned but there is still a stigma and much prejudice when it comes to getting deaf people accepted in the hearing world of work and in society as a whole. Neighbours agree to have a phone number of a relative but rarely pop their heads out of their own front door to pass the time of day and find out how their deaf neighbours are faring. Most are frightened they will not be understood or that they will not understand the deaf speech. People still refer to my sister as ‘deaf and dumb’ regardless of her oral education, the fact that she can speak and that she makes appropriate tonal expressions such as surprise, anger and sorrow. My mother would be furious.

The book is almost finished. The first three chapters will be winging their way to another agent and then another and then another until someone sees that this could be a popular read – one that reading groups will choose for discussion on the ‘Cinderella’ of disabilities, the little-known deaf experience and how to relate to deaf people. Hopefully they will then have some understanding of how different life is for someone brought up with a sibling with disabilities. Because there is one difference, above all. Those of us who are brought up with disabled siblings are more sensitive to those both with and without disabilities. We make good teachers, especially teachers of those with special needs. We are more caring and we listen – something many hearing people seem to have forgotten how to do. We don’t need to go to church to profess our faith. We do it each and every day when we interact with our siblings, their friends and relations. We interpret badly-worded official letters and can fire-fight the advertising material that these relatives receive and believe.

Hopefully, in time to come, people won’t look so surprised when I say ‘I faxed my sister.’ Amazingly, many I know cannot understand this.  Aren’t there special phones? Well yes, but I actually don’t need a minicom as I only deal with one deaf person and others are on the email these days.

Doesn’t she wear a hearing aid? They’re wonderful these days. Yes hmmmm but you don’t understand profound deafness. Here the nerves are completely dead and older people who have lived with such profound silence are not suited to a cochlear implant so

 …………….. don’t suggest that either!

 

You can follow Melissa Benn on @Melissa_Benn or visit her website www.melissabenn.com

You can also donate to the NDCS on their website.

 

 

 

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