Hi everyone! I am thrilled to bring you an interview with Girl of the Ashes author and disability advocate Hayleigh Barclay. I have just finished reading Girl of the Ashes, and you can read my review here. It is a fantastic urban fantasy novel which brings a new legend to the vampire mythos and features authentic disability representation.
Hi Hayleigh! Thank you so much for agreeing to join me for an interview as a part of GeekDis, an open discussion on disability representation in pop culture. It is wonderful to have you here at Just Geeking By 🙂 Could you start us off by introducing yourself and telling us a bit about who you are and what you do?
Hi! I’m a 33 year-old Scottish author and recently published my debut novel, Girl of the Ashes. I have a neuromuscular condition called Spinal Muscular Atrophy which affects my muscles and respiratory system. I graduated with a Doctorate of Fine Arts in Creative Writing from the University of Glasgow in 2019. Before that, I obtained a BA in Broadcast Production and a MA in Creative Media Practises. I’m in the middle of writing a script with my writing partner (fingers crossed a production company commissions it) and I write short stories for the online magazine, Disability Horizons. I also campaign for disability rights, having previously volunteered for Muscular Dystrophy UK. During the pandemic, I – alongside my co-editor – edited an anthology of short stories and poems titled Stories from Home and the proceeds were donated to The Ambulance Staff Charity.
That is a very impressive academic career! What led you to the decision to swap to Creative Writing?
Writing was a big part of all the courses, whether it be script writing, poetry, or short stories. The academic side and creative writing work hand in hand. A lot of writing involves research and a great majority of the time, research influences the writing.
Could you tell us about your book, Girl of the Ashes?
It is a neo-gothic vampire set between modern day London and 19th century Scotland. The heroine (or anti-heroine) is 18 year-old assassin, Elise. Trapped in a world of ancient curses, a timeless war, and the supernatural, she finds herself fighting for survival as the life she once knew crumbles. Rebellious and determined, her sharp tongue is as deadly as her dagger. Rest assured, Elise is no victim.
The book introduces a new generation of vampires – particularly for readers searching for their next blood-thirsty fix. Dark humour. Myths and folklore. Larger than life characters. There is something for everyone. The story centres around kick-ass women and how their unbreakable bonds can weather any storm. Diversity is a focal point throughout as disabled, LGBT, and multicultural characters remain at the heart of the action. A fan favourite is the quirky witch/vampire hybrid, Natashka who is a wheelchair user. A lot of readers have gravitated towards her sense of humour and bad-ass attitude.
Both your short stories on Disability Horizons and your novel feature disabled characters. What are your thoughts on disability representation in pop culture?
The bottom line is, we need more representation. The creative and cultural sectors must encourage more disabled talent to work within their industries. This means actually paying disabled employees, not just relying on voluntary or unpaid placements. I recognise that representation is improving – very slowly – but we cannot be complacent, there is still a long way to go. This means we need disabled people to be involved both behind the scenes (policy makers, board members, producers) and front of house (on screen, on stage, in bands). Until disability is more visible/discussed/represented then the arts industries are sending a dangerous message – we don’t belong. We cannot allow for this highly damaging message to be sent out to future generations. More must be achieved to create an authentic and well-rounded depiction of visible and invisible disabilities.
Without giving us any spoilers, how did you navigate the idea of a disabled character in a supernatural world where magic existed?
It would be tricky to explain it without giving spoilers. What I can say is that the description of Natashka doesn’t shy away from her disability. How she moves in her wheelchair and navigates over cobbled streets etc plays a part in scene building. As the story is set during the Victorian era, I had to find a way of drawing attention to accessibility issues, and in some instances the societal attitudes of the time, and use it as an advantage. For example, the way Natashka goes up and down stairs is a direct nod to vampire myths… But that’s all I can say! 🙂
Many people brush off the idea of representation as being “politically correct” or “woke”, but as you’ve just mentioned, representation is much more important than just checking a box. If I may ask, how has poor disability representation affected you as a disabled person?
That’s a good question. Growing up, people used to ask what I wanted to be when I grew up and of course it was difficult to reply as I didn’t know what options were available to me. There weren’t people like me on tv who could be role models, and even discussions about disability were few and far between. I knew writing was an option, but it took me until my 20’s to realise that a career in tv and film was a possibility. The industry still has a long way to go with regards to representation, but I believe that the more we push for change, the sooner it will happen.
In an article for the Pathfinders Neuromuscular Alliance, a user led charity, run entirely for and by people with neuromuscular disorders, you talked about writing Girl of Ashes. One thing that stood out to me was you said “anyone can become disabled”. How important do you think it is that disability representation authentically represents this?
I think it is important that a wide range of disabilities is represented – whether that be disabilities from birth or one that happens later in life. There’s just as much value in representing an amputee who lost a limb in a car accident, as there is representing someone who is blind from birth. All stories need to be told. We have to ensure that all people are represented or we risk having another generation who feel unseen and ignored.
As a writer, what advice would you give to others who want to include accurate disability representation in their work?
Research as much as possible and use as many different sources that you can find. Remember that one person’s experience of disability is not necessarily the same as everyone else. The more information you have, the more accurate the representation will be. Of course, if you are writing about your own disability your experience is second to none. But, if writing about a disability you have no knowledge of, then you really have to put in the time and work to gain accurate insight.
Thank you, Hayleigh, for taking the time to talk to us!
Over to you
Thank you for reading my interview with Hayleigh! If you like the sound of Girl of the Ashes don’t forget to check out my review because it is one of the books you can choose to win in the GeekDis book giveaway!
Hayleigh also has a Readalong organised for Girl of the Ashes. It starts on the 1st October and is going to have loads of behind the scenes gossip and other goodies. If that sounds like your sort of jam, then head over to the Big Bite Readalong on Facebook! You can also follow Hayleigh on Twitter!
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