Geekdis Interview with author Lillie Lainoff. null

Hi everyone! It is my pleasure to bring you an interview from an author who I admire immensely. I first heard about Lillie Lainoff and her book, One for All, during the CYMERA book festival when someone kindly informed me that a disabled author had written a story with a disabled heroine! As I learned more about Lillie and One for All, I became even more excited for her book.

I’ll let Lillie tell you more about it 🙂

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The Interview

Hi Lillie! 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?

Thank you for having me! I’m Lillie Lainoff, a disabled author and activist. My debut YA novel, One for All (which you can pre-order now!) will be published by FSG on March 8th, 2022. It’s a genderbent retelling of The Three Musketeers with a main character with Postural Orthostatic Tachycardia Syndrome. The novel is greatly inspired by my 16+ years of competitive fencing, which included competing for Yale University in the NCAAs. I was one of the first physically disabled athletes to individually qualify for any NCAA Championship.

I’m also the founder of Disabled Kidlit Writers, a group on Facebook for disabled kidlit writers at all stages of their careers. We have around 350 members now since I started the group in 2019, and it’s been such an incredible source of support, encouragement, and advice. 

I’m currently finishing my MA in Creative Writing Prose Fiction at the University of East Anglia. 

As a huge fan of The Three Musketeers, I am extremely excited for One for All and cannot wait to read it. Other than your obvious passion for fencing, what made you decide to set One for All in a historical period?

You know, it never occurred to me to write One for All in a non-historical setting! The idea came to me fully formed, and that idea was very firmly set in the past—albeit a slightly fantastical version of the past. Chronically ill/disabled girls and women are very much a part of history (we didn’t just suddenly appear in the past few decades!), but are rarely featured in literature (and if they are, they aren’t the main characters or heroines.) It wasn’t an active choice to write us into history; we’ve always been here. Looking back, though, I’m glad I wrote One for All as historical fiction even though it made it harder to sell to publishers. I think OFA is part of an important step to carve out space for disability representation in non-contemporary genres. Disabled girls can save the world, ride dragons, cast spells, and duel in ballgowns, too!

As an athlete and a writer, you have a unique perspective from two areas of pop culture. What are your thoughts on disability representation in sports and children’s literature? 

I could write very long essays on both these topics (and have)! 

Re: sports… being a disabled athlete is tricky. Before I knew much about disability theory and activism, I actively cast myself as a super crip, someone who was ‘overcoming’ their disability. It’s hard not to cringe when I think of my younger athlete self, although I’m trying to be kinder to that young teenager who was learning who she was at the same time she was learning how to deal with a body that was failing her. 

Thankfully, my views on disability and athleticism are more nuanced, now! I don’t want to serve as inspiration fodder for non disabled people — that being said, I welcome the opportunity for my journey to help a newly diagnosed teen athlete feel hopeful about their future in a sport they love. 

Onto children’s literature! I’m an author (obviously), but I’m also an academic nerd and spent a good portion of my undergrad writing about theory and implications behind the current representation (and/or lack thereof) of disability in media (including children’s literature). While the state of disability representation has gotten a bit better in recent years, there are huge gaps. Of the little disability representation published, most of it is written by non disabled people. Almost all the disability representation we do have is in contemporary genres. (As far as I know, I’m the only debut novelist in 2022 with a disabled main character in historical fiction. Or a retelling/reimagining, for that matter.) Almost all the current disability representation is white, cishet boys/men. There’s a pressure on authors not to be ‘too much,’ to not make their characters ‘too much’ — as if queer disabled people don’t exist. As if disabled POC don’t exist. As if queer disabled POC dont exist! 

There’s a huge readership for disabled stories written by disabled authors. And those stories are being written. What we need now is for publishing to acquire more of those stories, and to put the same amount of marketing behind those stories as they do nondisabled ones. 

The readership is there. All they need are the books. 

Growing up as an athlete, did you feel represented as a disabled person? 

I briefly referenced this in my answer about disability representation in sports, but I definitely didn’t feel represented as a disabled person. The few disabled athletes I knew (or anyone talked about, really) were visibly disabled. I thought I couldn’t call myself ‘disabled.’ That I wasn’t ‘really’ disabled, because look at those wheelchair users playing basketball! How could I call myself disabled if I wasn’t in a wheelchair/using a mobility aid? (Shoutout to our paralympic gold medalist basketball team, by the way!) 

I don’t want to discount issues like hierarchy of disability and oppression olympics (unintentional pun, sorry), which are problems in the disability community, but my thinking as a teen had nothing to do with the disability community and everything to do with internalized ableism.

This mindset lasted all the way through high school, and the first bit of college, when I was determined not to tell anyone about being disabled. Cut to four years later, when I’m proudly writing yet another op-ed about disability; this one about being one of the first physically disabled athletes to individually qualify for an NCAA Championship. That growth came from becoming involved in the disability community, being welcomed by disability twitter, reading my first disability theory books… 

A side note: even though I started fencing at nine, I was never an athletic child. I tried so many different sports. While I loved fencing, it didn’t come naturally to me. I had to learn how to work around my lack of coordination, truly spectacular clumsiness, POTS symptoms, etc. all for the sport I love. I’ve always identified more as a fencer than as an athlete.

Geekdis Interview with author Lillie Lainoff. null

You make an important point about disabled representation in non-contemporary genres. What other non-contemporary genres would you like to see get more disabled representation? 

Fantasy is a huge one. While One for All is *technically* a retelling/historical adventure, the fantasy element is very light (think Stalking Jack the Ripper). I’m currently drafting a YA fantasy with ownvoices disability rep that I love. 

There’s also SFF in general. My speculative novel, The Keeping House, didn’t sell on submission initially, but I’m hoping it will find new life now that OFA is making its way into the world. There are a few wonderful books with disability rep in science fiction (ex. The Sound of Stars by Alechia Dow), but there’s still a trend toward erasing disability.

Also, since OFA is a retelling, I have to bring up representation in retellings! One of my biggest pet peeves is when retellings of classics/fairy tales/musicals etc, where disability is integral to the story itself, erase characters’ disabilities.
All these ‘disabled representation in different genres’ wishes come with a caveat: I want good disability rep. I’m tired of reading YA fantasy books that treat disability like a character quirk that doesn’t impact the character’s life at all, something that can be magically cured, or a punishment/curse. 

You’ve been working on a Pitch Wars 2021 Mentors list of mentors for disabled representation/disabled authors. What has the response to this list been like?

Incredible! Within five hours of posting, over 250 people had viewed the list. This was my third year compiling it. Usually I spend between a day and a week staring at the Pitch Wars’ wishlists, with breaks for food and sleep, and then I do absolutely nothing for a few days to recuperate. This year the list came together in under 24 hours. I went to sleep and woke up to SO MANY messages!

At least seven mentors/mentor pairings let me know they had considered the thread I wrote about why I was only including mentors who specifically asked for disability representation, rather than diverse representation in general this year, and changed the language on their wishlists to reflect their openness to disability representation. So the list ended up growing, even after I shared it! 

The list, therefore, isn’t just acting as a resource for disabled writers interested in submitting to Pitch Wars. It’s also acting as a means of getting established authors and publishing professionals to consider how they talk about diversity—and why it’s so important to address disability specifically, given its omission from many calls for diverse representation. 

Pitch Wars has an unprecedented number of openly disabled mentors/mentor pairings this year. I hope that, when the mentees are announced, we will see a similar increase in disability representation.

Recently you shared a photo of your “Author’s Note” for One for All with it explaining that while your novel is a work of fiction, your protagonist’s illness is very real. How important do you think it is that readers recognise that connection between fiction and real life?

Well, I think readers with POTS (and chronically ill and disabled readers in general) will definitely make that connection without the author’s note! It was important for me to address, though, that One for All is written from a place of personal understanding. I might not represent every single POTSies lived experience on the page, but that doesn’t mean Tania’s experience isn’t valid.

Also, and this echoes some of my earlier responses about disability rep in non-contemporary genres, part of the reason I wanted to start my author’s note with that specific sentence was to remind all nondisabled readers that while dueling in ball gowns might not be the pastime of every chronically ill person, chronically ill people do exist! 

You are just one of several disabled kid lit authors with books coming out in the next few years. What books are you excited about?

I was lucky enough to receive an early copy of Marieke Nijkamp’s newest novel, At the End of Everything, which I just finished reading and loved. As far as debut authors in 2022 are concerned, I’m eagerly anticipating Melissa See’s You, Me, and Our Heartstrings, Kelly Andrew’s The Whispering Dark (another rare disability rep in fantasy!), and many others! There’s a twitter thread here with more:

Thank you, Lillie, for taking the time to talk to us!

Over to you

Thank you for reading my interview with Lillie! If One for All sounds like your kind of read, then make sure you grab yourself a pre-order or pop it onto to your GoodReads shelf! You can also find out more about Lillie on her website and follow her on Facebook, Twitter and Instagram!

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