Saturday, June 28, 2008

Interview with Meg Burden, author of Northlander-a fantasy novel with a Deaf Character

Northlander (Tales of the Borderlands) by Meg Burden
Paperback: 252 pages
Reading Age: 12 and older

Publisher: Brown Barn Books (October 24, 2007)
ISBN-10: 0976812681
In Tales of the Borderlands: Book One, readers learn that the land is divided into two areas-- the Northlands and the Southlands. Main character, Ellin is a young girl with distinctive hair that indicates that she is clearly from the Southlands. When she goes to assist her father in healing the Northland king, she faces prejudice, danger, and even punishment for using Southland magical healing power which is illegal in the Northlands. While in the Northlands, she meets members of the king's family, the princes of the Northlands including a Deaf Character named Finn.

I'll be honest, I was a little nervous when in the author’s email she mentioned that Finn was also telepathic; however, after reading the book and discovering that several of the characters in this fantasy novel share this same "power", I really enjoyed Finn's character. In my interview with author Meg Burden, she explains that she was a bit nervous about Finn being telepathic too. Clearly Sign Language is Finn's language of choice and his family members communicate with him in this way although he does use a little lipreading and his telepathy from time to time.

I was extremely invested in the well-beings of many of the characters by the end of the book and can't wait for the next book. And while the main character is a young girl, this certainly is not a 'girl's book'. Guys will like this one too especially since it is filled with action, mystery, and magic!

On her website, Meg Burden reveals that she has been writing most all of her life. She is a huge fan of science fiction and fantasy... and just check out the Star Wars skirt that she is wearing in her pictures. She sewed it herself! She clearly has many talents.
Lately it seems like so many of the authors I interview have spent a little time in Virginia....gotta love that:) Below, read my interview with Meg Burden. ********************************************************************************
SPW: What was your inspiration for including your Deaf Character, Finn?

MB: From the very beginning, when Northlander was just a short story for a writing class I was taking (the short story is now the first two chapters), I knew there were going to be five Northlander princes. When I was working on the characters, I decided that two in the middle would be twins, and one of them would be deaf. I think this is partially because I wanted the brothers to all be unique and different from one another, so giving them different physical characteristics was a good starting point.

Plus, in my writing in general, I like to have diversity in my characters. I think it’s important. And deafness (at least as far as I’ve noticed in books and films) isn’t something that seems to be portrayed very often. So, I thought I’d do what I could to change that!

SPW: Do you know any Deaf People or Sign Language?

MB: I don't know any Deaf People well. I've been interested in Sign Language since I was very young; I remember learning the alphabet when I was about seven, and then I took a class at summer camp a little later. I wanted to pursue it (and wanted to become an interpreter), but my school didn't offer any courses, and my life plans sort of went in another direction. I'd still love to learn to sign well someday, hopefully soon. I think it's a beautiful language, and the idea of speaking without speaking aloud is one that really appeals to me. I think part of that is because, as a writer (and because most of my friends are people I talk with online), I'm so used to expressing myself in silence that I'd like to be able to do so without, you know, typing words on a page.

On a somewhat related note, I should add that, even though I know about ten words in ASL, I fingerspell things constantly. I got into the habit of signing along to my internal monologue years ago to keep in practice, and now I do it sometimes without thinking! I cringe to think of the times I worked in retail, what any Deaf person might have thought to see me standing there, sort of inconspicuously signing things like, "My feet hurt, and I can't wait to go home." *laughs*

SPW: You've mentioned that you were concerned that you might not have portrayed a deaf character the way that you intended. Do you mind sharing your concerns and what research you did to make Finn's character like a realistic deaf person?

MB: One of my biggest concerns involved the point of view in Northlander. The novel is told from Ellin's point of view, in first person. So, in order to be true to her character, I had to have her make some mistakes (and wrong assumptions) where Finn is concerned, such as thinking that he wouldn't sign if he had an alternative. She also felt a little awkward about his deafness sometimes, which made me feel awkward writing those bits! So, I was worried that her in-character thoughts and reactions might be seen as ignorance on my part!

Another thing I was concerned about was having Finn be both deaf and telepathic. I did research deaf characters before and during the writing process, and one thing I saw was that it's annoying to some people (and to me, incidentally!) when a magical ability practically "erases" a physical difference or disability. And it's always been a pet peeve of mine, as a fantasy fan, that so many fantasy books have characters with a physical difference...and yet absolutely no means of adapting to that difference.

So, with Finn, I wanted him to be a deaf character who happens to be telepathic...not a telepathic character whose deafness is "pasted on" and only comes up when it's convenient. Deafness is part of his identity (not all, but part), but telepathy is just an ability he has.

SPW: I think on page 213 when Ellin fumbles her words and is corrected by the twins pretty much verified to me that you got it right. Then on page 232, Ellin's plan actually follows a type of narrative in American Sign Language storytelling where it is the language (specifically sign language) that saves the deaf person. This is more common in ASL stories but every now and then it creeps into English literature with Deaf characters—I believe that many readers will see that part of the story and read it with a sense of pride.

MB: But more important than all of that, you asked about what I did in order to try to write Finn as a realistic deaf person. The short answer is, I didn't set out to write him as a realistic deaf person--not in the sense that I think writing a deaf person is different than writing any other sort of person. I'm not deaf, but I’m not male, or forty-something, or tall, or even a sixteen-year-old girl, either. (Though I remember all too well what that last one was like!)

I set out to write Finn, first and foremost, as a realistic person, with realistic reactions and emotions and dialogue. As for his deafness, I tried to imagine what it would be like not to be able to hear, and how I would go about my day and interact with others.

It was a challenge, though, when writing from Ellin’s point of view. To her, at least at first, deafness is sort of unusual/exotic. She notices it. For Finn himself, though, it's just part of who he is. So, while Ellin might think that Finn wakes up in the morning and thinks, "Hmm, I'm still deaf today. That's difficult," that's really not how it is! The only opportunity I had, with Finn, was to show how easily he and his brothers communicate, and what a non-issue his being deaf is to all of them. So, I hope that came across.

SPW: What do you hope that readers will learn or take away from the book?

MB: In so many ways, Northlander is about not judging people based on where they're from, or how they look, or how they may be different from you. So, I hope that readers will be encouraged to look beyond the surface. It's also a story about finding a place for yourself, and finding that where you fit in might be different than where you thought you would. I think a lot of readers can probably relate to that, and I like to think that Ellin's story might provide some hope or comfort to anyone who feels that they don't fit in somewhere. There are always new friends to be made, new places to belong, and sometimes it just takes awhile, or is found where you least expect it.

SPW: Can you tell me about your future plans... possible sequels including Finn?

MB: Right now, I'm hard at work on the sequel to Northlander, which is tentatively titled THE KING COMMANDS. Finn is a much more major player in this novel...and in fact, the point of view alternates between Finn and Ellin. (Though that's subject to change if the powers that be don't think a switching point of view works when I finish the manuscript.) I love writing from Finn's point of view. It's really nice to be able to show his side of things, and his thoughts, when his conversations with Ellin in Northlander were so limited because she didn't sign. And I love it because I get to show how comfortable he is with being himself and being deaf, things that I don't think came across as well as I would have liked in Northlander.

Writing Finn has been a challenge for me, though, I will admit—I keep having to go back and delete all of the auditory details I put in there without thinking! (I'm getting better about that, though.) I also have to pay attention to where everyone in a scene is, much more than I do when writing Ellin, so that I don't have Finn read the lips of someone who's behind him, or anything like that.

At this point, after THE KING COMMANDS, I believe there will be one more book in the Tales of the Borderlands series. TKC will probably be released next spring. And, other than that, my plans are to just keep writing! I have several other YA fantasy and urban fantasy books planned.

SPW: What advice would you give to young people who are reading your books for the first time?

MB: Read, read, read. Don't let anyone tell you that you have to "grow out of" reading books for young readers, or sci-fi/fantasy, or comic books, or anything else. Reading is an escape and an adventure, and it's supposed to be fun! Reading lets us do things we can't do in our everyday lives, like go to fantastic worlds or live in the Old West or on the moon. A movie shows us, but a book lets us imagine it for ourselves and lets us feel it—and that's some everyday magic, right there.

SPW: Anything you would like to add....

MB: Here’s a tiny snippet from the rough draft of THE KING COMMANDS. This is the first time I’ve shared it with anyone in public! But this seems like a really appropriate place and time to give a sneak peek from Finn’s point of view:

Coll sets aside his cup and nudges him again. "Don't look so glum. You know I'd trust you with anything of mine, little brother," he says.
Finn has no choice but to laugh, which, he supposes, was probably the point. He lifts a hand to thank Coll but checks the motion when his brothers turn towards the door. Following their gaze, his eyes widen at the sight of Lord Tomas striding in, posture tense, graying moustache practically bristling.
Alaric rises at once to meet him, with Coll, of course, at his heels. With their backs to him as they speak, Finn waits until Erik joins him on the bench, still bootless. "What's wrong?"
Erik's face darkens. "More trouble with Southlings," he replies tersely.
"No. In Three Pines," Erik says, naming the nearest town. He swallows visibly as he raises his eyes to Finn's. "You know a lot of Southlings have settled there. Lord Tomas says there was a brawl at the tavern. A group of local young hotheads decided to give a Southling barmaid some trouble--"
"And all the Southlings in the place had something to say about it?" Finn finishes, wincing.
"Sounds like." Erik's lips press together as he glances over at them, and when he turns back, his hands curl into worried fists, briefly, before he speaks. "It's getting worse," he says, unnecessarily.
For more information about Meg Burden, visit her website.

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