Sally Houtman’s work has appeared in over 30 literary journals, including Literary Mama, Tattoo Highway, Girls with Insurance, flashquake, Flash Frontier, and Mobius: The Journal of Social Change. In 2012, Sally’s story “Immiscibility” was selected as an outstanding story by writer/editor Robin Black for Fictionaut’s “Editor’s Eye” showcase. Sally is the winner of three New Zealand literary competitions, has placed second in two others, and was recently short-listed for the prestigious Fish Short Story Prize, an international literary award.
When did you realize that you wanted to write?
The answer to this question, when I wrote it out, wasn’t interesting even to myself…
You have said to me that creativity is the “easy” part for you with writing, but getting the words onto the computer and beyond is in your own words an entirely different story, so to speak.
With that in mind: Please talk about how challenging it is to be to be a blind writer in today’s highly technological world. What kind of adaptive technology do you use and does it either helps and/or hinder your ability to create and produce work?
Simply put, without adaptive technology I would not be writing even this. That said, the reality is that for every technological advance there seems to be a whole new set of challenges.
Basically, there are two things I use to get my words to print and beyond – a desktop camera which magnifies printed material, handwritten notes, etc., and a computer screen magnification program which also has speech output.
The good news is that these technologies give me the ability to access material that would be otherwise beyond my reach. The difficulty is in the inherent limitations of using such technologies in that there is a time and frustration factor, making even simple tasks quite arduous. For example, unlike a sighted person, I do not have the ability to skim or scan text, neither can I easily play with formatting or spacing or see how a piece lays on a page. Proofreading is also challenging as I can’t pick up things like extra spaces or punctuation errors because the speech program does not read these. And if I lose my place in a text, forget it. I’ll lose twenty minutes trying to find it again. The best way to imagine this is to think of holding a powerful magnifying glass over a page – you can read the print, but only a small chunk at a time. And yes, my computer ‘speaks’ to me, but I’ve got to know where to find the text to tell it what to read. For this reason, web pages, particularly those with many graphics, columns or scattered blocks of text give me headaches. Something as basic as researching publication markets for my work can prove exhausting because no two websites have the same design or layout. I spend a lot of time searching for links and buttons that end up being right in front of me the whole time.
Like myself I know you have had no formal writer’s training. What is the hardest part of that for you if it is? How has Fictionaut helped if it has? What other writer’s sites or programs have been helpful to you?
If I’m honest I think the difficulties of having no formal training in the craft of writing are largely in my own head. It’s that inner critic constantly shouting, “You don’t know what you’re doing,” that creates more doubt and insecurity than any outside influence. True, I don’t have the terminology to define what I do with my words, but I’d like to think that instinct and intuition count for something here. People, particularly the Fictionaut folks, have been nothing but supportive and encouraging of my work. It’s more the feeling of being an ‘imposter’ that dogs my confidence and makes the feedback hard to take in.
Support wise, I’ve got two close friends who are published authors and I’ve met with them regularly to workshop material for the past few years. With their help I’ve learned some of the basics of the craft that I wouldn’t otherwise have known.
Aside from my friends, Fictionaut has been my only other source of creative support. I love the feeling of being part of a community and having made a place for myself there through the merit of my words. In any new situation I’ve been reluctant to disclose that I’m blind – I’ve never wanted this to be my defining characteristic. nor do I ever want to feel that I’ve earned anything through ‘sympathy points.’ Writing for me has been a means whereby I can truly participate/compete on a level field. When I send a piece off to a competition or to a publication, I’m on equal footing with everyone else. No one knows I’m blind and quite frankly, no one cares. It’s nice to be able to now openly share this with the Fictionaut community as I’m not looking for anything there but support, oh, and the occasional helping hand if you find me knocking about in the corridors lost and confused.
Do you find yourself in your own writing (as in life) depending strongly on sensory information? Please discuss how smell, sound, taste, touch are guides for you in your stories? I feel that your attention to this kind of detail is one of the qualities which draw us quickly and seamlessly into your stories.
What a lovely compliment. I know it’s such a cliché to say that a blind person is more in tune with their other senses, but from what you’ve said about my writing I guess I have to admit that there’s a certain truth to the cliché. Senses aside, I naturally think that a good story is not so much about the landscape as it is about the character’s perception of the landscape. It’s not what the character is seeing, but what he or she is feeling or experiencing in response that I think lifts the story above the ordinary, making it perhaps richer and more meaningful. Ultimately, when I write it’s my world and my unique perception that creates the scene. It’s my canvas and my landscape and I can paint it however I like.
On this subject, I recently wrote a personal essay (“Windows” which is in my story queue at Fictionaut). In it, I say:
I feel that I’ve been granted inner vision in exchange – an ability to draw on the blank canvas of a page the world as only my damaged eyes can see it, no lines, no edge, no form. With words I can shape silhouettes from shadows, march skinny bands of letters into the curve of a hip or the thick knotted trunk of a tree. With my fingers and a keyboard I am more than something damaged, I am something precious, something rare.
That pretty much says it all.
What are you working on now?
Continuing to write. I’ve got bits of a novel scattered about my computer that may or may not ever be completed. The enormity and length of the text is a bit too overwhelming, I think. My dream is to have a short story collection published someday.
The Fictionaut Five is our ongoing series of interviews with Fictionaut authors. Every Wednesday, Meg Pokrass asks a writer five (or more) questions. Meg is the editor-at-large for BLIP Magazine, and her stories and poems have been published widely. Her first full collection of flash fiction, “Damn Sure Right” is now out from Press 53. She blogs at http://megpokrass.com.