Disability

Transcript: ‘I slid down the banisters and fell on my head’

This is a transcript of "I slid down the banisters and fell on my head" with bestselling author Liz Nugent as broadcast on 10 January and presented by Emma Tracey with Beth Rose

JINGLE - BBC Sounds: music, radio, podcast.

LIZ - When you feel like you're not on the same field as everybody else you take yourself out of the team.

I didn't have a lot of friends in school; I was quite lonely.

My mother never asked for a dispensation for me to get extended time to finish an exam paper. My writing was very slow so I actually never finished an exam paper in my life. My mother's attitude was always very much no, you sink or swim.

I don't want to be the disabled writer; I'm a writer who happens to have a disability.

EMMA - Hello, and welcome to the Ouch podcast. I'm Emma Tracey. That's Beth Rose.

BETH - Hello.

EMMA - And with us in Dublin is top-selling Irish author Liz Nugent. Hi Liz, how are you doing?

LIZ - Hello. I'm very glad to be here, thank you.

EMMA - No problem. Liz's first book, Unravelling Oliver, won the crime fiction prize at the Irish Book Awards in 2014. Her 2016 novel Lying in Wait was on the Richard & Judy book club list. And Skin Deep, her most recent novel, is just out in paperback.

BETH - Congratulations.

LIZ - And Skin Deep just won Crime Novel of the Year Award here again, so I'm doubly, triply blessed I guess.

EMMA - You are, I guess, right-handed, but you write all of your books, you type them out with your left hand. Why is that?

LIZ - When I was six years old I was quite disobedient, still am, but I had been told many times not to slide down the bannisters and many times I ignored that instruction. And on this particular occasion I landed head first on my brother's tricycle and had a fairly significant brain haemorrhage and lost the use of my right-hand side. I can still walk, but I limp fairly heavily on my right leg. My right hand I can hold things and I can grip things but I have no coordination. So, my piano playing career was over.

EMMA - You say that; we've had a piano player with one hand on the show before.

LIZ - Have you?

EMMA - Oh yes.

LIZ - I actually did buy myself, because my husband is a musician, he has all the musical instruments at home, and I bought a book about how to teach yourself piano with one hand. But I was too lazy to actually learn the actual notes.

EMMA - So, you had a brain haemorrhage. And then afterwards you had another setback later on as well.

LIZ - I had another setback. In my early 20s I dislocated my kneecap. I fell over in the shower. That started a chain reaction of spasms that were to do with the brain haemorrhage, kind of latent nerve damage. So, a simple thing as a dislocated kneecap started this chain reaction of spasms all the way down my right-hand side. And I ended up back in hospital for the guts of a year I would say. But I had surgeries which weren't entirely successful and it left me with my right foot turns outwards when I walk. So, I'm sort of like half a penguin.

BETH - Did the hospital know what they were trying to repair with the surgeries?

LIZ - The hospital were so ignorant, well one doctor in particular was so ignorant of what was actually wrong that he decided that it was in my head. So, I ended up in a psychiatric unit for only three days, but still it's a good story, kind of looking around saying, why am I the only person in a psychiatric unit with a plaster cast on my leg. But I had agreed to go because they said they would give me painkillers there, and I was in so much agony and so much pain, it was a pretty stressful time in my life.

But when I was in the psychiatric unit, for the three days that I was in it, a nurse who had worked on the neurology ward beforehand, she pretty much sussed what the problem was and asked a neurologist to come down and see me. So, a neurologist in the same hospital came down and saw me and within five months diagnosed that I had dystonia.

EMMA - So, what's that?

LIZ - Dystonia is a brain malfunction, I suppose, when the muscles in a particular branch of your body contract and go into spasm. You know some people have torticollis it's called in their neck so that they can only lift one side of their head, so their face is sideways on their head; that happens to me in my leg. So, the muscles in my right leg and my right arm involuntarily contract. It can be uncomfortable, can be very uncomfortable. But I have lots of medication and Botox seems to be the treatment that I get the most benefit from.

EMMA - That's I guess something that people mostly have for cosmetic purposes.

LIZ - Yeah.

EMMA - But it helps with your spasms?

LIZ - Yeah, because I've had it for cosmetic reasons as well, I've got to be honest. It was only discovered, Botox as a cosmetic device, was only discovered because it was so successful in stopping spasms. It basically will freeze the muscle to stop it going into spasm, and that's what it does when it gets injected into your face so your frown lines can't frown if the muscles are frozen. But because I have had so much Botox in my right arm and my right leg I have grown immune to its cosmetic effects, so it's no longer a route I can take in that direction.

BETH - What happens now if you've grown resistant to the Botox?

LIZ - There are three different types, so I'm on the third and final type now. And I think the hope is that if I stay off the other one that I can go back to that, that I can switch back to the original one. It keeps me mobile, it keeps me walking. If I didn't have it then I'd probably definitely be on a stick.

The first time I actually used wheelchair assistance was in an art gallery in Toronto at the beginning of the year. I love going into art galleries, but usually I will go up to the person at the front desk and say, 'I have 45minutes walking in me, what do you recommend I see?'. And this guide he said, 'why don't you take a wheelchair? There are free wheelchairs over there, just take a wheelchair and take as long as you want.' So, I spent four hours in the gallery for the first time in my life and it was just bliss. I have to suck it up and get in the damned wheelchair.

EMMA - It's interesting you say that. Most people who develop a physical impairment do talk about the difficult transition from no stick to stick to chair. But you're kind of a pretty visible public figure now, particularly in Ireland so far.

LIZ - Sure.

EMMA - How do you settle yourself with the idea that you do look that little bit different?

LIZ - I have talked about it, I've been quite public about it and open about it. Some interviews focused on that, which bothered me a little bit because I don't want to be the disabled writer; I'm a writer who happens to have a disability.

EMMA - And what was it like for you growing up in Ireland having had your brain haemorrhage and whatever went with that?

LIZ - Well, for example when I did my Leaving Cert, the equivalent of your A-levels in the UK, my mother never asked for a dispensation for me to get extended time to finish an exam paper. My writing was very slow so I actually never finished an exam paper in my life. My mother's attitude was always very much of no, you sink or swim. You have to get on with it; you have to fit in with the rest of the world, rather than the rest of the world fitting in with you. You are not special; you just have to get on with it. And so I did. And I worked in jobs for a long time that were quite physical. I was the stage manager in theatre. I don't know that I would do that to my child if they had a disability like I did, but I learned a lot through it I suppose.

BETH - You've talked in previous interviews about how the technology revolution really helped you with laptops and computers because you could type.

LIZ - Sure.

BETH - But even now you sort of say you don't pad out your novels with words because it takes…

LIZ - Yeah, it costs a lot. It takes more out of me to write. It takes more energy, it's more physically demanding, so therefore I don't waste words.

BETH - Is that a good thing when you come to editing? Or maybe you don't edit because you're so precise.

LIZ - It's funny, most writers write too much I think. And they tell me, 'oh god my editor told me I had to take out 10,000 words'. And my editor would say, 'oh god we need an extra 10,000 words'. So, I'm the opposite way that I tend to write short, I write less, because I do the bare minimum.

BETH - I've read Unravelling Oliver and it's not a novella. I didn't feel like you'd scrimped and saved on words.

LIZ - No, I don't scrimp on story. The story is all there, but there is no padding, there are no descriptions of the day or the night or the weather or anything like that. It's just story, story, story. But that is a pretty slim novel; I think there were only 56,000 words. Your average novel is 90,000.

BETH - Can you summarise Unravelling Novel without giving out, you know?

LIZ - It starts off with a man beating his wife into a coma. He is a middle-aged man, he has never laid a finger on her before, and he talks about how she provoked him. But I tell his story through his eyes and through the eyes of the other characters who think that they know him, but they don't necessarily because he's been hiding all of these dark and crazy secrets.

In fact when I think about it, because I knew we were going to be talking, I realised that I put disability or disfigurement in some way into all of my books. Like in Unravelling Oliver Eugene has a mental disability. And in Skin Deep there are lots of burn victims. I think it was coming from the fact of being in hospital so much and being around people who are sick; these conditions and these things are all normalised for me. They were members of my community. I put them in books because I don't see them too often.

EMMA - Did you ever feel represented by what you saw in the media?

LIZ - Not really, but I don't think I would have wanted to see anybody with my condition because it's so unusual, everybody would know that it's based on me. I trained as an actress when I got out of hospital - what was I thinking? - but anyway I trained to be an actress, and looking around at the roles for girls with limps. There was one actually in a Tennessee Williams play called The Glass Menagerie, but it's done like once every ten years and it's for a young girl, so I could only maybe have got that part once in my life, and only if I'd had the balls to go for an audition, which I never had.

EMMA - Couldn't you just play Rita in Fair City or something with a limp?

LIZ - I could have, but I don't think casting directors are that… I mean, god, even representation of black people on Irish TV is pretty bad. You can only be a black character if you're an immigrant. You can't just be the local radio presenter. And if you're disabled your role is a disabled person. It's a shame that TV hasn't really caught up with reality. I'm not speaking for all Irish television programmes, because I haven't seen them all, just the ones that I'm very familiar with.

EMMA - Why are your main characters so horrible? I've read a really interesting article that you wrote in The Pool about looking in from the sidelines all the way up as you were growing up and sort of figuring out yourself, which I'd love you to talk a bit about as well. But are they anything to do with that, kind of looking in on how people are and how they treat each other and all that?

LIZ - No, I don't think that's exactly related. I write horrible characters because I find them really interesting. In televisual terms would you rather watch John-Boy Walton or Tony Soprano? It's no contest for me. I find these really damaged, flawed characters just fascinating, not in real life, just in fiction. My husband is lovely. [Laughter] I'm interested in the psychology behind characters. For example when I hear about a serial killer being caught I immediately want to know what was his childhood, where did he grow up, did he have both parents. And by and large 99 times out of 100 you'll find out that he had a very troubled, damaged, abusive childhood. I'm saying he but it can be she as well.

EMMA - The Pool article, which was kind of why I brought you on because I read it and that was only when I realised that you had the dystonia. Basically you said, I'm still the girl with the limp but the difference is now I like her.

LIZ - Yeah.

EMMA - So, what was that process? Tell me a bit about the process.

LIZ - I was very aware from an early age of who the good-looking children in my class were, who were the pretty girls and the advantaged girls and the classy girls because a certain way they were treated. And because I had this accident very early on I knew that I would never be accepted in the same way they were. So, I don't know whether they isolated me or I isolated myself. I'm not saying that anybody ever bullied me, they absolutely didn't, but I think when you feel like you're not on the same field as everybody else you take yourself out of the team. I didn't have a lot of friends in school; I was quite lonely. It's a weird thing to admit but I was quite lonely and quite isolated. And therefore I guess I learned to observe, I learned to watch people; I felt I didn't belong.

EMMA - And what made you feel like that? How did you come to feel like that?

LIZ - I think it was just an acute lack of confidence. When I think about myself as a teenager now I feel terribly sad and sorry for that person. It's almost like it's a different person because now, I think because of the books, I'm brimming with confidence - probably too much. And I wrote something on Facebook about it recently because I think that Pool article came up and I posted it and lots of people responded to it. And I talked about in another article my schooldays and being lonely in London and the feeling of not belonging. And other people who knew me in school said, 'we had no idea you felt like that; we always thought you were the cool, brave, brazen one'. And I guess that is obviously how I came across but it's certainly not how I felt. I was absolutely putting on an act in school as if I didn't give a damn. So, it was probably hard for people to like me because I didn't make it easy for them. But that was kind of a defence I guess. God, it's all psychology with me! I think it was a defence against trying to pre-empt them pointing out my difference.

BETH - What was it like at home in your house, because are you one of six?

LIZ - Yeah, well one of nine eventually because my father had three daughters from a second relationship so yes, I'm one of nine.

BETH - One of nine.

LIZ - But when I was growing up I was one of six, and at home it's just a busy house.

BETH - Have your siblings been surprised at this huge success?

LIZ - Yeah. I think even my mother said, 'oh my god, I always thought you were going to be such a loser'. [Laughter] I know! She said this to my editor at the launch of my first book. I was like thank you mum. She said, 'we never thought you'd amount to anything'. I thought, what! My siblings are all professional people, like they're lawyers and educational psychologists. And I never went to college. That was another way that I felt isolated because all of my friends went to university and went to college. My older siblings all went to university. But they had earned their fees by waitressing and I physically couldn't do that. So, college was not an option for me.

But I think all of that life experience added to the stories that I came to tell in the end. I have something to write about because of those experiences and because of that feeling of being an outsider. A lot of writers talk about that. My first book was only published four years ago but I started writing it probably ten years ago. I just had this story in me that was just bubbling under the surface. First I just had a first line and I thought oh, I'll write that down one of these days. And then about a year after I thought of the first line I wrote it down. And then I followed it up with a quick story, and I entered that into a short story competition and that was short-listed. And that ended up as the first chapter of Unravelling Oliver, but it took me about six years to actually complete the novel and submit it.

BETH - I hear that's quite quick though on the book writing circles.

LIZ - Oh gosh.

BETH - I think ten years is…

EMMA - Doesn't sound like quite quick for someone like me looking in who's never going to write a book. It sounds like a long time.

BETH - I think ten years is the average from your debut novel, from first line to on the shelves.

LIZ - Really?

BETH - Yeah.

LIZ - That makes me feel a lot better.

BETH - Are you currently writing your next?

LIZ - Yes, I'm in the middle of my next. I'm actually toying with the idea of software because I'm writing three characters and they're three brothers who have grown up in the same home and yet I have to make them sound quite distinct from each other. So, I was thinking maybe I will act one of them and use a voice recognition software to actually dictate those chapters rather than write them out. Because the way I write is the way I write.

EMMA - I was going to ask about software anyway because typing with your left hand sounds to me like a really, really difficult thing to do. Do you use a special one-handed keyboard or anything or do you just go for it?

LIZ - No, I just go for it. I think if you have a disability you really should try to do as much as possible as you can in the normal way and not use the stuff that you don't need. If you can get by with using one hand on a normal keyboard do that, because you never know when your laptop might breakdown and you need to borrow somebody else's computer and you're in a desperate deadline situation.

I don't think we should sit around and expect society to make all of the efforts; we have to make as much effort as we can. For ages and ages I did not have a disabled parking pass on my car, until it became physically impossible for me to go places because I didn't have one. And then I just said okay, now's the time, now I'll do that. So, I'm kind of wary of disabling myself further than I have to. I know a wheelchair is in my future long term, but up until the day where I have to get in it permanently I'm going to keep walking, I'm going to keep trying.

EMMA - What are your tips or advice, Liz, for budding disabled authors out there?

LIZ - Don't let your disability stop you. Look at Shakespeare: he wrote his entire works with one hand and a feather. Seriously I'm not disabled at all in those terms. I'm writing with one hand on a laptop with a keyboard with all the benefits of spellcheck, the source, dictionaries. I don't think any of us have an excuse really to not write a book if you want to write a book. And the other thing I would say is once you start it finish it. There are thousands of writers who will never be published because they've never finished the book.

BETH - When is your next book out?

LIZ - Skin Deep was published two weeks ago in the UK. I'm really excited and optimistic about how that might go. The kicker is there's a middle-aged woman living in the south of France on the Riviera. She is passing herself off as an English socialite. She picks up a man in a bar - this is all in the opening chapter - goes off and does a load of cocaine with him, ends up at a penthouse rooftop party in Nice, gets completely trashed, wakes up on the floor of the party the morning after and her dress is split open down one side, and she's absolutely mortified and in the horrors. And she picks her way back to her grotty flat where the flies have begun to gather on the corpse that she left there the night before.

BETH - Da, da, da!

LIZ - And then the story goes back in time to all of the events that led up to this point and who she really is.

EMMA - Thanks for listening to the Ouch podcast with Emma Tracey and Beth Rose. You can contact us on Facebook or Twitter @bbcouch, or you can subscribe to our podcast, and please do, on the BBC Sounds app.

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