This week we're profiling a new Smashwords author, mystery writer Phyllis Campbell. From the moment we met her, we were inspired by her courage, commitment and confidence. Like many Smashwords authors, she has been publishing through traditional channels for many years.
Unlike most writers, Phyllis has been blind since birth.
When we learned she was blind, we offered her special hand-holding to help her navigate the Smashwords publishing process. She politely declined. She could do it herself without special treatment, thank you.
She has been writing and publishing since the age of eleven. As she describes below, blind writers face unique challenges not faced by sighted writers, yet technology old and new helps bring their important talent and voices to light. What a gift to all of us.
David Weir: You started writing at a young age. Why do you think this happened in your case?
Phyllis Campbell: My earliest memories are of my parents and sisters reading to me. My sister, Inez, who is also blind, and I often acted out stories based on characters we read about. I think it was only a step from there to creating my own characters and plots.
[DW] At what age did you start school and what role did your love of writing play in your education?
[PC] I was six in December and started school at the residential school for the blind in January. I drove my parents mad, I'm sure, begging to go. My sister was there, and I wanted to learn to read and write Braille. Certainly my love of reading and composition helped me tremendously all through my formal education.
[DW] When did you begin publishing and selling your work, and where did you publish?
[PC] I started selling my work in the 60's. My first sale was to the weekly magazine published by the Salvation Army, and the second to a delightful inspirational magazine, Sunshine Magazine. Following these first two sales my work appeared in various inspirational magazines such as The Standard, The Lookout, The Lutheran, Christian Herald Lutheran Woman, and in the romance publications of McFadden's Woman's group. I also did both fiction and nonfiction for Dialogue, a publication for the blind. My two books appeared in soft cover and hard cover in the US, and one of them was published in China and the UK. I have done a true crime book under contract with the family of the victim. I currently write two bi-monthly columns, Handicrafts, and Hobbies And Such for Our Special, a Braille magazine published by National Braille Press.
[DW] You mentioned that one editor encouraged you to write your autobiography. Can you tell us about that?
[PC] Barbara Brett of Brett Books, asked me to write a book about my life and my animals, including my guide dog, Lear. I was hesitant, but she urged me to do a rough outline, and a couple chapters, and to my surprise the book began to take shape. It was difficult to write since all of the animals except one, and many of the people, walked with me only along the road of memory, but I'd be lying if I said I wasn't pleased with the results. Certainly the book didn't make me rich, but I was thrilled when it was published in China and in the United Kingdom as well as the US. I like to think of people far away in places I'll never go, reading about the simple things that made up my life, from the time I was four until the time we bought our first house, and adopted our little Lady Gray cat. No matter where my writing takes me, I feel that I would have never gotten there without Barbara's encouragement.
[DW] When and why did you decide to start publishing digital books and work outside of the traditional publishing industry?
[PC] The decision was made slowly, I think. It can't be denied that the face of publishing is changing for a number of reasons, not the least of them being the current economic climate. Certainly digital books are less expensive to produce, thus less expensive to purchase. The author's fate is determined by the readers, not an editorial staff or agent. I feel that a digital book will sink or swim on its own, rather than to flounder out there [and grow stale as publishers decide how or if to release the book]. For me personally, I am pleased that the digital market makes it easier for other blind people to buy my book. Although some digital formats aren't accessible, many are. Definitely digital books are opening doors for the blind.
[DW] For those readers who have not yet seen your book at Smashwords, “Who Will Hear
Them Cry,” please tell us a bit about it.
[PC] For a while now what I call minority sleuths have dotted the writing landscape - African American, Native Americans, hearing impaired, paraplegics - but so far I haven't run across a major one who is blind. Meet Kate Talbot, who is blinded by the psychopath who kills her husband and unborn child. She makes a good adjustment physically, but is filled with guilt because the killer warned her not to testify against his son. She fears reaching out to others for fear she will cause them hurt. This shell starts to crack when she becomes the owner of a large orange tom cat, and breaks when her partner persuades her to investigate a series of fatal accidents at a private school for disabled children.
If readers have preconceived ideas about the blind obtained from popular movies or TV, I'd advise them to cast them to the winds. All too often these are written by those who have no first-hand knowledge of what it's like to be blind. Kate is neither “super blind woman,” nor a sweet wise little lady, offering comfort and inspiration to those around her. She's outspoken, kind in spite of herself, funny, and yes brave. In short she's human. She solves the mystery, using her wits, and her senses, even imagining what a scene looks like to the eye of her mind. I haven't asked her to do anything that a reasonably fit, adjusted blind woman of her age couldn't do. A friend took a slippery walk along a narrow ledge, minus the cat, to prove it could be done, although she didn't know at the time it would appear in Who Will Hear Them Cry, years later.
[DW] What are the main challenges that visually-impaired authors face? For example, how do you come up with descriptions of things you cannot see?
[PC] Of course we face all the same challenges faced by the sighted author, but up until I decided to go digital the main challenge for me was marketing, choosing the right publisher. It can be a bit hard studying a given publishing house's listing to determine if my work is appropriate. Because I've always been blind, description can be tricky, but since this book is told in first-person by a blind protagonist it's simply a matter of "thinking" myself into the scene. Before the coming of the Internet, research was a huge problem, at least for me, but here again the playing field has been leveled.
[DW] How do you go about writing your books, i.e., what is your process?
[PC] At first comes the idea. I play with that idea, moving scenes and characters around in my mind until I get the feel of the plot. Often I use music to help me in this preliminary phase. I like to plot the beginning, and the end I want to achieve. Then I go to the computer that has a synthetic voice reading the screen through my sound card, and begin to do the dreaded outline, filling in the middle. Of course by the time I reach the end the plot has changed, and may change several times before the book is actually finished. I like to put the second or third drafts of the work into Braille so that I can find errors, and what I call faulty rhythm of the writing. To say that this isn't a lot of work, and that it doesn't take longer than it does for a sighted author wouldn't be true. It is time and energy consuming, but for me it's worth it. I'm a firm believer in, and user of Braille, and although technology plays a big part in my working life, I can't stress the value of Braille too much.
[DW] When you create a blind character, such as Kate in “Who Will Hear Them Cry,” how do your own experiences inform her behavior and feelings?
[PC] I think if they're honest, all writers call on their own experiences in creating their characters. I've taught and counseled with blind adults as well as children, and this experience has been invaluable to me in writing this book. I've listened to parents' guilt and fear, I've listened to the adult's cry of, "If only, I'd acted differently, maybe this wouldn't have happened." I know the joy of accomplishment, and the despair of failure. The trick, of course, is giving these emotions to my characters in a believable way, a way that will make the reader say, "I can understand that!"
[DW] What are some of larger messages about being blind you would like to get out to the sighted world?
[PC] The most important message is to realize that this person is a person, who is blind. We have the same hopes, dreams, joys, sorrows, successes and failures as everybody else. Of course many of our challenges are of a different kind. Understand that we may have to approach a problem from a different angle. Don't hesitate to ask questions. Most of us welcome a chance to educate the public, especially someone who may be losing their sight or have a friend or relative who is facing the problem. This education process is one of the reasons I write using blind characters. As I said before, my characters are drawn from real life, and I feel are a fun introduction to the world of the four senses. I welcome questions, and like nothing better than to be able to say, "but of course you can still do that!" It is a long hard journey into that world for those who have just lost their sight, but trust me, it's worth it.
[DW] How have you found the process, technologically, publishing and distributing your digital writing?
[PC] I found the process easier than I thought. I did pay someone to do the book cover and the specialized formatting, and strongly advise any person using a screen reader to do the same. This is a small cost, and although my book has only been out around two weeks I've already made the amount I put out, and don't forget it's deductible as a business expense. It took me much longer to upload my title than it would a person with sight, because I had to listen carefully to my screen reader, but I had a tremendous feeling of satisfaction when I heard the words telling me that it had been done successfully. So far it has been a rewarding experience, and hats off to Smashwords for having such an accessible site!
[DW] Do you have any specific advice to would-be authors who have not yet given it a try?
[PC] To those who may be sitting there on the garden wall, I say jump, and this goes for all writers blind and sighted. If nothing else it's a heck of a lot of fun, and offers many rewards. Just remember to give your manuscript the best you can. Take digital publishing seriously, remembering that you are an ambassador in a way. If you have rushed through, thinking that standards are less than in the print market, think again, and start to re-write again, and again. People will judge not only you, but digital publishing by such things as the believability and accuracy of your plot, believable dialogue, and of course the technical things such as grammar.
[DW] What about future work – do you have another book under way at the present?
[PC] I want to turn Kate into a series character, and feel that with hard work, and loyal readers, she can perhaps find a place in the roster of women sleuths, giving the reader a new dimension as they enter her world.
[DW] Thank you, Phyllis!
Who Will Hear Them Cry is now available for purchase at The Diesel eBook Store and
Smashwords, and will soon be available via Smashwords at the Apple iBookstore, Kobo and Sony.