Fell writes and lives in New York City. His television work includes Queer as Folk, and the Emmy Award-winning California Connected. He’s written dozens of plays including the award-winning plays Naked Will, The Tragic and Horrible Life of the Singing Nun, and the downtown cult miniseries Burning Habits. His personal essays have appeared in HuffPost, Out, Daily News (New York), and more. He’s a two-time winner of the prestigious Doris Lippman Prize in Creative Writing from the City College of New York, including for his early unfinished draft of The Sign for Home. Concurrently with being a writer, Fell has been an ASL interpreter for the Deaf since 1993, and has also worked as an actor, producer, and director.
Katrina Bright-Yerges of Books & Company in Ocomonowoc, Wisconsin, served on the panel that selected Fell’s book for Indies Introduce. She said, “The Sign for Home does exactly what books and stories are supposed to do: offers a new perspective and gives insight into another’s life that you aren’t familiar with. I learned so much about ASL, tactile ASL, and the life of someone who cannot rely on all of their senses. I absolutely loved the characters. They are all so genuine and full of humanity, heart, and soul. They jump right off the page and into your heart. I highly recommend this novel — it's a much needed, refreshing read!”
Here, Fell and Bright-Yerges discuss The Sign for Home.
Katrina Bright-Yerges: You change the point of view depending on the characters. For Cyril, the interpreter, the POV is first person. For Arlo, the DeafBlind main character, the POV is second person. Second-person POV isn’t used as much, but I thought it really helped to put me as a reader into Arlo’s shoes and experience what he was going through, more than first person POV would have. Could you talk a bit about your process when deciding to write their perspectives differently and what you wanted the readers to take away from that?
Blair Fell: I used the second person for two reasons, most importantly to place the reader in Arlo’s POV more deeply and show a little about how someone DeafBlind might experience a world like his. But I also employed the second person in order to emphasize the trauma and disassociation Arlo is experiencing due to the loss of S, and the emotional and physical abuse he suffers at the hand of his religious uncle and others.
Oddly enough, I didn’t start with the second person. I had both Arlo and Cyril in first person. About a third of the way through I gave up on the book. I knew it didn’t feel right, and, frankly, I thought it was just too difficult to write for a first novel. In the interim I wrote a second novel really quickly which was much more light in tone (a detective novel), but also dealt with interpreters and a major DeafBlind character. Then while in one of my MFA nonfiction classes at CCNY, I did an exercise with an essay I was writing about a good DeafBlind friend, and put the essay in the second person. It was a eureka moment, and I felt like I found my key to finishing the novel. So I picked it up again and finished it using that second person present tense for Arlo. I learned so much by using it, and knew it was the right approach.
Oh, side note, I forgot I wrote that detective novel (second book) until a few months ago. I might pick it up again some day.
KBY: All of the characters felt so real and genuine. Which character came first and who was your favorite to write?
BF: I love them all, just like my mother used to say she loved all her children the same. Whether or not she was lying, I am. I, of course, love Cyril and Arlo the best since they helped me write the book. Cyril has a little of my own fictional interpreter autobiography slipped in here and there. Though he is a much better interpreter than me, taller and has red hair. Arlo was HARD to find — really hard. He found me more than I found him. S was interesting because, to be honest I didn’t want to decide on her gender right away. I had this idea that I’d leave her gender ambiguous and wrote the whole book with they/their pronouns, but not clarifying whether S was non-binary, trans, female, male. I thought it might be cool for the reader to discover it themselves, a little like a DeafBlind person needs to operate in the world without knowing as much as those around them. I also wanted it to be a love story for all genders and sexualities. But then I realized the book already had a lot of new frontiers for the reader, and thought it was another case of me wanting everything.
An author’s job is to make decisions. So I ditched that undetermined gender idea and decided (realized) S was a straight young woman and that Arlo was a steadfastly straight young man, which made his tension and friendship with Cyril all the more meaningful and true to my life. That kind of experience has happened time and again in my interpreting work. I’ve had many Deaf or DeafBlind clients who have been religiously conservative, but we still grew close and while a few have even tried to convert me, we always end up respecting and liking each other even after they know I’m queer. There is something really special in a long-term bond with a Deaf/DeafBlind person and their interpreter.
But to your question about who was my favorite to write? To be honest it was Hanne Van Steenkiste, who is named for the daughter of a good Belgian friend of mine. I just needed a friend for Cyril to hang with and explain stuff to. So I invented Hanne and she jumped off the page immediately and said, “Sorry Blair, you need me more than you thought, and I’m staying around for the whole book.” And she was fierce, gorgeous and a little scary, so I did what she said, and had such a good time. She has elements of myself as well. Her vanity, outspokenness, and need for people to desire me in a very shallow way. Haha, maybe I’m confessing too much here. Anyway, I really like her a lot. Oh, I also love Big Head Lawrence and Martin Van Ness so much! They were so much fun to hang with. I actually wrote enough for two books worth of stuff, so a lot of the school scenes had to be cut, but really enjoyed them.
After Arlo, the hardest characters to get right were Molly and Birch. I didn’t want them to be just villains, and in fact, we know at least one isn’t. But even with Brother Birch I wanted to give him a good and true motivation to do what he did. I work with a lot of Jehovah’s Witnesses, obviously, and also didn’t want these characters’ egregious behavior to be just an extension of their religion. Yes, some of the damage is from their religion, but these characters’ worst actions are because they are selfish hurt people who think they are saving Arlo, when they are actually causing harm.
KBY: Arlo, as a DeafBlind young man, has an important, but not widely known perspective. How has your work as an ASL interpreter for the Deaf since 1993 influenced you to write from this perspective?
BF: Well, obviously, my experience as an ASL interpreter and being a friend to many Deaf and DeafBlind folks was the main influence on this story. It was everything. Since 1993 I’ve been an interpreter, but I first met the Deaf community in 1980 when I started studying at Gallaudet University (“college” when I went there). It was this love triangle (in my mind) that got me to go. This girl who liked me was taking ASL at Gallaudet, and this guy who I had a massive crush on (who liked her) said he wanted to take sign language too. So I signed on, since I wanted to spend more time with him on the bus between universities. Then he and she got together, and I had a massive broken heart. So in order to stop walking around the campus crying all the time, I transferred to Gallaudet for a semester to become a “special student” — meaning a student that was not part of the Deaf community who wanted to experience studying in the Deaf world. I lived with Deaf roommates, took classes with brilliant Deaf teachers (two of whom the book is dedicated to) and even became officially gay there (not that I was out). The entire experience was phenomenal and obviously changed my life. The Deaf even helped me recover from that broken heart.
But the biggest influence on the book was definitely being an interpreter for nearly three decades. I’ve seen so many similar situations in real life to what happens in the book, the outright oppression of those with whom I work, the microaggressions, the misunderstandings of what an interpreter does by the hearing world. The book is complete fiction, in that I did not use any specific job or consumer I’ve worked with to base characters or story on. But I’ve definitely seen Deaf and DeafBlind people in hospitals and witnessed utter cruel or incompetent behavior toward them. I constantly see hearing people lack understanding about how to interface with a Deaf or DeafBlind person, or allow horrific captioning on videos, or assume the Deaf person reads lips or can read (when they may not), or deny them their ADA rights. I’ve also witnessed the oppression of some Deaf due to their atypical language skills, and for the hearing community to miss out on brilliant Deaf workers because of their audism (looking at the world solely through a hearing lens).
But more than those frustrating experiences, I’ve drawn on my decades of getting to work with this incredible community and culture. I’ve met thousands of Deaf people over the years, as well as many DeafBlind people, and getting to know them and getting to be their voice (and the voice of their hearing interlocutors) has been nothing less than an honor and quite momentous and influential in my own life. So many have become my dear friends, and I’ve gotten to be at their graduations as undergraduates, and later grad school, and when they get married and have babies, and later out in the workforce. I get very emotional thinking about how lucky I am to have worked and later befriended these folks.
KBY: I think this story has a great balance of heart, humor, seriousness, and drama. It’s more than just a love story or coming-of-age story. Did it start out with the same tone you ended up with or did you find yourself changing and evolving it to that?
BF: I don’t predetermine a tone of anything I write. I just write the story the characters want to tell. I wanted to tell a love story and friendship story about a DeafBlind guy and his gay interpreter. To tell this love/friendship story I had to explain both interpreting and Usher Syndrome (the condition that caused Arlo’s deaf-blindness). I thought it was all pretty serious until I saw the book cover they came up with. I’m being absolutely honest here. I had no idea it had as much humor as it has. I started as a comedy writer, and look at life pretty humorously, so I guess that just came through. Also I don’t really like any story if it doesn’t have humor. Complete humorless-ness is utterly untrue to life and insulting. In the darkest tragedy there is always something hilarious — especially if that’s how you deal with anxiety the way I (and Cyril) do. Always. So, to repeat myself, there was no planned tone. I just wanted to tell this story, and this is how I tell a story.
KBY: You’ve written plays, television, essays, and speeches. How does writing a novel compare to those and was The Sign for Home always going to be in the novel format?
BF: Great questions! I love writing novels so much more than most of the other writing I’ve done. Mind you, I am utterly grateful to all the actors I got to work with over the years doing my plays, but being a self-contained story machine is a better match for me (and probably the world) since I can be quite unpleasant when someone doesn’t direct or perform a role the way I want. I found myself rewriting all the time to make the lines fit the actor’s skill or personality, but once the plays went to outside theaters, more often than not, I found myself disappointed or downright furious. I sound like an asshole, but it was quite painful for me to see actors or directors unable to realize my vision. But when they did or when they made it better it was exhilarating. But it was incredibly inconsistent from night to night. I hated that. TV was fun — mostly. I find any writing fun to a certain degree. But the stuff I did on TV wasn’t my own stories. I was writing for characters that weren’t my own, and I despise the whole pitching and smiling thing you have to do in LA. I really like people but when you force me to be nice to people just to get them to read my script...ugh! Not a match! Though I did love my job on public TV, where these earnest people with tote bags and good intentions let me go a little wild making boring California public policy stuff funny. I loved that job and my coworkers! But I still didn’t want to live in LA. I do enjoy writing memoir as well, and indeed have started one about my obsession with the Singing Nun and how nuns in general have shaped my life. (Including the one I got fired for telling one off about condom distribution, which was the incident that led to me becoming a writer.)
But all the books I’m currently writing and passionate about, like The Sign for Home, have some memoir squished into them. My goal is to do this book-writing stuff until I die. I already finished another novel about Disco Witches on Fire Island which I’m trying to make shorter at the moment. (I can be very long-winded.) And then there is that first draft of the abandoned other interpreter/DeafBlind novel — a detective story. On top of that I’ve started a fourth novel, loosely based on one of my own plays, but actually is the most personal thing I’ve written. (I have no idea if it can sell, but dammit I want to write it and those characters in it are insistent. Who am I to deny them?) And I have a long list of other ideas. If I knew people would actually read my novels, I would have started a long time ago. So I need more time to catch up...a lot more time. So if you have a connection with the universe please ask for a life extension for me, as well as a method of funding it.
The Sign for Home by Blair Fell (Atria/Emily Bestler Books, 9781982175955, Hardcover, Fiction, $27) On Sale: 4/5/2022.
Find out more about the author at blairfell.com.
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