Heidi Durrow: What was the inspiration for Good Kings Bad Kings? Not just the spark of the story, but the wonderfully rich and varied voices of the seven characters who tell the tale?
Susan Nussbaum: For me, it’s always been about letting disabled characters speak for themselves. The way disabled people are represented by the dominant culture is most always as a foil for the nondisabled protagonist. They’re in the story so the nondisabled person “can become a better person.” Once the disabled character fulfills that role, they’re usually killed off, miraculously cured, or institutionalized.
Here’s an example: The movie Million Dollar Baby is based on a woman named Katie Dallam who learned how to box and early in her career sustained a traumatic brain injury in the ring. The first thing Hollywood does is trade in the head injury for a spinal cord injury, making the character more accessible to a mass audience. Then they kill her. But first they lay in this very subversive storyline involving her begging Clint Eastwood to kill her, or “euthanize” her. That’s big in Hollywood. Now that I have a disability, I can’t go on! type of garbage. It’s a strategy that solves that pesky problem of what to do with the disabled character once they’ve outlived their usefulness. Meanwhile, Clint Eastwood has become a better person as opposed to a killer because she begged him to do it. And they all win Oscars and live happily ever after.
Now the real irony here is, Katie Dallam is alive and well somewhere in Kansas, working as a painter. Not a house painter but a very gifted artist. Did she recover from her injury? No. She will always be dealing with the aftermath of that. Check out her work online.
So I’m always interested in giving a true voice to disabled characters, who are multidimensional, sexual, capable human beings with good senses of humor — and who sometimes become overwhelmed and depressed, like nondisabled people. But they are as unlikely to kill themselves as nondisabled people. What disabled people are up against is not simply the disability. If only that were the case! No, the really disabling problem is the oppression that rains down on us because of the disability.
And because I know lots of disabled people of all stripes and all ages, and live with a significant disability myself, and have a good ear for language, I feel like I could write characters that properly represent. I would be very surprised if there was another book out there by a disabled fiction writer that contains multiple disabled characters. Not to brag. Not at all. But that’s how rare it is.
Heidi Durrow, author of The Girl Who Fell from the Sky, interviews Susan Nussbaum about her new book: http://powells.us/14ByDyW