Susan Nussbaum, author of Good Kings Bad Kings, is a playwright, author and disability activist. Her writing in Good King Bad Kings gives the reader an honest look into the complexities of disability from the perspective of a diverse and engaging group of characters.
Q. In the Huffington Post, you described yourself as “a furiously rebellious crip” who decided to reinvent herself after spending time in the disability rights movement in the ‘70s. Was that decision to reinvent yourself a gradual one or was there a single event that helped solidify that decision?
A. Well, I didn’t one day make a decision to reinvent myself. That was a bit of poetic license on my part. Without the poetry. But I think I was referring to the enormous impact of joining the disability rights movement. The movement was like a lens – I began to see that my disability wasn’t my personal shortcoming, but a system of oppression that made me feel like I was less, or somehow lacking. So it was earthshaking to realize that everything I had once thought was true about disabled people and the experience of being disabled was wrong. At some point – and I guess this was the second reinvention – I felt a strong need to take all I had learned and write about it. Not a personal memoir, but plays, and later novels.
Q. While reinventing yourself as a screenwriter and later a novelist, what do you think were your biggest challenges (professionally and/or personally) and how did you address them?
A. I started writing plays a few years after joining the disability movement. (Screenplays are about fifty times harder to get produced so I never tried. Even if you get unbelievably lucky, you don’t have any control of the filmmaking process.) The challenges of writing plays were pretty straightforward – hoping I was doing a good job, wondering if a theater would be interested in plays about disabled characters, that kind of thing. Very typical for anyone who is just starting out. Actually, that feeling never goes away! But you do the work because you think you have something to say to an audience or a reader, because you enjoy the process, and because you feel compelled to do it.
Q. Did you ever doubt your abilities and how did you overcome those doubts?
A. It’s not really about doubt. You always doubt, but you do it anyway.
Q. What aspects of Good Kings Bad Kings were easiest to write and what were the hardest?
A. The hardest was the first hundred pages. Figuring out who the characters were and why, whether the story was really underway, could I see the way through, etc. Rewrites were not exactly easy, but definitely the most fun.
Q. Was the book meant to be a commentary on a larger issue for people with disabilities and/or a call-out for change?
A. I think the story is more about the very large number of disabled people of all ages who are forced into institutions in the U.S., many of whom never get out. Even though that’s a heavy topic, I took pains not to preach to readers what they should think or feel. Reading a book, for any of us, is such a personal thing. People will take from it a range of ideas, depending on so many things. So what I’m getting at is I didn’t write it to teach anyone anything. I tried to write authentic disabled characters, not stereotypes. Characters that aren’t inspirational or pathetic, but people a reader can invest in because they’re three-dimensional and interesting and speak for themselves.
Q. What is the main message you want people to get out of Good Kings Bad Kings, especially if they have a disability?
A. I just hope people read the book and let it take them wherever it takes them. Maybe they liked the funny parts, maybe they liked seeing disabled characters as sexual beings, maybe they decided to join the deinstitutionalization movement or some other human rights movement. Or maybe they simply liked it and started another completely different book and never thought about Good Kings Bad Kings ever again. All of those things are fine with me.
Q. Since the ‘70s, how do you think the disability movement has changed? What new challenges do young people face today?
A.I’m just glad there’s still so much activity around disability issues of all kinds and that the movement grows in depth as well as in number. The big challenge for youth is poverty. Most disabled youth are coming from very tough circumstances that impact everything else: education, moving away from parents or getting out of institutions, employment opportunities, basic freedoms. People are up against it…
Q. One of your missions as a writer is to offer authentic representation of people with disabilities in books and scripts. What role can young people with disabilities play in this mission? What are some concrete action steps they can take?
A. We need disabled writers. Maybe there are some young disabled people out there who have something important to say, and they feel like they can say it better than anyone else. Don’t worry about spelling or punctuation. If you want to use slang, use it. Write the way that you and your friends talk. Don’t worry if it’s good or bad.
To see more from Susan Nussbaum, check out her website: www.susannussbaum.com.
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