Mishell Baker on Writing Disability in Fantasy—and Getting it Right

Failure to include positive portrayals of physical disability and mental health issues in our fiction erases a large portion of society—and tells those erased they aren’t important, they are damaged, they need to be “fixed.” Mishell Baker’s urban fantasy novels Borderline and Phantom Pains are remarkable for many reasons—hence this year’s Best Novel Nebula nomination for the former—but the one that stands out the most is their sensitive inclusion of characters with limb differences, physical disabilities, and mental health issues.

We read fantasy because it can show us diverse new worlds, but it’s important to expand our definition of diversity to include characters who better represent the world we live in, too. We need to see people as more than their issues—stories that show us one person can be a hero as much as anyone else—and people with disabilities need that representation too. Fiction can foster empathy, and empathy can change the world.

We recently talked with Mishell Baker about writing with sensitivity and the influences that shaped her Nebula Award-nominated series.

The sensitive portrayal of people with mental illness and physical disability definitely makes your novels stand out from the crowd. What kind of research went into that?
Both I and the people closest to me struggle with mental illness in a variety of ways.  Between that and a lifelong fascination with psychology that’s led me to do a lot of reading on the subject, it’s very natural for me to write about people who face these sorts of challenges.  I know I don’t always get it right, even having lived some of it myself.  But my main goal is to show that a person is more than a diagnosis, and that any illness or disability is just one part of a person’s complex identity.

For the physical disability aspect, I never liked the idea of grilling people about very personal physical things, not the way I’ll call up a police officer and interview him about law enforcement.  So in general I try to passively listen to people I follow on social media when they choose to open up about their experiences.  For technical and medical details, the internet is very accommodating.  There are all kinds of YouTube videos showing people’s rehabilitation, their learning curves with prosthetic limbs, etc.

Since the main character of this series has Borderline Personality Disorder, can you tell us more about what that is? And why did you choose this particular mental illness to portray?
Borderline Personality Disorder, in a nutshell, is an emotional regulation disorder.  It’s still not fully understood, but the main theory is that when a child with very intense emotions (and possibly a genetic vulnerability to BPD) is raised in an environment that invalidates or shames rather than directs and explores those emotions, it creates a crisis of identity.  People with BPD feel they are somehow “off,” “wrong,” sub-human.  They can’t shake the feeling that the reality they experience is not the same as other humans, and that they’ll never be understood or loved.  Because they feel so cut off and “different” they never quite get a handle on their own emotions, and they react to this with a variety of self-destructive behaviors, addictions, and in the worst cases, abuse of others.

Reactions to BPD vary, though.  Some people with BPD bend over backward trying to please those they idolize; some become paranoid and blame others for everything; some disappear into self-loathing.  About one in ten people with BPD die by suicide.  There’s a treatment called Dialectical Behavior Therapy that is fairly new, but I believe that once it becomes more affordable, it may help change these statistics. It is based on the idea of “mindfulness,” and it specifically targets areas that people with BPD have the most trouble with.

I wanted to write a story about someone with BPD because most people’s experience with the disorder comes from knowing someone who hasn’t been properly treated for it.  Most people assume that people with BPD are toxic and unlovable.  These assumptions feed right back into the self-loathing and isolation that is at the root of the disorder.  So I wanted to break that cycle somehow, encourage people to see the thought processes that lead to the bad behaviors.  I wanted to foster some compassion, if possible.

What advice would you give to writers who are also looking to incorporate this kind of diversity in their writing?
Listen to people.  And I don’t mean track down people and demand that they spend time answering your questions.  I mean, broaden your acquaintance in general.  Sit with someone new in the break room at work and listen more than you talk.  Follow people of different races, religions, physical ability levels, mental health conditions, etc. on social media, and then sit on your hands while they talk to each other.  Don’t butt in every time they bring up something that makes you uncomfortable.  Just read what they say and quietly listen.  Imagine what their lives are like and where they’re coming from.  If you disagree with something they’ve said, ask yourself, silently, why you disagree.  Don’t argue out loud.  Just keep listening.

If you get something wrong, and someone calls you on it, consider it an opportunity.  Someone is giving you information for free.  Thank them and incorporate it in future writing.  Leave your mistakes behind you and keep going, just as you do mistakes in any other aspect of your writing.

Why did you choose Hollywood as the setting for these novels?
I’ve lived in L.A. for 17 years, and spent my early years here working in and around the entertainment industry.  It’s a fascinating, surreal milieu that is nothing like anything else in the world; you almost have to see it to believe it.  I hope to explore other settings in my writing in the future, but to start with I just needed to write about what was closest to home.

Which characters were your favorite to write? Which ones did you struggle with?
It’s hard to pick a favorite, because my default is to passionately love my characters.  If I don’t have a bit of a crush on each of my characters, I know I’m doing something wrong.  It’s easier to pinpoint a couple of characters that were challenging at first.  I’ll discuss them in such a way as to not spoil anything for people who haven’t picked up Borderline yet.

Tjuan was difficult for me, because he’s someone who is closed, understated, and aloof.  That’s my exact opposite.  I kept having to go back and edit his scenes to make him less vulnerable, less open, less affected by others’ opinions.  Also, for some reason it took a really long time for me to find Brian Clay’s personality at all.  The first two drafts of Borderline, he was in the book, but he was just sort of filling a role, a job description.  He didn’t live and breathe until about the third draft.  I’m still not sure why.

Who are your writing influences?
Stephen King was an early influence and one of the few fiction writers whose DNA I can clearly see sometimes in my own storytelling.  I adore and admire many fiction writers, but couldn’t say that their work has changed or affected the way I write, which is how I’d define “influence.”  I’m mostly content to let other fiction writers be themselves and let me be myself.  I did once write Patrick Rothfuss to ask him how he accomplished a certain thing in one of his books, hoping to at least broadly emulate it, but said he honestly had no idea how he did it, so I wasn’t able to incorporate that technique into my work, alas.

Oddly enough, most of the influences I’m aware of in my own writing have come from television and games.  I’m much more likely to adopt a structural technique, the way a story or character arc is constructed, than I am a style or voice, and I can see structure better in screenwriting or game-writing than I can in fiction.  When it comes to style and voice, I’m not really sure where mine comes from.  I just keep editing until it sounds right.

I suspect, though, that everything I do right in my fiction, somewhere along the way I’ve unconsciously learned it from reading someone else.  Anything I do wrong, though, that’s on me.

Borderline and Phantom Pains are available now.

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