Interview With Chris Kuell
WG: What is your official title at Breath and Shadow?
CK: Officially, I am the Editor-in-Chief. It's a big hat, though, which encompasses many jobs, from getting submissions into the hands of the appropriate editors, to answering questions from people who want to put an ad on our homepage or hire a good lawyer.
WG : Can you tell us a little about the history of Breath and Shadow? When did it start? Who sponsors it? Who were the previous editors? Why did they start the magazine?
CK: Abilitymaine is an activist group founded to provide resources, information and activism articles/links for the people of Maine. Back in 2002, Sharon Wachsler was a regular contributor to the abilitymaine web site, and she would receive unsolicited submissions related to her columns and disability culture. As the readership's interest in more literary and personal content on the site became obvious, it seemed natural that Sharon would apply her passion and growing expertise to this area. Breath and Shadow evolved from Sharon and Norm Meldrum's brainstorming about culture, arts, and disability. We are funded by ROSC, Resources for Organizing Social Change, in Maine. Originally, the intent of Breath and Shadow was to feature disabled writers from New England, and we still try to do that, but now our submissions come from all around the world.
WG How long have you been the editor at Breath and Shadow and how long has Breath and Shadow been publishing?
CK: Breath and Shadow was launched by Sharon Wachsler and Norman Meldrum in 2003, so this is our ninth year of publication. I joined as an Assistant Editor in 2006, then moved to Managing Editor in 2007 when Sharon was dealing with some health problems, finally taking over the helm in late 2008 as Editor-in-Chief.
WG How did you become involved and what made you decide to take over as editor?
CK: I learned about Breath and Shadow in The Writer magazine, saw that at that time they were running thematic issues, and I submitted a short story. It was accepted, so I submitted another. Sharon gave me some good editorial feedback, I made some changes, and a second, then a third story was published. In the Fall of 2006, Sharon asked if I'd like to join as an Assistant Editor, which I gladly accepted. I'm not a poet, so I only refereed prose submissions. In 2007, Sharon was experiencing some health problems. I'm inherently a very organized, meticulous guy, and she asked me to help manage the incoming submissions. In 2008, Sharon was still plagued by health issues and wanted to use what energy she had for other purposes and asked if I'd like to take over as Editor-in-Chief, which I did.
WG: How many people work at Breath and Shadow? Who are the different editors?
CK:We currently have eight editors, including me, and our web master, Mike Reynolds. The other editors are Abby Astor, Dorothy Baker, Anne Chiapetta, Linda Cronin, Arden Eli Hill, Tricia Owsley and Suzanne Westhaver. Like our writers, all of our editors have disabilities.
WG: How often do the issues appear? What you feel is your main mission? How do you hope to influence disability culture?
CK: Breath and Shadow is now a quarterly publication (it started with 10 issues per year, but we changed to quarterly in 2009). I view our primary mission as giving writers with disabilities a voice, and paying them for their work. Both of these aspects are important to me. Too often writers with disabilities are passed over by more mainstream publications because of a preconception that the able-bodied world isn't interested in what we have to say. Although nobody is getting rich from writing for Breath and Shadow, the fact that we pay validates the work. No matter what friends and relatives might say, writing is work, and deserves compensation. We also like to give beginning writers that little boost that can make them believe in themselves, which is priceless.
WG: What type of writing are you looking for? And what makes the piece really stand out to you?
CK: Although a majority of the work in Breath and Shadow deals with some aspect of disability, it's not essential. We love seeing a piece of strong writing with a unique voice illuminating something new to us. Because we are a disability based journal, we get far too many essays, stories, or poems which are cathartic, personal journal type pieces. These are fine, and hopefully help the writer get through what they need to, but we've seen it all before. Show us something different, make us go–wow. What we are looking for is what every literary magazine wants–thought provoking pieces with a unique voice, strong writing, powerful imagery. Something different hat leaves us thinking.
WG: Is everyone who is published in Breath and Shadow disabled? Do you publish work by able-bodied people about disability? If not why not? And if you do what you feel that's important?
CK: As far as I know, we have never published work by a non-disabled writer. Having said that, we did publish a poem put together by an Alzheimer's group in Maine, submitted by someone who worked there. Our Summer 2012 issue contains a book review by Erika Jahneke, a former B and S Editor. The review is of a novel with a disabled character, but written by a non-disabled writer. We had a bit of discussion about this, because it's been my experience that much of the world is full of misconceptions about people with disabilities, and I'm not interested in promoting those misconceptions. Erika read the book first, and felt it gave a reasonable portrayal of the disabled protagonist, and she discusses this aspect in her review.
Our mission is to promote the work of writers with disabilities, and while family and friends and co-workers have their own unique perspectives, that's not what we are about. I'm sure mainstream publications would be more interested in what they have to say than we are.
WG: How long does it take you to respond to a piece? And how long before a piece that is accepted appears?
CK:We try, and are generally successful, at getting responses out within a month. As a writer myself, I am well aware of the anticipation and anxiety that comes from submitting. Publication is generally two issues later, or approximately six months, but this does vary. We accept great pieces as they come in and put them all in a queue. If we get a plethora of great poems, the wait might be longer for yours to appear, but then again, it might be shorter.
WG: What role do you feel a magazine like Breath and Shadow and Wordgathering play in disability culture? How do you feel they can influence what people think about people with disabilities?
CK: The goal of the disability movement, and I do think of it as a movement, is to bring about a change in the way that society sees us. From a stereotype of 'less than' to a new paradigm of unique person of value–which is how I try to think of everyone (Rush Limbaugh, I'm not so sure about). There is no single way to bring about such a societal shift in thinking, so it requires a multi-pronged approach. One of those prongs is through disability literature. Our goal, our hope, is to encourage people from all walks of life to dip their toe in the water and give us a try. I'm a writer, so obviously I'm biased, but I believe literature is a very powerful tool for change. If we can get them to dip that toe, we might get them to feel something new, to dissolve that stereotype and glimpse truth.
WG: Is there some work you featured that you feel really shows why you do the work you do? Some piece of work that really took the top of your head off?
CK: Absolutely. As an Editor, that's what we live for. '"Our River", a poem by Achilleas Michailides comes to mind. "Hello Goodbye", a short story by Mark Cornell was excellent. "You Can Never Be Too Thin… Or Too Blonde," a creative non-fiction piece by Alison Leavens stays with me. Same goes for "Who Dresses You" by Amy Krouthorn, and "Hands" by Dina Stander. "Trauma" by Christopher John euer was one of the most powerful non-fiction pieces I've ever read. "Cement", a poem by Esté Yarmosh, was one of my favorites. We published several great memoir pieces by Madeleine Parish, and a handful of poems by Petra Kuppers–all of which are worth reading.
WG: Which writers will be featured in your upcoming issues?
CK: In our summer issue, we feature poems by Amit Parmessur, K. K. Philan, and Todd Hanks. There is a creative memoir piece by Stephanie Wilson, short stories by Raud Kennedy and Anne Chiapetta, and a Review of the novel 'Every Time I Think of You' by Erika Jahneke. Our Fall 2012 issue includes poets Erik Tate, Changming Yuan, David Frazier, and Bill Alton. We'll have short stories by Todd Hanks and Raud Kennedy, and creative non-fiction by Lisa Fruendlich and Arthur Shade, a Vietnam Veteran.
WG: Could you describe a little bit about your own writing? How your writing is impacted by your disability? Was your writing always involved with disability or did that evolve over time?
CK: There is no short answer to this question, although I will try to be brief. I've been a diabetic since I was a kid, but didn't suffer any long-term complications until I was 33, when I lost all vision in my right eye. Two years later, I lost the vision in my left eye and became totally blind. At that time I was a research chemist with a Swiss pharmaceutical company. I lost my job, my self confidence, my self worth. I learned how difficult it is to get services and training from the state, and I got angry.
In time, I found the National Federation of the Blind, which is the largest organization of blind people in the world. It's not an organization that helps blind people, it's an organization of blind people helping themselves. I started attending local chapter meetings, and in 1999 a woman came into one of our meetings mad as all hell because her local bank was going to charge her $3 to use a teller instead of an ATM machine–even though the ATM machines weren't accessible to people who are blind. We talked about what we could do, and although my only writing experience at that time was science writing, I volunteered to write an op-ed for the local paper. I did, it got published in three papers in our state, and I became a writer.
I began writing more about blindness–voting accessibility, the lack of training and opportunity, the need for a positive attitude, tips for the newly blind diabetic, and so on. I sold several articles to a website called enablelink in New Jersey, where I even got a column doing movie reviews from a blind guy's perspective. I met another blind writer who wrote for them, who encouraged me to join her writing group, and I started dabbling in fiction. And that's where I found my passion.
Thus far, I've still had better luck selling my essays than my stories, but fiction is what I really love to create. I've written stories with disabled characters, and stories with able-bodied characters. I've had twenty or so stories published, even made a little money on some of them, and have placed in a few contests. I am currently polishing a novel told from the first person perspective of a blind character. The story isn't about blindness, it's about life and relationships and financial trouble and screwing up and forgiveness, just told from a blind guy's perspective. This is, of course, somewhat limiting. But what I hope to convey is that blind people are pretty much like everybody else, they just can't see so they have to do things differently. It's not amazing that a blind guy can walk to the corner and catch a bus to work–it's amazing that sighted people see that simple task as amazing.
WG: Do you have an educational background in English or writing?
CK: No. I have a BS and Ph.D. in Chemistry. After losing my vision, I took a grammar and punctuation refresher as well as a creative writing class from the Hadley School for the blind, but that's it.
WG: Have you studied in writing workshops or with individual writers?
CK: I try to read at least 3 books a year on the craft of writing, I belong to two critique groups and a couple of writing listserves, and I've attended several writing conferences. In one of those, my story was chosen to be workshopped and I was hoping the facilitator, a professor at Fairfield University, might be open to mentoring me, but he wasn't interested. So I've learned by reading, writing, critiquing and getting critiqued.
WG: What is your process for writing? Do you use any adaptive technology and how do you feel that influences your work?
CK: I use JAWS, which is a text-to-speech program that works very well with MS Word and most, but not all, internet sites. I also have a scanner with OCR software for reading books I can't get in an accessible format, going through mail, etc… I do most of my non-computer reading through a VR Stream digital audio book reader. I know Braille, but I'm not very fast, so I prefer to read with my ears.
I'm a morning person, so I get up, caffeinate, go through a few emails and try to write or edit for at least 3 hours on weekdays. In the afternoons I make phone calls, do research, do advocacy work, and so on. I'm not always successful–doctor appointments, phone calls and life sometimes get in the way, but that's my goal.
WG: What projects are you currently working on?
CK: I finished my novel 'Rub It In', about a blind massage therapist, in the spring, and have gone through it twice cutting, editing, and tweaking. I need to let it sit and go through it one more time before sending it out. In the meantime, I have several short story ideas, and have a few rough drafts I need to work on. I am also often querying magazines with article ideas, and last month had a nice 2 hour phone call from the publisher of a new magazine called 'Blind Ambitions'. He liked the sample article I sent him, and I'm working on a piece for their September issue.
WG: How would you like to see your own personal work regarded when people are talking about disability writing and disability culture?
CK: The world is a complex place, and no one person can possibly convey all, or even most, of the subtleties of disability culture. We can only use our strengths and our visions to express what we think and feel in a way that hopefully, the general public as well as our disabled sisters and brothers can relate. While I have dabbled into writing about disabilities as a whole, I primarily write about the truths I know about blindness. In my writing, I try to convey a positive attitude, a can-do attitude, a you-have-to-pick-yourself-up attitude, because that's just who I am. Before I went blind, I'd never met a single blind person. Today, I've literally met thousands of them, and far too many embrace what I think of as 'poor blind me' syndrome. While I can understand that, I can't get behind it. In my writing, I try to make blind people, their families and the public see that blindness is principally a characteristic, much like being short or left handed. It can make life challenging, yes, but with proper training and perspective, we can still get the job done.
WG: Do you mind being called a writer with disability or a disabled writer?
CK: Not at all. When I am writing about some aspect of disability, I prefer that people know I'm writing from a disabled perspective, and not simply imagining what it must be like to be disabled. With my fiction, it's not as important, especially if I'm not writing about disability in any way. I'd rather people think–oh, what a good writer. True story–in 2004, I went to the West Virginia Writers annual conference. It's a great writing conference, with 200 or so participants, everyone friendly and supportive. One activity they have is the writer's wall, where you can anonymously post a poem, short story or short essay for the attendees to read and vote on. Someone at the conference keeps track of the posts, and when we arrived I had a friend post a 500 word short story for me, and register it under a pseudonym. I didn't want people finding out that I'd posted a story, then vote for it because I'm the 'poor blind guy'. At the banquet, my story won first prize, and it was just the most amazing feeling, because I know people voted solely on its merit. Then, when they saw me stand to get the prize, I hope they thought–hey, that guy can write. And look–he's blind!
WG: Is there anything else you feel is important about Breath and Shadow or about your own writing that I did not ask? What final thoughts would you like to leave the reader with?
CK: According to the 2000 US census, 18% of Americans report some form of disability. That's about 55 million people in the United States, a very significant number. Those people are important--they have stories to tell and emotions to share. If we are ever to be truly accepted into society, it's imperative that the public learn from our stories and poems. When you read one you like–spread the word.
WG: What is your advice to other writers with disabilities? And to people who are submitting to your magazine?
CK: Time for a dose of reality, or perhaps tough love. There are a lot of excellent writers with disabilities out there, people who have worked on the craft for years, and I recommend you do the same. Don't expect us to publish you just because you are disabled. Read good writing, and study what you are reading for technique. Practice writing every day, and get feedback from people who won't spare your feelings. We all like to hear how great we are, but that won't make you a better writer. As your writing progresses, put more thought into theme and what you are trying to say. It takes time and practice, but writing is a most wonderful art. A great poem or essay or short story can leave me thinking for a week, often more. It's worth the effort, and I don't know any shortcuts.