Interview by Lara Lillibridge
I’m sitting here today with James Tate Hill author of the forthcoming memoir, Blind Man’s Bluff, scheduled for release summer 2021 with W. W. Norton. Hill’s book is about attempting to pass for sighted while hiding his blindness from friends, colleagues, and lovers for nearly two decades. His debut novel, Academy Gothic (2015), won the Nilsen Prize for a First Novel. He is the fiction editor for the literary journal Monkeybicycle and a contributing editor for Lit Hub, where he writes a monthly audiobooks column. His essay Do Audio Books Count As Reading? And Other Pernicious Questions That Arise for Visually Impaired Book-Lovers was a Best American Essays Notable Essay in 2019.
This interview has been edited for length.
Lara Lillibridge: This is a funny thing about the internet. I always think of you as James Tate Hill— all three names. But I don’t know what do you actually go by.
JT Hill: I go by JT, though I’m known as James by a lot of people online that I’ve not yet met IRL (in real life) as the young people say, so thanks for asking.
LL: I want to start to talk to you about mentoring. You teach full-time. You’re an editor. You’re married. You write. And you made time to mentor for the Writers to Writers program for AWP. Can you talk about that?
JTH: I saw one of my social media friends who had done the mentorship program before and was speaking highly of it on Facebook. She asked if anyone was interested in doing it. It looked like I fit the qualifications, so I applied.
I’m still indebted to a lot of writers for helping me and going to bat for me. I was in a position where I could do something, and it sounded like it was more of building a friendship with a professional component—not too intensive. I got paired up with a writer who was able to mentor me as much as I was able to mentor her—Eileen Cronin, who has written a fantastic memoir called Mermaid, which was about being born with birth defects from Thalidomide.
She was trying to cross over into fiction and felt kind of lost and not in touch with that community. I’d been writing nonfiction for a few years, and I didn’t feel as if I needed a mentor, but a part of my own story is denial—trying so hard not to identify as disabled. I tried to pass for sighted for most of my adult life—until my thirties. I’m in my early forties now, so most of my nonfiction has dealt with that topic.
But I haven’t been that engaged with the disability community of writers, and Eileen was really helpful in mentoring me. It was a wonderful give-and-take. I feel like the dynamics of that relationship would be totally different depending on the needs of the writer—what their work is, and what their interests are.
LL: It’s funny because I’ve written down a quote from your essay entitled Everything You’ve Never Tasted in Taco Bell:
The wrong impression is the one you prefer, even if it hasn’t served you particularly well.
And the issue of passing really struck me growing up with lesbian parents. Sometimes you choose to pass, and then later you become friends with someone, and you have this lie between you, and it’s awkward.
JTH: Where did you grow up?
LL: Rochester, New York, in the late seventies. Which was not a particularly great place to be gay.
JTH: I’m from West Virginia, which is not really here nor there in terms in blindness. But I went to a small college, West Virginia Wesleyan, which is I think where you went for your MFA.
LL: Yes, that’s how we originally met online—through mutual friends.
JTH: It was such an intimate place. I had originally thought I’d go to the larger state school where my friends were going. My parents and I sat down in the disability services office of the state school, and they told us that the best Christmas present I could give my parents my first semester in college was a report card of straight Cs.
LL: Oh, Jeez.
JTH: This would have been spring of 1994—the spring before my freshman year of college. I’d settled into a lazy-B average in high school, but to my parents, I was the kid who skipped a grade in elementary school and had much more potential than a report card of straight Cs. At that point, I’d only been adapting to the blindness since the previous late spring. I was still in the first year of it. It was so strange, so discomforting, and so condescending for this guy to imply that was the goal.
The director of disability services also said that the blind students usually stayed in the downtown dorms. I had assumed that I was going to be staying across campus with all my high school friends. I thought, if I’m not staying with my friends, there was no point in going anyway.
On the way home, I guess there was a sign on the interstate, and one of my parents knew someone who was going there. So we randomly stopped off at this small school. I remember thinking, ‘it’s going to be so much easier to get away with what I can’t do here.’ For better and worse—in many social ways, worse.
The first school was much more ADA compliant. At this time, the Americans with Disabilities Act was only three or four years old. And the giant state university was totally compliant, but there was a much more impersonal nature to the accommodations they provided. And really, a big part of it was at this small school I thought it would be easier to get away with what I couldn’t do.
LL: It’s a manageable size campus.
JTH: Right, it’s manageable to navigate on foot. There’s no through traffic at all. I could memorize where the buildings were within a day or two, again, for better and worse.
LL: OK, let’s go back. You started as a novelist—a fiction writer. And now you’re establishing yourself as a nonfiction writer—or have you always done both?
JTH: I got my MFA from the University of North Carolina at Greensboro, where I took a nonfiction workshop, and those were the first pieces of nonfiction I ever wrote. I don’t think I wrote any others until 2015. My novel came out in 2015, and my nonfiction “career” came from the nonfiction essays that fiction writers are sort of forced to write.
LL: Wait, so everything—the Notable Essay, and the essay I referred to earlier about Taco Bell, you wrote those pieces in support of the novel?
JTH: No, those two came out of the memoir. By then I was in full stride of pursuing nonfiction. I started writing my memoir in the spring of 2016, and in January of 2016 I published an essay on LitHub called On Being a Writer Who Can’t Read and I hadn’t really intended it to be a purely promotional piece, but it was the first time I tackled blindness head-on in nonfiction.
The novel has a protagonist who was visually impaired, but it’s much more, there are serious moments, but it’s much more lighthearted in tone. It has a sort of Raymond Chandler tongue-in-cheek vibe. And the narrator is very self-deprecating, but at times in an obtuse way. He acknowledges his disability with wisecracks—it’s much more of a comic novel. It’s definitely a disability narrative, but it’s probably more readily characterized as a murder mystery or an academic satire.
That character in Academy Gothic was the gateway for me to tackle the topic head-on. I’d written the essay as something that occurred to me as I was on a small book tour for this novel. I’d put a book into the world with a legally blind protagonist, and there was no denying anymore that I was in many ways that character—there’s no denying that I’m me.
I started finding my voice, which was adjacent to the comic voice in the novel, but definitely more layered, more honest. It’s a more sophisticated voice that creative nonfiction requires. And that essay got more attention than pretty much anything else I’ve ever written. That’s what happens when you publish something on Literary Hub—their readership is so engaged and so big.
So I had finished this other novel and was getting feedback from friends, and it just didn’t feel like anything I wanted to revise—I felt this memoir tugging at me. I kept feeling myself pulled towards this voice, and it just became an urge to frame my life as the story, instead of fictionalizing myself in this mystery/satire.
LL: It’s like an evolution, not an either/or: fiction or nonfiction. One grew from the other.
JTH: I’m sure publicists will feel good to know that something good can come out of writing those pieces for publicity. I had written a couple of other essays that helped me own my nonfiction voice where I was confronting the issue of disability and blindness from an autobiographical perspective.
If we’re being honest, when we’re promoting a novel, most people want to know which parts are true anyway. So I found myself talking about it at readings, because if you talk about maybe this part was based on your real life, everyone perks up in their seat.
I started to see the narrative taking shape: divorce, my first failed novel, other failures as a writer, and I started linking that to the entire narrative of failing to pass for sighted for so many years. I started to see that as the over-arching story of my life.
LL: I think it’s interesting. With my memoir, people in the queer community got all excited and I had to tell them that it wasn’t really a queer book. But when it came to marketing, it was very much seen as a queer story. I get the sense with your novel that to you, the fact that he was visually impaired was not perhaps to you the most important aspect of him. And yet, that’s what the world told you that’s what your story—or at least your marketing—was about.
JTH: I wonder, yeah. I had to enter and win a contest to publish that novel—I didn’t find an agent for it. The straight-up mystery agents thought it was too light-hearted to pass as a murder mystery. And I saw sort of saw it as literary fiction, and the literary fiction agents didn’t care for the fact that it had those genre elements.
So it was trying to pass for both of those things, and you’re right—at the time, the disability narrative was the Trojan horse. I wasn’t putting that in the query letters very prominently. To me, it’s always going to be the most important thing I’ve ever written because it was the way I found to talk about and confront the truest parts of myself.
LL: It was your way in. So you wrote this book, which won the Nilsen Prize for a First Novel. You did have success. But I have to say I found it sort of ironic that you don’t have an audiobook. That killed me a little bit.
JTH: Yeah, and I’ve written about this. The first piece on audiobooks that I published with LitHub was adapted from a chapter in the memoir called Do Audio Books Count As Reading? By the way, I never pick those titles for LitHub. My titles are terrible and they change them to something that will get clicks, and God bless them.
But that question—every time they share that there are always these people, bless their hearts, who don’t even read the essay and they’ll drop into the Facebook comments and say, no! no! The whole point of the essay is that it is ablest to label audiobooks as something other than reading.
And occasionally people on the other side of the issue will say, this is ablest to even ask this question! And then it’s deeply ironic that an argument for reading is being mounted by someone who agrees with the thesis but hasn’t even read the essay.
LitHub has shared the piece multiple times, and it just rages with debate. It’s probably going to be the most widely read piece that I’ve ever published, and I’m okay with that.
About a year after that piece first ran, my editor at Lit Hub, Johnny Diamond, asked me if I’d be interested in covering audiobooks for them. Of course, I was thrilled. I had just written a piece on the past, present, and future of audiobooks based on access—my own story of when I first started with the Library of Congress’ Talking Books program in the early 1990s.
More and more university press titles and small press titles are getting snapped up by audiobook publishers. Really in just the last half-dozen years. We’re still in this really big period of audiobooks’ growth.
And yeah, someday, it would be great if my novel were available on audiobook, but I can’t imagine that there’s a huge demand for a book that doesn’t currently sell a lot of copies. But more and more titles are getting produced, and it’s just huge in terms of access, as I’ve written about.
Recordings for the Blind and Dyslexic were narrated by volunteers, and bless them, it was perfect for textbooks, but the narration quality was not what you’d want for pleasure. Anything that I couldn’t get from them or the Library of Congress’ collection, my college or graduate school would pay a reader, but then you’re at the whim of the reliability and timing of this other person. So for these books now to be available as audiobooks, and before that as e-books that had text-to-speech capability—it continues to be a whole new world for the visually impaired reader.
LL: Do they still make the same official books for the blind? Is that a separate business that is still ongoing? Or has the commercialization of audiobooks eliminated that?
JTH: Yes, there are still widely produced audiobooks by and for the National Library Service for the Blind. I think they’re now called the National Library Service for the Blind and Print-Disabled. And perhaps the best news is that for many of their titles the rights are given to them from the audiobook publisher.
But if they don’t give them the rights, the National Library Service will produce their own. Sometimes fast—definitely a lot faster than it used to be in the early 1990s-2000s. I’ll give you an example—Emily Nemens’ book about baseball, called The Cactus League.
LL: which you just reviewed on LitHub—
JTH: Yeah, I just included it in my sports round up. The narrators for the NLS have always been amazing. They are as skilled and as dedicated professionals of narration as you will ever find. So I was so impressed with this book, and I’m taking notes on what I liked about the narration, and what I like about the novel. And I had to do a double-check to make sure it was the copy that was widely produced, and no, it was not.
The NLS in only a couple of months had produced and made available their own version. So I had to switch over and read the Brilliance Audio version, which was also tremendously well done. But they had multiple narrators, it was a whole different experience that I could not have accurately written about if I had read a different version.
LL: Oh, right. You actually wrote about how it’s a nine-inning book and uses different narrators even though it’s not different stories.
JTH: Wow, you’ve done a lot of research, I’m impressed.
LL: [laughs self-consciously] Thanks. I’m a huge fan of audiobooks. I drive a lot, and I never listen to music. I always want to be immersed in story. There are so many books in the world I want to experience, and every minute I have free, I will take advantage of whatever technology I can. So I was shocked to hear that people can be so snooty about it.
JTH: We’ve come so, so far. I just noticed on one of my recent LitHub columns on Facebook—I haven’t learned my lesson not to read the comments entirely—
LL: Oh, no. Comments break my heart.
JTH: I sort of stumbled upon it, I wasn’t intending to read the comments, but I saw the Facebook share of the article, and there was this comment right on top saying, ‘We’re in a pandemic! You don’t have to drive to work. There’s no reason you have to listen to these books instead of reading them.’
I don’t know who is in charge of the LitHub Facebook account, but bless them to eternity for replying to that comment saying, ‘the author of this column is visually impaired and we support all forms of reading.’
It felt so wonderful to be defended.
LL: To not have to stand up for yourself all the time.
JTH: Yeah. And so much of that stigma is falling away year by year. And so much of it is just usage, the way grammatical rules fall away as we start to care less about putting commas in certain places, like when sneaked becomes snuck and we are okay with that.
Audiobooks are just starting to become an alternative form of reading that suits more people’s lifestyles, or schedules, or attention spans, or learning differences, or disabilities in ways that print does not.
LL: When I had to read Shakespeare in college I just couldn’t get through it, so I got the audiobook. By listening to it with different narrators, it really helped me to understand what was going on.
JTH: Shakespeare is an interesting example because those plays weren’t meant to be read on the page—they were meant to be performed. So you could, if you wanted to be a snob, say that Shakespeare isn’t meant to be read, and you’re not getting the full Shakespearean experience if you’re reading it in a book—but that’s ridiculous.
LL: When it comes to memoir, I always prefer the author to narrate. I know a lot of people feel that an author should never narrate their own books. That somehow that diminishes the professionalism. But to me, if it’s someone’s personal story, and they have a professional narrator, I feel as if it’s performed. I was reading this one—I’m sorry, I should say listening.
JTH: I say reading, so I’m all in on substituting reading for listening.
LL: Good, then. So in this memoir, the protagonist was crying as she was speaking about parts of it. And then when I found out it was not the author herself, I was unsure if I believed the emotion. Did the narrator interpret that? Did the author tell the narrator this was how she wanted it read? Because it was very dramatic compared to a straight reading.
JTH: It’s so complicated, and there are a few different topics that fascinate me. First of all, there’s the notion of performance versus straightforward narration, and maybe this goes back to college and the early years when I was adapting to vision loss and disability and feeling like my alternative way of reading needed to be defended.
I used to make a point of saying, ‘but the narrator reads them straightforward, they don’t perform them,’ as if there was more integrity in this recording if it were read without accents, or performance.
LL: Or inflection?
JTH: Maybe it’s a lingering reaction or desire for them not to do that, and if so, maybe I’m being a snob, too. But I do feel like you still want the reader to have as few barriers between our imagination and the original text as possible and sometimes those choices that an actor makes—and I’m using actor there deliberately as opposed to narrator—when someone is interpolating themselves and their performance too much onto the text it’s almost like a designer using Comic Sans in the print.
It’s a distraction, it’s not the author’s original intention. I do like a straight forward narration, but ironically, it’s professional actors who do less acting when they tackle an audiobook.
LL: Oh, really?
JTH: Many narrators are actors of some kind, even if they aren’t household names. But Tom Hanks did Ann Patchett’s The Dutch House last year, and say what you want about Tom Hanks always being Tom Hanks, but he was extremely effective in finding the rhythm of Ann Patchett’s sentences, and not doing voices for the characters, and just letting the text do the heavy-lifting. So many of the more famous actors tend to do that. Maybe it’s the confidence that they don’t need to bring personality to this performance.
LL: Amazon is very clear that many of their Audible Originals are theatrical readings—they try to clue you in up-front that this is not the same experience, it’s more like getting the experience of a play, compared to the experience of a book. And I like both, as long as I know what it is and am not surprised.
JTH: Exactly. And as audiobooks do carve out their own distinctive territory, more and more people are expecting them to bring something different from the print version, whether it’s a celebrity narrator or a PDF of photos that are included. Some audiobooks are including an audio Q&A with the author, narrator, and editor, which I really love.
I really enjoyed the conversation for My Dark Vanessa between the author, Kate Elizabeth Russell, her editor, and the audiobook narrator, Grace Gummer, who was one of Meryl Streep’s daughters and an actor in her own right. She did an amazing job—not over-acting, not really performing, but she found this amazing groove bringing the text to life, because it was a first-person novel.
I think there’s a greater expectation when the book is in first person, that there will be some kind of merging between the audiobook narrator and the “I” on the page, whether that’s the author or the character.
LL: That’s an interesting point. I think that you’re right in that while I say I prefer memoirs that are read by the writer, I don’t know if I actually know who is reading it all of the time. I guess what I like is a book that is narrated in such a way that I imagine it is the writer reading it, whether it actually is or not. If it’s done well, it doesn’t really matter.
JTH: It’s rare that you’ll find an author decides to narrate their own memoir because it’s really hard work. I’m saying this based on preparing for my own readings.
I rehearse my own recorded voice which I then playback using earbuds and an audiobook/digital book player that I’m able to slow down, stop, and fast forward. If you’re watching me at a live event, without knowledge of what I’m doing, you would assume that I’m reading, because I’m so well-practiced and rehearsed that it comes out smoothly, but it’s a facsimile of “reading.”
It’s so hard to get that polish of professional narration—it’s many, many hours. For the authors who choose to do that, it can be a thankless job, because you could have just turned this over to a professional, and the amount of money you would earn narrating your own audiobook if you’re a big author is fairly negligible.
But one thing that you can control when you narrate your own work, the most valuable thing, is the overall tone of the narration.
As I sort of look to next year when my memoir is going to come out, and we’re not anywhere near discussing an audiobook, but being a memoir, I’m assuming I’ll be asked if I want to do this, and my immediate inclination is I don’t, because I don’t narrate for a living, and I feel like if I have done my job as the writer of the text I haven’t left many gaps for interpretation of how it would be read, then a good narrator is going to read that properly.
LL: That’s perfectly said. Now let me veer off on a tangent here. At HippoCamp, which is our creative nonfiction conference, we always have a Debut Authors Panel, and people are always curious about the origin story of books. So you didn’t have an agent for the novel, you won a university press contest. And now you do have an agent, and you have a memoir under contract with W.W. Norton. How did that come about?
JTH: I thought it would be easier.
LL [laughs] Don’t we all.
JTH: When I ultimately finished Academy Gothic and I couldn’t find an agent for that book, and I queried over 100 agents, you get to that point where you’re querying agents who might not have even sold a book and who might or might not have any interest in the kind of book you’re querying. And you’re saying, ‘they represent fiction—this is fiction.”
LL: The desperation query. They like books, they say. I have a book!
JTH: Yeah. At the point that I thought I’d burned through the querying process, and I put the novel down for maybe four, five, six months. And when I re-read it, and it’s weird, normally when I set something down, I’ll overhaul it after six months, but this time, I still liked it. And I thought, let’s enter it in some contests, and it won.
I started querying agents for the memoir after a few people reached out to me after that first audiobooks essay in 2018. I started to say okay, maybe it’s time to query, and that was probably February of 2018. I did not sign with my agent until November of 2019. So we’re looking at almost two full years.
But that’s a little misleading because I continued to revise the memoir along the way. The first version that I queried for 6-12 months was structurally disorganized and it lacked a clear sense of chronology and narrative and so much of it began as short essays, like the Taco Bell essay you referenced, that since got entirely cut or got folded into other parts of the memoir.
LL: In terms of that two-year period, you recently said on twitter,
The first time you think your manuscript is done, let it sit for a month. The next time you think it’s done, let it sit for two. You’ll never regret this.
— James Tate Hill (@JamesTateHill) July 13, 2020
The idea that being in a rush doesn’t always serve us well is really hard for me. So it’s interesting to me that that two-year period improved your book and made it more sellable.
JTH: It took an agent who connected with it. I won’t say publicly how many agents I queried, but it was a lot. And my agent, whom I love and who is one of the best people I’ve met in publishing, he’s largely drawn to young adult fiction, and he writes young adult fiction, and in my initial searches I didn’t realize that he also represented adult memoir. So I didn’t land on him immediately, but I’m glad that when I did land on him my book was where it was.
I think our instinct as writers is to rush. So much of our self-affirmation is tied to our writing and it’s just natural to just want to see feedback or validation from it, but without distance, it’s impossible to see the blind spots we might have.
LL: Let me ask you one final question, and it’s a total non sequitur, but I just learned about alt text on photographs. You actually said something on Twitter once, like ‘Hey, if you’re raving about a book cover, and you don’t put text in, you’re not doing the author any favors.” You didn’t say it like that, exactly, but that was the gist of it.
JTH: Yeah, for the small segment of the population who can’t read or can’t see the image…
LL: But what makes for good alt text? How much detail do you want, and how much is like, ‘enough already, I don’t really care’? I want to be good at it.
JTH: I’m a minimalist really. I just want to know what the picture is of. Like if it says, ‘Truth’ and then there’s a picture, I want to know what the truth is. Oh, it’s a picture of a fox. Wait, how is that the truth?
Or a picture of a book cover captioned, ‘couldn’t put this down.’ I want to not be able to put a book down. Just give me the title.
I never hold it against someone for not including alt texts—you said you just learned that you can even do it. I don’t post many pictures for obvious reasons, but I have posted some screenshots that somebody sent me when I wanted to post news or pictures from a wedding. And I never add alt text, because I’m thinking, ‘how many people in my audience are visually impaired?’ And then I’m like, that’s the whole point. That’s the line of thinking that leads other people not to post descriptions when they post.
And it’s very hypocritical, but that’s why I never hold it against someone who doesn’t include it. I hope eventually more and more people will start labeling photographs. There was a writer recently, who posted news of a book deal, and he had given the entire alt text for the publishers’ market announcement. And I was so happy that I could read that screengrab, because normally if it’s a friend and I can gather they may be announcing book news, then I’ll summon my wife to the computer and ask, ‘what does this say?’ Is it a baby? Is it a book? Is it a new car?
LL: Or is it their dinner?
JTH: Yeah, it’s carrots!
LL: I think the first alt text descriptions I ever did would say like ‘book cover: the name of the title.” And then I was like, maybe people want to know what it looks like, so I expanded to “book cover, title showing flowers on a yellow background.” I don’t know how far to go, but it’s nice to know that alt text exists and sometimes is even useful.
JTH: My screen reader will make attempts to decipher photographs on Facebook:
appears to be a tree with two people, one with a beard and eyeglasses.
And I think, ‘the one with the beard and eyeglasses might be my friend Mike’. But Facebook is getting really scary with the facial recognition, and now it just says, this is your friend, Mike.
LL: It’s funny, Facebook consistently confuses me with a friend of mine who is like 20 years my elder. I love her—I adore her, but I’m always surprised by how random it can be—in real life, you’d never mistake us for each other.
I’ve taken up enough of your time. Keep in touch with us about the new memoir, so we can share in your journey.