Podcast: Disabled novelists Chloe and Penny share their stories

The Disability Download

Authors Chloe Timms and Penny Batchelor are published novelists who are both disabled. They chat to Nick Bishop about their love of writing, their experiences as authors and of course, their books.


Nick Bishop: Hello and welcome to The Disability Download, brought to you by pan-disability charity Leonard Cheshire. On this podcast we respond to current topics, share stories and open up conversations about disability. Hi everyone and thanks for tuning in. My name is Nick and I’m your guest host for this month’s episode.

This month we’re talking to authors Chloe Timms and Penny Batchelor. Both guests are published novelists and campaigners who are disabled. Chloe and Penny talk about their love of writing and why we need more disabled characters in fiction today. They discuss their experiences as authors and, of course, their books. And they share advice for writers – including disabled writers. So, let’s get into the podcast.

Nick: Chloe. Penny. Welcome to the Disability Download.

Penny Batchelor: Thank you.

Chloe Timms: Hi Nick. Thanks for having us.

Nick: Thank you for coming. I'm going to start with a question about your novels. And so first of all, Chloe, tell me about your novel that's just recently published, I believe?

Chloe: Yes. So my novel came out on the 13th [corrects herself] 14th June and it's called The Seawomen. It's a dystopian novel. It's been described as The Handmaid's Tale meets The Shape of Water. So it has a slightly fantastical edge to it. And it's about a young woman called Esta who lives on the very remote, cold island that's governed by a religious cult. And Esta’s raised by her grandmother, who is just as fearful of the sea as everyone else is on this island – because their cult makes them believe that the sea is kind of where the devil lurks.

And they're very fearful of these creatures called The Seawomen. And Esta very much has her life set out in front of her. So she knows she's got to get married; she knows she's got to have children. But she's a bit of an outsider on the island because she's kind of a curious person. She has thoughts about the sea and wonders about the sea. And one day she does something which sets her on a very different path, and the world that she knows begins to unravel.

Nick: That sounds fascinating. And Penny, tell me about your novel, your debut novel.

Penny: My debut novel is called My Perfect Sister. And it's the story of Annie. When she was five, her older sister Gemma – who was 16 – went missing: she went to school and never came back. Police never found out what happened and it's completely overshadowed Annie’s childhood.

And when she's 30, circumstances come together meaning she's got to go back to her childhood home, which she categorically does not want to do. But while she's there, she does start to wonder: “Well, what did happen to Gemma?” But is it safe for her to try and find out? That's all I'm saying. [Laughs]

Nick: Intriguing. Excellent stuff. But thank you. And so tell us, both, how you got into writing in the first place. Chloe. Let's start with you.

Chloe: So I've always loved writing ever since I was a child. I was always, like, folding bits of paper in half and kind of making my own books – and drawing the front cover and everything. So I've always loved writing. And I think particularly as someone who's a wheelchair user and disabled, quite often there were times where my friends would be, like, running around outside. And, particularly if it was like a wet day at school, I'd just be indoors, like, writing my stories. And that was where I was happiest. And then I went into teaching.

Teaching was my career, and then my contract ended and I thought: “what do I really want do with my life?” And I thought: “I want to go back to university and kind of try and take writing a bit more seriously.” So I did a Masters in Creative Writing at Kent University. And then from that I won a scholarship to do the Faber Academy in London and did a six-month novel writing course - and I met some incredible people on that course. And at the end of the course, it produces like an anthology of everyone's work. And from that my work got noticed by an agent in London., and she contacted me and said: “I think your work’s amazing, and I want to represent you.”

And so eventually, after I'd written a bit more of the novel, I went up to London to meet her. And thankfully, she still loved my work and I signed on the dotted line. And I managed to get my book deal in October 2020. So it's been quite a long process. But yeah. My love of writing has always been there but it's only probably within the last 10 years that I really started to take it seriously.

Nick: Mmm. With excellent results, both of you. So, Penny. Tell me about your journey into writing.

Penny: Well, it's actually pretty similar to Chloe because I’ve got, er.. I’m a wheelchair user now. I sort of was as a child, and then I managed to walk with a walking frame for quite a few years and I'm back in the wheelchair now. But like her, I spent a lot of time in doors and sort of recovering from fractures and operations and things. And so escaping into books, er, a book, was my true love. And I also loved scribbling books. I've got loads of things I started when I was a child that I didn't finish! And then I did an English degree and I ended up in a sort of corporate media career.

But I always wanted to write. But I did the classic mistake of never actually finishing anything. Then I had to leave my job on ill health and it got to my 40th birthday and I thought, “what do I really, really want to do with my life?” And it's writing. So I joined the Faber Academy course. I mean, it was brilliant. And the online [course] – Keep Festivals Hybrid – was particularly good for me around my health and not being able to do the travelling and stuff. And I'm actually working on a Young Adult novel now with one of the writers that I met on the course. But it was a fantastic environment. And the book that came out of it [the course] in the end was My Perfect Sister. And I don't have an agent at the moment. I'm with a small publisher that doesn't require you to have one. But yeah, if anyone's listening, I'm after an agent so give me a call.

Nick: Fantastic. And I heard you mention, then, the hashtag that you have: #KeepFestivalsHybrid. So, while you mention it: tell us a bit more about that, Penny.

Penny: I'm slightly behind on writing my third novel because I seem to have been spending quite a lot of my time campaigning and on issues surrounding and novelists and publishing and disability and what have you. And I'm part of a group that the Society of Authors, which Chloe is also part of, and it's called the ADCI group, which stands for Authors with Disabilities and Chronic Illnesses. It's a really supportive group where we can all sort of – not just have a nice chat, but discuss issues that we're all coming up against. Because when you’re an author, it's very, it’s quite a lonely job. It's quite isolated. You feel that you're the only one that's coming against up against lots of different issues, particularly sort of related to disability. So it's really good to chat to other people.

And I published my debut in 2020, right in the middle of lockdown, and so I didn't know anything else. I didn't know any better about having events in book shops and things because they were all shut. But a lot of us were saying in the group that once lockdown ended and COVID – of course it hasn't gone away, but all the sort of preventative measures and things ended – that all the events that have moved online, stopped happening. And that was really sort of quite heart-breaking for a lot of us who are not able to travel around and go to lots of different events for whatever reason.

And that also affects people who aren’t disabled too: people who might live quite remotely or not have much money; have caring responsibilities; might or might just feel that literary events are bit cliquey and it's not for the likes of them. So I started a campaign with my publisher, Claire Christian, to ‘keep festivals hybrid’. So it's all, erm. It’s slightly on a shoestring, no budget, just the two of us shouting a lot on Twitter. But we produced a guide for which was very generously supported financially by the authors [including] Kit de Waal. I never know if it’s pronounced Vahl or Wall – I’m not quite sure. But she gave us the money to have a guide, which is a technical guide to putting your small festivals and events online. We're going for the carrot rather than the stick, really.

Nick: Excellent.

Penny: And we're also teaming with other groups, including the Inklusion Guide – which is being launched in August, I think, at the Edinburgh Festival – to just get that message out there. Just to say: “Don't forget about us. We're still here. We still want to provide – er, to promote – our books and we still want to be a part of the author's literary scene.

Nick: That’s really good. And you mentioned there that disabled authors face some extra and challenges. And could you both elaborate on that a bit? Penny. Let's start with you, cos you just mentioned it.

Penny: Umm. I think a lot of it is fear - because the literary scene is quite old fashioned;, it's London centric. And it's the fear that if you ask for reasonable adjustments or for something different from what they normally do that you will be seen as difficult. So most authors don’t have a lot of power – unless you are JK Rowling or somebody – so you don't want to be seen as difficult. And then, things like traveling – if you can't sort of travel to meet somebody in London. I mean, my publisher was brilliant because she automatically said: “I'll come to you.” She didn't make a fuss, didn’t sort of, no song and dance about it. She came to me to chat and let me to sign my contract and that was brilliant. It didn't make me feel any different at all. I don't know, Chloe, if you've got… Did you have any of those fears when you first got into the industry?

Chloe: I don't know really because I – similarly to you – I had a great response from my agent. She said to me: “I'll come to you”. And it's weird how - similar to how we were speaking about the festivals – the lockdown changed how a lot of publishing worked. So meetings were happening on Zoom, everything moved online and at the moment it still seems to be the case. So all the meetings, pretty much all the meetings I've had have been via Zoom – which obviously is great for not having to travel.

Or, kind of, it's a lot of mental and physical energy to go anywhere and get ready to go anywhere. And a lot of people that aren't disabled don't appreciate, you know, it's sort of: sorting things out, like, not just the transport. But the things like: I have personal carers, and getting them in on time, and organising all those sorts of things. It's easier for people like me who've got a very visible disability because it's a very obvious signal to people that you might need different things.

And me, I have no issues with my publishing team at all because they've been really great when it comes to kind of sorting out access. But I know for authors who have invisible disabilities it's obviously a lot harder, and perhaps because things like deadlines might be trickier it's having those conversations where, like, like Penny says, you feel like you don't have much power. You feel like you have to say yes to everything and be the good person, the good author that does everything that that is required of them. So I think there is a kind of. There is an invisible pressure. I've had no issues with my publishing team.

But I wonder whether people who might struggle with deadlines or kind of fluctuating conditions might struggle to kind of express that, or might feel they can't express that. And I don't. I guess it depends on the team that you're working with, how they choose to react. But I guess agents, editors vary in how they deal with these things. So I I think both of us have been pretty lucky with who we who we're working with.

Penny: I think, yeah, certainly if our publishers, and what have you, had an issue with it… Well, I don't think they would have taken us on.

Chloe: That’s true. Yeah.

Penny: That was a really, really good point that you made about people with hidden disabilities. Or who may not yet be comfortable with perhaps identifying as disabled – recently become impaired or what have you. And that to them, actually describing themselves in that way may feel just a little bit alien at the moment. So certainly what our group wants to sort of get out as best practices is that when an agent or a publisher takes you on, they ask everybody: “do you have any sort of needs that we may need to know about, or you might want us to know about?” And that just wouldn’t be to do with disability and what have you. It might be that you are a carer or that you work full time. Or that you don't have much money, so you couldn't afford to say pay for train travel and a hotel and then claim it back in advance. And that kind of thing. So it's improving it for everybody and not just not just our group really.

Chloe: Mmm.

Nick: Yeah, yeah. That makes sense. What advice would you have for writers or aspiring writers who might also be disabled people?

Chloe: I think probably my advice would be, if you're comfortable, to be honest about what you need and how you are feeling. Because I think even if you're non-disabled, particularly if you have a close relationship with your publisher or with your agent, it's worth saying to them: “Look, I'm having a bad week” or a bad month. And you know, like, “I'm not gonna make my deadline” or what have you. I think – if you're before that stage and you're and you're trying to write – I would say my kind of general advice really is, and I know it's a cliche to say, read. And I'm going to be more specific when I say: make sure you're reading, kind of, what's out there currently.

Make sure you're reading books that have come out with in the last couple of years. So that when you're writing to agents or publishers, you have an idea of what's happening currently in the in the market. And so you can say my book’s like this. And you're not describing your book as being like Wuthering Heights or something like that. So you've got a finger on the pulse of what's happening. And so I think that that's kind of general advice to everyone and not just disabled writers. But yeah. I think if you are disabled and you're a writer, just go for it – because we need more disabled voices in fiction, and there aren't enough of us. And I know Penny will agree with me on this, so I definitely think just go for it.

Penny: Yes, definitely. I completely do agree, Chloe, and I would say just get writing. Don't feel held back by anything. Write what you want to write as well, and in the genre that you want to write. And don't feel that you have to write about disability or don't feel you can't write about disability. Tell the story that's in your head, that’s sort of shouting at you just when you're lying down trying to go to sleep, because it wants to come out. And also I would say, is, network. Join our group, the ADCI group, and get to know other writers. Have people that you can talk to about your books and you can brainstorm ideas with, and just say “Hey. I'm not quite sure if this ending works what do you think?

Chloe: Mmmm Yeah, definitely. You do need your, do need your tribe of people that are fellow writers to – even if you're discussing like a plot point or a complicated mess, you've got yourself in with your writing. It's always useful to have people you can bounce off ideas with each other, and I'd agree with you. Get on Twitter; find your community; share your work, even – not necessarily publicly, on a blog – but share it with people who are also writers. Because I think a lot of writers are afraid of sharing their work because they believe they’re going... their ideas are going to be stolen. But I think it's good to get your work out there and practice having feedback because writing is, a lot, a lot of the time, about rejection. So if you can get used to it now, that takes the sting out of it later.

Penny: One thing I would add is that I know a lot of writers say: “write every day”. You should be doing that. You you should be, well, even if you've got nothing to say, just put something down on a blank page. And I actually disagree with that because I find with my health that I can't write every day. So I have to write when I feel up to it and I don't feel that that is something that counts against me with my writing because I use that time to think about things. So I think thinking time, letting a story sort of marinate in your head and ideas come up, is just as important as writing every day. So don't feel you're not a writer if you're not up to sitting down and doing 2000 words every day.

Nick: Penny. You've successfully campaigned for Amazon’s fiction section to have a disability category that will show books about disabled people. When will this come in, if it hasn't already? And what do you hope it will achieve?

Penny: Well. It's up there now, actually.

Nick: That's really good news.

Penny: It's hard to find, so you have to keep looking. But it came about because the author, Victoria Scott, who... she isn't disabled, but she has a disabled sister and her first book was inspired... her novel was inspired by her sister's experiences. And she got in touch with me and just said: “Can you believe in Amazon, that there are categories like at rural humour and circus fiction and things like that, but there's nothing [category wise, addressing] disability fiction for adults? There was a section for children and young adults. But if you're looking for fiction with disabled characters in, there wasn't anything. And we just thought: “What? In this day and age? How come?” So we got in touch with Amazon and Amazon is a very, very difficult company to try and speak to anybody.

We managed to get a few email addresses, but we just got a standard reply back; and we asked if we could speak to somebody, but it didn't happen. In the end, I asked the Society of Authors to help. And they did have a contact of a real person in there, and as soon as they got involved: “Da-dah!” The category happened. So fantastic. It really shows “it's not what you know; it's who you know”, I think. But I think that's a real step forward because Amazon is, as we all know, is a massive seller of books. And we should be represented there, I think certainly.

Nick: Absolutely. You also mentioned writing about disabled characters. And you said that you can and you don't have to. So can you expand on that one a bit and writing about disabled characters? Cos you both have in your novels?

Penny: Well, as I said earlier on, you can write what you like. That's the beauty of being an author. You have your imagination. But I did choose to write disabled characters because I grew up not seeing anybody like me in fiction. Or when there were some very rare disabled characters, they tend to die or get miraculously cured. And that was quite confusing for me as a child because I wondered, you know, is that going to happen to me? Nah.. it's not representative of real life. In fiction, you, I, haven't tended to see, particularly in genre fiction - which is what I write because I write thrillers – we don't see disabled people just going about their everyday lives where disability isn't particularly the story.

It's where you just have disabled characters there. So in my first book that I was telling you about, My Perfect Sister, there was a character called Ian and he is a solicitor who has cerebral palsy. But that's not the story. The story is how he helps Annie try and find out more about what happened to her sister, Gemma. So I just think that we should be represented in fiction. If you were writing about the present day, set in present day UK, it would be very strange just to have all white, straight characters with no disabilities or what have you. We are a very multicultural society, and I think that disability should be represented within that.

Nick: I agree.

Chloe: Yeah. I completely agree with Penny. And I also agree that you shouldn't have to write about it if you’re disabled. Just like, you know. I think, like Penny, we should be free to write whatever story we want. And I do think, kind of hypocritically, that there should be a lot more disability representation in fiction. I know in my novel The Seawomen, there is a character with limb difference but – it's not... it's not – disability isn't really part of the story. And I know myself, I do want to eventually write more characters with disabilities.

Because, like Penny said, representation so important. And also, I think it's important we hear these stories as well and those characters are just a part of everyday life. There's a lot more, kind of diversity, in in young adult and children's fiction. And we just don't see it as much in adult fiction and in genre fiction, like Penny said. So it would be good to see a lot more disabled characters. And I've kind of got a big wish of my own: that one day, I want to see a Bridget Jones with a wheelchair-using character at the heart of it. That would be my dream.

Penny: Oooh! I'd so read that.

Chloe: I know. Yeah. That would be amazing, wouldn’t it? So, one day!. And I don't think.... I'm not a romance writer, so I don't know that I'd be the person to do it. But that that's my dream that one day someone's going to write that book and I'm definitely going to be the first person in the queue to buy it.

Nick: Fantastic How do you both feel about the representation of disabled characters in literature today?

Chloe: I mean... particularly in adult fiction, as I said, it's really poor. And I. And you really have to look for it, I think. You really have to make the effort to find books that have got disabled central characters or even secondary characters. And I know there's been a lot of opportunity for young adult writers and children's writers to kind of change the narrative, really. I mean, Elle McNicholl, her books feature autistic characters, neurodivergent characters. And I know Lizette Orton, who's also in our Society of Authors Group.

She's just written a children's book that's got a really diverse cast. But I don't know why adult fiction seems so slow in the uptake. I mean, like, Penny said, one of the biggest books I can think of, that's got a disabled character is Me Before You, which ends in the disabled character choosing to end their own life because they're so depressed about being disabled. And that shouldn't be the first book you think of when you think of disabled characters in fiction. But unfortunately that is like the main adult book I can think of that features a central disabled character, and a disabled story.

Penny: Yeah, I don't want to knock the author because I think she's a really talented writer, but that book is certainly seen through the non-disabled gaze. It's a stereotype of “what would your life be if you were disabled?” And “no, it would be really awful and I wouldn't be able to cope.” I mean, I remember my 20s, back in the day, when I used to go around the pubs and the clubs with my mates, I had somebody come up to me, probably quite drunk. But who said: “Oh! I really admire you coming out. If I were you, I would want to kill myself.” And it's just that kind of stupid idea. And if, all, that's all you have in culture, then people who don't personally know disabled people are gonna think that that's reality.

So I definitely want to see more, better representation of disabled people in fiction… which is why I cofounded this year, with Claire Christian, again, a prize called the ADCI Literary Prize with the Society of Authors: for novels written by disabled authors who have one or more disabled characters in the books. The ADCI Prize was announced at the Society of Authors Awards in June. And this month, I'm delighted to say that submissions are open. It's... they're open to self-published as well as traditionally published authors, and you don't have to give proof of and at disability or illness. We completely trust you... [to] self-identify. All the details of how to enter [and] the requirements are on the Society of Authors’ website. And I guess they will be in the show notes.

Nick: They will indeed! Thank you very much!

Penny: And next June we'll have our first prize winner, which is gonna be really exciting. I think it's gonna be quite a long journey, slow journey, a long journey to improving our representation in in fiction and our culture. But it's certainly a good start, I think. And all this with the Keep Festivals, hybrid and stuff. That's why I haven't finished my third thriller yet. But I'm onto it. I'm onto it. That is my goal. To finish by the end of the year.

Nick: So the one thing I haven't asked so far is: tell me a bit about yourselves and your backgrounds away from writing. I asked you both how you got into writing but tell me a bit about yourself generally. Chloe let’s start with you.

Chloe: As I mentioned before, my background is actually in teaching. But I left teaching after three years and mainly focused on freelance writing. I also do copywriting for small businesses and kind of their social media. I also do a bit of campaigning. You might have seen work that I've done with Leonard Cheshire before, mainly talking about trains or social care. And so I have Spinal Muscular Atrophy (SMA) type 2. And yeah, so I've done a lot of campaigns recently about improving social care – and trying to hopefully convince the government to put a bit more funding behind it.

And yeah, so but pretty much apart from writing at the moment, I'm also concentrating on my podcast, which I launched at the beginning of 2022. And that's called Confessions of a Debut novelist. And I interview people who've just had their first book published. And so far it's going really well. And I've had amazing feedback about that and lots of downloads and things. It's been a lovely way for me to help promote other writers and publicise their books... as well as, kind of, talking about the nitty gritty of writing and how they got their book deal and things like that. And that's been really enjoyable to do. I love doing that.

Nick: Brilliant, brilliant. And which part of the country are you living in at the moment, Chloe?

Chloe: I am in near Birchington in Kent, So on the lovely, er, today, a very lovely sunny coast which – I've always, I've always lived by the sea, which is always a real privilege.

Nick: Penny, where whereabouts are you? And tell us a bit more about your background?

Penny: I live a long way from the sea I live in Warwickshire at the moment with my, with my husband. And I grew up in Yorkshire – in South Yorkshire. And then I came, I ended up – ooh, about 15 years ago – moving to Warwickshire for a job. Oh God. I'm quite boring, really! What do I do? Well, I like to knit. I like to read. Most of my time is taking up with work, really. I do like to travel. And I did quite a lot in my younger days. It's not quite so easy now, but I do like going away for a weekend and seeing different places and what have you. I started my career at the BBC and I started in, er, as a TV researcher. And then I moved into online, worked my way up to be a content producer. And then I left to be a website editor at some other different organisations. And then unfortunately I had to leave on ill health and that led to this career – which was quite a, you know, silver lining, really.

Nick: Yeah, And what do you... What are your plans for the for the future Penny. The next novel, presumably?

Penny: Oh. World domination would be very good.

Nick: [laughs] Watch out, world!.

Chloe: I think you're heading in the right direction there, Penny.

Penny: Number One Sunday Times Bestseller, I think that would be very nice! [Chloe laughs] Nominated for something. But I just want to… I would like to get an agent and to get a deal from my third novel with one of the big publishers. So it would be nice to get some money! And I want… I want spredges. For people who don't know what they are, it's when you have a hard back. They do some special editions and they've got lovely coloured bits on the edge of the side of the paper. That's a real author goal for me because I know some authors who've had that. And I think: “Wow. I want spredges!” [laughs].

Chloe: Yeah. Spredges is sprayed edges and they do it all by hand, apparently. And they're like a very coveted thing in the book world. And I'm exactly the same as Penny. That's my ultimate goal to have some nice coloured spredges for my new book.

Nick: Well, I hope you hope you both get the spredges that you want!

Nick: Are there any books you're enjoying at the moment that you want to recommend?

Chloe: I'll tell you my favourite book that I read this year. Notes on an Execution by Danya – I can't pronounce her surname – I think it's Kukafka. And it's incredible.

Penny: Is that nonfiction or fiction?

Chloe: No, it’s fiction. It's amazing. It's about a guy on death row. And you go back and meet, or you read about, all his various victims or people that his killings affected. And it's just incredible.

Nick: Brilliant.

Penny: It's a very different tone, but I recently read a book for a book group I'm in and it was called The Phone Box at the Edge of the World. I'm afraid I can't remember who wrote it. But it's set in Japan and after the tsunami when lots of people were killed. And it's actually it's fiction. But it's based on a real story that there is a phone box in a garden that people can go to and talk to their loved ones - and a sort of safe space for their grief. And it was surprisingly uplifting and I enjoyed that. I recently just read Ruth Ware’s latest thriller The It Girl, which I really enjoyed. And when it comes to disabled authors about writing about disabled characters, I’d just like to mention Nell Patterson. She is hard of hearing herself and writes thrillers, set in the deaf community, and they're really good. So check them out.

Nick: Thank you so much, both of you, for coming on today. It's been a brilliant discussion. Keep doing what you're doing. I really enjoyed both of your and novels and they're both available in all good book shops. And Chloe’s podcast is available all podcast platforms. All the things, including the campaigns, will be on our show notes. And thank you both for joining. Thanks so much for coming on the Disability Download.

Chloe: Thanks, Nick.

Penny: It's been a pleasure.

Nick: A fascinating discussion there from Chloe and Penny. I loved their passion for writing, and their books, and their unmistakeable drive to help other disabled people. You can check out the show notes on our Simplecast site where you’ll find links to groups and resources mentioned in the episode, and links to Chloe and Penny’s social media handles as well.

We’d love to know what you think – are you inspired by the discussion? Get in touch by emailing us at disabilitydownload@leonardcheshire.org or contacting us on Twitter or Instagram @LeonardCheshire. And if there’s a guest you’d really love to hear from, reach out and let us know!

And don’t forget to like, share and subscribe to the podcast! Thanks for listening. I’m Nick and this has been The Disability Download.