Disclosing Disability and Finding Freedom: Talking with James Tate Hill

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Many writers know James Tate Hill as the fantastic fiction editor of Monkeybicycle. He’s a wonderful supporter of new writers who also relishes the nuances of punctuation. When we worked together in 2020 I remember how he took the time to discuss and negotiate each edit. I’m the kind of writer who could ponder hyphens and semicolons all day, so this was my idea of a great time.

When I heard that Hill had a memoir out on submission about hiding his blindness for fifteen years, I invited Hill to speak at the library I direct. After Blind Man’s Bluff came out this past August to great acclaim, I joined him again at a virtual panel hosted by my local bookstore. Hill’s memoir has since been named a New York Times Editors’ Choice. The Best American Essays editors have chosen two of his works as “Notable,” and he won the Nilsen Literary Prize for a First Novel for his debut novel, Academy Gothic. Tate continues to edit Monkeybicycle while serving as a contributing editor at Literary Hub, where he writes a monthly audiobooks column. Born in Charleston, West Virginia, he now lives in Greensboro, North Carolina.

Hill and I have become email pen pals throughout the pandemic. In our most recent email exchange, we focused on how he crafted his memoir.

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The Rumpus: Can you speak about the origins of this book?

James Tate Hill: “Why don’t you write about losing your sight?” a close friend asked me in graduate school, at the bar after evening workshop. I was discouraged by her question, in part because it seemed a response to my most recent ill-received short story, but more so because I tried so assiduously, even around friends who knew about my blindness, to make people forget that I couldn’t see.

I had started writing short stories my senior year of high school, the year I was adapting to vision loss, showing them to my English teacher for feedback. Looking back, I’m sure writing was an outlet for communicating what I didn’t have the words to say. But none of the stories I wrote that year, nor any of the fiction I wrote in college or graduate school, featured characters or plots anybody might mistake for my life. It took me a long time to realize fiction had become another way of hiding, to put forth these characters and plots and say to people, Here, this is me, not the shy fellow too afraid to initiate conversation because he can’t see whom he’s speaking to.

How I grew from that shy and frightened individual wrestling with internalized shame about his disability into the author of a mystery novel with a blind protagonist could fill a book—it’s called Blind Man’s Bluff—but I never planned to write a memoir. I was writing about my blindness in that debut novel, Academy Gothic, but there was still the mask of fiction. I was surprised how good it felt during interviews and events for that book, how liberating, to acknowledge which parts of it were true.

Rumpus: I’m curious about your use of the second person in this memoir. Did any other memoirists influence your decision to mix first and second person? 

Hill: I definitely owe a hat tip to Mark Richard, whose memoir House of Prayer No. 2 was the first time I encountered second person that made it feel exhilarating. Richard’s memoir begins in third person, actually, with “the special child” recovering in a charity hospital after the first of many surgeries on his hips. The distance shortens with the transition from third person to second, but there remains a sort of double consciousness between author and character, a sense of the narrator never fully inhabiting his own body even as the life he lives is very much his own.

I never said to myself, Let’s write three chapters of this memoir in second person. The chapter that was initially the first chapter has never been in second person, but the three chapters of Blind Man’s Bluff that did end up in that point of view have always been in that point of view. I’m not positive that I knew why, at the time I was drafting those chapters, that “you” felt more natural than “I.” But when I read the completed manuscript for the first time, it made perfect sense that I had written those particular chapters in second person. These were the times I was least certain about my identity, the periods of my life when I felt most unmoored from any idea about who I was and who I could be. This isn’t to say the chapters in first person depict a young man who knows exactly who he is, but he is a young man who thinks he knows who he is.

Some readers can be suspicious of the second person. It does feel a little accusatory, doesn’t it? As though we the readers are being actively implicated in this narrative we didn’t sign up for. But memoir, for me, is both the story and why we’re telling it. Blind Man’s Bluff is the story of the lies I told to friends, family, and lovers, but also to myself. “The prevailing theory,” writes Jessica Chiccehitto Hindman, in her excellent second-person memoir, Sounds Like Titanic, “is that memoirists use second person when they are writing about something traumatic. But in actuality, for many people… the first person feels like the worst type of fakery.”

Rumpus: Do you have any observations on how gender impacts one’s experience of living with a disability? This is definitely a boy’s coming of age story, and there seems a powerful link between your understanding of masculinity and your decision to hide your blindness. Did your Appalachian childhood also shape your stubbornly independent self?

Hill: This is one of those questions I’m not sure I could have answered accurately prior to writing the book. I knew my reluctance to identify as blind or disabled began (mostly unconsciously) after a few early experiences after losing my sight that reinforced the social stigma associated with disability. Only in talking with a friend my age who had read the book, a fellow writer who also grew up in a rural area, did I connect my stubborn refusal to talk about my disability, let alone accept it, with a generational and regional stoicism that’s probably more common than not among people I knew growing up.

I hope it’s an outdated stereotype that men don’t talk about their feelings, cry, hug, ask for directions, etc. And growing up in West Virginia I knew plenty of women, to be sure, who regarded imperviousness as a type of strength. It certainly felt, as a sixteen-year-old boy, like not being able to drive was going to be a problem when it came to dating. I’m not sure I can separate my own gender expectations from those of partners in my failed relationships, but so much of myself was a construct in those years that I’m sure gender roles and masculinity only added to my impostor syndrome.

Rumpus: Let’s switch gears: Revision. Love it? Hate it? Something in between?

Hill: Give me revision over the first draft any day. I’m revising a novel right now, and although part of me misses the surprise of excavating the story from my mind, I never miss the frustration of not knowing what happens next. Memoir is different because what happens in the book has already happened in life, but when you are revisiting trauma, the excavation can be treacherous in a different way.

If I’m being honest, revising Blind Man’s Bluff was probably tougher for me than the novels I’ve revised. In the latter, I’m adding, deleting, shifting, and everything else you’d expect to happen to a manuscript. With this memoir, a majority of the notes from my (incredibly wise) editor and agent were like, more here, explore this further, and let’s go deeper with this. To belabor the excavation metaphor, the late-stage digging found plenty of emotion deposits I thought I had already mined.

Maybe that’s what I love about revision, that it’s all about effort and want. Meanwhile, the first draft can feel like casting spells, and some days you’re not even sure you believe in magic.

Rumpus: How does writing short personal essays prepare you to write a memoir? In what ways does it not prepare you?

Hill: Boy, this is a tough question. In ways, I think essays are to memoir what short stories are to the novel. The basic materials are probably the same, or similar enough, but there’s a certain narrative endurance in fiction that I only acquired through writing a lot of failed novels. Blind Man’s Bluff is the first memoir I’ve written, so it probably helped me to imagine the chapters as movements, some of them self-contained essays. And maybe the pessimist in me thought, if nothing comes of this book, well, at least I can send out a few of these chapters as essays.

In The Situation and the Story, Vivian Gornick says essays use the author’s life to shed light on another topic while memoir uses other topics to illuminate the author’s life. Memoirs need a through-line the way novels need a plot, and essays can definitely thrive on tension without narrative momentum.

That said, I love memoirs that meander and breathe, where forward progress sometimes pauses for a deeper dive into ideas. I hope the memoirs I pick up keep me turning pages to find out what happens next, but I’m going to feel cheated if they don’t also offer some kind of wisdom or insight, if I don’t walk away with a new lens through which I can view myself a little differently.

Rumpus: You are often praised for your witty takes on pop culture in writing. How did cultural icons like Prince, the phenomenon of the ’80s shopping mall, and fast food restaurants like Taco Bell shape you into the writer you are today?

Hill: Growing up in 1980s West Virginia, pop culture was my portal to the larger world. Our television received the proverbial three channels and the sometimes-staticky UHF station that would eventually become Fox. Rabbit ears were useless, so we ran a wire attached to an antenna up the hillside fifty or sixty yards, which only helped for a few weeks. My grandparents lived at the foot of our hill, and I spent a lot of time reading their TV Guide, constructing a playlist of shows I’d watch if we had a satellite dish.

I’d like to tell you that by the time cable arrived to our rural area, I had turned to books, that finally having all those channels was anticlimactic, but cable television was everything I dreamed it would be. I stayed up way too late every night, making up for lost time, filling in my pop culture gaps with shows I had only seen mentioned in TV Guide. Every channel was possibility, my remote control opening door after door after door that each led to another hallway of doors.

The mall was much the same as cable, endless possibilities arriving daily on shelves and racks and store windows. And like the You Are Here on all those mall directories, I located myself by my surroundings, always looking outward rather than inward. Which probably didn’t prepare me for the loss of my sight at age sixteen, after which I continued to measure myself against other people.

In the wake of vision loss, pop culture became the way I could still recognize the world that had changed so drastically. It was one way I could still relate to friends. I was also grateful for the memories of so many faces and scenes I could call on after watching television became listening to television. Those countless hours of television and wandering malls, in hindsight, feel like cramming for an exam nobody warned me was coming.

90210 and Tom Cruise and Prince and Seinfeld and The Golden Girls were topics of conversation I could reach for instead of talking about myself. Pop culture was how I made sense of the world, but for a long time it was a way to avoid making sense of myself. My pop culture obsessions reach a sort of climax in a late chapter of Blind Man’s Bluff that interrogates a childhood fascination with Tom Cruise through the film Rain Man. What that disability narrative means to me now isn’t what it meant to me in 1989 or 1997, when I didn’t view it as a film about disability and refused to think of myself as disabled.

And that’s why, I suppose, I come here to praise pop culture, not to bury it. Any obsession can reveal as effectively as it can obscure. The barriers to self-examination are rarely the lenses we’re using, but the willingness to look.

Rumpus: How has the literary world changed over time in its appreciation of audiobooks? How has your Lit Hub column helped convince people that audiobooks are “real”?

Hill: Audiobooks have come a long way from sitcom jokes that implied they’re tantamount to cheating. The biggest part of that widespread acceptance has been popularity stemming from access. With the advent of smartphones, we no longer need bulky CDs or cassette tapes. We can also enjoy digital audiobooks for most new releases on the same publication day as their print counterparts. Twenty years ago, I was lucky to find any non-bestseller published as a commercial audiobook. Thirty years ago, around the time I became a reader of audiobooks out of necessity, the books on tape section of most public libraries consisted of self-help titles and classic literature, some of the latter in abridged versions.

But anyone who thinks the argument has been fully settled on whether audiobooks count as reading should pose the question to their friends. The issue, mind you, has been thoroughly settled. The argument less so.

The chapter of Blind Man’s Bluff titled “Real Books” explores my discovery of books on tape, and it first appeared at Lit Hub in 2018 as “Do Audiobooks Count As Reading?” A perusal of the comments—I know, I know, never read the comments—any of the times Lit Hub has reshared that piece finds plenty of opinions on both sides. To be sure, nobody who says they don’t count ever makes a cogent argument, but I’ve seen the same debate pop up in friends’ Facebook posts, and people who ought to know better continue to dismiss audiobooks as lazy or passive.

Studies that show comparable brain activity and reading comprehension between audio and print are easy to find. I won’t reference them here. The ableist insistence that audiobooks are somehow inferior to print helps to explain how the disabled internalize cultural views of disability as shame. It’s a shame that led me to dedicate a ridiculous amount of energy and time to hiding my blindness for more than fifteen years.

But venues like Lit Hub have been wonderful for embracing alternate forms of reading, and so much of cultural acceptance comes from exposure and awareness. Writing a monthly column recommending audiobooks has been a joy for me, and I hope it’s helped more people understand they are, in fact, real books.

Rumpus: Your memoir is also a story of a failed marriage with the promise of a solid second marriage at the end. I’d compare it to In the Dream House by Carmen Maria Machado in the author’s use of restraint when writing about disturbing events. Blind Man’s Bluff is also a memoir of the writing life, and the ups and downs of your writing parallel the ups and downs of that marriage. When you say late in the book that true revision is more than correction, you’re clearly talking about more than a novel. How did your writing and relationships both change when you became open about your blindness?

Hill: For sure, it’s no coincidence that the failure of that first marriage tracks with my most frustrating years as a writer. I’d like to say marriage and writing get a lot easier when you’re older, but the success of relationships, like writing, depend less on age than how much you understand—in particular, how well you understand yourself.

I don’t think it’s accurate to say that first marriage would have succeeded if I had been more candid about my blindness. What I can say with some certainty is that secrecy tends to foster more secrecy. Not that I viewed the minimizing of my disability as dishonesty at the time. As George Costanza tells Jerry Seinfeld while the latter prepares for a lie detector test: “It’s not a lie if you believe it.”

People say marriage is hard. God knows my first marriage was. But my second marriage has been pretty easy. Life itself, quite frankly, has been a lot less difficult since I stopped devoting time and energy to pretending I was someone I’m not.

I’d like to tell you that writing became effortless in the wake of that self-acceptance, but I’m not sure writing ever becomes easy. What does get easier is realizing when I have something to say.

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Photograph of James Tate Hill by Lori Jackson Hill.


Jess deCourcy Hinds was the 2014-15 winner of the Pen Parentis fiction fellowship, and runner up in the 2016 Stella Kupferberg Memorial Short Story Prize judged by Lauren Groff. Her fiction is forthcoming in Quarterly West and has appeared in Brain Child, and nonfiction in Ms., the New York Times, Newsweek, and others. She is the library director of Bard HS Early College Queens and runs an author series. Learn more at jessdecourcyhinds.com. More from this author →