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In the second installment of Writing While Disabled, Kristy Anne Cox interviews Mary Robinette Kowal.

Kristy Anne Cox: I am so pleased to be interviewing the wonderful Mary Robinette Kowal today. Mary Robinette lives in Tennessee and is a writer, puppeteer, writing educator, podcaster, and the winner of many awards. Mary Robinette's pronouns are she/her.

So hi, Mary Robinette, let's start by introducing your work. Can you tell us a little bit about yourself and what you do? 

Mary Robinette Kowal: Sure. You covered most of the bases about my larger biography. What I write are science fiction and fantasy short stories and novels. The novels that are published are all historical in some way, either historical fantasy like my ‘Jane Austen with Magic’ series, The Glamourist Histories, or alternate Apollo-era science fiction, which is my Lady Astronaut series. 

KAC: Lovely. And how do you fit into the disabled community, which disabled communities do you identify with?

MRK: This is an interesting question because while I have some invisible disabilities, most of my interaction with the community is actually as a caregiver. I have depression and ADHD. And then I also have an essential tremor. But most of the engagement that I do with the community is around Parkinson's, which my mother has. So, the interesting thing about the depression and the ADHD is that I was diagnosed very late. I'm 52 and was not diagnosed with depression until I was 45. And with ADHD, I think it was 49?

In hindsight, they are things that I have dealt with my entire life and have affected my ability to move through the world, because the world is not built for people whose brains are wired the way my brain is wired. But because, for decades, I didn't know that my brain was wired differently, I have come up with so many work-arounds that I just didn't realize it was a disability. And with ADHD in particular, I tend to push back against that very much. I'm like, you know, this is the way my brain is wired, and it's very useful in a lot of different ways. 

The parts of it that are a disability are parts where the world and the definition of normal have been rigidly defined based on a brain model that is not my brain model. But my brain model is not broken. 

KAC: Right. And this is very typical of women and femmes who are neurodiverse, right? Neurodivergence is an identity or diagnosis we discover later in life than many others do. And the process can be muddled by debates over labels, disability, and neurodiversity.

MRK: Mhm. 

KAC: I think both labels, for me, have been useful in understanding what sets of challenges I'm dealing with so that I can gather information and make informed decisions. 

MRK: Yes, and once I understood that was what was happening, it opened up a whole new toolbox for me to use. You know, it's like—I have the tools now to recognize, ‘Oh, that thing is happening. You need to take steps now instead of waiting until it becomes debilitating.’ 

KAC: Or until it becomes a medical crisis.

MRK: Yeah.  

The essential tremor is so mild, that if I were not also a professional puppeteer… you know, it causes me to drop things. I can no longer do very fine close-up work.  

KAC: Yeah. 

MRK: I shouldn't say in any other field... But in my life as a writer, it has had no impact except my handwriting has gotten messy. And I drop things a lot. 

KAC: Well, thank you for sharing the details. I think that's going to help our readers place themselves in this conversation and sort out which advice might be useful. I have bipolar depression, OCD, ADHD, Anxiety Disorder, and neurological issues. So, I identify with all of that. Thank you. 

MRK: Sure.

KAC: I feel like there's a whole lot of overlap between the Venn diagram of ‘writers and depressed people’ or ‘writers and people with ADHD.’ What specific barriers in the writing community have you experienced as a writer with these neurodiverse conditions?

MRK: There are two things, I would say. One is time management because being a writer professionally is all about hitting deadlines. Like, there's all of the creative stuff, but you have to be able to hit deadlines, and you have to be able to switch gears very quickly and easily from, ‘now I am writing’ to ‘now I'm doing self-promotion,’ and you have to do all of these things and keep a lot of balls in the air and not drop them. And the problem that I run into is that I have very little sense of time passing, which is great when I'm in the zone. But that can also mean that I can go two weeks without checking email and feel like I checked it yesterday. Yeah, and that's not ideal.

So that one is for the ADHD side. With depression, the thing that I realized, and I think this is why it hits writers and other creatives so hard, is that part of what happens when you're depressed is that work becomes difficult. And as a writer, part of my identity is the fact that I write. 

So one of the things I think we do as a community that's very damaging to people with depression or ADHD, is to tell them that a writer writes every day. Because not everybody does. And when you tell someone that, what happens to me and to a lot of other people is that you think, well, I'm not writing. Therefore, I must not be a writer, which makes the depression worse, which makes it harder to write, and it's like this downward spiral that is built on a basic misunderstanding of who you are. It's like—you're a writer, even when you're not actively writing. When you go to sleep at night, you do not stop being a writer.

KAC: Yeah, it becomes a big identity crisis for a lot of people. I feel like a lot of writing advice that we kind of accept as ‘the way things are’ can be detrimental to disabled writers trying to find their approach. Is there another piece of commonly repeated writing advice that always hits you as, ‘That's not going to work for everyone?’ 

MRK: I mean, I think there's very little… I'm trying to think of a piece of writing advice that does work for everyone. One of the things is that sometimes I'll hear people say, you know, ‘Come up with your ideal perfect writing environment.’ And I'm like, ‘That's a great luxury if you can do it.’ But, there are so many reasons that people can't do it.

So what is more useful—for me, I should say, what is more useful for me—is the idea of form versus essence. Form is something you can touch or buy, and essence is the way something makes you feel. I think what happens a lot of times when people are saying to come up with your ideal writing environment, is they're like, ‘Figure out what the form is.’ And the problem is that when you chase a form over and over again, at some point, the form isn't going to work for you because it was designed to fill this ‘essence’ thing.

What has worked better for me is to figure out what my barriers are to writing. And if I can figure out what those are, then I can create an area anywhere I go that gives me the space that I need. So like, I figured out that for dialogue, my brain will go to the human voice. But if there's enough white noise in a coffee shop, I don't identify individual sounds. So, white noise works. A quiet place works, earbuds work. Music without lyrics works. There are a lot of different things that will work. But if I tell people, ‘No, I have to have absolute silence when I write,’ it's like—that's a form that is not addressing the symptom. And the symptom is actually that I'm easily distracted.

KAC: In disability lingo, we’re talking about accommodations. You're finding the set of tools that works with the situation you're in that day. And for neurodiverse people, we might have to have a diverse set of tools from day to day. One day depression is in ascendance, so I've got to use these tools. But another day, I'm dealing with OCD. So I'm going to use different accommodation tools. Kind of like that? 

MRK: Yeah. Yeah, very much like that. And also that—the external factors may also change.

KAC: Yes.

MRK: Particularly when you get farther down your career path. I can write on an airplane, I can write in a car, I can write in an airport lounge, because I figured out, okay, this is how I can take that. You know, these are the things that I need. It's like, I cannot have my perfect clean writing desk. But, what I can do is sit with my back to a room. I can sit facing a window so that I can look out at general movement but not be distracted by narrative.

KAC: Yes, that makes sense. I'm kind of bouncing around here in the questions, you're talking about all things that I'm going to ask you about. This is great. Can I ask you what your writing process is like?

MRK: (Laughs) Well, I'll talk about what my ideal writing process is like, and I'll talk about what my writing process is like in the middle of the pandemic because they are not the same.  

My ideal writing process—when my brain is working well, when the environment is cooperating, when the world is not on fire—is that I have a word goal. Usually 2000 words. And I sit down and work for about an hour and a half, and then take a break, and do other things, and then sit down for another hour and a half, and do that every day. I also like spending several months leading up to sitting down to write; coming up with an outline and using that time to sort of figure out what I want the book to look like, the overall shape, so that when I'm sitting down to write, I'm not having to engage as much executive function, because I know what's going to happen next—and again, I did not have the words to describe what I was doing before I was diagnosed. I don't have to engage the executive functions, which is hard for me. But I can let all of the free association stuff happen, which the ADHD brain is extremely good at. I bring all of that in and just kind of do the art of it. Plus, all of the other stuff that I've internalized about the actual writing process. That's the ideal way. 

The way I am writing now is that I want to write in the morning, have tried to clear the decks for it, but I still get distracted, despite having every piece of a nursemaid software turned on that I could turn on. And I'm writing in about 500-word chunks if I'm lucky, at night before I go to bed, when my brain finally clears. I don't enjoy that as much because I don't get into the flow state, which is what I enjoy. But, I am moving forward in things. My general feeling is that any words are good words. So there are some days where I don't write—at all—and I am okay with that because the world is on fire. And has been for over a year at this point.

KAC: Yeah, it's a scary time. Do you find yourself writing about characters who have similar disabilities to you? Like, have you ever written an ADHD or depressed character?

MRK: Hmm, no, well not depression. Yes, I've been thinking about how to write ADHD. The problem is that, because it's the way my brain works, it's hard for me to tell what's the way other people's brains work. So probably all of my characters have been that way because I've just described the way my brain goes. But writing is linear, so it's much easier to mask that. Although again, I have not written someone like the main character who has... Oh, that's not true. Nicole, in Relentless Moon, is dealing with depression, but hers is situational depression. I mean, I know that she is dealing with depression in there, but I have not yet had a character dealing with depression and ADHD simultaneously for the same reason that I have only had one story where my character is a puppeteer—because I cannot tell what is common knowledge and what is jargon.

KAC: Yeah, it's hard when you know something so well, to figure out how to portray it from an outside perspective.

MRK: Yeah, like—anxiety was easy because I know what it looks like from the outside. And I spent several years working for a theater company where I was being sexually harassed daily by the artistic director in my 20s. It was not pleasant. In hindsight, I was dealing with anxiety and panic attacks on a pretty regular basis. I read my journals from that period, and I just want to say, ‘Get out!’ So I know what that feels like. Like, I lived in that place for much longer than I should have. But it's not something that I deal with on any kind of chronic basis.

KAC: Well, you had an article on your blog, called ‘Sometimes Writer's Block is Really Depression,’ which, thank you for writing that. That hit me when I read that and I found it to be really useful advice. But you have some specific accommodations on that article that you talk about, like using Written Kitten writing. Do you still use a lot of those things? Do you have any updates?

MRK: Yeah, I still absolutely use those. I go through and update the list of tools, and add new ones, and remove ones that have stopped being supported. The one that is working for me consistently pretty well is And I will also say—one of the interesting side effects of 4thewords is that because you are fighting, you pick the monster you're going to fight. You know, whether it's a monster that's a 150-word monster or one that's a 1400-word monster. And what's interesting is that it also serves as an early warning signal for me. Because when I sit down to pick monsters right now, I am only interested in fighting the monsters that are 150 words, because that's all I think I can sustain.

KAC: Does it give you an actual monster? Like a cartoon or drawing…? 

Readers, here Mary Robinette is opening up her tablet and showing me the 4thewords program.

MRK: Let me get this open. So, here's my writing environment. In the game, here are all of the monsters you can fight. Like this one, you have to write 15 minutes without stopping, so sometimes I'll fight this if I just can't start. I'll fight them for five minutes. 

For this one, you have to write 100 words in 10 minutes. It's like, ‘Oh, I can!,’ but actually, you know, sometimes I can't do that. And so I'm like, ah, 100 words in 20 minutes—I could do that. But then, like, 2000 words in 12 hours—on a normal day, that's easy. But now I'm just like, ‘No, just give me the short ones.’ And I would rather fight 10 of these, which is ridiculous, than one of the big ones. 

KAC: That's not ridiculous. That's like the, ‘Would you rather fight 100 horse-sized ducks or one duck-sized horse?’ Readers, what we're looking at is the game, and there are very brightly colorful monsters. There's a quest book. This looks amazing. I'm excited to try this.

MRK: Yeah, oh, and also you get a wardrobe so you can dress your character. But to get these wardrobe items you have to earn them, so it's good at externalizing the internal consequences of writing and the internal rewards of it.

KAC: It's gamifying it.

MRK: It is, 100%. It's a role-playing game in which the metric for defeating monsters is the number of words you write and the time in which you write them.

KAC: And then does it know, or do you have to tell it?

MRK: It knows, it tracks it.

KAC: It knows. (Creepy voice. Then laughs)

MRK: Yeah, so this works super well for me, but for other people I know, that kind of pressure causes them enormous anxiety. I have another friend who likes the idea of it but can't deal with the pressure. So they write in their word processor, and then they come at the end of the day, paste into the thing, and pick a monster. They're like, ‘Okay, so I wrote this many words. And it took me about this long to write them.’ It’s like that.

KAC: Yeah, I thought about things like this before, when I did NaNoWriMo. Because you've got those tools for, like, just the month of November. But it shows you how many words everyone else in your state has written - the teamwork aspect of it works well for me.

MRK: Yeah, they don't have teams yet. They have a community, they're bringing teams. But honestly, the only reason that I write some days is that I don't want to break a streak. 

KAC: Yes! What about a writing group? Do you do a writing group too?

MRK: I don't, I have in the past. Yeah, I have not had a writing group for probably five years. And I miss that. I have several coworking groups and peer groups where we talk about writing, but I don't have anyone currently reading my fiction, which also, that external motivator is enormously helpful. And I've been thinking about needing to get a critique group again.

KAC: Or, even just the social support of a writing group. Right? Like even if they're not giving critiques, if they're just meeting in a coffee shop once a month to complain about where they're stuck in their plot, or talk through a problem, or just sit there and have friends around the water cooler.

MRK: Yeah, so in that regard, yes, I have a daily coworking session with one group of folks through the Lady Astronaut Club, which is a group of my fans and friends at this point, and then I have another group that just meets once a week at a different time. And those two times, I try to treat writing as sacred. And I hope that when I am no longer president of SFWA that will be easier to do?! (Laughs)

KAC: (Laughs) I hope so!

MRK: But often now I get into a session and I'm like, ‘And now I have to go do this thing!’

KAC: Yeah. Scheduling. 

MRK: Yes. 

KAC: What about your process is different when you're writing a short story as opposed to a novel?

MRK: Not much, honestly. It doesn't take me as long to plot a short story, and I can wing it if I need to. But in both cases, if there are other pressures, external pressures, I can't keep the whole story in my head, so I have to outline it. I tend to do small outlines for short stories. They're not incredibly detailed but just like ‘this is the scene,’ ‘this is who's going to be there,’ ‘this is what's going to happen.’ ‘This is the order in which you were hoping things will happen in that scene.’ Sometimes it's just ‘this is what's happening next.’ You know, ‘they're going to go to the coffee shop,’ and you're like, ‘all right, yeah!’ But it's not much different. For me, the primary difference between novels and short stories is the number of characters and plot threads, but otherwise, it's just fiction.

KAC: Yeah, and one thing I do is, I'll switch genres—if I'm at a point where I just can't write coherent fiction. I'm also a poet, so I'll switch to poetry because there are days where I can write poetry, but I can't write fiction, and there are days where I can write nonfiction, but I can't do poetry or fiction. And it helps to be able to jump around. But not everyone writes in multiple genres. 

MRK: Yeah, I have often used structured procrastination, where I have multiple things going. But for me, usually when I'm switching it's like, “I have been writing for a while. Now I will go build a puppet.”

KAC: Yes, the visual or tactile arts too. I think a lot of times people don't tend to think that's also stimulating your creative brain. You can sit and color an adult coloring book page or crochet something, and that might get juices stirring to help get you in the zone to write something.

MRK: Yeah. 

KAC: That has been pretty useful, to think about other means of warming up my creative brain.

MRK: Yeah. So one thing that I will do as far as warming up the creative brain is that I will try to do some physical activity. Something that engages a different part, or engages me kinetically, and is not a language-based thing. And while I'm doing that, I am then consciously thinking about the scenario in the words that I want to use. It must be something that has a finite amount of time, like doing the dishes, or walking around the block. Then I will finish and immediately go to the computer and sit down and put down the things that I was thinking about. I found that's incredibly useful for switching gears and warming up.

KAC: Yeah, and that could be a means of behavioral activation, too. Just from a mental health perspective. Getting that part of your brain going may not look like putting words on paper, depending on what's going on for you.

Earlier you talked about how writing becomes part of our identity. I feel like a lot of writers who have depression, in particular, will often fall into these cognitive impairments or this negative self-talk. Right? So, then you don't write because you're having a depressive episode, and you're worried that you're not a writer now and you'll never write again. And the negative self-talk becomes, like, really strong. Do you ever experience that now? Is that still an ongoing struggle?

MRK: It's less that I am a terrible writer and more that I have written a terrible thing. Which is the same thing. And it's always at the three-quarter mark.

KAC: Oh, yeah? That's useful to know.

MRK: Yeah, I know it, too. And it's really common. There's a thing called the ‘three-quarter effect.’ When you are three-quarters of the way through something, the remaining quarter seems impossible. And with storytelling, the reason for that is really easy to pinpoint, which is that we're switching modes from unpacking things and opening questions to needing to put everything back in the box. If you think about, like, going on vacation, part of the thing that's a pain in the ass about the end of vacation is that you have to get everything back into the suitcase.

KAC: Yeah, all the books you bought at the con table.

MRK: Yes. Everything that you didn't plan on acquiring, everything that you took with you that's now a little grubby. You have to go back into the suitcase. Getting it out of the suitcase was fun and delightful!

KAC: Yeah, that makes sense. So, what advice do you have for getting back on the horse after you have a period of interruption? 

MRK: I'm a firm believer in doing something just for joy. I'm also a firm believer in an easy setting, which means working with something that you're already familiar with. So don't necessarily try to get back on the horse and change genre at the same time. I'm a big believer/proponent in the value of fan fiction as a way to just be happy and remind yourself that you began writing because you love it. 

KAC: Without the pressure.

MRK: Without the pressure, right. You can decide whether you want to share that with people or whether you don't. And you can use that time just to nurture yourself, or you can use that time to work on your craft. But much like other aspects of my life when I am trying to get back into the swing, the biggest thing that I run into is, it's not that I don't want to write. It's that there are barriers, and some of those barriers are of my own making, and some of them are not. So, what I do is identify what my barriers are. Like, ‘Am I having trouble writing because I don't think I could do it?,’ ‘Am I having trouble writing because I don't know what to write? Or I don't have any ideas?,’ ‘Am I having trouble writing because I'm just tired, or hungry?’ You know, like, ‘Why am I not sitting down?’ And if I can identify what the barrier is, then I can usually come up with a solution. Basically, what I'm doing is I'm taking the writing process and making it more granular. And that's one of the ways that you solve problems; you break them down into smaller pieces. So if I'm not writing, it's like, ‘Well, why am I not writing? Okay. What can I do to address that?’

KAC: Yeah, that makes sense. You know, I remember in Writing Excuses. There is an episode where you guys were talking about Newton's law of writing. You say, “Butt in chair, hands on keyboard.” I remember thinking, ‘That is great advice, except on days when I can't sit, or use a keyboard,’ right? Those might be days that I'm making an audio file and transcribing it. I just think that being aware of what that looks like for you might be different.

MRK: Yeah, exactly. ‘Butt in chair, hands on keyboard’ is the form, but the essence is, 'Make space, do the work.’

KAC: Yeah. Get yourself in your writing space, get out the tools that you need. 

What common harmful narratives have you seen about disabled people with your disabilities?

MRK: The one that kept me from getting diagnosed. It is that the people who are depressed are sad. And I'm like, ‘I'm pretty cheerful.’ And while the sadness does come with depression, that is so not all it is. It is not just hanging out in a room wearing all black while listening to emo music. And while my worst episodes were very like, ‘Oh, yeah, that is textbook’—not getting out of bed, not bathing—the problem is that that depiction is the point at which you are in crisis, and not depicting all of the stages that lead up to it does not give people tools for recognizing when it's happening. 

The other narrative is that you can just pull yourself up. Just buck up, shake it off, pick it up. It's like, ‘No, this is this brain’s chemistry. This brain is going to brain.’ And the idea that taking medication is shameful.

KAC: Oh, yeah, that's a big one. Yeah. Everyone, take your medication, please!

MRK: Yes.

KAC: Which, we should just take a moment here to acknowledge what a privilege it is to have access to a diagnosis and treatments. But if you have those tools, by all means, be, you know, using them.

MRK: I spent 45 years without knowing that I could take medication. And when I finally went in and took it, it was life-changing. I don't take it now, because we have cognitive tools that work for me. The ADHD meds that I take are on an as-needed basis. And in both of those cases, it's because I didn't like the side effects. But I will go back on them when I need them.

KAC: Yeah. I feel that becomes one of the barriers that we face as disabled writers, just basic access to health care. That's a barrier in the way of writing. And then the more marginalized you are, the more layers of marginalization you add in, the more likely it is that you're going to have more barriers like that. 

MRK: Yeah, and I would say, the flip side of the ‘medication is life-changing,’ is the idea that medication is the only thing you need to do. Because that is not the case.

KAC: It's almost always the combination of tools. Very true. What about conventions and writing spaces? What can organizers and people who run these spaces do to help people with disabilities like yours access those events and spaces?

MRK: I think very strongly that every convention should have a quiet room where you can go and have no sensory or as little sensory input as possible. Easy access to food, and the ability to go back to your room easily. Gaps in the programming, like one thing that we will do—and I say this as someone who runs cons—is that we want to make sure that people get the value out of it. So we'll create so much content. And there's no downtime. 

KAC: Yeah. More time to get from room to room with a mobility device. 

MRK: Yes, exactly. No time to get from room to room. No time to process anything. You know, no time. And so, like, with the Nebulas, in the physical thing, we have all of the rooms close together, and we build in a half hour between each program item. And we build in a lunch break, and then we stop, and at the end, there's a sizable dinner break. We have things that begin after breakfast. So that you can go and eat things.

KAC: A variety of schedules. Scheduling options.

MRK: Yes. Some of these are things that are not addressing my stuff, but disabilities in general. Ramps should not be a controversy. Microphone use. I was very resistant to microphone use, and I have to acknowledge that. The reason I'm resistant to microphone use is that one of the side effects of microphones is that they cause all of the voices to come from one location, and as someone who has trouble focusing, that can make it harder for me. But, the flip side of that is that I can crochet and do something with my hands to help with my focus issues. And having things come over speakers makes it significantly easier for people who are hard of hearing or deaf. Make sure that you do not put the microphone in front of your mouth so that people who lip-read can see your mouth. Oh, glare also, paying attention to where the light is when you set up tables.

KAC: There are so many different physical needs that people might have. I feel like the biggest question is, ‘Are you involving disabled people in planning your convention?’

MRK: Yes.

KAC: If somebody needs a button to open doors, that's a huge issue if they can't physically enter the space.

MRK: I am keenly conscious of wheelchair access, mobility access in general, scooters. Because my mom uses an ability device. And boy, I was not conscious of that before her diagnosis. Yeah, maybe a little bit, but my awareness of things like the microphone in front of the mouth is because I have friends who are deaf. Because I've worked on cons where we've got people working with us on disability. And for God's sake, if you're doing an online convention and you do not have closed captioning, what are you even doing? 

KAC: Oh, I feel like that's one of the beautiful things about an online form, that you can lean into captioning. And the live chat at the bottom, if you're doing a panel—although it also can be intimidating for some people learning this technology , and it presents its own accommodation challenges.

MRK: But again, that's a thing that you can accommodate as an organizer. You have practice sessions. You have a tech team who's willing to talk people through and make that available before the convention starts. Because you're not limited to ‘everyone has to arrive in the same location.’

KAC: That's true. What about publishing professionals who want to work with Own Voices writers? But the thing that they're talking about is stigmatized, so a lot of people aren't ‘out’ about being disabled in that way. A lot of people who have depression never share that with anyone because they're still so ashamed. So like, editors and other publishers, what advice would you give to them about finding people with invisible disabilities to write those stories? 

MRK: You have to educate yourself first so that people know that you are a safe person to be able to have those conversations with. I got a note from an editor about a character. So—this is not published yet—but there's a character with a chronic pain condition. And there's another character who is retired. And the note that I got was maybe the reason he's retired is that he has a physical deformity, and I'm like, okay, so I have multiple problems with this note. First of all, differences in the way we are built do not prevent anyone from that. A lot of people do work with, quote-unquote, “physical deformities.” Second, really? Is that the language we want to use there? Or maybe that was first. I'm not even sure.

But also, part of my philosophy is that a character with chronic pain or depression or anorexia is allowed to have a story that is not about dealing with that issue. Their disability. Yes, it's like, ‘Will it affect the way they move through the world?’ 100%. And if it doesn't affect the way they move through the world, then it's just set dressing and not very good set dressing. But there's a difference between affecting the way they move through the world which will affect the plot, and being about ‘it.’

KAC: Right. Disability is not a thing you need to overcome as your plot arc. Like the only plot available for disabled characters is, ‘Well, in the end, he magically grew legs!’ Yay, he's not disabled anymore!

Another issue that I see a lot in feedback is abled people or differently disabled people who think my disability isn't realistic. 

MRK: Right. 

KAC: So I'm writing a story about a girl with OCD, and depression, and ADHD, and mobility issues, and people are like, ‘There's too much going on here!’ and, ‘You can't do this and have her fight dragons. That's just too much going on in one story,’ and I'm like, ‘Well, great, thank you for telling me my life is unrealistic.’

MRK: Oh yeah. The other one that I love is, ‘They're so whiny.’ 

KAC: Yeah.

MRK: I'm like... Are they, though? Like, I don't think they are.

KAC: Yeah. Another one that I hear, like from depressed writers is, ‘I would write a depressed character, but who wants to read about a guy with depression?’ And people don't think anyone would be interested in that story. But I don't know if you're familiar with Mr. Robot. Did you ever watch that series? 

MRK: I watched a couple of episodes.

KAC: There are all these scenes where they just do a brief flash, and you see him crying alone in the hallway or talking to himself alone in the bathroom. And they don't spend a lot of time with it, but it's clear that that is going on. The story isn't necessarily about that, but it's clear that he is disabled. I found that refreshing.

MRK: Yeah, that was one of the challenges when I wrote Relentless Moon and Nicole was in an extremely bleak place. Because you are not aware of the passage of time when it's happening, but you're in there with her. You're in that terrible spiral for a long time, conveying both the passage of time and the character’s awareness of it simultaneously because they are kind of opposed. 

KAC: Yeah. Well, I think it's usually helpful when the author frames that around what they get done while this is going on, even if it takes them a long time to get that thing done. Like, ‘Okay, I'm in the bleakest pit of despair here. This is, you know, despair. And then I did X. Despair. And then I did Y.’ You know, even if those are small steps towards whatever their plot goal is, that could make for more interesting reading. It doesn't mean you can't have a depressed character. You just don't want to trigger a depressive episode in all of your readers, right?

MRK: Right. So, in Relentless Moon, Nicole has anorexia, and I wrote that in a way that talked about what that experience was like without hitting triggers…

KAC: That's a real challenge.

MRK: And I felt like it was important to try to do because I'm like, I don't want, the word is, ‘thinspiration’.  And you know, that was also one of those things wherein the process of working on it, I was like, “Oh. Huh. Look at that behavior in me.” Again, you don't see the steps or stages. 

KAC: Well, I think that's one of the beautiful things about writing, is that writing can become the tool by which we discover things about ourselves. Really important things.

MRK: Yeah. And at the same time, I think that interrogation of self can often lead to better fiction. I also don't think that everything needs to be therapy when one is writing. 

KAC: Yeah. 

MRK: Which is the other stereotype about writers that makes me a little cranky sometimes. 

KAC: Yeah. If that's what you do with it, that's great. And that is one way to approach writing. But it doesn't have to be that.

MRK: Yeah, it does not have to hurt. It can hurt. But it is not a requirement.

KAC: You know, I think we've covered most of the topics that I had. Although, I do want to circle back to the community. That's the last topic, if you don't mind.

So, I wanted to ask you how disabled communities can create and hold spaces for multiply marginalized folk. And you talked about the communities you're a part of, including the Lady Astronaut community. What do you do to make that space safe for multiply marginalized disabled folks?

MRK: One of the things that we do, is that when people come into the community, there's a code of conduct. But the other thing we do is telling people that our channel is not just about health and disability, because we believe that these are parts of your everyday life, and that you should be able to discuss them anywhere and anytime that you need to.

KAC: So destigmatize it.

MRK: Yes, and we do that every time new people come in, so that you can talk about whatever part of your life you need to talk about, wherever it is that you're in. If you're in Aaron's space and you want to talk about the fact that you can't get a pilot's license right now because of your depression medication? Do that.

KAC: You're not separating those people. You're treating disability as just a normal part of the human condition.

MRK: Because it is.

KAC: Yeah. I love that. How did you start that? Like, for those of us who don't have fans yet, if we wanted to be part of a community like that, how do you get involved in meeting other authors?

MRK: Good question. Let me think about that. What I would say is, start with people that you trust. There's often a community already in existence. Sometimes it's a question of searching for it. Sometimes it is a question of starting it on your own. Sometimes it's asking, does this exist? The community that I have for essential tremors and Parkinson's I found through Facebook. It is not my ideal platform, but it is very handy to hear other people's stories. 

KAC: Yeah. It can be hard to find places to meet other disabled people outside of the medical or caregiver context. 

MRK: Yeah, exactly. But if anyone wants to join the Lady Astronaut Club, there's a link on my website. I can give it to you. There's a place. It's a self-addressed stamped envelope. 

KAC: Readers, you can join the Lady Astronaut Club at

MRK: Yeah, so you send a letter away, and you get a letter back with a membership card and password, like in the actual mail, because it's fun.

KAC: An actual card!

MRK: An actual membership card. Yeah, member-Ship card. Occasionally, I send other mail too, because why not?

KAC: That's awesome. I love that. 

Readers, if you haven’t already, please check out Mary Robinette’s work at her website, You can look for her books at your favorite local bookstore, and her short fiction is available in varied magazines and Mary Robinette’s anthology, Word Puppets. If you’d like to learn more about writing, she teaches with the Writing Excuses podcast. You can also look for her on Patreon, where she offers more writing instruction and fun content for patrons.

Thanks again, Mary Robinette, this was lovely.

MRK: You’re welcome!

Mary Robinette Kowal is the author of Ghost Talkers, the Glamourist Histories series, and the forthcoming Lady Astronaut duology. She is a cast member of the award-wining podcast Writing Excuses and a three-time Hugo Award winner. Her short fiction appears in Uncanny,, and Asimov’s. Mary, a professional puppeteer, lives in Chicago. Visit her online at
Kristy is a disabled intersex author who writes fiction, nonfiction, and poetry. She recently finished an MFA in fiction from Brigham Young University, but has since returned to the wild to rove Colorado as a feral academic, along with her husband, son, and a clutter of cats. You can read Kristy's short story “Elder Daughter” in Cicada Magazine. Her essay “Disabled at the Intersection” appears in WisCon Chronicles (Vol 12): Boundaries & Bridges from Aqueduct Press. Kristy's interviews are here at Strange Horizons, including the “Writing While Disabled” series. You can find more of her work at her website,
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