INTERVIEW: Lisette Auton | NARC. | Reliably Informed | Music and Creative Arts News for Newcastle and the North East

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I wanted to write about disabled people having adventures. Not being second best, not being a villain…I want it to be kind and fun.”

The Secret of Haven Point is the exciting debut novel by Darlington-based writer and creative practitioner Lisette Auton. She continues: “[I wanted it] to have the grittiness of the places that we love and know up North. And I wanted to write about a captain with a kitten in his beard! Then the book just happened.”

With clear focus on both Northern and disabled identity, Lisette has written a powerful book about a daring and adventurous community of ‘wrecklings’. I wanted to know more about her decision to make everything so clearly local, especially in her use of dialect and colloquialisms. “I realised that we speak in patterns, we have a lyricalness to our language. I wondered if I could put in the pattern from our language and the odd words. Then maybe we’ll know it’s from us.

I did get told, right from the beginning, that it might be harder to sell to other countries and places. So there was a point, I suppose, where I could have gone ‘no, I’ll make it more universal’ but I can’t. It’s my voice. It’s how I write. It’s what I love. That was a definite choice I made. Because our voice isn’t in stories, is it? Our voice should be there. Because it’s rich and beautiful.”

In spite of its clear Northern ties and celebration of our local culture, it’s hard to pinpoint exactly where this novel takes place. Many signs point to South Shields, but other context clues come from the Tees mouth. So how real is Haven Point? “It was very real to start off with. The coast was my childhood, my stomping ground. And then when I came to writing, it felt like sacrilege to change anything. My editor was like, ‘why have we got two chapters of them walking?’ I said ‘they need to get from here to there’. She was like, ‘can’t you just move it?’ That was a really liberating moment.”

The book is filled with complex, wonderful characters, both on land and at sea. One such character is the wise “not-Mam” Ephyra. “She’s probably an amalgamation of loads of strong Northern women. Grandma and Nana, and then women in positions of power. In the North East you’ve got a lot of women in leading creative roles. We’ve got this thing of this heart, this soul, this beauty. This fierce, hard fought wisdom. When I started getting involved in disability arts, there were lots of women who are a bit older than me who really took me under their wing. They’re all hard, battle-scarred women who are just the kindest, funniest, slightly scary people that I’ve ever met.”

Belonging is kind of a universal theme, something that we all search for. I definitely found a sense of belonging and a found-family within the disabled community, where you don’t have to do all the explaining first. It’s just lived and understood

Almost every character within this story is disabled, both in ways that are visible and invisible. It is refreshing to find a story that lets disabled characters use their voice, but also lets them be flawed, well-rounded and real. What’s more, their disabilities are talked about as casually as eye colour. I asked Lisette about the decisions around what language she chose to use.

I’m really nervous about this going out in the world. I think if there were loads of books by disabled people out there with decent disabled characters, then I would feel alright. Because, at the end of the day, I can choose the way that I describe myself…I just hope that people know it’s coming from a place of love.

I think for me, being disabled is a massive part of my identity. But it’s a political part of my identity. There are barriers to things. They’re not my fault or my body’s fault. They are barriers that societies put in the way. And I want me and my friends to be able to access everything. So I suppose this wasn’t impairment-led, it was more about the ‘whys’ of being disabled. I think it’s really important that we’re allowed to make choices about self-description.”

Having experienced a system which was not designed with her in mind, Lisette reflects on the language placed onto disabled people, and hopes that creative works like her book can be a part of dismantling that same system. “There’s blame and shame and wrongness in language use. I think in most of the discourse about disability, it’s a charity model. It’s ‘Oh bless, what can we do to help the poor disabled people?’ Or a medical model. ‘What’s wrong with them? How can we fix them?’ In this book, nobody needs fixing. They just are. They have arguments, they fall out and they do all the stuff that you just do when you’re human. But without being fixed, or being told they’re wrong.”

Ultimately, The Secret of Haven Point is a book about a found-family. Discovering somewhere that you can call your home, with people that you can call your own. Something that has always been vital to Northern people and people with disabilities; two groups which this book champions for the complicated, wonderful people they are.

Belonging is kind of a universal theme, something that we all search for. My family are absolutely and utterly glorious. When I became disabled, because they weren’t, there were a lot of conversations and questions and things that I couldn’t have with them. So I definitely found a sense of belonging and a found-family within the disabled community, where you don’t have to do all the explaining first. It’s just lived and understood.”

The Secret of Haven Point by Lisette Auton is published by Puffin on 3rd February.

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