ROBERT BENNETT WRITES from a unique perspective; he has Spina Bifida, and writes books about a blind protagonist from his wheelchair. He describes himself as a social worker turned writer who lives in the house he grew up in with his mother, one of his brothers, two dogs and a turtle. Since I live with two dogs and a turtle, I liked him immediately!
He has a degree in criminal justice and masters in social work. “My lifelong focus has been a concern for the needs of society’s disenfranchised,” he says. He has written numerous articles on topics from sports to technology and from politics to social justice.
Mike: Welcome Robert. First, let’s start with Spina Bifida, most people don’t know much about it, can you describe the disease and what some of the limitations are? And how did you end up in a wheelchair?
Robert: Spina Bifida occurs when the fetus is growing in the womb and its spine doesn't form correctly (a neural tube defect). Some of the vertebrae (bones in the spine) don't close to make their normal ring shapes around the spinal cord. The opening that results causes one of three types of spina bifida: occulta: a tiny opening, usually causes mild or no symptoms; meningocele: a big enough opening so that some of the membrane surrounding the spinal cord sticks out through the opening; myelomeningocele: the most serious kind, in which some of the spinal cord itself sticks out through the opening in the spine.
I was born with the third form, though I was extremely fortunate that, up until my car accident in 1988, I suffered from very few symptoms. You see, the type of symptoms the person has depends on where along the spine the opening occurred, since that is where the spinal cord was injured. My lesion is very low down my spine, at my tailbone. The accident, though, exacerbated a previously unknown symptom, a tethered spinal cord. Before then, unbeknownst to anyone, the cord itself had been connected to the vertebrae by scar tissue. The jarring action of the accident caused the entire system to yank and eventually start dying.
I was in and out of the hospital a lot when I was quite young, but rarely since then and never related to this condition. I had trouble learning to walk and ride a bike as a child, but I did walk without aids (until the car accident) and I did ride a bike. My walking balance was never wonderful, but I managed it well. I never suffered from any mental challenges, though many others do.
M: How did that disability affect your writing?
R: While the Spina Bifida itself does not affect my writing, the loss of use of my legs as a result of my accident has helped me to understand not only disability but the process of grieving, loss, and adjustment associated with disability. Disability in general is what my writing has always been about. From the beginning of my writing career, 17 years ago, I’ve been trying to provide information, help, and encouragement to the disabled community. And, I’ve tried to help the able-bodied community to understand disabilities and the fact that the two groups are not as distinct or diverse as some would espouse.
M: Let me turn to your blind protagonist I referred to above; what have you learned and how difficult is it to write about a blind person?
R: Blind Traveler is/will be a series of novels. Individually, each of the first set of stories will explore the four remaining physical senses of the protagonist, a blind man. Contrary to what many people believe, those who lose the function of one sense do not somehow become “super” in the other senses. Instead, they learn how to become more reliant on the remaining senses. I learned a lot about the ways in which blind people live their lives by interviewing a large group of them. I paid attention to how they move through the world, how they define what they feel, taste and smell. I asked a lot of questions. To me, the job of an author isn’t writing what I know, but rather writing about what I can find out.
M: Can you give me a sentence or two about each of the books?
R: My first Blind Traveler book, Blind Traveler Down a Dark River, introduces my protagonist and shows that a person with a “disability” can not only function in the world, but thrive in it, achieving all of life’s goals and then some. Unfortunately, one day the GPS/virtual sound device he uses to navigate through his world falters. He becomes confused. He believes he is in one location. His device tells him he is in another. Attempting to orient himself, he literally stumbles onto the scene of a murder. The second book, Blind Traveler’s Blues, continues the life story of my protagonist. He meets a woman he thinks he might like to have a relationship with, but finds himself faced with a familiar, and deadly, challenge.
M: In addition to your books, I notice you have a long list of publication credits. Can you give me the highlights?
R: It’s hard to highlight anything in particular because I’ve been writing professionally for many years. I’ve been a freelance writer for all of that time. I’ve been a stringer for several disability-related magazines as well as one publication devoted to virtual reality technology. Though I’ve written on a wide variety of topics, my favorite is technology. I love fiddling with new devices and telling people how those devices can improve the quality of life. When asked, I don’t refer to myself as an advocate for disability-related issues, but through my writing I do intend to help improve lives. In that sense I’ve always considered that I still do social work, though on a much larger scale than when I was actually working in the field.
M: And about your blogs?
R: I do a fair bit of guest blogging, though I know I should be doing a lot more. I also have my own blog, The BlindTraveler’s Blog. I use it to flesh out ideas for my writing, and invite others to give me feedback.
M: I always like to ask this of my guest writers: How did you get started writing?
R: I got angry, seriously. I started writing shortly after my car accident in 1988. Within three years after that horrific event I lost the use of my legs, and started to notice how people treated me, and others with disabilities, differently. Now sitting in a wheelchair, I was literally seeing the world from a different angle, and didn’t like what I saw. Attitudinal bigotry. Paternalism. Architectural inaccessibility. My first publication was a series of articles applying Elisabeth Kubler-Ross’s stages of death and dying to the early effects on someone with a new disability. After that I started writing articles for a wide spectrum of mainstream magazines, trying to show readers that people with disabilities can do pretty much the same things as able-bodied folk.
M: How did you get your first book published?
R: Like all of us, I struggled to find a publisher for my first book. I scoured the internet for names and addresses of publishers. I talked to several people who I knew were writers and had things published. I went to a writer’s conference where I met with several publishers. I eventually bought a computer program which had an Agent and Publisher section with a list of names and addresses. The program allowed users to narrow their searches based on things like genre, word count and location. Eventually I went with a POD company (fortunately I did not have to shell out any cash for).
M: How do you market your books?
R: Much of it is through word of mouth. I talk to as many people as seem interested in either disability or mystery novels. I do guest blogs (like this one) where I either answer interview questions or write articles about some aspect of my work. I’ve done radio interviews as well as a local cable TV show. I also leave business cards with a description of my first book, all over the place, like on tables when I go out for dinner.
M: Where can we find your books and are any available in e-book format?
R: Blind Traveler Down a Dark River is available on paper through my publisher, Publish America, and in both paper and ebook on Amazon. The second book in the series, Blind Traveler’s Blues, is coming out, in ebook only, through Echelon Press. No exact publication date has been set.
M: What are your writing habits? In other words, do you write each day, morning, evening, etc.?
R: I don’t follow any particular rules. Generally speaking I’m not an outliner, though I have been known to jot down ideas, or record them into an app on my I-pod. I’m not someone who writes every day, or at a specific time of day, though I am thinking about my writing most of the time. I don’t like to start the actual writing until I have a pretty solid idea of the characters and plot in my head. Then I write like gangbusters! Before then, though, I scour the news and the newspaper for interesting locations and subjects. And, when I travel I take copious notes about the scenery and architecture to use in one of my stories.
M: Anything upcoming?
R: Without going into too much detail, my second novel is coming out, as well as a short story, about the early days of my protagonist. I’m also beginning to collect research material for my third Blind Traveler story.
M: Do you have any hobbies, or any spare time activities?
R: I read A LOT (currently a book about Obama, and an H.G Wells short story). I go to writing and photography seminars. I’m trying to learn to play my harmonica. I go to the movies. I play video games.
M: How can readers contact you?
M: Thank you very much for your time today.
R: Thank you for giving me this opportunity, Mike.