Writing Characters Who Share Your Disability and More with Elissa Grossell Dickey

This week’s episode of the Spoonie Authors Podcast features debut author Elissa Grossell Dickey.

Elissa Grossell Dickey is a former journalist who now works in higher education communications. Stories have always been a big part of Elissa’s life—from getting lost in a book as a child to now reading bedtime stories to her kids. As a columnist for the National MS Society, Elissa shares her personal journey of living with multiple sclerosis. Though she grew up among the lakes and trees of northern Minnesota, Elissa now lives on the South Dakota prairie with her husband and children. The Speed of Light is her first novel. For information, visit www.elissaadickey.wordpress.com.

The Spoonie Authors Podcast is devoted to sharing the life and stories of a different disabled author every other Friday. To be considered for an interview, send your author bio + the project you would like to discuss during your interview to diannalgunn @ gmail.com.


Dianna Gunn: Hello and welcome to the Spoonie Authors Podcast, a podcast where we explore the life and stories of a different disabled author every other Friday. I’m your host, Diana Gunn, and joining us today is Elissa Grossell Dickey. Elissa Grossell Dickey is a mother, writer, and multiple sclerosis warrior who believes in the power of strong coffee and captivating stories. Her debut novel, The Speed of Light—which focuses on a life-changing year in the life of a young woman as she grapples with an MS diagnosis, a new love, and a terrifying workplace incident—comes out in spring of 2021. Hello, Elissa!

Elissa Grossell Dickey: Hi, thank you so much for having me.

Dianna Gunn: Thank you for joining us. I’m very excited to talk to you. And can you tell us a bit more about your book, The Speed of Light?

Elissa Grossell Dickey: Sure, The Speed of Light, it’s book-club fiction and is told in intersecting timelines. And like you said, it follows a tumultuous year in the life of a woman who is grappling with a new Multiple Sclerosis diagnosis, a new love, and a terrifying workplace incident, and you kind of see the course of the two timelines intersecting, in the end, and of course don’t want to give a lot away. And this is my debut novel, and it’s coming March 1 from Lake Union Publishing, but it was also just launched last week as an Amazon first reads editor’s pick.

Dianna Gunn: So, that’s really cool that is coming up really soon. I’m very excited for you and you have a lovely cover. Let me, let me say that, readers, listeners, you have to find this cover and look at it, it’s beautiful.

Elissa Grossell Dickey: I could not have imagined, like seriously, it’s like they went into my head and grabbed the dream cover I had and put it on. Yeah. And it’s Tim Green from Faceout Studio is amazing. Yeah, I love it so much.

Dianna Gunn: That’s incredibly lucky, especially working with a publisher, yeah, sometimes I’ve heard stories of authors who, you know, they just hated their cover, and there’s not really anything they could do about it.

Elissa Grossell Dickey: Right. And honestly, I’d heard those stories, too, but it was a great process like, they asked for my, you know input in the beginning, and there was, I mean, I didn’t have a lot of tweaking, and I’m not that, you know, I would have like, pushed for different like, a small change or something but I just loved it pretty much right away, so [laughs]. It was great.

Dianna Gunn: That’s amazing. Back to the story itself, where, where did the inspiration come for the stories? You also have multiple sclerosis. So, how much of this is fiction, how much of this is inspired directly from your own story?

Elissa Grossell Dickey: I feel like, I think what I’ve said before to people is kind of like externally, it’s fiction internally, what she’s feeling and thinking, there is a lot of my own but as far as like where it comes from, or where it came from? It started as my NaNo project back in 2016, and at that point I didn’t know, honestly, where it was going beyond—I kind of wanted to set a love story at Christmas time, but then it was the election that month. [Dianna laughs] Yeah [laughs], I saw the hashtag #WriteYourResistance, and I’ve written two other manuscripts for this story, and I had never written the main character with my illness. And so I decided this to be the story and I was going to write, be brave and write up your main character with MS. And then it kind of grew from there.

Dianna Gunn: That’s awesome. And just in case any listeners don’t know NaNo is National Novel Writing Month, which happens every November. It’s a challenge to write 50,000 words in the span of the month of November. I have also participated in it several times. Although not in a few years. It’s quite a lot of fun.

Elissa Grossell Dickey: It is and honestly, I, I didn’t that time and it hardly ever. I think I’ve only once in my entire life done 50,000 words in one month but it’s a great time just for the excitement and to start something new and set a goal, even if it’s like: I’m going to write, you know, every day this month or just kind of like a small attainable goal is better for me than the whole 50,000. Usually, it’s just not attainable [laughs].

Dianna Gunn: Yeah. I think that it provides a really solid sense of community. 

Elissa Grossell Dickey: Yeah, yeah.

Dianna Gunn: And it—when we’re doing creative goals, it’s all in our own head and NaNoWriMo kind of helps with that. It pulls it out of your head and you have a shared goal with other people, which really gives you more impetus to actually finish the thing. I think a lot of people finish their first book that way.

Elissa Grossell Dickey: Yeah, that’s awesome.

Dianna Gunn: That—sorry that this has become an advert for NaNoWriMo. It is also how I wrote my first book so. 

Elissa Grossell Dickey: Oh, neat, awesome! 

Dianna Gunn: Yeah. 

Elissa Grossell Dickey: I think it’s great and do you do the Camp NaNoWriMo months as well, because I do that. 

Dianna Gunn: I don’t like the way that Camp NaNoWriMo is formatted as much.

Elissa Grossell Dickey: Okay.

Dianna Gunn: The community aspect is not as strong. 

Elissa Grossell Dickey: Okay. 

Dianna Gunn: Also my local community has changed a lot, my local NaNoWriMo community. It’s sort of grown to the point where it’s overwhelming, and I don’t really enjoy it the way I used to. So, I don’t necessarily do NaNoWriMo anymore, but for a long time it was a very important part of my life and my fantasy novel Moonshadow’s Guardian was originally a NaNoWriMo project, a long time ago. I don’t even remember what year, it was that long.

Elissa Grossell Dickey: I know! That’s what I had to actually look up to remember what year this one started. [Laughter]

Dianna Gunn: See, that’s how you keep track, the election years, it’s easier to know what the year was.

Elissa Grossell Dickey: Right.

Dianna Gunn: So, what was your biggest challenge in making this book happen?

Elissa Grossell Dickey: Yes. Yeah, and honestly, I think the biggest challenge was the fact that it is so personal. Because I kind of talked about in many ways. My main character’s journey here, her experiences as she goes through her diagnosis are based on my own. So, now as people are starting to read it, it is a little scary I have to say. But um, but I’ve gotten some great you know some very nice notes already. And, and honestly just—it was so rewarding for myself but just writing this helped me so much to process some of the fears and doubts and kind of just all of the emotions that I have about living with MS and the symptoms that come with it. So, I kind of figured out that this was very much a story I wrote that because I needed—it was the story I needed to read when I was first diagnosed. So, I kind of now I just really hope that it resonates with readers, the way that it did with me.

Dianna Gunn: I think that’s really all any of us can hope for. 

Elissa Grossell Dickey: Yeah. 

Dianna Gunn: That readers will, you know, feel at least half the way that we do about our own books.

Elissa Grossell Dickey: Right and just get it and understand, you know, kind of where, where you’re coming from.

Dianna Gunn: Hopefully feel seen and maybe even loved. 

Elissa Grossell Dickey: Yes. 

Dianna Gunn: Although in my books, it’s more like feel seen and then like heart shattered. [Elissa laughs] There are two types of writers, right? There was that Twitter meme going around recently. There are two types of writers: there are the ones who want to give you a warm hug with fiction and the ones that want to shatter your soul. 

Elissa Grossell Dickey: Yes. But back to that because I’ve been told that, that… one early note I got from my wonderful CP is, “Your characters are just too nice to each other this is not, like…” Oh, yeah, I should probably work on that. So I’m the warm hug one, you can be the heart shatterer, is that what you’re saying?

Dianna Gunn: Yes. [Laughter] I think there’s room for both of these kinds of books in the world. I think both are incredibly important. Actually, one thing that really makes me angry is when people devalue the books that are you know a warm comforting hug, and you know, fluffy things—like we need those. Let’s be honest, most of the people who devalue those books are cishet white guys who have never been oppressed in their whole lives and, therefore, don’t understand why you would need escapism.

Elissa Grossell Dickey: Right, exactly. Yeah.

Dianna Gunn: So, I was actually going to ask if this, if writing it helps you process, your experience as a disabled person. You already talked about that a little bit. Do you want to elaborate on that a bit?

Elissa Grossell Dickey: Um, sure I mean that was…. And sorry I might, I’m not as prepared for this one. I might stumble a little bit but yes, it helped me process just kind of the uncertainty that comes with living with MS. And, day to day… Kind of like how one day, I’ll be totally fine, and  it’s very much an invisible illness. And I could almost, you know, almost go around and no one would know. And then the next day, I’m not fine and so it’s hard to kind of, you know, feel like you’re constantly trying to prove that. Yes, I really don’t feel well even though I was fine yesterday, like that sort of thing So I think having some of the things happened to her and like, it’s almost like I’m helping my main characters through it. And so then, in a way then I’m helping myself through it. Or like just the uncertainty of my illness long term. And also, like, early on, I, I didn’t start medication right away because each, each case is different, or a treatment, and I’m this you know… Talking with my neurologist, this was what was decided, I guess, long story short, because there’s always a long story with an MS diagnosis, but this was decided to be the path to go on. But then there was—even with that, there was some uncertainty for me right away. Was that the right choice? And so I kind of put that to her, and it helped me kind of talk myself through that [laughs]. And now, you know, future—like, now I feel like, because I’m farther along on my diagnosis path, and I have started like, my injection, injections and stuff and then it was the right choice. And you just, you keep adapting to your new normal. But at the time, that was [distorted sound] what I needed. And so now I almost like—there are some other side characters that I’m like, “Oh, now I’m more of this character,” because I’m just far along in the journey, so I’m the one that’s giving her advice in the story and stuff. So yeah, I think it helped me more than I even knew at the time, because now I can look back and be like, “Oh, I was kind of telling myself that [unclear].

Dianna Gunn: Yeah, and it’s particularly hard when you have something that is A) an invisible illness and B) something like multiple sclerosis where there’s so many different ways it manifests and to my understanding, there are a variety of treatments and all of them only kind of work, like partway.

Elissa Grossell Dickey: Right and it’s, yeah, and it’s and since then like I’ve met a lot of people who said, “Oh yeah, I took,”  you know, “this for a while and now I’m not on anything.” And so it wasn’t as controversial as I may be worried about at the time that I didn’t take anything. And I think it’s just when it’s your world and it’s what’s going on with you, you’re like, “Oh my gosh, this is…” you know, “This is the worst thing ever and I could have made the wrong choice.” But being able to step back and be like, “No, this is my path. I did the right thing for myself and my family, and all I can do is keep adapting, as I need to.” And that’s, it’s hard because every time you think like any sort of setback… You know, you think, okay, I can’t handle this ,but you just adapt, and you lean on people who love you and you… it becomes your new normal and you get through it because now like I said I do take injections and, you know, three times a week. I never… before that I, you know, it’s kind of like, “Oh my gosh, how can I get used to that,” and remember that it’s going to hurt and things like that, but  it’s fine now it’s just part of my, my routine. [Laughs]

Dianna Gunn: Yeah, these things are scary at first but you adjust.

Elissa Grossell Dickey:  Right.” 

Dianna Gunn: And that’s a really powerful message to have out there. 

Elissa Grossell Dickey: Yeah. 

Dianna Gunn: So, having gone through this experience, what advice would you give to a writer who is thinking about using fiction to explore their own disability? How would you suggest they approach that?

Elissa Grossell Dickey: That’s a very good question. I would say write the story you want to write and be that—like because honestly, I… This might I hope this doesn’t come out wrong but I’m, I’m nervous. I was nervous at first because I absolutely want to see stories up all over the place like, you know like, people with chronic illness and disability, living life doing, you know, solving crimes doing all like, where it is more of a, you know like, just a background and not… Because I see a lot where there should be more stories where it’s not the focus of it, but for me I really needed to write the story, and it is a lot of the focus because she’s going through her diagnosis, and I think now that I you know I think that’s okay. I think if that’s your story that you need to tell, then I think it’s okay to do that. And so I think I would just… Don’t be like me. Don’t be super worried about people not getting it or not getting you because it is your story and everyone should be able to tell their story. If that makes sense. 

Elissa Grossell Dickey: Absolutely. Don’t be your own gatekeeper folks. 

Elissa Grossell Dickey: Yeah. Yes, that’s a great—thank you for putting it so much better than I could!

Dianna Gunn: I’m pretty sure I have heard someone else say this on a podcast. It just popped into my head but sort of like one of those familiar things that you’re like, “Someone said this before,” and it’s just the perfect way to summarize.

Elissa Grossell Dickey: Yes, I love it.

Dianna Gunn: Don’t be your own gatekeeper. There are enough of those in the world.

Elissa Grossell Dickey: Right. And there are enough, you know like, because you worry about is this… you know, our people or people could just… it’s kind of the same fears you have about your illness, you have about writing your story, like…

Dianna Gunn: Is my character disabled enough?

Elissa Grossell Dickey: Yes, exactly! You know, are they’re gonna believe me and are people gonna relate to this or are they gonna think she’s whining or think she’s, you know, like all of this stuff. And in the end, you just have to be proud of your story and think about the person out there who’s like you who’s asking themselves those questions, and maybe they will pick up your book, and see themselves for the first time and feel seen. So even if you get, you know, other people who don’t agree with it and you get, you know, because I already have bad reviews, you know there’s people who leave me reviews and whatever. But the one person even who reaches out to you that says they felt seen for the first time will make everything worth it, I promise.

Dianna Gunn: Absolutely. It’s… I can say from experience having someone reach out and say they feel seen by your work is… it’s got to be one of the best feelings.

Elissa Grossell Dickey: Oh yes.

Dianna Gunn: Yeah, there’s a whole range of human experience.

Elissa Grossell Dickey: I agree wholeheartedly.

Dianna Gunn: Alright, so there is one question that I like to ask all of my guests, sort of keep a theme and tie everything together and that is how would you like to see disability representation change in the coming years, not just in publishing but throughout the media landscape?

Elissa Grossell Dickey: Oh wow. I think, I mean, I feel honored to be publishing a novel about a main character who shares my illness. And I guess that’s a blanket statement that I would just want that for all other writers in the disability community, you know, be it for novels, TV, movies, everything. I would love to see a wide range of disability rep written by disabled authors across all genres. And I just want there to be more opportunities in general for authors in the disability community to write the stories they want to write, because we all have so many stories we want to tell. And I hope that accessibility efforts, only continue to improve. I know—because I mean I feel like there were some strides made because of last year in the pandemic and everything, but I hope that they continue, and even get—everything even gets more accessible in the future.

Dianna Gunn: Absolutely, more accessible future. And, you know, keeping all of the accessibility that we’ve gained last year, too.

Elissa Grossell Dickey: Right and not being like oh we can get rid of it now, or you know, now we don’t need it anymore. Well, we do. [Laughs]

Elissa Grossell Dickey: Yeah, I think that’s a really big concern for a lot of people right now. Is that when all this is over, bosses are gonna demand people come into offices, even though it’s not mandatory really needed.

Elissa Grossell Dickey: Necessary, yeah.

Dianna Gunn: And, you know, all of these options that, you know, were denied to disabled people beforehand because I mean let’s be real. In most cases the accessibility that exists now was always possible. It just wasn’t done, because people don’t—our society does not care enough about disabled people.

Elissa Grossell Dickey: Right, right. Sad but true. 

Elissa Grossell Dickey: So, I mean, it’s as much like… at the bare minimum we want to keep these strides, these gains that we’ve made. 

Elissa Grossell Dickey: Right, right.

Dianna Gunn: Ideally, we will push forward.

Elissa Grossell Dickey: Right, and have people at the table that if you don’t know how to make something more accessible than ask, ask someone who knows [laughs], you know.

Dianna Gunn: Exactly, we are out here. And multiple people I’ve interviewed on this podcast, do accessibility consultations and sensitivity editing and all of these things to like, they’re available. You just have to hire them. And  ask the right questions and actually listen.

Elissa Grossell Dickey: Yeah, because no one’s expected to be, I mean, I know I… There’s tons of stuff I don’t know and I, you know, I hope to keep improving on my own knowledge. So don’t be afraid to ask. Don’t be, you know, ask the question and like you said, and then listen, and follow through.

Dianna Gunn: Exactly. And while I want to see more stories by disabled people for disabled people, I think if able-bodied and neurotypical people actually followed that advice, they could write much better representation.

Elissa Grossell Dickey: Right, right, because you know you, even if they’re not writing from the main character’s point of view, you know, have disabled people in their world and do that correctly because, you know, I think, yeah, just having a wide range of characters would be wonderful.

Dianna Gunn: Yeah. All right, well, it has been lovely chatting with you. Where can people go to find out more about you and to grab a copy of The Speed of Light?

Elissa Grossell Dickey: Okay, they can find me on my website which is elissaadickey.wordpress.com/, and there they’ll find links to preorder my book or add it on Goodreads or the link to the Amazon First Reads selection, and then also all my social media, if you want to connect.

Dianna Gunn: Awesome. Thanks for joining us, and have a wonderful day, night, whatever time it is where you are. [Elissa laughs] Thanks for listening to this episode of the Spoonie Authors Podcast. The Spoonie Authors Podcast is part of the Spoonie Authors Network, a community initiative devoted to sharing the stories of disabled authors and educating abled people about what life is like for disabled creatives. Transcripts of this podcast are also available on the Spoonie Authors Network. To learn more or become a contributor visit spoonieauthorsnetwork.com. And of course, if you enjoyed this podcast, make sure to leave us a five-star review on your favorite podcast streaming platform.

(Transcribed by https://otter.ai. Edited for clarity by Cait Gordon.)

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