Fencing with POTS, Disability and Traditional Publishing, and More with Lillie Lainoff: A Spoonie Authors Podcast

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Lillie Lainoff

A former Div I NCAA fencer for Yale, Lillie Lainoff is the founder of Disabled Kidlit Writers and the winner of the 2019 LA Review Literary Award for Short Fiction. Her non-fiction has been featured in The Washington Post Outlook, amongst other places. She received her MA in Creative Writing Prose Fiction from the University of East Anglia. One for All, her debut novel, will be published by FSG in March 2022.

Buy One For All today:

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Dianna Gunn: Hello and welcome to the Spoonie Authors Podcast, a podcast where we explore the lives and stories of different disabled authors. I’m your host, Dianna Gunn, and today we are being joined by Lillie Lainoff. Lillie Lainoff is a former Division One NCAA fencer for Yale, and the founder of Disabled Kidlit Writers, and the winner of the 2019 LA Review Literary Award for short fiction. Her nonfiction has been featured in The Washington Post Outlook amongst other places. She received her MA in Creative Writing Prose Fiction from the University of East Anglia. And One for All, her debut novel, was released just last month. Hello, Lillie!

Lillie Lainoff: Hi, thank you so much for having me. 

Dianna Gunn: Thank you for joining us. I am really excited to have you here. And I’ve got to admit, I think we’ve been Twitter friends for a couple of years, but I still feel kind of starstruck. Your book is going to be huge.

Lillie Lainoff: Awww, that’s so sweet. I mean, I actually had someone tell me something similar earlier today. And it’s a very strange feeling. Because as writers we just kind of exist on our little, you know, writing gremlin holes, and we just kind of type away on our computers. So, to hear that people are excited about One for All… it’s exciting, but it’s also confusing, because, oh right, my writing does exist outside of my computer and in the world [laughs].

Dianna Gunn: Yeah, I’m sure it’s a little terrifying too.

Lillie Lainoff: Oh, yeah [laughs]. Definitely. 

Dianna Gunn: Alright, so other than the hype, can you tell us a bit about your book, One for All?

Lillie Lainoff: Yes. So, the official tagline is that One for All is a gender-bent reimagining of the Three Musketeers in which a girl with a chronic illness train as a musketeer and uncovers secrets, sisterhood, and self-love. And its alternative title, which initially started as a joke on Twitter, but somehow took off is Sisterhood of the Stab Stab. Because [laughs] one I mean, there are a lot of stabby girls and One for All. But at its core One for All is very much about sisterhood and found family. And the strength that it takes to learn to love yourself in a world that sometimes or maybe most of the time tells you that you shouldn’t. It’s around 400 pages long. I’m awaiting to– I’m awaiting my final copies. So, I haven’t seen the exact number of pages yet. And I think that’s—I think that’s the overall general bit.

Dianna Gunn: Awesome. You know, I think 400 pages is a really good, sweet spot. I think beyond that, I mean, I love big books, but I can only devote so much time to reading. So, I like to read shorter books, because then I can read more of them [snickers].

Lillie Lainoff: Also, also, the heavier books, they’re hard to carry around. I’m very much a… I always take a book with me wherever I go. So, I have a book in my backpack, or I’ll have a book in my purse. And it’s difficult when the book is 600 pages, to lug that thing around.

Dianna Gunn: Absolutely. So, what inspired you to write One for All?

Lillie Lainoff: Right, so One for All… the idea came to me around December 2017. I was on a phone call with my literary agents, we were out on submission with my other novel that I signed with my agents before that didn’t sell. And we were talking about book ideas and what I wanted to write next. And somehow, we got on the topics of—on the topic of retellings and reimaginings. And as I was sitting there talking to them, The Three Musketeers popped into my mind and I said, “Hold on, I have to stop the phone call because I have to write this down.” [Dianna laughs quietly] And I wrote down One for All, which has been the title of the book ever since I mean the first sentence and started writing. And I had to stop and start writing it because I was senior, and I needed to work on my thesis and other classes. But it turned into this book— oh, I actually would have been December 2016, wow. It’s been a long time since I started writing One for All. But I started writing in 2016, had to do my thesis, stopped writing, started writing again and then finished the first draft at the beginning of 2018. And worked on it for a while; we went on submission with it at the end of 2018. It sold at the end of 2019. Fast forward to today. And it’s out in March.

Dianna Gunn: Incredible. That is quite the journey, and I can’t believe you came up with the title right away. I know that’s really hard for a lot of writers, myself included [laughs].

Lillie Lainoff: I think that it’s one of my writing superpowers in the sense that for my other novels, too, because I mean, I should clarify One for All maybe, maybe my debut novel, but it’s not the first novel I’ve written. It’s not the second novel. It’s not the third novel I’ve written [Dianna laughs], it’s the fourth. And it’s not just the full novels: I’ve written parts and halves of other novels that are hiding on my computer. But it… I don’t think I’ve ever; I think I’ve changed the title of a short story once. 

Dianna Gunn: Wow. That’s…

Lillie Lainoff: But every other time I, the titles of my novels have stayed the same. The titles of my short stories have stayed the same. And it’s a strange superpower, because I wish I could spread it around and help other people come up with their titles, but I can’t—it’s a very personal thing, I think. But I know, I know that I am very, very lucky, because I know that authors are asked to change their titles a lot, especially after they get book deals. But nobody ever asked me to change One for All‘s title. So, I’m very happy about that.

Dianna Gunn: That is awesome. Do you have the same superpower with naming characters too? 

Lillie Lainoff: Oh, no. [Dianna laughs] I… that being said, I had Tania’s name right away because I knew that I wanted it to be… it’s… I wanted it to sound like D’Artagnan. So, I was trying to think of the parallel that I could use. But I spent so much time trying to find other names that worked. And the fun piece of trivia for listeners is that Thea, who is one of the Four Musketeers in my book, her name was originally Althea. But that’s not very 17th century French. And it also sounded a bit too close to Aria. So, we wanted something that sounded  like it stood on its own. So, all the characters would be more discernible from each other. So, Althea became Thea, which I think was a good choice in the end, but it’s very difficult for me to think of her as anything else but Althea.

Dianna Gunn: Nice. So, your main character has POTS, and you also have POTS. Did you find that writing One for All helped you heal or process your own journey with disability and especially disability as it related to your journey with fencing?

Lillie Lainoff: I think so. One for All…. As the act of writing One for All, I felt like I was writing… an acceptance of myself onto the page. And by putting it out into the world, it felt like me, saying, ” Here, everybody, here is this thing that you can that you can hopefully use to accept yourself too.” Because I do think that there’s a universality to One for All and Tania’s story, that… and it was the first time I had written about POTS in a long form piece. I’d written about POTS for articles, I’ve written about POTS in short stories; I’d never written about it in a novel. And I initially kind of strayed away from the character from Tania having POTS. Initially, she didn’t have pots, the first paragraph, I guess, of my dropping, and then as I went on, I realized, oh, no, wait, she has to have POTS because so much of how I experience fencing and how I how I fence, the fencer that I am is inextricably linked with the fact that I have POTS and the fact that I’m chronically ill. And I realized that I wanted to write about a fencer who was going through or who went through the same obstacles that I did. And it’s already you know, there are a lot of books about people with swords [Dianna laughs], sword fight, but not necessarily people who are fencers and trained fencers. And as far as books about athletes are concerned, there are very little that talk about athletes with chronic illness. There are a lot of fiction books about athletes with physical injuries and mental illness but very little with chronic illness. And I think that writing Tania opened up me to the idea that one, I’m not alone in terms of being a chronically ill athlete, but you know, two, I get so many responses from different readers and different people now saying, oh, you know, I’m an athlete, I’m a chronically ill athlete, and it just it, it makes me incredibly happy that readers are feeling seen. But it also makes me incredibly sad for little Lillie, who thought that she was completely alone. So, I think that the process of writing One for All, yes, that was helpful, and I learned to accept myself, but I think that probably the biggest act of helping accept myself and the healing is has been actually putting it out into the world for other people to read.

Dianna Gunn: That’s awesome. It’s really something special to have someone to reach out and say that your book resonated with them. I can’t think of a better feeling.

Lillie Lainoff: Oh, no, it’s, it’s wonderful. And it’s exactly what I wanted with One for All. I mean, you know, as authors, we have big pie in the sky dreams, that usually relate to sales numbers, and lists and adaptations and stuff like that. And I still have all those dreams. But my one main dream for One for All, was that I just wanted one reader, at least one reader… for it to change their mind about how they thought about their own chronic illness and themselves. And it’s already done that. And so, I’ve already achieved what I set out to accomplish. So, everything else, all these all the extra, you know, the buzz and the hype and stuff like that. That’s one to be fair, that’s so much reader base, like the early readers have been incredible in terms of what they’ve done for One for All… the added buzz and hype. And that’s just, it’s just an added bonus.

Dianna Gunn: Awesome. And One for All is traditionally published; you touched a bit on it not being the first book you had taken on submission. Can you talk a bit about your journey to traditional publishing and why you chose that path?

Lillie Lainoff: Right. So, I think that one, I want to say that I really admire self-published authors, because there’s a lot of work that goes into self-publishing that I don’t think non-authors know about. You are not only writing the book, but you’re also having to coordinate editing because you’re having to find your own editor. You’re having to do a lot of your own marketing, a lot of your own publicity, trying to find cover designers. And there’s so much to do that I was intimidated by having… about the idea of me having to play all those roles, about having to be a writer and a publicist, and a marketer, and an editor and all these different things. And I just… I was sure I would just think to myself, “I’m never going to write again, I’m never going to be able to have time to write again, if I tried to do all these things,” because I would want to do all those things very well. And they would just take up all of my time. And I’m very impressed by people who managed to balance all those things. So, I knew that I wanted to do traditional publishing, because I could focus on the writing aspect, not have to worry as much about publicity and marketing and finding an editor and finding cover designer and stuff like that. And also, a lot of that comes with too is that because I’m a Spoonie, because I’m chronically ill, I want to be able to spend my time when I’m not feeling well and when I don’t have a lot of spoons, that little bit of energy that I have, that has to go towards writing for me. I have to make [them] go towards writing. And if I were self-publishing, it wouldn’t, I wouldn’t necessarily be able to make that happen. It might need to go towards marketing or publicity, or any one of the other things that I’ve mentioned or more that self-published authors manage to handle. There is also the… I really wanted to see my hardcover in a bookstore. And there are self-published books that are in bookstores, but I knew that the best way to guarantee that it would be in places like Barnes and Noble. And I was about gosh, I was about to say Borders, and Borders is gone, which is very sad. But the best way to make sure that it was in brick-and-mortar shops was to go through the traditional publishing route.

Dianna Gunn: And how long did you go from making that decision to actually getting there? Because I think a lot of people also don’t really understand how long this journey is. It’s… there’s no easy way into publishing, you know?

Lillie Lainoff: Right. Right. So, I… Yeah, and I think I think also, I’ve had a lot of people who think that my deal happened quickly, and it did not. I queried… the first time I queried a novel, I was a sophomore in college. So, I was sitting on, you know, my twin XL bed in my dorm room going through the directory of literary agents who represented kidlit authors. And I was highlighting them and writing them down in a notebook. And then I would send out queries. And that book, I decided that I wanted to put it out into the world and to try query it. And I then shifted to querying it rather quickly, something that I would not suggest. I didn’t have any critique partners; I didn’t have anything like that. So, I pretty much just put it straight out into the world. And I got a few full requests, but nothing ever panned out. And then I started writing a different novel, my junior year of college, that was probably the quickest I’ve ever written a novel. And the querying process was quick as well, which was strange. That lasted, I think, around two or three months. I mean, not quick, like you hear stories about people who get offers in a day or two days, which is just mind boggling to me. But that lasted around two to three months. I went on submission with that novel, and that novel was on submission for two years and technically, it’s still on submission. And I still love that book. And I still think that there’s a—there’s a huge readership for that book. But that’s—that’s a difference… I can spend another hour on that [Dianna laughs], that story. But I have a lot of very close chances in terms of the book. It got taken to acquisitions a few times, but the editor would leave the publishing house or imprint, right before it went to acquisitions. And so, it would fall through, or it would go to acquisitions, and I couldn’t get the team on board. And so, I was writing One for All while all this was happening. And I went on submission with One for All, and then One for All was out on submission for a little over a year before it got an offer. And that’s also, I think, you hear a lot of—most people talk about how they’re out on submission for a few months. Sometimes, I mean, you know, again, the mind boggling stories of people getting publishing offers, publishing deals in one day or two days. But now it took me over a year, and I mean, 60% of the passes, where “We really love your writing. We really love this book. We think it’s great. But we just don’t know if it’s marketable. We just don’t know if there’s readership.” And at first, I was heartened by those messages. But then as I grew more aware of what that language actually meant, and was code as… As coded as “Well, we’re not really sure we can market a book about a disabled girl.” Because I mean, come on, a gender-bent reimagining of the Three Musketeers girls, dueling, and ball gowns that’s inherently more marketable. 

Dianna Gunn: Yeah.

Lillie Lainoff: That markets itself in a lot of ways. So, the idea that, you know, that it just—it was just too niche. Like the idea of the main character, of a chronically ill main character is too niche; it was just so upsetting. And by I mean, the six-month mark, I was just so rundown and heartbroken, really. And I’m very glad that I am with the house that I’m with. And I’m with the editor that I’m with. Melissa Warden is a gem, and I’m glad that if it took that many years to finally find an editor who really loves and wants and champions my work, I’m glad that I waited that it took that long if it was for her, but I mean gosh, I really wish I didn’t have to go through all the ableism [laughs] that—all the ableism obstacles in publishing. Not to say there aren’t obstacles after you get a book deal because there are, there very much are, but in the Before, in the submission process, while your agents did this on submission to editors, it’s very difficult. And I’ve talked to a lot of other disabled authors about this, who are agented. And they get a lot, they’ve had a very similar run of things in terms of, in some of these books that I’ve read, are incredible books, and they should already have offers, but they don’t. And a lot of it is because publishers will say, “Oh, well, I don’t really understand why this character reacts this way.” Well, maybe because she’s not neurotypical. And maybe if we had more books with characters like that out in the world, this wouldn’t be such a strange thing for someone to read about. So pretty much this very long and winding answer to your question can be summed up as I had a very long, long route to publishing. It took… it’s going to have been, what? Six years since I started, when I came up with the idea of One for All to the point of where it’s in print. And even though I’m saying that, it’s also not out of the ordinary, especially for other disabled authors.

Dianna Gunn: Yeah, it’s really hard out there. And I hope that with the success of books, like One for All, that tune will start to change. But we’ll see. So, with all of that in mind, what advice would you give to other disabled folks who want to become authors who want to share their stories?

Lillie Lainoff: Definitely to find other disabled authors. And that doesn’t necessarily mean you have to find them in person, you have to go out on the street and yell, “Disabled authors, where are you???” But there are so many disabled authors on Twitter, on Instagram, even on Facebook. I mean, Disabled Kidlit Writers, that group is on Facebook, and we have over 350 members now. I think it might be up to 375. But it’s really important to have other authors who understand one, what you’re going through in terms of being a writer, so they can commiserate with writer’s block or the submission process or how difficult it is to write a synopsis. I hate writing. I hate writing synopses. [Dianna laughs] But I think also, it’s good to have disabled authors from the aspect of they also know what it means when you say, “Gosh, darn it. This was my writing time that I carved out for today. But I have no more spoons. And now I don’t have the energy to write, or I have a really awful migraine. And now I can’t look at my computer screen, and I can’t type.” Other disabled authors understand what other disabled authors are going through on a level that non-disabled authors don’t. It’s not that they won’t try. And I’m not saying that you shouldn’t have author friends who aren’t disabled because I have lots of author friends who aren’t disabled. It’s just that I’m not going to go to them when I want some solidarity in terms of commiserating about the lack of spoons [laughs].

Dianna Gunn: Yeah, those friendships are valuable. But it’s—there’s a different kind of solidarity that exists with other disabled people. And I think that’s doubly true in writing and publishing because a lot of the common wisdom about writing and publishing is just incredibly ableist.

Lillie Lainoff: Definitely, definitely.

Dianna Gunn: That’s a whole other podcast. [Lillie laughs] So that brings us to the end of our questions. So where can people go to find out more about you and to grab their copy of One for All?

Lillie Lainoff: You can find my bio, other work that I’ve written, and information about One for All on my website, which is http://www.lillielainoff.com. And then you can find preorder links on the Macmillan website, but you could find One for All pretty much wherever books are sold. So, Barnes and Noble, Indiebound. For Canadian listeners, Indigo has it, Chapters has it. For UK listeners, right now Blackwell’s is really the only place to get it aside from Book Depository and Amazon UK. For listeners who want a personalized or signed copy, East city bookshop in DC has pre-ordered and signed copies. And I’ll be keeping everybody updated about foreign rights sales and any other news in terms of where international listeners can find copies.

Dianna Gunn: That was excellent. Thank you so much for agreeing to join me. I’ve really enjoyed our chat, and I cannot wait to start reading One for All

Lillie Lainoff: Okay, thank you so much!

Dianna Gunn: Thank you for listening to this episode of the Spoony Authors Podcast. This podcast is part of the Spoonie Authors Network, an initiative dedicated to building community among disabled creatives. Join the community by participating in the Spoonie Authors Chat on Twitter at 1pm EST every Sunday. Just search for the hashtag #SpoonieAuthChat. We look forward to meeting you.

Transcribed by otter.ai. Edited for clarity by Cait Gordon.

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