THE SIGN FOR HOME
(Atria/Emily Bestler Books, 5 April 2022)
When THE SIGN FOR HOME was still in manuscript form, it won the prestigious Doris Lippman Prize for Fiction at the City College of New York. Since then, it has been nominated as an Indies Next pick, an Indies Introduce pick, an Amazon Editor’s Best Romance pick, and recommended by Reese’s Book Club. It has also been long-listed for the Fiction Center’s First Book Award.
It’s about Arlo Dilly, a handsome, young man eager to meet the right girl. He also happens to be DeafBlind, a Jehovah’s Witness, and under the strict guardianship of his controlling uncle. His chances of finding someone to love seem slim to none.
And yet, it happened once before: many years ago, at a boarding school for the Deaf, Arlo met the love of his life—a mysterious girl with onyx eyes and beautifully expressive hands which told him the most amazing stories. But tragedy struck, and their love was lost forever.
Or so Arlo thought.
AUTHORLINK: Mr. Fell, thank you so much for joining Authorlink today to chat about your debut novel, THE SIGN FOR HOME: A NOVEL, and your writing process. You once described your book as a “coming-of-age/buddy/love story about a young, straight DeafBlind Jehovah’s Witness, his Gay interpreter, and the adventure they go on together to find out what happened to the girl the young man had loved and lost.” (Bay Area Reporter, 29 March 2022). We loved it!
Describe the story’s themes; did they roll out of you instinctively, or were they quite consciously done?
“It was more of an organic process, which is how I tend to write.”
FELL: It was more of an organic process, which is how I tend to write. I start with some characters and an idea, then I write an outline and start writing the first chapter. If the story is working the characters almost instantly take over and tell me to “take the outline and shove it!” And then they start telling me a story and coming up with themes and I just follow and adjust as more is revealed.
I’m also affected by whatever and whoever is around me — that’s where the Jehovah’s Witness stuff came from. I was working with an ex-JW interpreter the summer I was beginning the book. She was a lesbian and told me all these awful stories of the cruelty she experienced in her Kingdom Hall and how she and her Deaf mother both left the Church. Turned out her Deaf JW mother eventually came out as a lesbian too. There is also some autobiography in the novel which I use to help me ground Cyril’s story in something I know.
AUTHORLINK: That’s very interesting, thank you. How long did it take you to write THE SIGN FOR HOME from start to publication? Who were your first readers? How many drafts did you revise? Was the original story very different from the final version?
FELL: If we take it from start to publication then about 9 years (publication took 18 months … most of that time is publicity etc, not a lot of writing going on, so the writing took me more like 7 or 8 years, but not full time or anything).
The manuscript was my MFA thesis at the City College of New York where I graduated in 2020. (I took a very long time to get my MFA) It’s a little hard to answer your question about the number of drafts. I always overwrite by a LOT. I wrote at least 800+ pages for TSFH — had enough for two books. There were about 300 pages about Arlo’s childhood and then about 300 pages where he meets Cyril, his new interpreter and another 200 of extraneous detours, including the history of his mother Alma.
When I handed in the thesis, I think it was around 600 pages, and I cut that down to 414. Three drafts? I edited a lot as I went along.
“My agent Doug at Sterling Lord Literistic and his assistant Maria gave me terrific notes …”
My agent Doug at Sterling Lord Literistic and his assistant Maria gave me terrific notes when Doug took it on. I incorporated their notes over the following two months. Then Doug sold it that August of 2020 in the middle of the pandemic.
The notes from Emily Bestler my editor-publisher at Atria were concise and illuminating, but not any huge changes.
The copy editors, however, brought me to my knees since I was pretty inconsistent with time, dates, ages etcetera.
My readers before I had an agent were my writing group that read select chapters as I brought them in, my mentor David Groff at CCNY, my friend Gary Jones and partner-friend Colin Lentz were the only ones to read a full draft before I sent it to Doug.
After it looked like it was going to be published, I had three brilliant sensitivity readers— a DeafBlind woman named Angela Palmer, a Deaf theater professor from Gallaudet University named Monique Holt, and a hearing interpreter that works a lot with the DeafBlind, Angela Piteris. The story itself kind of just unfolded as written, and other than filling in details and motivation didn’t change dramatically. Stuff just got tossed more than rewritten. The book was what didn’t get cut.
AUTHORLINK: What a thoroughly fascinating process! While this is your first novel, you have had a long and illustrious writing career. Your work has appeared in HuffPost, and Daily News (New York), and your multi-award-nommed plays have been produced across this country and abroad. You have also written for television, most notably for Queer as Folk and the Emmy Award-winning California Connected.
How did you get started in the writing industry? Did you always know you wanted to write professionally?
FELL: No. I wanted to have a lover who was a writer. I wanted to be an actor when I was young. When I was 29 something fairly life-changing happened for me and I became very brave for a period of time, and I thought “what would I do if I was unafraid,” and I discovered that the most brave thing I could do would be become a writer — become the person with whom I wanted to fall in love.
“I never considered novels — that seemed way too impossible — so I decided to write plays…”
I never considered novels — that seemed way too impossible — so I decided to write plays since I had been an actor and knew how good dialogue should sound. So, I did that, and people liked it and it was both stressful and wonderful for a time. That lead to some web writing which lead to TV, which was fun (especially California Connected since it was public TV) — but Hollywood felt like a thousand venomous lizards trying to French kiss you all the time.
So, I moved back to NYC because I love it so much. And I eventually returned to ASL interpreting and very slowly began playing around with other forms of writing. Then I got into the MFA program and joined an awesome writing group and bird-by-bird (as Anne Lamott says) I wrote this book and also a second I just gave my agent and I like writing novels a lot.
AUTHORLINK: What a wonderful response. You are also an ASL interpreter for the Deaf and Deafblind since 1993, which no doubt has been the biggest inspiration for the book, and we imagine it must be a richly rewarding career.
Can you tell us which scenarios (without spoilers) came directly from the sobering realities of the people with whom you work?
FELL: I was very careful not to harvest any actual stories from the Deaf and Deaf blind people with whom I work. That would be wholly unethical and against the interpreter’s code of ethics. I did harvest my own story as far as personal relationships and the struggles of being an ASL interpreter. I had lost an ex-lover during the AIDS crisis, which influenced Cyril the interpreter’s back story. I also was inspired by the frequent, frustrating situations Deaf people and interpreters encounter in the hearing world – these are things that happen all the time.
One example of something I’ve experienced again and again, is interpreting for Deaf folks who turn out to be religiously conservative (Muslim, Fundamentalist Christian, Orthodox Jewish). Bit by bit as they get to know me, they realize I’m gay and not of their faith. Eventually, we both put aside our prejudices and are able to become good friends. There is nothing that can open me up more than having to embody the words and meanings of another person. Most of the situations are thought experiments based on things I’ve witnessed multiple times over the decades and me acting out the “what if’s …” What if I blew my lid at the Lunch Ladies? What if I allowed myself to be used by the Deaf student to break out of their restrictive environment? What if the Deaf student finally told whatever authority figure to go f— themselves?
AUTHORLINK: Excellent. When THE SIGN FOR HOME was still in manuscript form, it won the prestigious Doris Lippman Prize for Fiction at the City College of New York, where you were studying for an MFA. Since then, it has been nominated as an Indies Next pick, an Indies Introduce pick, an Amazon Editor’s Best Romance pick, and recommended by Reese’s Book Club. It has also been long-listed for the Fiction Center’s First Book Award! Congratulations.
Did you ever have an inkling your book would have this kind of recognition? What were some of the challenges you faced in writing this book?
” I never even thought I could write a novel…”
FELL: I never even thought I could write a novel, and I definitely never thought I could get an agent or that he could sell it. When that happened, I felt I like had won the billion-dollar lottery – and I still feel that way. I get to be an author. I get to spend time with my fantasies, type them on a page, and they put them in a book. That’s f-ing incredible! Look, I’m older, and it wasn’t until that moment the book was sold that I didn’t feel like a phony as a writer. As a playwright and TV writer, there are all these other people involved in making your stuff great or crap. It’s hard to know. Part of me wishes I discovered novel writing decades ago, but then who knows what would have happened.
As far as the awards and recognition, I definitely appreciate it, but now the big joy I get is talking to readers who send me messages about how the book meant something special to them. Or the joy I got when BookTok readers posted crying videos – one of my dreams come true.
There are some Deaf readers who write me regularly. One, who is an aspiring novelist herself, has been especially supportive. I’ve also gotten messages from readers who feel like they finally understand their uncle who has Usher syndrome 1 (like Arlo, the main character has), and time and again I’m told how people both enjoyed the story and learned a ton – including how to work with an interpreter and be respectful of the Deaf and DeafBlind people they encounter. A DeafBlind friend told me the novel gave her insight into what ASL interpreters go through – that really got me jacked.
AUTHORLINK: That’s inspirational. Thank you. Most of the story is told from the character Cyril’s point of view, who is a gay ASL interpreter. The POV you used for Cyril is First Person Past Tense. However, the main character, Arlo Dilly, is told from the tricky POV of Second Person Present Tense.
What made you decide upon them? Were they these POV’s from the beginning?
FELL: No. In the beginning, both were first person present tense. About a third of the way through I gave up. It was too hard, and I didn’t think I could do it. I took six months off and wrote a really fast draft of a genre piece with some similar characters – a detective story. I wanted to see if I could write something fluffier and quicker. Then I was taking a non-fiction class at CCNY, and the teacher (who I didn’t like very much – he was just a one-semester adjunct. All the other professors were fantastic!) gave us an assignment to take whatever we were working on and try to write one paragraph based on one of ten essays he had given us to read. I was working on a non-fiction piece about a DeafBlind friend of mine and put it in the second person. It was the eureka moment.
I realized that was the voice that could help the sighted-hearing reader into Arlo’s mind – make the reader become the DeafBlind Jehovah’s Witness. Also, the second person is a voice of disassociation and Arlo is an abuse survivor so the second person also made sense from that standpoint. I was able to dive in and probably finished that draft in another six months to a year. Then my thesis mentor told me Cyril’s POV would work better in the past tense, and he was right.
AUTHORLINK: Did you have any challenges or roadblocks to being published as a writer of essays/plays/screenplays and then later of THE SIGN FOR HOME?
What was the first piece of writing you ever published? How do you feel you have evolved as a writer?
“To be honest, my biggest roadblock seems to be myself.”
FELL: To be honest, my biggest roadblock seems to be myself. At times I have crushing low self-esteem, so I’ll write stuff and don’t finish it or do anything with it. Usually, when I take action, something good usually happens. Also, I’ve always been very out as a gay writer, and when I started producing plays, the things I was doing weren’t “mainstream.” Theater is a very snooty community and I’m a very impatient person, so rather than network and play the game I just produced my stuff myself at the beginning. I also wrote way too fast and thought taking more than three months to write anything was a waste of time. To think I spent eight years working on TSFH is shocking. I literally used to write hour-long plays in four days when I was doing downtown theater – and we put them up with one day of rehearsal – off book. We were insane.
The first piece of writing I published was an interview with the gay writer/anthropologist Tobias Schneebaum in QW (later Outweek) Magazine. Schneebaum wrote a book called Keep The River on the Right about his time with a tribe in Peru, that allegedly partook of cannibalism which he joined in on one night. Then the magazine asked me to write more. But interviews are not my thing, nor is journalism. I really do enjoy writing personal writing, memoirs, and essays. But nothing beats spending a few years working on a novel. I just wish I could live longer.
AUTHORLINK: Yes, we can imagine. Would you kindly tell us how you found your first agent? Do you still have them today? What is a piece of advice you would give to struggling writers in choosing an agent to represent their work?
FELL: I really lucked out on the agent thing. Mind you I had agents as a TV/playwright, but a book agent is a totally different thing. (The theatrical agents came because TV people wanted to buy the rights to my downtown live series called Burning Habits or I was offered a job writing for TV. They wanted me because I came with a guaranteed paycheck.) Book agents are very different. Hell, a book agent will help you edit your manuscript.
What happened was, COVID was in full force, and I was at a point in the writing where I didn’t know if it was a piece of shit or had legs. So, at the end of my rope, I asked my friend the brilliant Penn-Faulkner prize-winning novelist James Hanaham (who I’ve known for decades) whether he knew someone in the biz who could tell me if my novel was garbage or not. I didn’t really ask for an agent, but he said something like “I can ask my agent. He’ll be straight with you.” So I sent the query (written by Louise Crawford, a brilliant writer herself and a book publicist in my writing group) to Doug Stewart from Sterling Lord Literistic. I had no idea who he was or who he represented. (Turns out he’s a pretty important agent with lots of important clients.)
It was the middle of the pandemic, as I said, so he had time to read. A week and a half later he called me and said he wanted to talk. As far as advice for struggling writers in choosing an agent, don’t do what I did before I found Doug. I basically took any theatrical agent who gave me the hey-ho. (That low self-esteem thing) If you have a manuscript that’s good, make sure you find an agent who loves it – says they love it and are passionate about it. Look at the stuff they represent and see if you fit. James told me his agent’s clients tended to be the island of misfit toys – that’s me. But seriously, Doug could have sucked and if he wanted me, I would have gone with him. I’ve done that a lot in my life and it doesn’t usually end up well. I just got damned lucky this time.
“… be friends with talented people.”
Also, be friends with talented people. If I didn’t hang out with James eons ago, because he was uber smart (and pretty good-looking too), I never would have met my agent. It’s way easier to say “Hey, this person you love is recommending me to you,” than “Hi, you don’t know me from Adam, but can you take a week and read my 500-page manuscript?”
AUTHORLINK: Great advice! We understand you have written a second novel that also won the prestigious Doris Lippman Prize in Creative Writing. How wonderful! Can you tell us a bit about it?
FELL: It’s a highly fictionalized memoir about my experience during the early years of the AIDS crisis, and my summer working as a bartender in Fire Island Pines, a gay resort off Long Island. It takes place in 1989 and is about this young man who is trying to get over the death of his first-and-only great love. He’s encouraged to go to the island by his crazy and hot best friend. So, he relocates to Fire Island without ever having visited before.
Not having a place to live he moves into the attic of these strange older men who clean houses on the island and slowly discovers that they belong to a coven of disempowered 1970s disco witches.
It’s a fantasy version of my own experience in the early 1990s. I wanted to write something that captured the absolute terror and surreal quality of trying to find love when everyone was dying.
It’s also about what it’s like to be a worker in highly hierarchical gay situations (they want to f— the bartender, but not date him). The book is also funny, but serious too. It gets into drug addiction (I’ve been sober now for 13 years and around sobriety since 2002), but is mostly about finding love among the ruins, and finding our communal power again. The working title is Disco Witches of Fire Island.
AUTHORLINK: What a remarkable story. Can’t wait to read it! Have you been approached to adapt THE SIGN FOR HOME for film? Or considered creating the story into a play?
FELL: Yes, per the film. No, per the play. I have a trunk of already-written plays if anyone wants them. But I’m done with writing new ones – at least for now. Got a lot of books to write.
AUTHORLINK: That’s so exciting! And just for a bit of fun, if you could invite any three people, alive or dead, over to dinner, who would they be?
FELL: My first thought is my friends. I have good friends now. But famous people? Hmm. Can I date them too if we hit it off? (I’m recently single) I guess not. Okay, let me think. This is hard, because I don’t want to meet the great writers I love because if they suck it will ruin their books for me. How about: Mike Nichols (cause he was brilliant), Nina Simone (who would terrify me, but wow!), and my first partner who dumped me and then died. (Oops, this was supposed to be fun, but to be honest, he’s the only dead person I’d really want to talk to.) Or a different answer if that got too dark: Charlie Chaplin, Nina Simone, and Judy Garland (yes, I’m gay).
AUTHORLINK: Ha ha ha Yes, your answer is kind of funny-sad. Sorry to hear you’re recently single and sorry about your first partner who passed away. Life is so precious. Mr. Fell, thank you so much for your time today. We wish you every success for THE SIGN FOR HOME and many others like it to come.
FELL: Thank you.
ABOUT THE AUTHOR: Blair Fell writes and lives in Jackson Heights, New York. He’s won the Shine Award for his work on the television series Queer As Folk, and a Golden Mic award for his political commentary segment on the Public Television series and the Emmy Award-winning California Connected.
Blair’s written dozens of plays, including the award-winning plays Naked Will, The Tragic and Horrible Life of the Singing Nun, and the downtown cult miniseries Burning Habits. His plays have won the HX Camp comedy award, the 7 Dramalogue awards, The Robbie Award, and been nominated for the LA GLAAD Best Play award, The Dublin LGBT Theater Festival Best Playwright award, and The NY Fringe Festival Best Ensemble Award. His personal essays have appeared in HuffPost, Out, Daily News (New York), and more.
He’s a two-time winner of the prestigious Doris Lippman Prize in Creative Writing from the City College of New York, including for his early unfinished draft of THE SIGN FOR HOME. Concurrently with being a writer, Blair has been an ASL interpreter for the Deaf since 1993 and has also worked as an actor, producer, and director.
Find out more about Blair Fell
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