Ann Clare LeZotte is the author of the Schneider Family Book Award-winning novel Show Me a Sign, which was named a best book of the year by NPR, Kirkus Reviews, School Library Journal, the New York Public Library, the Chicago Public Library and American Indians in Children’s Literature, and was a finalist for the New England Independent Booksellers Association and the Jane Addams Children’s Book Awards. A passionate advocate for the Deaf and Hard of Hearing, as well as underserved youth from marginalized communities, Ann worked for many years as a youth librarian in Gainesville, Florida. Set Me Free, a standalone companion to Show Me a Sign, will be released in September 2021. In her free time, Ann enjoys yoga and walking her dog Perkins.
What typically comes first for you: a character? An era? A story idea? How do you proceed from there?
Absolutely an era—more specifically, an important period in Deaf history. I’ve been reading about Deaf history and sign language linguistics since I was a teenager. Even though I was born deaf and have been completely deaf for most of my life, it’s not something I was taught at home or school. So, it’s a near obsession of mine to write books for young readers about Deaf history, culture and language!
How do you conduct your research?
I like to have visited a place, so I have an impression of it when I start researching. I already know it appeals to me. In the case of Show Me a Sign (and the upcoming, standalone companion book Set Me Free), I lived on Cape Cod in the 1990s and took a number of trips to Martha’s Vineyard. I liked to go in the winter when there were few tourists. It was a cab driver who told me about the island’s history of genetic deafness. I took another cab to the Chilmark Library and the librarian shared resources with me. I also bought local literature on the subject. Now keep in mind this was decades before I stared writing the book. Ideas percolate a long time in my mind.
Do you have a specific system for collecting data?
I keep notebooks. Because my mind doesn’t think in long English prose sentences, I often use notations to indicate my sources and indicate the key data I’m collecting. I go back to my initial notes many times.
What kinds of sources do you use?
I use general history books and Deaf history books. All the central books I used were published by Martha’s Vineyard presses except for Nora Groce’s ethnography, EVERYONE HERE SPOKE SIGN LANGUAGE: Hereditary Deafness on Martha’s Vineyard (Harvard University Press, 1988). Thomas Dresser’s history of the Vineyard included stories about privateers and sheep farms along with information about Jonathan Lambert and the Deaf community he helped to create. At the beginning of my research, I naively believed I was writing about a white Deaf utopia. Once I realized that the Aquinnah Tribe of the Wampanoag Nation would feature prominently in my book, I knew I needed to consult with Native experts. I was lucky to find Afro-Indigenous writers and advocates, because the book features a formerly enslaved Black man and intersectionality of the day. My cultural competence readers were enormously helpful and shared family stories and details that I couldn’t have found in books. Because Martha’s Vineyard Sign Language is an extinct language and there isn’t much data about the Deaf community, anyone who was willing to talk to me was invaluable. I consulted Tom Humphries, a notable scholar in Deaf community who co-wrote an ASL textbook I’ve used for years! I also studied old maps for the topography.
How long do you typically research before beginning to draft?
I did a lot of reading for both books before I began to draft. I was also a fulltime youth librarian and fulltime caregiver, so it was hard to find time to write. But I don’t feel the need to rush from research to writing. As I’ve said, I read Deaf history for pleasure. It helps me connect with who I am in my life and the larger world.
At what point do you feel comfortable beginning to draft? How does your research continue once you begin writing?
Once I can see it in my mind, I start to draft. Of course, that’s an exploratory process. I absolutely continue researching. A new book on the Wampanoag Tribe of Gay Head was published after I’d already started. I devoured it and it changed my original course in some ways. I use cultural competence readers throughout my different drafts. Frankly, I started with cringe-worthy Native stereotypes and became more educated. I’m open to criticisms during the draft process—I need them. SHOW ME A SIGN had many drafts. I was learning to write a novel and strengthening the storyline and characters, including many historically accurate details.
What is your favorite thing about research?
I guess it’s a typical response but learning things I didn’t know.
What’s your least favorite thing about research?
Nothing, really. I could be stuck in the stacks of a big library for a long time without becoming restless!
What’s your favorite thing about writing historical fiction?
Recovering chapters of history that have never been told before but are essential to an understanding not just of Deaf culture but U.S. history in general. Breathing new life into it so some young readers can see someone like themselves in a book for the first time and others can put themselves in a perspective they may never have thought of before.
What are some obstacles writing historical fiction brings?
Because we can only know so much about a people and place from a different time. Also, it’s a real challenge to write accurately about another time but with an awareness that you are writing for young readers today. To be authentic but also appealing to contemporary sensibilities. As you well know, that takes some careful finessing!
What’s one of the most interesting things you’ve learned while researching?
I learned about a spy for the British during the War for Independence—a girl called Miss Jenny. Her story would make a fascinating book.
Has your research ever affected the overall trust of your book? How so?
Late in my drafting process, I came across a repulsive detail. Chilmark Deaf community founder Jonathan Lambert worked on the slave ship Tyral. He helped hunt down escaped, formerly enslaved Black people in Canada. I told my editor who initially said, “That’s a bit heavy.” But we both knew that once we’d discovered it, we couldn’t pretend we never saw it or leave it out of the book. Ultimately, the revelation makes the book stronger.
Because life isn’t always clear cut, the motives behind our actions don’t always make sense. But stories need to follow a logical path. What sorts of decisions have you had to make about “muddy” historical figures or events in order for your book to work?
Actually, I run toward that type of truthfulness and ambiguity! I think it’s important that white marginalized people address not only our privilege but imperialism in writing historical fiction rather than simply posing ourselves as victims. My Deaf and hearing characters cover a broad spectrum of diversity and settler colonialism thought and belief. I think at any time in history people have conflicting beliefs (we can certainly see that today!), some more forward-thinking than others.
Why is historical fiction important?
To quote one of my favorite writers, Carole Boston Weatherford: “Why do I write about forgotten history and heroes? Because teachers can’t teach what they don’t know. With my nonfiction books, teachers, parents and children can learn together.”