Deaf Representation in Fiction: A Conversation with Sarah Loudin Thomas

Hello, readers! It’s Rachael, and I’m here to share the conversation I had with Sarah Loudin Thomas about her new release, The Right Kind of Fool. As someone who has studied American Sign Language and Deaf culture over the years, I was thrilled when I found out Sarah would be writing this book, and I really wanted to learn more about her background and what went into her research process! I even got to model signs for her postcard—how exciting is that?

I hope you enjoy learning more about Sarah and her hero, Loyal!

About the Book:

When deaf teen Loyal Raines stumbles upon a dead body in the nearby river, his absentee father, Creed, is shocked the boy runs to him first. Pulled into the investigation, Creed discovers that it is the boy’s courage, not his inability to hear, that sets him apart, and he will have to do more than solve a murder if he wants to win his family’s hearts again.

Rachael: Thanks for chatting with me, Sarah! I’m curious, what inspired you to write The Right Kind of Fool?

Sarah: I was researching a completely different story about the unsolved murder of Mamie Thurman who was killed near Logan, WV, in 1932. As I was reading about it, I found an account that said her body was discovered by “a deaf, mute boy.” And my imagination was off and running! Who was he? What was it like to be deaf in a rural community where sign language wouldn’t have been commonly known? How did he tell the news and did he testify? I eventually found information about the trial that said he used “hand signs” in court. So I abandoned poor Mamie and made a thirteen-year-old deaf boy who is the hero of my story!

Rachael: I love how Loyal’s story drew you in! You’ve said before that the most remarkable thing about Loyal as a character isn’t his deafness. What would you say it is?

Sarah: Loyal is courageous, kind, and . . . well . . . loyal! He doesn’t think of himself as less than or handicapped because he’s deaf. He’s pretty confident about his abilities which just happen to be slightly different. And his goal is to demonstrate just how capable he is to the people he loves the most. And, I think, he’s pretty successful at it in the end!

Rachael: Loyal is amazing. It made me so happy to see you feature a deaf hero in your story! Why do you think deaf representation in fiction is important?

Sarah: If humans experience it, I think it’s fair game for representation in fiction. So much of storytelling is transporting the reader into another time or place or experience. It’s why we tell stories isn’t it? How many of us as kids tried walking around with our eyes closed to see what it’s like to be blind. Or with our hands over our ears to see what it’s like to be deaf. We have innate curiosity that I think can lead to understanding, empathy, and a deeper appreciation for each other. I love writing characters who are different from me so I can walk around in their shoes for a while! 

Rachael: That’s so true! Had you studied American Sign Language before writing this book? What inspired you to study it?

Sarah: I’d learned the basics thanks to my second grade teacher, Mrs. Lashley, back in grade school. I still knew the alphabet and a handful of signs. I’ve long thought it’s an incredibly beautiful way of communicating, and I love how facial expressions and body language are tied up in it. I’ve always had a terrible poker face so it’s nice to learn a little bit of a language where that’s part of the goal!

Rachael: I agree—it’s a fascinating language! What did your research process look like? Did you learn anything intriguing about the language while researching?

Sarah: I spent time on websites targeting the deaf community and I highly recommend a book called Seeing Voices by Oliver Sacks. That notion of SEEING language really resonated with me. I learned that it’s kind of annoying when hearing people do things like yell or talk really slowly. Neither of which helps in the least. And how reading lips is challenging and requires a great deal of focus and energy. Especially when hearing people do things like turn their heads or put their hands in front of their mouths. And while many deaf people CAN talk, they may prefer not to—Loyal expresses that at one point in the story.

Rachael: How did you go about weaving in sign language—a very visual practice—into a written story?

Sarah: I described key signs in a step-by-step way. Often, the signs are seen from the perspective of a hearing person. Like when Loyal’s father, Creed, sees that the sign for yes—a fisted hand moving up and down—looks like a head nodding. So many signs are pretty intuitive. For “hungry” you make a C-shape and touch the open side of the C to your chest, dragging it down toward your stomach, following the path food would go! I was also careful to include signs that could be described pretty simply—I’ll leave the more complex stuff to the experts!

Rachael: It was easy for me to visualize the signs while reading. You did a great job! How would you describe the way that communication is different between spoken and sign language?

Sarah: Wow—that’s a thinker! I can only share my observations since I really don’t use ASL to communicate. But I think sign is more visceral. It’s full-body communication so what a speaking person would put into tone and inflection comes through in facial expressions and body language. And I think when you’re expressing yourself with your whole body it’s just naturally going to be felt more deeply.

Rachael: Yes, it’s so powerful! Do you have any other books to recommend that involve deaf characters?

Sarah: Sons of Blackbird Mountain by Joanne Bischof features a deaf hero—plus, it’s set in Appalachia! And Jan Karon’s Light from Heaven includes a deaf woodworker named Clarence. I’m sure there are many more, but those two come to mind . . . 

Readers, do you have any favorite books that involve deaf characters?

7 thoughts on “Deaf Representation in Fiction: A Conversation with Sarah Loudin Thomas

  1. Yes, I agree we need more representation of the differently-abled in fiction, beyond YA, as long as authors get it right. Speaking from experience, we bear our crosses as patiently or not as we can – we aren’t saints. We need to be portrayed as the complete human beings that we are. And yes, “hearing” for the hearing impaired is also a highly visual task. Unfortunately or not, at least many more are coming to realize this in these days of pandemic masking.

  2. I am loosing my voice due to dystonia so my daughter, who I homeschool,is taking classes online as am I. There are so many obstacles when one has no voice…from dealing with doc offices that operate almost strictly phone…to trying to unlock a debit card through my local bank…with zero voice!! It was frustrating…I was blessed to personally know the a President of that bank. I don’t drive so i ended up doing it over messenger with him calling my hubby at work to verify me. I have frequently mentioned that I’d love to see more main characters with physical hardships because that is reality for some of us. This book really hit home for me…one of my top reads of the year for sure!

  3. What a lovely interview. I loved it, it was very enlightening.
    One of my all time favorite books on differently-abled people, (thanks for that one Ms. Janice) is the high stakes series by Lynnette Eason. They were one of the first mysteries I ever read, and I still love them today.

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