As part of Walker YA’s blog tour, today we’re here to celebrate first-time author Chaz Hayden’s novel, The First Thing About You. The following piece is a guest post from Chaz himself, all about becoming a disabled YA author. He shares his background, how he uses assistive tech for his writing journey, and his mission to craft a story with a disabled protagonist but with takeaways that stretch far beyond disability alone. Over to you, Chaz…
“To be honest, I’m not very gifted at writing about myself, hence why I write fiction. But I will try my best to share a piece of my story and journey to becoming an author.
I grew up in New Jersey in the United States and was diagnosed with Spinal Muscular Atrophy, a form of Muscular Dystrophy, when I was three months old. Doctors told my mom that I wouldn’t live to see my first birthday. My strength and motivation were definitely harnessed that day, even if I had no idea what was happening. My mom was undiscouraged, and has fought for me every day since, bringing me to doctors and physical therapists who wouldn’t give up or take the easy way out. I got my first powered wheelchair when I was two years old and never looked back. I went full throttle in a split second.
Of course, the fight didn’t end there. As a child I battled illnesses and surgeries and always came out the other end a stronger person, because I knew that—despite my disability and the roadblocks I’d face—I was meant to live and experience life just like everyone else. And I knew that there were lessons I’d want to share because I never felt like there were hardships in the way, but puzzles I had the pleasure of solving.
For example, before starting high school I knew I’d need to find a non-traditional route, as the school in my town didn’t have access to the technology I’d need to be an independent student. I’d heard about a program at the college near my house that offered students the ability to attend part time while also going to public high school, and I asked my mom to drive me there so I could learn more. There were several placement exams I had to take, but the kicker was that it was all on the computer—when the college faculty casually asked what software I’d need to take the test, my mom and I honestly thought we were on a hidden camera show.
Long story short, I started college at the age of 15. Two years later I graduated and transferred to the University of Arizona to earn a bachelor’s degree.
Since I can’t do much physically, I tend to spend a lot of time in my head. When I first graduated from the University of Arizona, I was without a job for 10 months. To pass time, I read a lot (all YA novels) and started to think up my own stories. I liked to think that other people had experiences like mine and I could tell those stories, not just about disability but about friendship and love and all the things that a young person hopes to experience.
A few years passed while I crafted my writing skills, working on short stories and poems and attending critique groups. Writing is a long and exhausting activity for anyone, disability aside. For me to write as productively as possible, I actually use an eye tracker to help me type. I put a video on my YouTube channel that demonstrates the eye tracker which took some time getting used to but is now my independence to be creative.
Early in 2019 I started writing my debut YA novel, The First Thing About You. My intention was not solely to write a disability-centric story about inequality and how inaccessible the world is. I felt if that was at the front of my mind, then I’d be writing from a place of anger. But Harris isn’t an angry person and neither was the story I wanted to draft. However, as a disabled person, I knew I had experiences of dealing with my disability, and those experiences–finding nurses, navigating relationships, fighting for independence in school–were woven into the fabric of my everyday life. I couldn’t necessarily pinpoint one act or easy-to-define barrier.
I felt really confident about the manuscript for The First Thing About You so I queried some agents and luckily ended up with my top choice. Together, we revised the story for about 6 months and when it was submitted to publishers I was just really fortunate to get an immediate influx of positivity and offers. The reason I signed with Walker UK is because they truly understood the heart of the book and what I’m trying to share with readers.
Much like how my main character Harris doesn’t want his wheelchair to be the first thing people notice about him, as the author, I don’t want disability to be the only takeaway from my book. The First Thing About You is about a boy and girl, about figuring out who we are.
Anyway, I hope you enjoyed my rambling. To sum up, when people ask me to describe myself, I usually say, “I ride around in an awesome wheelchair. Besides that, I’m a chicken nugget eating, American football watching, music loving, tattoo collecting, author of young adult novels.”
Thank you so much for sharing your story, Chaz. Find out more about The First Thing About You on the Walker Books website!
Chaz Hayden is a debut author who, like his main character, was diagnosed with spinal muscular atrophy as an infant and spent his childhood in and out of hospitals. He grew up in New Jersey and now lives in Pennsylvania with his parents and his English Bulldog, Lovey. You can find him on Instagram, Twitter and YouTube.
If you enjoyed this piece, you may be interested in my other bookish blog posts too!