I met Claire Forrest in 2015 at a Young Adult writing conference at The Loft Literary Center in Minneapolis. Like me, she was volunteering in order to attend for free. (One of the reasons I knew right away she was my kind of person.) I was going to be moving away from Minneapolis soon, so I told Claire she should take my place in the YA/MG writing group I had started. She did, and she is now the second person from that group to land an agent and a book deal.
Since 2015, Claire has published essays and gotten an MFA from Hamline University. Her YA debut novel, Where You See Yourself, is about high school senior Effie, a girl with cerebral palsy who learns to advocate for herself as she applies for college and falls in love. The novel is based on Claire’s lived experience as a wheelchair user who has cerebral palsy, and has earned several starred reviews. (Kirkus calls Where You See Yourself “affirming, uplifting, and thoughtful.”)
This a huge deal: not only to get a book published (it’s not easy, ya’ll), but a YA novel with a main character who is a wheelchair user. I was so excited to ask Claire some questions about her book and its journey to publication.
How did you get the idea for Where You See Yourself?
I knew I wanted to write about senior year of high school, which is a uniquely exciting and terrifying experience for everyone. You’re still a kid, but making big, adult life decisions about what comes next. Originally, I envisioned a sort of ensemble cast story about a bunch of students in the same high school making these decisions…and maybe one character could be a girl who used a wheelchair, like me. But I didn’t think she could carry a whole story.
I realized I needed to get over my own internalized ableism, born in part from lack of representation. I had to believe that disabled characters can be the hero of their own story—because they can be.
I’d heard the name Wilder and was saving it for an eventual YA love interest. I tried it out with the name Effie. Out of curiosity, I Googled the name Effie, and the first thing that popped up was an expectant-parent message board saying that someone loved the name Effie, but not Euphemia. I immediately pictured Effie and Wilder having this inside joke about the pronunciation of her full name. While I didn’t have all the details ironed out, I knew these were characters I needed to commit to.
You were an undergraduate at Grinnell College in Iowa. Did you face some of the same challenges in the college selection process as Effie?
I chose to attend Grinnell in part because they had accessible dorm rooms that would allow me to have a roommate, as opposed to many schools that didn’t have any accessible rooms or accessible rooms that were for one occupant only. Grinnell also had pre-existing support systems in place for disabled students. As I learned, and as Effie learns as well, no college is absolutely perfect, and there are accessibility challenges everywhere. The question she has to pose to herself is, “How much work do I want to do, and how much work is up to the institution itself?”
I love hearing “how I got my agent” stories. Can you tell us yours?
I have to give a big shout out to Hamline MFAC faculty member and middle grade author, Anne Ursu, who virtually held my hand throughout my entire querying process. Querying is anxiety-inducing at any time, but I began querying in May of 2020 while we were still under stay-at-home orders and everything was uncertain.
By the fall, I had two outstanding full requests but wasn’t actively pursuing getting an agent. Anne challenged me to send out ten more queries. I made excuses and said I was busy with work. Really, I was just stalling due to my anxieties. She told me to finish work and then send my ten queries. I did, but expected nothing of it. Amongst that list of ten agents was my now-agent, Patricia Nelson. Two weeks after Anne’s nudge, I had representation! So now I pass on that message: send the ten queries! You have nothing to lose.
I once read an interview with an Asian-American author who said, when she first started out, she wrote stories about white characters because she thought that was what the publishing industry wanted. Do you think people with disabilities feel the same way sometimes?
This is absolutely how I felt. For years, I wrote stories about non-disabled girls because those were the type of people who get to be the main character. Even after clearing the hurdle of getting an agent, I was still scared my book wouldn’t sell. As the book has gone out to early readers, I’ve gotten messages from disabled teens who say that this is the first time they’ve seen a character with cerebral palsy who uses a wheelchair by an author who shares that identity. But I’ve also gotten messages from people in their late 30’s saying the same thing.
You’ve been writing novels for a long time on your own… What made you take the next step and get your MFA from Hamline University’s Masters in Writing for Children and Young Adults program?
I remember feeling like I’d gotten as far in my writing journey as I could on my own. I’d finished a draft of a novel, and knew it had plot holes and other issues, but I didn’t know how to fix them. My friend and writing group member, Jonathan Hillman, started the program before me and sang its praises. And…have you seen that list of faculty members?!
(Note: I have, and it’s amazing.)
Receiving such intense and personal feedback from true stars of the industry was a gift, and exactly what I was missing up until that point. If you’re dedicated to writing for children and young adults, looking for a supportive writing community and a truly unique learning opportunity, I can’t recommend Hamline MFAC enough.
Your MFA thesis focused on the importance of disabled authors telling their own stories. Can you explain a little more about that?
For a long time, stories about disability have been told by authors who do not have disabilities themselves. In my thesis, I examined the stakes in YA novels about disability written by non-disabled authors versus novels about disability written by disabled authors. What I found was that stories by non-disabled authors tended to examine disability through the medical model, which argues that disability is something that should be fixed or changed, rather than simply accepted or celebrated. When disabled authors are allowed to tell our stories on our own terms, we are allowed to celebrate our existence, and the stakes are more satisfying and far richer.
Where You See Yourself is coming out on May 2. Do you have any book launch events planned?
My launch event will be held on Monday, May 1st via Red Balloon Bookshop in Minnesota. The event will be live-streamed for those who don’t live nearby.
Are you working on anything new?
I am about to begin work on a new contemporary YA novel that is a new story with disability representation. At the moment, it focuses a lot on the complicated life experience of friendship breakups. It’s also allowed me to create a fictional teen pop superstar, which has been a blast!
What do you hope readers will take away from Where You See Yourself?
I hope disabled teens find Effie’s story to be a safe place to land. I hope they find comfort, joy, and escape in its pages. I hope all readers, whether they have a disability or not, find the story insightful and entertaining. Disability stories don’t have to be purely educational…they can also just be good, fun, captivating stories.
What’s your favorite piece of writing advice?
I work a day job, and have never been a writer who writes every day. I lean a lot on the philosophy of my grad school advisor, Nina LaCour: “Some words on most days.”
Claire Forrest is a novelist and essayist who holds an MFA in Writing for Children and Young Adults from Hamline University. Where You See Yourself is based on her lived experience as a wheelchair user who has cerebral palsy. As an undergraduate at Grinnell College, she was a consultant for the Disability Services and Admissions offices, working directly to address the concerns of incoming college students with disabilities and their families.