Julie Farrell is a queer, disabled writer and screenwriter whose work includes poetry and creative non-fiction. Emily Rueggeberg interviews her about her pathways into writing as a career and her passion for disability rights, as part of Disability Arts Online’s Diverse Critics program supported by Creative Scotland.
Farrell recently completed a coming of age novel for young adults exploring mental health, disability and family dynamics. Fractals was recently selected for the Write Mentor Summer Mentoring Programme 2020; has received a special mention from the Write Mentor Children’s Novel Award 2019; and was selected as runner-up for the Jericho-Marjacq Bursary for Under-Represented Voices 2018. Farrell was a finalist in the Iceland Writers Retreat Alumni Award 2020.
Farrell has always had a penchant for storytelling; filling jotters full of grand adventures in primary school, recalling the gang of pirates she fought that week. She continued writing well into her teens, receiving praise for creative writing assignments – providing her with the validation desired by a budding writer. She also learned early on the benefit storytelling has on others lives saying, “…there was something in the beauty of being able to recognise that every person has a story to tell – more than one.”
Farrell hoped to pursue writing at University, but after receiving lower than expected marks in English Literature, it was no longer feasible. She describes being “so gutted” by the result, but taking it in her stride, she says, “and then off I went to become a scientist for a while which was a nice distraction for four years. And then immediately went back to writing.”
As someone who is always prepared, Farrell dove straight into planning mode. “I thought I would write picture books and illustrate them for children which I gave myself three years to do and then realised there are people who do this way better than I do. And then, through research, I got really interested in publishing. I was just very lucky and applied for a publishing internship that I got — and gradually got into publishing which I’ve been doing for ten years.” Farrell’s background as a book seller and a reader for a literary agent provided her with many views into the industry, helping her excel in her own writing career.
Farrell’s work is strongly linked to her identity and personal journey as a disabled individual. After experiencing burnout three years ago, she was forced to contend with her new identity as a disabled writer and the unexpected challenges it brought. The burnout did have a silver lining, enabling her to focus on writing full-time and create new pieces through the lens of disability.
When asked what she hopes people will get out of reading her work, Farrell says she wants her readers to empathise with others and know that they are not alone:
“I know that every time you read someone’s work or you see their work you are able to interact with them in some way, and you realise we’re connected or have something in common. It’s a really empowering experience both as an artist but also as someone engaging with the art. So, if I can encourage people to fight for better access or better disability rights or to feel that their mental illness or disability isn’t a flaw, isn’t a problem, then that’s kind of the ultimate goal I guess. It’s inspiring freedom and courage to take up space and to have… to feel like you can have a voice and that you can do that.”
Farrell adds her voice to an ever evolving community of disabled writers. She recently found writers within that group who were also trying to accomplish the same sense of belonging she sought to cultivate in her work. One writer who has had a strong impact on Farrell is Francis Ryan, a disabled journalist for the Guardian. Farrell was encouraged to see a disabled writer writing for and about disabled people. Ryan’s book Crippled, was particularly poignant:
“I cried at every page and had to read it in segments because it’s so painful. And it just completely blows the lid on the bullshit, systemic crap that goes on towards disabled people and the lack of protection. It explains the way the whole system is structured to penalise and punish and demonise marginalised identities in an extremely contrived way – a way that negatively impacts on lives and pushes individuals further into the cracks in our society.”
“And I think of Ryan as a great role model. I think we often get painted as being quite vain and sort of inward-looking when actually most writers and artists are seeking connections and for a way to help others. So it’s really weird that there’s this kind of distorted narrative around artists out there.”
When Farrell speaks about her work, you can hear the passion in her voice and strong sense of responsibility towards advocating for the neurodiverse community. In addition to her fiction and creative non-fiction work, Farrell also acts as a consultant, advising organisations on accessibility improvements at their venues and events.
“It’s not just about making sure a wheelchair can get in. There’s much more than that I’m talking to them about captioning, providing quiet spaces, BSL interpretation… all of these things, a lot of people just don’t know about it; I talk to people about their website design because no one prioritises access as a really visible sort of part of their website. Normally people leave their access information right at the bottom of the website and people have to scroll through everything and try to locate it, often in tiny, low-contrast font So it’s really about getting people to think from a different point of view I suppose and saying this is basically what it looks like from a disabled person’s point of view.”
Farrell also explains how, being a disabled individual creates an almost immediate bond or sense of trust between herself and the organisations and individuals she works with.
“They’re much more keen to speak to you if they know you are a disabled person. Kind of like, ‘oh wow so it’s actually you. Okay tell me your story.’ So yeah, I think there is an element of almost a default to trust you because of the fact that you have a lived experience of disability. I think it’s good for disabled people where possible to engage with other artists or organisations, people and communities – and it’s not a duty, but rather, we have an ability, to make change for the better, in regards to access in the arts.”
Despite facing her fair share of setbacks, Farrell proves to be a resilient individual, building an impressive portfolio that is equal parts dynamic and expansive. Farrell is certainly unafraid to experiment and try new things while still maintaining her commitment to being a voice for other disabled artists and writers.