First of all, please tell us about your books! How many sapphic books have you written so far, and what’s your latest sapphic book about?
I write romances between women, and I have recently published my twenty-third novel, Just a Touch Away, a sapphic enemies-to-lovers romance. A professional cuddler, who also has aphantasia, and an aloof ice queen inherit a building together. But there’s a catch: to each get their half, they need to share an apartment for ninety-two days.
What kind of imagery is affected by aphantasia for you? Is it just visual imagery, or is mental sound, taste, smell, and touch affected too?
For me, all the mental senses are affected—I can’t visualize, nor can I conjure up taste, smell, or touch in my mind.
I thought for a while that I could imagine sound because I constantly have a song in my mind, but then I realized I’m not actually hearing the singer’s voice or any instruments. It’s more like me beatboxing, and it doesn’t have a sound quality to it either. Apparently, I learned how to use my inner monologue to “fake” hearing music in my mind. It’s the same for other sounds—I thought I could conjure up the sound of a dog barking, for example, but it’s actually just that I’m creating an onomatopoeia like “woof-woof” with my inner monologue. It doesn’t sound like an actual dog, nor does it sound like my voice. It’s a soundless word in my head.
The only type of imagery I have is spatial—I can imagine a motion, but not in a visual way. I sometimes use it to replace visual imagery, e.g., when I’m told to imagine a rainbow, I create a mental arc movement by imagining that I’m moving my eyes in an arc.
Do you have an inner voice or an inner monologue?
I do have an inner monologue, but I wouldn’t call it an inner voice since there’s no internal sound associated with it. I think in words, but I don’t “hear” them in my mind. My inner monologue has no tone, and I can’t make it whisper, sound like a celebrity, or speak with an accent, etc.
Do you remember how you discovered that you have aphantasia? Did you grieve the fact that you don’t have an ability that the majority of people have?
I always knew that I can’t form mental images, but I thought that no one really could; that saying “picture an apple” was just another way to say “think of an apple”—not people actually seeing an apple in their mind’s eye!
The first time I realized that other people’s minds work differently was when I was studying psychology at university. All those guided meditations (“imagine a beach; feel the warm sand beneath your feet…”) were endlessly annoying to me because I couldn’t “see” or “feel” anything. I could come up with a list of words I associate with a beach, but that was it.
It took me a lot longer to figure out that other people can not only create visual images in their mind; most can also imagine taste, smell, and touch. I only discovered that when I started talking to the readers in my Facebook group about aphantasia, and they told me they can actually taste the dishes I’m describing in my books!
I never went through a period of grief because I didn’t feel that I lost anything. Having aphantasia is completely normal for me, and while I would love to experience an inner world without aphantasia for a day, just to see what it would be like, I like my quirky brain just the way it is.
How do you think aphantasia influences your life, for the better and the worse?
I do experience all of the challenges that are often associated with aphantasia: I have a horrible sense of direction and easily get lost even in places I’m familiar with. I struggle recognizing faces—I have lived in the same apartment for 8 years, and yet I wouldn’t recognize all of my neighbors if I met them elsewhere, out of context. There’s a scene in Just a Touch Away in which Hannah, the aphantasic character, struggles to keep two actresses in a TV show apart, and that’s totally me too.
I also have poor autobiographical memory—I know certain things happened in my life, e.g., I broke my arm skateboarding when I was twelve, but since there are no visuals, no sounds, no physical sensation that I can replay, I don’t remember the details.
On the positive side, I think aphantasia makes it easier to live in the present, to enjoy every moment. I don’t hold grudges; I can easily move on, and I’m happy with the life I have instead of daydreaming about the future or being stuck in the past.
How do you think aphantasia influences your writing? Do you feel your writing process is different from writers who don’t have aphantasia?
Most of my writer friends describe seeing their stories like a movie and/or hearing the characters talk. None of that happens to me. For me, writing is a more intentional, active process. My thinking is all word-based, which on the one hand might make it easier because there’s no “translating” from image to words. But on the other hand, it makes writing a more cognitive, less sensory experience. Maybe it’s part of why I’m a slow writer. Writing takes careful consideration for me, which means I can’t write 1,000 or more words an hour, but I do end up with very clean first drafts. I spend a lot of time creating my characters, writing out lengthy profiles for them, and getting to know them and what makes them tick before I start writing because writing is all about the characters, their emotions, and their relationship to me.
How do you experience reading? Do you enjoy reading fiction? Do you hear a voice, e.g., a narrator, the characters, or your own inner voice narrating? Do you struggle with long descriptive passages?
I’ve always been an avid reader. While I don’t see books as a movie in my mind or hear the characters or a narrator, I don’t need any of that in order to enjoy a novel. I read for other things—the emotions, the characters and their inner experience, the banter and witty dialogue, the way the two characters in a romance slowly build trust and open up to each other. None of that requires visualization. Seeing the characters or the setting from the outside or hearing them talk is an experience I can get from movies and TV shows. When I read, I want to be taken into the minds of the characters and experience their thoughts and emotions.
In a book written by a skilled writer who knows how to make description matter, I don’t struggle with descriptive passages. But if a writers takes two pages to describe what could be summed up with “she had a garden with a lot of flowers,” I might start skimming or skipping ahead to the next line of dialogue.
Do you struggle with writing description and have to consciously remind yourself to put descriptive details into your writing?
No, not at all. While descriptions don’t create images in my mind, I do want to know what my characters’ homes or the places they visit look like. For me, descriptions evoke emotions, and they tell us more about the characters. For example, Hannah from Just a Touch Away owns a dozen mango-colored throw pillows, while Winter dresses only in black, gray, white, and dark blue. I don’t see any of that in my mind’s eye, but those details reveal something about the characters’ personality.
I think in comparison to other writers, I’m more selective about what descriptive details I put in—they have to mean something—and I’m weaving them into the story and making them part of the characters’ experience instead of stopping the momentum of the story by inserting a long block of description.
Are there any tools you use when writing to compensate for your inability to visualize, e.g., maps, floor plans, photos of celebrities you cast as your characters, etc.?
I create floor plans for the homes of all of my main characters, and I look at them constantly while I write; otherwise, I would end up describing the layout inconsistently since I don’t have a mental image of it. Here’s the floor plan of Hannah and Winter’s apartment in Just a Touch Away, for example:
I fill out a profile for each character that includes their height, build, hair and eye color, and other details about how they look, but I don’t usually use any photos or cast celebrities as my characters. Most of my characters are everyday people. They are beautiful to their love interest, but they certainly don’t all look like famous actresses. Their personalities are much more important to me than the way they look. I want them to fall in love with each other because of who they are, not (just) because they are hot.
When you are writing, do you have to remind yourself that your characters’ inner lives differ from yours, e.g., remind yourself to show a character having a mental image flash through their mind?
No, not at all. 99.999% of the books I read feature characters who don’t have aphantasia, so I have read descriptions of images or sound flashing through a character’s mind a thousand times. Putting these experiences into my own books seemed natural. When I wrote from Hannah’s (my aphantasic character’s) point of view, I even had to remind myself to avoid or edit out phrases such as “Five hours later, she could still hear Winter’s words echo through her mind.” That was a surprising discovery!
How are you doing with love scenes? Do you feel aphantasia has any influence on your ability to write steamy scenes?
I’m not sure if it does, to be honest, because I never experienced writing a love scene while seeing it as a movie in my mind. I can tell you that love scenes are hard work for me, but I’m not sure if seeing or hearing the characters would make it easier. I don’t focus on the outer action of who does what, even though, of course, I do keep track of whose hand and limb is where to make sure all actions are physically possible. But at the core of the love scenes I write is always the internal experience of the characters—what are they thinking and feeling when they touch each other? Visualization isn’t necessary for that.
Do you dream visually, and have you ever dreamed about your characters?
My dreams sometimes have visual elements, but once I wake up, I’m no longer able to see those images in my mind; I just remember what the dream was about. A lot of the time, I just know where I am or who I’m with, but don’t really see them in my dream. The focus is more on my emotions than on my surroundings. I spend a lot of time thinking in my dreams….and getting lost. Apparently, that’s my go-to dream when I’m stressed, probably because of my horrible sense of direction.
While I was working on Just a Touch Away, I dreamed about Winter and Hannah twice. After I was up until 3 am writing, it was as if my brain just continued to write after I went to bed. I didn’t see or hear the characters in my dream, but they were there, and the story continued in my head. Unfortunately, I didn’t remember what I had dream-written when I woke up the next morning!
Where can readers find you if they want to know more about you and your books?
You can find descriptions of all my books on my website, along with a reading order and links to free books. You can subscribe to my monthly newsletter, join my Facebook reader group, or follow me on Twitter or Instagram.
Check out other interviews with aphantasic authors of sapphic books
This is part of a series of interviews with aphantasic authors of sapphic books. To read the other interviews, check out Jae’s article on aphantasia.