Sapphic Slow-burn romances

Interview about aphantasia with Jacqueline Ramsden

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?

So far, I’ve released four sapphic books. The latest, The Other Side of Leaving, came out in June. It’s about Tilly, an anxious bookkeeper who believes–or tries to believe–she’s straight, and Frankie, a larger-than-life illustrator who definitely knows she’s a lesbian. The two meet when Frankie pulls Tilly into a hug and, from there, they work together to reunite two of their estranged friends, start falling for each other but live in denial, and navigate figuring out themselves and their lives as Frankie plans to move to LA and Tilly realizes she’s actually pansexual.


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?

Visual imagery for sure. I have absolutely no ability to call up an image, or anything close to it, in my mind, but I hadn’t realized the other senses were impacted until I saw your tweet about aphantasia. After that, I tested out my other senses and it turns out that I cannot conjure up taste or smell at all, sound is complicated, and touch is reasonably doable.

With sound, I almost constantly have music in my mind but it’s all in my voice. I can’t hear music like I can when I listen to a song, even if I know exactly what it’s like. It’s just like I’m humming the rhythm or I can hear myself thinking the lyrics. Perhaps surprisingly, I’m actually good at knowing what a song is when hearing just a couple of notes from it. But, if there’s nothing playing, it’s much like how my brain functions with visual things–I just know a lot of information, but I can’t see or hear any of it.

People’s voices are a mixed bag. If it’s someone I’m extremely close to and hear speak a lot, there are a couple of words or phrases I can hear them saying, but it takes a lot of effort. Actors from shows, audiobooks, or people I’m not close with, I can’t hear.

Touch is pretty easy to imagine if it’s something that might elicit a strong reaction. For example, having something sticky on my skin is very easy to imagine and I really dislike that sensation when it happens. Imagining touching soft fabric or something similar is a little more difficult but not nearly as hard as the other senses.

Visual imagery is the most interesting to me because I can’t picture anything at all, but if I’m thinking about a physical space, it feels like the things I know about the space are arranged to recreate the space even though I can’t picture the space or the information at all. It’s so difficult to explain, but if I think about a train station I know well, I know that the ticket counters are separate from the tracks and it almost feels like the things I know about the ticket counter are kept away from the information about the tracks, so the information is creating the station layout in my mind but I can’t see it.


Do you have an inner voice or an inner monologue?

Yes. I never have any trouble hearing myself in my mind. Almost everything in my brain is happening in my inner voice and it never stops talking. I mean, I also have anxiety so it’s always pointing out things to worry about!


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?

Kind of. I remember reading something about being able to visualize things mentally and how there are people who can’t do that. The example they gave was whether you could picture an apple. As I read, I realized that when people talked about visualizing things, they meant that quite literally. Before that point, I’d just thought it was something people said and that we all just knew a bunch of facts about the things we were “picturing.”

Perhaps it’s an unusual response, but I usually just find it really entertaining that my brain can’t picture things. It confuses people so much, while I’m equally confused that they can. It’s so interesting to me that brains are so different.

I was also an adult before I realized aphantasia was a thing and my brain, clearly, has so many ways of working around it that I don’t feel like I’m missing anything, so there’s not really any grief associated with it for me, even though I totally understand why there would be for others.


How do you think aphantasia influences your life, for the better and the worse?

Ooh, I’m not totally sure, honestly. I know it does, but since I don’t know what it’s like without aphantasia, it’s hard to know what would be different without it.

I think I pick up on and store a lot of information about the people and things around me. It’s like my brain is keeping notes on everything it can learn and store because that’s the only way I can remember things. I can’t see the notes, but it feels like my brain is very organized and filled with tons and tons of notes so that it knows what things are.

Meditation, visualization activities, and stuff are all basically impossible unless they are very specifically done. So, a lot of the apps that people use or group classes are no good for me because my brain can’t picture or feel the things they are describing, which just results in me feeling uninvolved. Before I knew about aphantasia, I always thought I was doing something wrong. It’s nice to know it’s not that.


How do you think aphantasia influences your writing? Do you feel your writing process is different from writers who don’t have aphantasia?

I have no idea what my characters look or sound like. I know some authors have really clear ideas about what their characters look like, their actions, mannerisms, and things, but all I’ve got is vibes. I know what their energy is like and I know facts about the things they like or how they’ll react to things. Even if I use a visual reference, I don’t remember what that looks like without looking back at it constantly, which can break my flow. Sometimes, I can remember certain features, like hair color, but I’m never sure until I check what I said. Which, honestly, is often quite vague anyway, just because I cannot see them. So, it’s a conscious effort to put anything about characters’ appearances in and then instantly forgetting them.

If I’m describing a place that exists in real life, there’s usually a lot of looking up images of the place, even if it’s a place I know well, just because I’ve learned that the information I store about places is not necessarily relevant to people without aphantasia. I definitely feel like I need a picture to be able to describe places in a way that will work for most readers. Most of the time, I’m worrying that I’ve done a terrible job describing places.

I actually live with another writer and our general processes aren’t massively different, I think I just have to look up visual references more and I can’t describe my characters’ appearances or voices whereas she can!


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 love reading, always have, and I absolutely love fiction. I can’t imagine a lot of the characters, settings, and actions like many people can, but I still get so much enjoyment from reading stories. It’s all about my connection to the characters’ personalities for me.

Characters don’t have their own voices or accents, even if it’s referenced on the page. I’ll then know they have a specific accent, but I won’t hear it. All I hear is my own inner voice reading the words. If I know a character is speaking with a specific emotion, I can hear that, but again, only in my inner voice.

Long descriptive passages don’t bother me, I can read and enjoy them, but I won’t imagine them and, unless there are specific facts to cling onto in the description, I likely won’t retain what the author is trying to tell me. So, if someone describes a character walking through the streets and says things about the lighting, the colors around them, the way the streets intersect or which turns the character is taking, that’s not going to create an image I can use in my mind. I can think it sounds pretty but I won’t remember which streets intersect later. If they say the place they work at is right next to their favorite restaurant, the place their love interest or best friend works, or that there’s a fascinating spire on the horizon, I will remember that. I can’t see the spire, their best friend, or the street they work on, but I’ll remember the things that matter or mean something to them.


Do you struggle writing description and have to consciously remind yourself to put descriptive details into your writing?

Yes. Definitely. I know it’s important to have, but it does not come naturally because my brain almost doesn’t care about it. When I’m writing, it’s not giving me descriptions of the things I’m imagining, I just know what I want it to feel like. Because I’m aware this may not come across to readers, it’s always on my mind to try to describe what I’m thinking, even though that’s often challenging.

Fellow author Lily Seabrooke alpha reads for me and I’m always fascinated by getting her to describe things that I’m writing because she has a much better picture of them than I do. I use that to check whether I’ve got enough description to capture the energy I’m going for.


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.?

As mentioned above, I consult Google images a decent amount, or, if I’ve already got the cover in mind, I’ll look back at that a lot, but other than that, not really.

The Other Side of Leaving features an imaginary small town in Vermont. I’ve been to small towns in Vermont and I did look up a couple of places when I was writing, however, Coalfield in the book is not based on any one place and I don’t actually know how it’s arranged other than that I know it’s got Main Street, as a lot of small towns do. If I happened to write more stories set there, or I needed the characters moving around the streets more, I probably would draw up a little map just to keep things straight and understand where everything is. For now, though, it’s just a case of having a vague idea of what’s happening and then checking in edits that nothing seems contradictory!

Because things are so hinged on characters’ personalities for me, celebrity casting doesn’t work. I just cannot get my mind to imagine my characters on real people because they already have their own personality and ‘vibe’.


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 have a mental image flash through their mind?

Yes! This was particularly true in The Other Side of Leaving. Frankie and Tilly both often picture things in their minds and it was a very conscious effort to write that in. In my first book or two, if I mentioned a character picturing something mentally (which I honestly cannot remember if I did!), in my mind it was like how I “picture” things–they were just knowing information. When I read it back, that’s when I would remember it was different. In The Other Side of Leaving, I made a conscious effort to write that they were picturing things and know that they actually could see the images, the feelings, or the sensations in their minds.


How are you doing with love scenes? Do you feel aphantasia has any influence on your ability to write steamy scenes?

Between aphantasia and being demi, reading love scenes is actually much more difficult than writing them. Not difficult in a painful way, just in an imagining what’s happening way. I’m very glad the characters are having a good time, but I cannot picture what’s happening and I’m much more likely to focus on the logistics of where they are and the emotions/their communication than I am to get lost in the sensations of the scene.

Writing love scenes, for me, begins with figuring out what I think they’d do or be into based on what I know about their personalities. Then, it’s a lot of conscious thought on where they are, whether body parts can move in certain ways, and lots of thought about what they’re doing with their hands and how they’re communicating. I think because touch is slightly easier for me to mentally picture, what’s happening with characters’ hands feels important. The emotion of the scene comes much more easily than the physicality of it because my brain can more easily process what characters might be thinking or feeling. And, because I can’t just picture what’s happening, there’s lots of pausing to think through the logistics. Writing love scenes is often slow.


Do you dream visually, and have you ever dreamed about your characters?

I do dream visually. I can’t make my mind picture any parts of the dream once I wake up, but I know I do it. However, I have never dreamed of my characters or, I think, of the characters in anyone else’s books. I’m actually only just realizing that right now, which is fascinating! I can dream of characters I’ve seen in TV shows or movies, and I can dream of people I know from my life, but it seems that I cannot dream up someone I’ve only ever read or written a description of. How interesting. Always learning something new with aphantasia!


Where can readers find you if they want to know more about you and your books?

You can find me on Twitter @Jac_Ramsden or sign up to my newsletter on my website jacquelineramsden.com. All of my books are available on Amazon and Kindle Unlimited.


Check out other interviews with aphantasic authors of sapphic books

This interview is part of a series of interviews with aphantasic authors of sapphic books. To read the other interviews and find out more about aphantasia, check out Jae’s article on aphantasia.