Today it’s my pleasure to feature quite a remarkable author — Donna W. Hill. As well as an author, Donna is a journalist, singer-songwriter and recording artist, civil rights advocate, and avid knitter. She and her husband Rich live in Pennsylvania’s Endless Mountains.
You’ll find out why I think Donna is remarkable when you read her answers to my 20 questions below:
1. How did you lose your sight, and at what age?
It was a gradual process, not a specific point in time. I was born with an obvious visual impairment; I stared at light sources, not at toys or faces. At three, I was diagnosed as legally blind from Retinitis Pigmentosa (RP).
I had night blindness, tunnel vision and poor central vision. I could read regular print with difficulty (a word or a few letters at a time). I walked without any aids, but frequently tripped and ran into things. I lost the reading vision in my best eye the summer before starting college. After college graduation, I received my first guide dog and learned Braille.
A decade ago, I lost the ability to distinguish black and white under bright lights. Nowadays, I see daylight, but not forms. It’s like looking at a bright blur through a soda straw.
2. Which writing tools do you use in order to write and edit your books?
Before the computer, I used tape recorders, listening to one and speaking my revised version into the other, ad infinitum . I also used Braille. I had a primitive word processor with a small memory and even smaller screen, which displayed a few words at a time. My husband quips that he almost went blind trying to proof-read my writing.
In 2005, I learned to use a computer equipped with a screen reader called Jaws. I wrote The Heart of Applebutter Hill using Word and Jaws. Jaws enables me to spell-check, use the clipboard and format. It’s such an improvement that I have come to love editing.
3. You are a singer/songwriter too. Do you find it easier to compose songs than write books?
I never considered this before. My initial thoughts are that I think songwriting is more of a right brain activity and therefore easier. Music uses both sides of the brain, as does the imagination employed in writing. Nonetheless, I believe, at least for me, that there is more spontaneity in songwriting.
The melodies, for instance, always come to me fully formed, often with some lyrics. Trying to come up with a melody is more a process of putting myself in a place where it can happen by itself. Writing, though it starts away from the keyboard with periods of directed imagination, seems more cerebral. Of course, I have only written one novel, whereas, I have over 600 songs.
Also, I tend to think of these as relating to time. I probably spent more time writing my novel than all of the songs added up.
4. Do you have an acute sense of hearing, smell and taste?
Some blind people are also deaf, but most have clinically normal hearing. We pay more attention to our hearing, however, which may make it seem more acute. As a child, I was encouraged to use my vision not my other senses. Despite those misguided efforts, I have grown to rely on my hearing and sense of touch.
5. Did you write stories as a child, or did you only start writing as you got older?
As a child, I wrote poetry and short stories. My poetry rhymed and followed a strict meter, so when I started writing songs at fourteen, the skill transferred smoothly to lyrics. As my vision deteriorated, I could no longer read my stuff in print. Getting someone to transcribe my journals, poetry and stories into Braille was hugely embarrassing.
6. Your book ‘The Heart of Applebutter Hill’ is a high school mystery/fantasy, and has been lauded by professionals as a valuable tool for diversity inclusivity and for its anti-bullying initiatives. Have you included anything from your own schooldays in the story?
My heroine, Abigail, is far more advanced in her adaptation to blindness at fourteen than I was, but her back-story is much like mine. We have the same eye condition, a degenerative retinal disorder. There are peculiarities about having tunnel vision and being legally but not totally blind that we both share. Bullying also was a big part of both of our lives.
The incident at the World Boutique was right out of my life as was the kerfuffle Abigail gets into with the man who assumes she isn’t going to pick up after her dog. I also had the experience of applying to the newspaper staff in high school and having a teacher ignore my application.
7. Which social media do you find most helpful for promoting your book?
More reviews and other promotions come from LinkedIn than Facebook or Twitter.
Stevie: This is unusual, as mostly all I ever receive on LinkedIn are friend requests from people wanting my money in some way or another! What do other authors think?
8. You have an interest in journalism and covered the inauguration of President Carter for a radio reading service. Did you meet the President?
No, my credentials didn’t get me that close. It was fun though.
9. How long does it take to train a guide dog?
My experience is with GDF (the Guide Dog Foundation in Smithtown, New York) where I have received all five of my guide dogs. The school has their own breeding program. After ten weeks, the pups are placed with puppy raisers, families who keep them for about a year. They socialize the pups to be comfortable around a wide range of human activities, teach them general obedience and give them the love that is so important.
They then return to the training center and receive six months of specialized training. They learn to avoid obstacles, stop at curbs and steps, board trains, find seats, elevators and so on. Once the trainer feels comfortable walking blindfolded with the dog, the dog is ready to be placed with a blind person.
GDF evaluates their students to determine what they will need from a working dog. Some dogs are more suited to city life than others. Some dogs walk faster or slower than others. They like to have two dogs that they think will work before inviting a student to Smithtown. Once there, they work with an instructor for two weeks. Each instructor has only two students.
The first year at home is a crucial bonding period. The dog also learns places where the team travels frequently.
10. When your guide dogs are too old to work, do they still stay with you while you get to know a new dog?
We have several options . We can keep the dog as a pet and get a new working dog. We can also retire the dog to a different home. If we can’t find a suitable home, GDF will approach the dog’s puppy raisers or find a home among the many families who volunteer for this.
I kept all of my dogs, and did not get a new guide until the old one passed away. I feel very fortunate that circumstances allowed me to slow down for them.
11. Like me you are a cancer survivor. Do you still worry before a check-up?
I did for a long time. I had breast cancer in both breasts. I worried that they hadn’t gotten it all, or that whatever caused it would rear its ugly head again. It’s been twenty-seven years, and after ten, I was less concerned. That said, when I began having problems with my pancreas a few years back, I couldn’t help wondering if it was cancer.
Stevie: I think this worrying is very common in cancer survivors. I know I feel the same way.
12. When you were first diagnosed with cancer, did you say ‘Why me’, or did you come to a conclusion that cancer can strike anybody at any time?
Both of my grandmothers died of metastatic breast cancer, so I was on the look-out for it. I did regular breast self-exams and had a baseline mammogram in my twenties. I found the lumps myself, despite negative mammograms.
Stevie: Wow, despite negative mammograms? It just goes to show that self-examination is really important.
13. Why have you not written any articles on your blog since March 2016?
Yikes, you are thorough! The five years since the publication of my novel have been a major trial. Three months after publication, my husband started having severe, widespread pain. It took seven hospitalizations to determine that he had CNS (Central Nervous System) Lyme disease. He was treated but sustained permanent nerve damage. Just as he was beginning to stabilize, my last guide dog, Hunter, was diagnosed with a canine form of Inflammatory Bowel Disease. It took months to diagnose and more months to stabilize him. He died in March of 2016.
Then, it was my turn. I had severe abdominal pain, that we thought was due to a hiatal hernia, but it didn’t go away after surgery. I was diagnosed with idiopathic pancreatitis and a handful of other gastrointestinal anomalies – none of which are life-threatening. We’re still trying to find meds that work.
I wrote about Hunter. I received my new boy, Mo, a year later and wrote about him too. I just couldn’t push the ‘Publish button.
14. Are you working on another book at the moment?
Not so as you could notice. I started two, but I haven’t been able to get back to it. Occasionally, a scene flashes through my mind, so I guess that’s a start.
15. What do you like to do if you are not writing songs or books?
I like walking, reading audio books and knitting.
16. Do you think our life events are pre-destined in order to teach us something, or do you believe that things happen to us randomly?
I think it’s a little of both. I believe that we are here to grow spiritually and to help the planet and its occupants. I’ve been struggling of late about my mission in life. Have I already completed it? Did I miss the boat and get permanently sidetracked? Was I deluding myself when I thought God was telling me that I had something important to do?
17. What is the one possession of yours that you cannot do without?
Rich made me a “Braille mirror” out of teak with brass dots that says, “You are beautiful.”
18. What is one important thing that you have learned from your life’s journey so far?
Don’t give up till you get up.
Stevie: Love this!
19. Why did you make the move to Pennsylvania’s Endless mountains?
I’ve loved the mountains since I was a child. Blind people who wish to be independent travelers and have options for employment and social lives, however, tend to go to cities where public transportation and convenient shopping are plentiful. I lived in the Philadelphia area for over twenty years and had a full and independent life. I got over my fear of performing by working as a street performer and later began to do presentations for schools, churches and other groups.
My first cancer diagnosis came after I started working on my third recording, which was to be a showcase of my songs to market myself as a songwriter. After treatment, I got back in the saddle and finished the project.
Just as we had sent off the masters to be transformed into CDs, I got the second diagnosis. Then, Rich, who had lost a kidney to cancer earlier in his life, was laid off. He was in a highly specialized field and would have had to re-locate to another urban area. Neither of us wanted that.
We had land in Susquehanna county, and we had talked about retiring there. We just did it early.
Stevie: Now that I’ve lived in the flatlands of Suffolk for nearly 30 years, I think I’d feel ‘shut-in-‘ if I lived in a mountainous area, as I’ve become used to seeing the horizon.
20. You are also a civil rights advocate. Did your petition for increased digital access for the blind reach its required 100,000 signatures?
No, and I must clarify that it wasn’t my petition. I was just promoting it. Digital access is a peculiar thing. The technology exists to make software and web sites accessible to everyone. It’s a matter of 1s and 0s. It’s far cheaper and easier than putting in accommodations for physical access such as wheelchair ramps, bathrooms and elevators, but it doesn’t get done. The only recourse we have is to file law suits, and that has to be, by definition, after the fact. So, we’re always playing catch-up.
Purchase The Heart of Applebutter Hill at these & other outlets:
Amazon (print & Kindle):
Amazon UK (print & Kindle)
Smashwords (.mobi, .epub, .pdf, .rtf, etc.):
Follow Donna at:
* The Heart of Applebutter Hill is available in specialized formats to readers with print disabilities through Bookshare & Learning Ally.
If any other authors/readers would like to answer 20 of my questions, please leave a comment with your email address and I’ll get back to you.