Lillie Lainoff may have always wanted to be an author, but it took her a little longer to realize how truly impactful—and necessary—-her voice could be.
“I always wanted to be a writer and as a little kid, I knew that,” she says. “But I don’t think I knew how powerful that occupation could be and the ways in which it could intersect with activism.”
Her debut novel One for All is a gender-bent reimagining of The Three Musketeers that not only puts a feminist spin on a traditionally male-heavy classic but one that places a chronically ill girl at its center, giving her precisely the sort of whirlwind adventure that characters like her all too infrequently get to have.
“It has a lot of swords,” Lainoff laughs. “Affectiontionately, it’s known as the sisterhood of the stab stab, but it very much is a story about found family and sisterhood and what it takes to learn to love yourself in a world that tells you that you shouldn’t.”
But perhaps most importantly, the book provides much-needed representation for a marginalized group that gets far too little of it, particularly in young adult fiction: The chronically ill.
“I don’t think I’d realized that I could use my talent or my love and passion for words as a way to help and to provide representation. I just wanted to be an author, I wanted to publish books.”
Lainoff, who refers to herself as an “activist author” describes writing One for All as “an act of learning to love myself”.
“The act of putting it out into the world was my way of telling everyone that they are inherently worthy as they are,” she says “And, despite it being such a vulnerable act, it’s been probably the most rewarding thing I’ve ever done in my life. It’s just an incredible privilege to be the person that provides that representation for others.”
One for All follows Tania de Batz, the daughter of a Musketeer, an accomplished and talented swordswoman in her own right, and a girl with a chronic illness. She suffers from Postural Orthostatic Tachycardia Syndrome (POTS), a dysfunction of the autonomic nervous system that causes abnormal symptoms in many parts of the body and whose symptoms usually manifest as vertigo, lightheadedness, trouble thinking, blurred vision, or weakness.
Despite its historical setting, this is a story that’s close to the heart of its author, who herself was diagnosed with POTS as a teen. In fact, much of Tania’s story carries echoes of Lainoff’s own. A competitive fencer since the age of nine, she not only wrote her own love of swords and swordplay into her novel but several “painful but familiar” personal experiences from her own life, including “being abandoned by a best friend because of a chronic illness” and “worrying you weren’t going to be viewed as desirable or attractive by guys”.
“I think, every author would agree with me when I say that writing a novel and putting it out into the world is an inherently vulnerable exercise,” Lainoff says. “I think that some novels require more vulnerability on the author’s part than others. And One For All has so much of me in it that, it was in some ways incredibly difficult to write and in some ways, incredibly easy.”
But unlike many young readers, Lainoff not only understands what it’s like to see herself represented in the books she loves, but the the pain the lack of such representation can cause.
“I think that I have a very… I wouldn’t say it’s unique, because I think that lots of people who acquire chronic illness and as a teenager, which is when most POTS is diagnosed and it’s mostly diagnosed in teenage girls,” Lainoff says. “A lot of girls have txhat experience. But I went from being somebody who saw themselves in literature—I had characters who I saw myself in. I was incredibly privileged and lucky to be able to have that. And then I got sick and there was nobody like me.”
Life is hard enough for independent-minded young women in seventeenth-century France, let alone for a girl with Tania’s health struggles. Throughout the story, she is referred to as an “invalide,” “pauvre Tania,” and even called “broken” at one point by her own mother. A potential marriage match is thrown out when the family of her would-be suitor discovers Tania’s illness, and her best friend essentially disowns her over it, opting to publicly shame her at multiple points in the story. And though Tania eventually finds her tribe and a larger purpose in the most unexpected of places—the girls’ finishing academy that’s secretly a training ground for young female Musketeers—the fact of her illness never goes away.
But it was important for Lainoff to tell a story that was about something more than the fact that her main character was chronically ill. And while Tania struggles with everything from self-acceptance to internalized ableism over the course of the book, her illness doesn’t define who she is.
“It’s not a story about disability as a burden or disability as a metaphor or disability as a symbolism,” Lainoff says. “Because at the end of the day, disability is disability, and chronic illness is chronic illness. Pain is just pain and there doesn’t need to be a deeper meaning behind those things.”
Instead, Tania is a feisty tomboy who loves to swordfight and wants to follow in her father’s swashbuckling footsteps. She rejects the idea that all a young woman can or should aspire to be is someone’s wife and refuses to settle for a life she views as somehow lesser because of her illness.
And as an author, Lainoff was equally determined to subvert many of the assumptions readers may have possessed about what a story featuring a disabled lead could be and do. Yes, Tania’s chronic illness impacts her life in ways that other female characters in YA literature don’t have to deal with, but the bulk of her story still follows very familiar beats. (And that’s a choice that’s very much on purpose.)
“A lot of the tropes that are in this book are the deconstruction of tropes about disability or are tropes that disabled readers haven’t had a chance to see themselves in,” Lainoff says. “And I also really wanted to make clear that, this isn’t the story of the disabled character who dies in the main character’s arms in order to teach them about the fragility of the human experience.”
Lainoff hopes that One for All will not only provide necessary representation for chronically ill readers but help push the publishing industry as a whole to tell more stories like it.
“I’d like to think that One For All is a form of activism by putting representation out into the world for people who need it. I’ve had at least two or three readers come up to me now to say that they’re going to use the descriptions of Tanya’s symptoms to explain their symptoms to their doctors. So, it’s a form of activism in that way. But I think that also, it’s a form of activism in that, I think that it’s going to help change publishing in terms of opening up its mind.”
Because to Lainoff, representation in fiction is much more complicated and necessary than most readers may be aware of, and she hopes her words will speak to everyone—chronically ill or not—in a meaningful way.
“I think that when we provide representation—accurate representation, it’s not just the people who have a chronic illness, who have POTS that are helped,” Lainoff says. “Because One for All isn’t just a book that’s being read by chronically ill readers. It’s being read by all readers. And, that brings awareness to POTS, yes, but it also brings awareness to the way that disability and chronic illness are represented in media. And that matters.”
One for All
is available now.
Lacy Baugher Milas is the Books Editor at Paste Magazine, but loves nerding out about all sorts of pop culture. You can find her on Twitter @LacyMB.