Half-way through writing the first draft of The Blind Contessa’s New Machine, a historical fantasy based on the invention of the world’s first typewriter, I got stuck.
The actual facts of the historical story had practically begged to become a novel: a beautiful Italian noblewoman, gone blind in the flower of her youth. A local inventor, inspired by her beauty to create the world’s first typewriter. The complication that both of them were married to other people. The lush backdrop of early nineteenth century Italy.
But seventy-five pages in, the tensions established, the stage set for the typewriter’s appearance, I had a narrative problem. Why did this story need a typewriter? What events could possibly lead the characters I’d created to invent the new machine, as they actually had? I struggled with the question in the abstract for several days, but it wasn’t until I dove back into the story itself that I found the answer.
It was deceptively simple: Carolina, the contessa, wanted to write a letter to Turri, the inventor. When I had her sit down to do that with the tools she would have had at hand: a pen, ink, sealing wax, and open flame – I knew immediately why Turri would have been inspired to invent his new machine. For a blind person, these simplest elements of communication would have been not only virtually impossible to negotiate, but genuinely dangerous – which is why most early typewriters weren’t conceived of as commercial products, but as writing aids for the blind.
Carey Wallace, author of The Blind Contessa’s New Machine: A Novel (Pamela Dorman Books), was raised in small towns in Michigan. Her work has appeared in Oasis, SPSM&H, Detroit’s MetroTimes and quarrtsiluni, which she guest-edited in 2008. To read more about the author and the book click here.