I’ve been asked about the difficulty of writing Mirna Fowler, the protagonist in BURN CARDS, in most recent interviews. I think it’s a fair question. It was certainly on my mind when I wrote the book. Is she a convincing underdog? Will I portray her strength well? Perhaps it’s because of the ever-present chatter of tough/strong women written as “just men with boobs” (more of a complaint by SFF readers, I think, as I’ve never seen such “criticism” on the crime/thriller scene – one I disagree with.) But disagree or not, it still sat there in the back of my head.
BURN CARDS initially came about as a sort of challenge. A few years ago I realized I was criminally (zing) under-read when it came to female authors (especially in crime), nor was I writing female characters in my short stories. I took Christa Faust’s Tough Dames class on LitReactor as a way to force myself to do both. After a grueling month, I’d learned a ton, discovered some of my (now) favorite authors – Megan Abbott, Claire Vaye Watkins, Dorothy B. Hughes – and wrote “Bet It All On Black,” the short story that would inspire BURN CARDS.
Fast forward to today – the book has gone through a lot, but one aspect that’s remained constant is Mirna’s voice. It’s a key part of the narrative that I tried very hard to get right. I have a lot of strong women in my life and I think there are pieces of them represented in Mirna. Having female friends read and give a thumbs up to earlier drafts was a boost to my confidence, but at the end of the day I think I realized, in my gut, that I’d been writing to the individual all along, and that’s what brought her to life. (see below for more from Kelly Sue DeConnick)
So, a month ago, I’m prepping promo and answering interview questions when internet whips up over the following piece of Q&A with Andrew Smith, acclaimed YA author of THE ALEX CROW:
“VICE: On the flip side, it sometimes seems like there isn’t much of a way into your books for female readers. Where are all the women in your work?
Andrew Smith: I was raised in a family with four boys, and I absolutely did not know anything about girls at all. I have a daughter now; she’s 17. When she was born, that was the first girl I ever had in my life. I consider myself completely ignorant to all things woman and female. I’m trying to be better though.
A lot of The Alex Crow is really about the failure of male societies. In all of the story threads, there are examples of male-dominated societies that make critical errors, whether it’s the army that Ariel falls in with at the beginning, or the refugee camp, or Camp Merrie-Seymour for boys, or the doomed arctic expedition, they’re all examples of male societies that think that they’re doing some kind of noble mission, and they’re failing miserably.” (“Andrew Smith’s VICE Interview Pissed Off a Bunch of YA Authors”)
I’m a feminist – perhaps a thick-skinned one – but Andrew Smith’s honest response about something he feels he needs to work on does not raise an iota of concern with me. Regardless, Smith was absolutely crucified on social media, especially Twitter, where the mobs quickly gathered to take him down. Is it the SFF/YA community? Maybe. We’ve since had the (unrelated) Hugo Awards disaster. But I digress…
I anxiously went back through my interviews I’d just sent off with the thought of, Am I next? It’s sad that I would even find myself at that point. Me, a “nobody,” worried about being destroyed by another bunch of “nobodies” because of a line they misunderstand or take out of context. I don’t have the time for that shit. I’m over it now – I’ve been over it, but I’ll leave you with a couple of things:
First off, Kelly Sue DeConnick on writing female characters: Kelly Sue’s work is awesome – even got my wife into reading comics with her latest, BITCH PLANET (hint: grab it, it’s GOOD). I highly recommend people listen to her recent interview with John Siuntres on the Word Balloon Podcast. Around the 1:11 mark, she talks about when she is asked for tips on how to write women, and goes on to mention a time when a fellow (male) comic writer asked her for tips on writing Carol Danvers (Captain Marvel). To paraphrase: Pretend we’re people (heavy sarcasm) and write the individual. You think that we’re that different? You know how you’re going to know she’s a female? Because she has breasts, and she looks like a female, and she refers to herself as a female – we don’t think about our gender. No dude has ever been asked, “How do you write a dude? Can you give me a couple of tips to write a dude?” Because we write the individual.
I want to write great female characters; it’s something I strive to work at. It’s a writer’s responsibility (if they want to be taken seriously) to avoid caricatures and care about the words they put down on the page. They make an impact, regardless of your status or visibility in the writing community. But the world needs more empathy, and people shouldn’t be so quick to jump on the bandwagon. Think before you end someone’s career or put their life’s work at risk. Are there awful people out there who deserve to be shit-canned? Absolutely! But too often good people are caught in the net and drown along with them. We’d all be better off to put the phone down, stop and think for a moment before blowing through a yellow.