What Does Sex Have to Do With It?
I had a “gulp” moment two years ago when a New York editor called me. He’d set up the telephone conversation through my agent because he liked one of my submitted manuscript’s secondary characters. What did he say that produced that nervous swallowing noise from me? “I want you to make this Maggie’s story.”
I wasn’t surprised. That’s not why I gulped. My agent had been suggesting the same switch for over a year, and when I’d written Maggie Black into the novel as a military weapons officer a few drafts earlier, I’d tried to make her special. A former F-15 combat fighter pilot, the U.S. Air Force Lieutenant Colonel owned an artificial, electronically controlled hand, and her hardboiled speech and manner were patterned after a take-no-crap female news reporter I’d known personally.
No, my gulp arose from fear. In my mind, I’d only sketched out Maggie and her background as an interesting side character. My novel had been about a half-breed Native American for decades, a spiritually driven seeker who believes the white man has never stopped destroying his people. Though angry and slightly off his rocker, he was the protagonist. The Black Kachina was his story.
At least that’s what I told myself then, stubborn novelist that I am. It’s my story. I’m telling it my way. But that day on the telephone with a man who offered a prize I’d long sought, my stubbornness fell way to practicality. I said, yes boss, whatever you say, and two weeks into the rewrite for that New York editor, I knew he and my agent had been right all along. Once I created her, The Black Kachina was Maggie’s story.
Shocker! The pros knew more than me.
Also two weeks into that editor-mandated rewrite, I understood another reason I’d hesitated making the story Maggie’s: I was frightened of creating a female protagonist. My subconscious had been whispering, Who the heck do you think you are, writing from a female point of view? I worried I was taking on a task above my skills, or maybe, looking deeper, some macho thing inside (chauvinism?) said I couldn’t possibly understand women. I don’t know. But two weeks into making The Black Kachina Maggie’s story, not that half-breed’s, I not only knew the story would end up better, I realized my female point of view wouldn’t be a problem at all. There was no difference.
My first main fictional character was myself, or the devil on my shoulder. Like him, I moved from California to New Jersey, joining a new wife’s family and changing jobs. Also like my Austin Carr character, I found the environment more competitive, busier, less friendly to strangers. It was something of a shock using the telephone to solicit sales and feed my family after collecting information on the phone for the Los Angeles Times. It’s no coincidence that fictional Austin was desperate to leave the stock and bond business, or that his stories are written in the first person.
When a later Austin Carr tale needed a woman’s point of view, I used method acting, not acting classes, but by briefly studying the published works of famous acting teachers — Constantin Stanislavski, Lee Strasberg, Stella Adler, and Sanford Meisner. They all taught actors to use personal feelings and memories as fodder for the fictional. And apparently, it worked. I had no trouble finding the old woman inside myself — a bit cranky, fastidious, critical. From her first appearance in the Austin Carr series, Angelina “Mama Bones” Bonacelli has turned into a major player. She gets more fan mail than Austin.
But with Colonel Maggie Black, my fear of delving deeper into the female character almost cost me a major improvement in my manuscript. I gulped when that New York editor suggested Maggie should be the main character. I worried when I said yes. But only days into the project, I realized the truth: When it came to job performance, duty, honor, courage, and self-doubt — a flaw in Maggie’s character she must overcome — men and woman seem exactly the same to me.
Quite naturally, Maggie thinks, acts, and fights like the warrior she was trained to be.