Writing a novel is hard work in itself. For some reason, I chose to make it harder by writing Too Close to Miss in first person from the viewpoint of a woman.
Okay, not for some arbitrary reason. I wanted to invert certain thriller genre tropes, so a female protagonist was necessary. And I default into first person unless I make a conscious effort not to. The easiest way to find a voice, for me, is to speak in it all the time.
But it certainly had its challenges.
When people read the first page of my novel, the most frequent feedback I got from male readers was that they didn’t think Mara was a woman until a few pages in. The most frequent feedback I got from female readers is, “why does she have her jeans hanging in the closet?” The detail just rang false. Jeans get folded and placed in a dresser. I don’t keep my jeans there, but that’s probably a guy thing: I have more closet space than I have dresser space. I fixed both those details for the final draft.
Just yesterday, a friend of mine tweeted (in a ha-ha-oops way, not a prurient way) that she’d left her house without a bra on. I didn’t think this was something women did. I know that, depending on physique and outfit, there are times a woman can do it and times that they can’t. But there’s a lot of lore and practice surrounding brassieres that, as a male, is just lost to me. Fitting, support, changing sizes due to fluctuations in weight, fashion considerations – all a darkened vale to me. My relationship with bras has fluctuated between bemusement and frustration for the last eleven years; that’s all the knowledge I can bring to bear.And yet these are things that Mara Cunningham has to know – not intellectually, but instinctively. She’s not going to go without a bra so as to tease the world around her; that’s not the kind of woman she is*. But in the new novel, there is a scene where she stumbles to the local convenience store hungover. How much would she put herself together for a trip like that?
My experience with femininity comes from two sources: the women I know and popular culture. Pop culture is a minefield when it comes to depictions of women (particularly independent women), so that’s better left unexplored. That leaves the women I know. While there are bits and pieces of several female friends in Mara Cunningham, I can only take that so far without being derivative. So I struggle to ask the probing but professional questions necessary to honestly depict a female hero.
The biggest shortcut I’ve taken, for the time being, has been to presume that women tend to want the same things men do: validation of their work, good sex, success for their friends, failure for their rivals and for their mothers to quit bugging them to settle down. Hasn’t steered me wrong yet.
But for those of you who’ve read Too Close to Miss, particularly female readers: does Mara Cunningham strike you as feminine? Not feminine enough? Too feminine (or perhaps too fake in her femininity)? Let me know, and be honest.
* Nothing creeps me out more than older male writers who write young female characters as an excuse to leer. Rupert Holmes’s Where The Truth Lies is a particular offender, with the perky female protagonist taking every opportunity she can to examine her firm body. Thanks for making it clear who this novel’s for, Rupert.