On the road with the book, there’s a question people keep coming back to that I find a little odd, and it concerns women and the strength of the female characters in my novel. I think Eric Forbes’ interview with me is the best example of this, and my response to him is the answer I usually give:
How did you go about creating two strong female protagonists?
I love women. I am drawn to them, I trust them, I think highly of them and I appreciate their gifts. Which, I think, makes me consider their strengths, the source of their resilience, and the difficulties they face with a particular empathy. It has to do with my gladness that they exist and that I am one of them, more than anything I could set out to do in terms of “creating” characters. There’s the famous quote “there are no ugly women, only women who do not know how to make themselves beautiful,” something like that. In my world, I don’t believe that there are weak-willed women, only women who have not realised their strengths. Strength is, for me, the default setting for women. They can improve upon it or disregard it, but it is always there.
So there it is. That is what I think. But apparently it is not possible to express a love of women without generating the accompanying suspicion, “she hates men.” Just the other day, after what I thought had been a very enlightened discussion about the novel, a woman turned to the assembled and explained me to them as doing just that. So for the record, I want to say, categorically, I do not hate men. I am comfortable around them, having grown up with them – older brothers and male cousins and my mother’s male students made up my domestic landscape as a child – in a way that made boys a fact of life, not some mythical beasts to go chasing after or summon to my side with some beguiling charm. I was a tree-climbing, roof-scaling, wall-leaping, skinny, androgynous being who could, most of the time, outrun and outdo the boys. My mother has been known to haul me off to the barber along with her sons and I have emerged, at the age of nine with sideburns. I kid you not.
Perhaps being free not to have to define myself as being “other than a boy,” since I was quite clearly happy as a clam all but being one myself, made me look toward women with a particularly interested eye; and what I saw, growing up, were beautiful and intelligent and, often, burdened girls and women who displayed courage in spades. No woman in my life taught me to be afraid of anything. (I learned fear all by myself in America – and it has to do with psychopaths in parking garages and Hannibal Lecter types complete with night-vision goggles; men who want to hide women or eat women!!) What I grew up wanting to be was a woman like those women of my childhood: women with inner poise and resources of the spirit that nobody could touch or mangle or take from them.
What one wants to be or admires, usually informs the way in which a person approaches the world. I expect the women I meet to have a depth to the conduct of their lives that comes from inhabiting a world still tipping in favor of men, that their stories offer the kind of complexity I enjoy imagining, that their laughter has no bitter spring. I love women: I love the beauty of their physical selves, the abundance of their inner lives, their ability to see the threads in a tapestry, not just the picture it depicts.
I also love men. The men in my adult life have been and are a combination of the following: witty, smart, decent, funny, athletic, artsy, well-read human beings. Most of them can dance and are comfortable saying so. They are men who are confident enough in their masculinity that they can confess to a lack, define themselves by their thoughts and commitments, not their jobs and salaries, and who can be just as androgynous as grown men as I was as a girl. I approach the world as a woman who is at ease among them, who likes their company and can play all their games, and who is comfortable becoming any of the relatively harmless variations of female that men enjoy having around them. I never change who I am when I am around women and I have never been around a woman who has required that of me. And that is the simple difference in how I think about men and women. There is only a way of visiting with the world that finds me less on guard and more deeply engaged around women than around men. There is no hating involved.