MJ (Miranda) Carter is the author of three books featuring 19th century detective duo Blake and Avery; Antonia Hodgson writes books featuring louche but good-hearted 18th century gentleman, Thomas Hawkins. Both write as their male first person narrators, and both their first novels, The Strangler Vine, and The Devil in the Marshalsea, were shortlisted for the HWA Debut Crown.
They met to discuss the issues and complications that surround being a woman writing as a male protagonist, and gender and writing in general.
Antonia: I suppose I should start by saying that I have never felt that writing a male character and being a woman is a problem. But I have met a couple of writers who feel it can’t be done – who believe it is simply too much of an imaginative leap, that men and women are so different it’s virtually impossible.
Miranda: I find that strange. I’d have thought that the prerequisite for a good writer is to be able to make the leap into other people’s shoes. If you can’t write as a man if you’re a woman or visa versa, how are you going to – for example – write as a South American, or a Turk, or indeed a Martian, or someone who lived in the 18th century?
Antonia: I agree, but I’ve been at literary festivals where writers have been asked, do you think women are better at writing x, and men are better at writing y? And I’ve seen writers agree and say they do think there is a difference.
Miranda: What sort of thing are they talking about, that women are better at writing the emotional/psychological stuff and men at action?
Antonia: Yes, exactly.
Miranda: I do think there are plenty of well-established if tacit assumptions around gender in books and publishing. Quite apart from the way genre is often still gendered (which is a discussion for another time) — it’s still the case that men mostly choose to write male lead characters and women choose women, and publishing implicitly endorses this in the name of marketing. When in The Strangler Vine I chose to write about two male protagonists and put them into what turned into an adventure story, every publisher I spoke to said that I would have to publish under a gender neutral name, i.e. use my initials — even though I had already published two well-received non-fiction books under my full name. They said that a man finding my book for the first time and not having heard of me would be put off to find I was a woman. Thus JK Rowling and SJ Watson, who wrote such a persuasive female voice in Before I Go To Sleep. I can’t help thinking that the main effect of this is to reinforce sexual stereotypes.
Antonia: You’re not the only writer I’ve heard that from. Oddly I had the opposite experience. I was so nervous about how my first book would be received that I was quite keen to use a pseudonym. At the very least, I asked my publisher if they would like me to use my initials. And they were quietly insistent that I used my own, full name. And judging from reviews, signings, etc, I have as many male readers as female. What I do often hear from female readers is that they’ve bought one of my novels knowing their (male) partner would also enjoy it. There’s this idea that men tend to buy more non-fiction and women more fiction, but given how much people share books between family members and friends, it may be more nuanced than that. Most things are! I probably read more non-fiction than fiction these days.
There now followed a short pause, while Miranda and Antonia shared a glamorous lunch. (Omelette and chips.)
Antonia: Going back to the idea of being a woman and writing a male protagonist, I think that there are so many things that are harder to do than this. For example, being an introvert (which I would say I am) and imagining life as an extrovert is much harder. My protagonist, Thomas Hawkins, is pretty much my opposite. The fact that he’s a man is the least of it: he’s outgoing, impulsive, laid back and a gambler. He’s also tall, twenty-six and lived 300 years ago.
Miranda: Nevertheless, you have to find the character’s voice. How did you do that? Among other things Thomas Hawkins is extremely frisky. That’s not the first thing I think of when I think of you. Was that hard to pull off?
Antonia: The key thing with historical fiction and capturing the voice, is that you have to do the research. Yes, some things are universal, and yes you have to use your imagination. But without really decent research there is no texture, no depth – and no authority. What clothes would your character wear? When and what would they eat and drink? What would be typical for them and what would be very unusual behaviour. If you don’t know the period you can’t know the character. As for being frisky…! I read a lot of 18th-century libertine literature and can report that sex hasn’t changed all that much. Actually it was interesting how much focus there was on mutual pleasure. I know the baby boomers think they invented the clitoris, but not so. In any case – both broad and detailed research gives you confidence.
Miranda: I’d agree with that, but I did find with The Strangler Vine that I had to learn some new kinds of writing. Because it ended up being a kind of boy’s own story (albeit one turned on its head), I had to write action scenes and research guns and knives. It was a steep learning curve — to write a fast, violent action scene and not be too wordy. The first action scene — where my heroes are attacked at night in their tents by naked bandits covered in grease (it’s less pervy than it sounds) — I had to rewrite over and over again. It was really hard to get right. The first version was horribly stilted, the next too long, the next too jerky, the next too wordy. I ended up reading Lee Child for research…in the end I was quite proud of it.
Antonia: Were there things you expected to find hard about writing a male narrator?
Miranda: I was never worried about it. In fact I’ve tended to choose subjects that are seen as quite blokey, that wouldn’t necessarily be regarded as a woman’s first choice to write or read about. My non-fiction books were about Spying (a biography of Anthony Blunt) and the First World War. I have to confess I’ve always rather liked the idea that somehow handling those subjects made me a bit, I don’t know, blokey or boysier — at the same time it made me slightly uneasy: that I’m acknowledging a difference between male and female writing which I don’t really believe in, and implying that the male side is somehow more appealing. At the same time, I did feel with my books that I could bring something new to these subjects that had been a bit transpottery, or bufton-tufton-ish and say, look! everyone should be interested in this. I thought I could be more psychologically curious and intelligent than much of the previous writing – defining myself by another female stereotype, I suppose, and I reckoned I was less impressed or affected by a certain macho self-importance that often surrounded both subjects.
Antonia: Do you know where this feeling about ‘male’ subjects comes from?
Miranda: I think so. When I was a child my father did make me feel I was emotional, irrational, inarticulate and girly. I really wanted to prove that I wasn’t like that. I became obsessed with being a bit of an intellectual tomboy. History became my thing, I wanted to be in control of all the facts, I worked really hard on the clarity and structure of my writing though I found it really hard. To this day I’m a terrible trivia addict.
Antonia: The thing that took me the longest time to decide was whether to write the book in the first or third person. I ended up going with the first person narrator, even though I knew it would be hard to get the voice and the language right, because I found writing in the third person just gave me too many choices. I’d written a book before The Devil in the Marshalsea with a bunch of different narrators in different time lines and it all got too complicated. I say that as a professional editor who really ought to know better! The first person narrator forced a framework on me, and I really liked that. I ended up writing a book with one voice, set over a very short period of time, in a really confined place — a prison!
Miranda: Were there any reasons why you didn’t choose a woman protagonist?
Antonia: It wasn’t because I didn’t believe there were strong and fascinating women characters at the time. If you read The Beggar’s Opera (written in 1728) for example, the women in that give as good as they get. Admittedly it was written by a man, but he was presumably writing from experience! But women’s lives were more circumscribed, there were limitations on where they could plausibly go and what they could do. And one of the things I wanted to do with Thomas Hawkins, was have him move through society from the top to the bottom.
Miranda: That’s exactly what I felt about my characters Blake and Avery. I wanted them to enter lots of different parts of Victorian society so I could write about a series of different worlds — which is one reason why Blake is an ex-con and Avery is a toff. I couldn’t do that with a female character without stretching historical credibility, because at the time women, whatever their class, were so much more tied to one place.
Antonia: Yes — actually class is another thing that is more important for me than gender in the books. That Thomas is a gentleman is as important as the fact that he’s a man: that he starts out thinking that he’s doing well because of his talents. It’s one of the first lines in the first book, in fact – someone says to him, ‘You have the luck of the devil,’ and he disagrees. And then he learns — he realises that society isn’t fair, and it really was just luck that he was born a gentleman.
Miranda: That’s true for me too. Avery starts out as an innocent, completely unaware of how he’s won the life lottery, and his education through the books, via Blake, is a way of talking about society and building a picture of a wider world.