My afternoon panel session at the Literati Festival on the Gold Coast was with LA Larkin and PM Newton (to use their publicist-approved monikers) on the topic ‘Deadlier than the Male’ – the female voice in crime writing.
We’d planned in advance and more or less interviewed each other. We talked about why we chose to write female lead characters. Louisa talked about encouraging more female readers into the thriller genre with her character Serena Swift, heroine of The Genesis Flaw. Pam maintains her heroine, Detective Nhu ‘Ned’ Kelly came to her, almost uninvited. In my case, I chose thirtysomething Australian expat Jayne Keeney as my lead character because — perhaps surprisingly — women like Jayne are invisible in a city like Bangkok. Speaking fluent Thai and being able to travel below the radar gives Jayne privileged access to information, which is handy for a PI.
We talked, too, about the balance we have to strike in creating a female character who knows what she’s doing and who can survive the horrors of the story, and one who is ‘superwoman’ — too tough and/or pushy and therefore unappealing to readers. Louisa struck the balance by making Serena Swift a corporate head-kicker who had to learn to connect with her human side. Pam’s character Nhu gets to carry a gun but is nauseated by the sight of blood. And my character Jayne is highly flawed — ‘she smokes too much, speaks Thai fluently and likes a drink and a shag’ as one reviewer put it — forced to get fitter by the dangers of her work.
We moved from talking fictional characters to women as authors and weighed in on the great debate about whether there’s a gender bias in literature. Pam presented the numbers from women’s literary organisation VIDA showing how few books by women are reviewed and how few reviewers are women relative to men in all the major literary magazines.
(The figures are pretty damning, though I did ask Pam as she was trawling through the stats whether there was any information on what the proportion of books published by women was for the same period. A straw poll conducted by a journalist on The New Republic suggests major magazines in the USA at least are reviewing female authors in something close to the proportion of books by women published each year. The question is why more books by women are not getting published).
Both Pam and Louisa went with their initials on their books to be gender neutral — Pam says to avoid scaring off men who might feel self-conscious reading a book with a woman’s name on it in public. As I quipped at the time, this wasn’t really an option for me as ‘A Savage’ has a whole other connotation. That said, I’m thinking seriously of inventing a middle initial for publishing next time around. Seems advisable. Depressingly so.
(On another note, I agree with Benjamin Law about the value of introducing an Australian equivalent of the Orange Prize for women novelists — the more prize-winning opportunities, the better!).
On a lighter note, we talked about whether women make better detectives than men. I shamelessly borrowed (with acknowledgment) a story from Vikki Petraitis, who asked her Year 9 class the same question, only to have 15-year-old Elliot say, ‘Well Miss, if you had to run into a room and solve a crime, then men would be better. But if there was any thinking involved, then it would be women.’
We had some interesting questions and discussions, too, about the tricky politics involved in being white, middle-aged Australian women writing (in Pam’s case) a young Vietnamese-Australian woman, and in my case, Thai men and women, as well as an Indian man. I for one keep expecting someone to call me on this, tell me in no uncertain terms how badly I’ve got it wrong…
Again, the audience seemed pleased, which is what you aim for at a gig like this. I was chuffed to have my mother-in-law come along with two of her friends, plus an old friend from Melbourne who recently relocated to the Gold Coast. And the librarian from my primary school turned up — hadn’t seen her for 30 years. I meant to thank you, Pat, for the part you played in nurturing my love of books and stories.