One of the joys of running the Literary Sofa is the way threads sometimes develop out of nowhere and lately there’s been something of a ‘what readers really want’ thing going on around here. I’ve been lucky to host several brilliant guest posts on topics that I feel strongly about and I’m clearly not alone because they’ve attracted lots of interest and comment. Following my piece Interior Life – Part One on empathy, Stephanie Butland offered to write in praise of the ‘Quiet Novel’. Helen MacKinven’s post on Small Town and Regional settings/voices had been planned long in advance whereas today’s on Writing a Woman in Crisis only resulted from me reading Catherine Simpson’s debut Truestory a few weeks ago. It’s published by Scottish independent Sandstone Press.
I freely admit that issues surrounding the portrayal of female characters in fiction – especially by women writers (it seems men can do what they like and ‘niceness’ doesn’t come into it) – and the assumptions often made about female readers’ responses are a bugbear of mine. (And not just mine, I know. I’ll return to this soon in Interior Life – Part Two, the piece I’ve been promising about empathy in reading and writing). However, there are plenty of novels out there reflecting the different stages and aspects of women’s lives with depth and complexity. Having just finished writing my own novel about a woman in crisis, I was particularly impressed with Catherine’s and I’m delighted she accepted my invitation to talk about the challenges and opportunities involved (my mini-review follows):
The main character in my debut novel, Truestory, is Alice a 44-year-old woman who cares full-time for her autistic son, Sam, an 11-year-old who refuses to leave their remote, ramshackle farm. Alice’s marriage is crumbling and the farm is heading towards bankruptcy.
Alice is ‘allowed out’ by her son for two hours on a Tuesday afternoon – when she usually sits in a café and watches her tea go cold. It’s fair to say at the beginning of the novel Alice is miserable, desperate and trapped; she is without doubt a woman in crisis.
However, Alice is other things too: She is loyal (when she’s not being unfaithful); unfaithful (except for the past 20 years when she’s been faithful); loving (except when she wishes her child far, far away); selfish (except when she’s being a martyr); she’s occasionally brave and often foolish; sometimes hardworking and sometimes lazy. Alice is many things; in other words she’s a complex, nuanced character, every bit as complicated as human beings tend to be.
All of which makes Alice, I hope, an empathetic character; a character readers can understand and root for and who is interesting enough to make them keep turning the pages.
Alice is not particularly young, she’s not cool, she’s not glamorous or groomed, she’s not rich or successful and yet she has sex. Fancy that! It’s illicit sex too, but it doesn’t involve silk sheets or candlelit dinners or fancy hotels. No; it involves stolen moments around the farm, in the polytunnel and the pantry, while her husband milks the cows.
I did not want to romanticise or sentimentalise motherhood or long marriages or, come to that, living in the countryside – all situations which can have a darker, more challenging side. In fact I wanted to do the very opposite. And it was a relief to write about a transgressive character; a middle-aged mother of a special-needs child behaving badly.
Alice has ended up isolated because her autistic child finds the world too terrifying and refuses to be a part of it. Was it a brave or a cowardly decision by Alice to allow this to happen? Or was it no decision at all – but a situation forced upon her? This was an interesting question for me to ponder as I wrote Truestory because I have raised a child with autism and Alice took the road I didn’t take. I kept taking my child out into an often unwelcoming world and it was hard. So did Alice make a sensible decision to withdraw? There is no black and white answer to that.
Will readers like Alice: A woman who at times wishes her own child away, who deceives her husband and neglects her only friend? Is she likeable, and does this matter? Actually I do think Alice is likable because generally she tries so hard, but I was concerned with making her believable and interesting rather than nice. I have never felt compelled to create nice characters because believable and interesting characters are important, nice characters are not. As a reader I want the former not the latter.
If all this sounds unremittingly bleak (well except for the sex, of course) it really isn’t. There is humour throughout the book because there is humour throughout life – often dark, sometimes black as coal, but humour none the less.
Some of the events in the book were inspired by events I experienced with my own child. There is an incident in a supermarket – before Sam has withdrawn to the farm – when he is screaming in his pushchair and an old woman tells Alice she is not fit to be a mother. This happened in real life; I didn’t find it funny then and I still don’t.
When I wrote Truestory I wrote the book I wanted to read; a book with a middle-aged woman as the central character, someone who was struggling with the hand life had dealt her, making mistakes, taking risks, sometimes getting it right, and sometimes getting it wrong, an interesting, flawed human being.
I hope Alice’s dilemmas resonate with readers – male and female, young and old – who live in this complicated world where there are no easy answers.
Thank you so much, Catherine, for this brilliant post which I’m guessing will itself resonate with readers.
Do you have views about this as a reader or writer? Would love to hear your thoughts and recommendations.
IN BRIEF: My View of Truestory
Catherine gives a very accurate impression of Alice’s character and the book above and she absolutely achieves what she set out to do. My initial fears about the utter bleakness of Alice’s situation and what this might mean for the story were quickly dispelled by the author’s ability to pull me into the character’s head (and Sam’s, which effectively punctuates the narrative, bringing poignancy and humour.) It was precisely because Alice is not in a ‘good place’ that I empathised with her so much it was painful; and funny and moving and actually quite steamy in that polytunnel… I ended up liking her a lot, though that’s rarely the issue for me. Emotional honesty counts for more and with its unflinching picture of motherhood, desire and frustration, this debut is ultimately more about hope than despair. More than that: it feels like a true story.
The Writers on Location post about Toronto has been postponed until next week for a very exciting reason – its author, André Alexis, has just won Canada’s most prestigious literary award, the Giller Prize, for Fifteen Dogs!
Great post! I’m lucky to know Catherine in person and she’s a lovely person as well as a great writer. I thoroughly enjoyed Truestory and I’m so chuffed to see it getting the attention it deserves.
Thanks for your kind comment, Helen.
Excellent discussion. Glad to see a real woman, a complex character — makes me want to read this book. Looking for a link now. Thank you!
I’d already identified this as one I’d like to read, so enjoyed this post very much. It seems to me that fiction should reflect the various ways of being human and, indeed, one of its attractions is spending time with people that we might not like or approve of in real life. But the more commercial publishing becomes, the more the female characters are airbrushed. I’m looking forward to the time when reading about nasty women becomes a form of political protest. (Although doesn’t come across as all that nasty.)
So glad you posted this as I definitely plan to read Catherine Simpson’s ‘True Story’. Hope it is available on amazon? (my turn-to bookshop when in doubt). So glad, too, I have just found this blog – have subscribed and hope for many more enjoyable moments! As a very definitely Older Woman, who grew up in the 50s when women were supposed to be content with Kinder, Kirche, Kuche (children, church and kitchen), I have watched the value of a female protagonist wax and wane, but never remain unproblematic. I think one of the best ‘difficult to admire’ mothers in recent literature was the narrator in ‘We Need to Talk About Kevin’ (and even more so in the film version where she was shown actually being unkind…) A book both popular and critically successful, and I would say at least part of its success with the cognoscenti was that we could blame the mother for the crimes of the son. I didn’t want to, and hated the film – but feel that the conflict I felt was part of the continuing struggle we women have to be allowed to be real. So three cheers for Catherine and for Isabel.
‘the assumptions often made about female readers’ responses are a bugbear of mine’ YES! Mine too… one thing I have found incredulous over the last 12 months since delving into the publishing industry is how often what the perceived readership want to read really doesn’t represent what I am seeing the real readership want.
‘there are plenty of novels out there reflecting the different stages and aspects of women’s lives with depth and complexity’ Yes, but sadly they often don’t seem to command the same publicity & interest, so I love that you’re featuring such books – and their writers – on the sofa Isabel… and look forward to your ‘woman in crisis’ novel 🙂
Thank you for your interesting replies. Annecdotist’s comment: ‘ I’m looking forward to the time when reading about nasty women becomes a form of political protest’ keeps going round in my head, as does Elizabth Mapstone’s observation about women being allowed to be real. Fascinating stuff.