My Books



“I actually could not put the book down. It is well written and kept my interest. I want more from this author.”
Reader review of Maximilian and Carlotta Are Dead on Amazon.com 

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Wednesday, May 8, 2019

Haunted

As we ambled through the New Mexico desert, we talked about our favorite books.

We knew, all too sadly, this would probably be our last time with my cousin Trudy’s husband. What we did not know was that it would be our penultimate visit with Trudy herself. Thoughts like those, in any event, were not on our minds as we explored the Petroglyph National Monument outside Albuquerque in the January sun.

She wanted to know what novels were closest to my heart. The first few titles—The Lord of the Rings, One Hundred Years of Solitude—would have been unsurprising to her. Then I mentioned Emily Brontë’s Wuthering Heights, and there was an awkward silence. Trudy, an enrollee at Caltech the very first year they admitted women, would have been the last person to trade in gender stereotypes, so I had not expected her, after some hesitation, to say, “You do realize that would be considered a girl’s book?”

And suddenly I was back in junior high school. Back to a time when there were “boys’ books” and “girls’ books.” As far as I was always concerned, there were just books. Some books I liked, and some books I did not. Not everybody liked the same books I did, and I did not necessarily like the same books other people did. Maybe gender was a factor in some cases, but certainly not in all. All I know is that when I saw the cover of Brontë’s novel on a shelf in our local library, it appealed to me. There was a man and a woman and stormy weather. There was passion. I read the first several pages, and there was a ghost. What was not to like?

This should come as no surprise to readers of my movie blog, who have suffered through more than two decades’ worth of discussions and reminiscences of the 1966-71 Gothic soap opera Dark Shadows which, to be honest, was nothing if not a half-decade-long rehash of Wuthering Heights and every other Gothic novel and supernatural story ever published. Readers of that blog may also think they detect a disconnect, since I have sometimes used that forum to dismiss certain movies as “chick flicks.” The truth is, though, that I have always intended that term as descriptive shorthand—so that readers would know what to expect from a film—rather than as a definitive put-down. If that phrase is a criticism, it is of a too-strict adherence to formula and not because the story includes female characters or might appeal to female viewers.

My fourth novel, which should see the light of day in the coming weeks, is among other things my tribute to the Gothic novel. It is a story I have been wanting to get out of my system for most of my life. It is also my first book to feature a female protagonist. In fact, I have only recently realized that this is the first of my books to pass the Bechdel Test. Originally a gag in a 1985 comic strip, the test was originally aimed at movies but has since been generalized to apply to all popular fiction. It requires the work to have at least two (named) female characters who have a conversation about something other than a man. It is not something that is usually on my mind when watching movies, let alone when I write my novels, but it comes as no surprise to realize that my first three books came nowhere near passing the test. For one thing, two of them have a male first-person narrator.

The other, The Three Towers of Afranor, while narrated in the third person, follows its male protagonist relentlessly. Ironically, though, it probably would have passed if only I had followed the suggestion of a (male) friend who was keen for me to work in a quasi-erotic wrestling match between the warrior princess Eilís and the pirate queen Valloniah. Those two would only have needed to mutter a few words to each other in the heat of battle—and on a topic other than their lone mutual acquaintance, Prince Chrysteffor—to clear the bar. But would that really be in the spirit of the standard popularized by Alison Bechdel? Maybe. Personally, I find such a test interesting but not particularly useful or practical.

It was definitely a challenge to create and give life to characters who are not only female but also of a generation different from mine, but that was not the reason for this particular story. It was to spin a supernatural romance my own way. As usual, I ignored all writing conventional wisdom by not targeting a distinct target audience—other than myself. As always, I wrote a book that I wanted to read. Is the result a “girl’s book” or a “boy’s book”? When you are writing for yourself, that question happily becomes moot.

Sadly, my cousin passed away within mere days of the publication of my first novel, so she never got to read any of my fiction. Given her nature, I imagine she would have been supportive but not uncritical. I also doubt she would have labeled it a “girl’s book.”