“I’ve known people who’ve done appalling things,” says novelist Lisa McInerney. Good thing, too. If she hadn’t known them, she’d be out of a job, and we’d be the worse for it.
McInerney won some prizes for her tough and funny first novel, The Glorious Heresies, and she’s out with a second novel, The Blood Miracles, featuring many of the same characters. She was surprised (though pleased) by the reactions to the first book, yet puzzled (as I was) by the claim that the book was somehow inappropriately “masculine,” possibly because her characters swear a lot.
When I call The Glorious Heresies “tough,” I’m not making a comment about the writer’s gender at all. Toughness is not restricted to males. (Good Lord, has no one ever watched a Barbara Stanwyck movie?) I am referring instead to the whole complex of factors that create difficult circumstances under which to live. Women are just as adept at creating those circumstances fictionally as men are because women, too, have experienced them firsthand, or know people who have.
Both sexes like to think, “No one understands us!” That’s such utter nonsense it’s hard to believe critics or psychologists of the present day still have to deal with it. The truth is, as I’ve said before, the sexes understand each other pretty well. We’ve had millions of years of evolution behind us and thirteen thousand years of settled civilization to learn about each other. In all that time, men have been watching women, and women have been watching men. (Women have also been watching other women, which is a behavior different from that of men. Men don’t watch other men to the same degree. The extra observation is probably biologically related.)
As a writer, you make the choices that are appropriate to the material with which you are working. If that means you have a character who ought to cuss like Barbara Stanwyck, you make ’em speak that way. The decision doesn’t make you, as a novelist, any less a woman. (And if you imagine a character who behaves with the sweetness, grace, and charm of Stanwyck, you write the character that way, too.) Everything that happens, and all the reactions we see to what happens, is grist for the writer’s mill. We need to take advantage of that situation every day that we work. We also need to realize that, as we write, we become, not ourselves, but someone else, creating yet other selves, for artistic and even moral purposes. To create may be to inhabit such selves for a time, but it is not to take up permanent residence therein. Who we are in the world at large may be someone entirely different from those in the fictional worlds we create; and, given the evident puzzlement of some readers over the characters in novels like The Glorious Heresies, Gone Girl, and A Little Life, that point cannot be repeated enough.