Gender & Me

I’m probably going to make a video about this because that’s where most people asking the questions will be, but for now I’ll talk about gender here so I can respond to any tweets and comments about it with a link instead of an irritated regurgitation when the question may be wholly innocent.

I am female. I wrote a book in which all three protagonists are male and, as an author, I used gender neutral initials instead of my name. WHY, WHY DID I DO THIS, AM I THE PATRIARCHY?! No, and there isn’t always a fight to eagerly masturbate over whilst using flimsy rhetoric spewed out from behind your anonymous online handle. I am a feminist but I am also disgusted with outrage culture. There are many valid battles to be had, but I see a plethora of smug, ill-considered attacks littering my online landscape every day (not against myself, but against other people), and I believe they undermine the real issues. They give something for the extremists on the other side of feminism (or racism, or LGBTQ+ rights, or classism, or, or, or…) to cite as an example of how absurd these social justice warriors are and, in doing so, they get to side step the real argument and dismiss ALL feminists as shrill man-haters.

If someone genuinely makes a mistake, or says something quickly and without thought which clearly isn’t meant to encompass their entire political or social beliefs, then sure, if you want to highlight that to them, do.

I made a video a few years ago which provides a great example. It’s a response to another video I saw which requested women make better content online. I saw the video and thought, hey, I’ll respond to this with something that’s a bit fun but also acknowledges that it was poorly worded. I’m smiling in it, I’m being theatrical. It’s not an angry attack nor is it something I spent much time on. But that’s not my point. In the video I say something like, ‘Just because I have a vagina doesn’t mean I can’t be funny,‘ or something, I can’t recall, but whatever I said I equate having a vagina with being a woman. It was never meant to represent my stance on gender vs sex, or the trans community. It was something ignorant that slipped out whilst I was trying to support another kind of equality. This was before there had been so much online discussion about what it means to be trans, so I wasn’t overtly aware of how offensive that might seem, whether I meant it that way or not. These days I’d never make such a comment by accident because I have an increased awareness due to proud, educational, and brave online voices. I’m aware of always being inclusive because I know a trans woman is a woman, to me there shouldn’t even be an argument. But when I made that video and someone highlighted my offensive statement, I was genuinely apologetic. I was trying to make a positive point and accidentally hurt a group of people. It wasn’t a snide attack hidden within a video, it was ignorance. And not the wilful kind.

I still remember receiving a lovely private message from someone quoting what I’d said and explaining the issue, and I replied apologising and discussing how it didn’t represent my views in any way. I also got some comments on the video along the same lines, and I replied to those too. But then there were angry comments, how dare you comments, and I had no time for those. And that’s my example. There’s a difference between someone who hasn’t had any experience with something, who accidentally alienates a group of people with an inadvertent lack of inclusivity, and someone who hatefully and wilfully discriminates. And maybe look, too. Maybe look to see if they’ve already been told ten times, if they’ve already apologised or explained they made a mistake.

Then there are the other breed. There are those who scour the internet, rubbing their hands together, analysing every tweet, looking for something to be loudly self-righteous about. Something to garner positive attention from those who blindly retweet any ‘injustice’ without research. These people are doing it because they love to hate, to be angry, to be loudly aggrieved by the perceived marginalisation of a group they don’t belong to. And they’re not helping anyone.

Educate someone who missteps, but battle against hate.

Anyway, I didn’t mean to turn this into an essay on the issues of uncoordinated groups of people arguing online. I meant to address the simple questions listed above. So I will.

– Three male protagonists??
Yep. Three male protagonists. Why? Because I wanted them all to be the same gender, for style and a cohesive theme, and women weren’t allowed to go to war. The novel spans from the 1930s to 2012. The first chapter with Bobby as a kid contrasts him with his father, who was in WWI. Later, as a teenager, Bobby has to negotiate his own feelings about WWII and the possibility of fighting. It’s that simple.

– Gender neutral initials?? (and other thoughts)
Yep. When I was writing When We Were Alive I didn’t think, ‘How would a man react?’ I just thought, ‘How would that character react?’ This is because I don’t personally associate with being female. I don’t associate with being male, either. I’m not confessing anything, there’s nothing to confess. The only strong associations I have with being female are based around my sexuality, e.g. I wear make up, but that’s part of my sexuality, and I don’t inherently feel that I’m in the wrong body. I know I am a female because I am lucky enough to feel right in my body. That’s it. If I was in a male body I would still be 90% me and I’d be gay. I just don’t know what being female is meant to mean, I don’t think it should immediately indicate anything specific, and neither should being male. I don’t understand gender themed interests. If someone said, ‘I like knitting, cooking, and flower arranging,’ there would probably be an assumption they were female. I don’t like any of those things. I don’t like football or cars or hunting, either. I like writing, art, comedy, video games, reading, and movies. The same as everyone else.

In the book I am currently writing, I have another three protagonists: two men and one woman. One of those characters originally had a name indicating they were a different gender. I changed the name, but changed nothing else. This is because their gender had no bearing on the thoughts they were having or their reactions to the situations they had been in so far. If I was writing a feminine character, or a character from a different time, of course I’d perhaps add nuances to their thoughts. I have supporting characters who are more stereotypically male or female, but the people I’m writing about in this new novel (so far) aren’t defined by gender, and therefore their name was arbitrary. If I’m writing a scene about two people having a conversation about time travel at a pub, whether or not they tick male or female when applying for jobs should be irrelevant.  Gender only comes into play when there is a situation, social or otherwise, that distinguishes them. E.g. walking down an alley at night, when being flirted with, needing to pee in a public place.  I guess the best way I can describe it is that inwardly I am just me, outwardly I am female. Alone I am me, in public I am female.

When I originally sent my MS to my publisher, before I signed with them, I used initials. This is my personal preference. Not because I think it matters, but because when I read a book I don’t want to know anything about the author. I want no preconceived notions. Black, white, male, female, poor, homophobic, I just want to read a book. If I love it, then I’m interested. Ultimately I could hate the author and love their writing, or love the author and hate their writing. To me it’s irrelevant. My personality, or how I present myself online, is not meant to represent what I write. There will always be crossovers, but online I’m this squeaky creature who acts like a tit but litters inane rambles with allusions to depression. When We Were Alive isn’t funny. It’s not my personality. It’s me exploring themes I care about. It frustrates me that an author bio was necessary to include on the back cover of my book as it goes against everything I would want as a reader. I also asked for my photo, the one at the top of this post, to be removed from the cover because I don’t want how old I look, or my hair style, or my clothes, or even my expression, to have any relation to whether or not someone reads the book or how they respond to it. I am not one person. None of us are a single person. We are all different people depending on the situation, who we are with, and a multitude of other influences that change over time. I was not trying to hide my gender, I was trying to be nothing more than a perfunctory, unobtrusive label affixed to a story.

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Novel Excerpt

It’s been almost five years since I wrote my first book, but in 2015 I started writing book two, so here’s the opening chapter from my second novel, IKIWABIDKIWS. It’s a work in progress; I’m currently about half way through the story at 40,000 words, so everything is on track. I mean, I don’t have a job and my dog died, but everything is on track with the writing… apart from the chapter where I shoehorned in a dog death. I thought it might be interesting to document this early unedited draft – maybe it will go through a complete tonal shift, maybe I’ll correct my grammar, maybe it’ll end up as chapter thirteen – but whatever happens, here’s what it looks like now.

Noah
Chapter One
November 28th, 2014

The sound of some guy who committed suicide twice depositing quarters in a jukebox scratches at my unconscious. I recognise his voice from that movie where he isn’t allowed to love, and then I’m fully awake and it dawns on me I’m alive, really alive, and I sit up, sucking air into my throat like it’s the first time. I focus on breathing. Easing my lungs out of tornadoes. The distant groan of transit undulates through the wall from the bypass. I can just about see the cars streaking through rat-tail midnight drapes like hallucinogens. Capsules. Silver-tongued secrets speeding past at seventy miles an hour, and I’m reminded of their existence but never their wholeness. Their intermittent headlights illuminate invisible hairs on my body. I am different in the light.

When the weight of ten wasted years is a fish hook through your heart, nothing dances. Everything is impassive. Sobbing isn’t solace, it’s a device of decay. Sobbing keeps the time slowly ebbing away. Here, in The Dog Tunnels, time croaks, growling grudgingly forward. Ramshackle shop-fronts sag, clandestine and asthmatic with winter steam, inside hunchback terraces. An eczema of worn cobblestone streets runs broken bones through the thinning dockland outskirts. Sure, it’s a quaint enough midday tapestry, but by moonlight The Dogs is host to a skittish menagerie of broken, crippled creatures… I’m late, I should leave. The heaviness of dreams will disappear against the night.

Wrestling into my jacket, I pull my hood tight around my ears so I can be faceless in the dark. The fear I had when I first moved to this part of the city all too abruptly left me for another; the fear of having nothing to lose. I’m safe walking along these cobbled bones the same way the homeless are safe in their cracks. I’m a zero sum game. The last time I had something real to lose, something other than myself, was ninety-seven. It was the day after my thirteenth birthday. An antiques fair with James and his parents. I can’t remember James’ surname now, but I remember that day. It’s caustic; burned into me. I was paralysed and enraptured standing in a thin alley formed between wooden stalls. The rickety table in front of me was covered in vases and flutes, chipped bowls and figurines, dusty lamps and waxy candelabras, but it was the dull, tangy glow of amber that hypnotised me. Entombed in that tiny orb was a spider caught suspended and crumpled at sharp angles. I’m an arachnophobe, but I’m an arachnophobe the way people roll down windows to better view accidents on the motorway; I couldn’t look away. I don’t know if I felt the hands on my shoulders, or heard the words in my ear, but I must have because my tears began to merge with theirs. The stalls warp and fade around me now, and I am left with that tiny lump of amber which wasn’t, but was, the shard of glass inside Tommy’s brain. The shard of glass which had, the day after my thirteenth birthday, killed Tommy.

The air tonight is so fucking cold it’s scratching my skin. But I go anyway. I go because I’m the only one who will listen, and the idea of his talent seeping out of that room unheard and trickling into the docks kills me. He puts it out there. He says it aloud to the world but the world never listens. He has more courage than I do these days. Secreting words in notebooks, hiding them in creases and folds; that’s my life. And that’s the problem with success, the expectation stifles. An artist at eighteen created a hollow man at thirty. Sometimes I miss the fire… I’m sorry, Tommy. I’m trying.

The door to the Tooth and Penny screeches in pain with each body entering its gut. Hunching over as it screams for me, I melt into the crowd. The discomfort of my entry ricocheting around the pub tells Quentin I’m here. Smiling, his willow-limbs scuttle around me. A long hand reassures my back, another gives me a whiskey.
‘Noah!’
‘Q.’
‘You’re here!’ The grin cuts his cheeks and lights his eyes. All of him is in this moment.
‘I’m always here.’
‘You’re a good friend.’ I am not. ‘I read your book.’
‘And only twelve years after I wrote the fucker.’
‘It’s good.’
‘The right people read it, I got lucky.’
‘It won awards!’
‘There are a lot of awards to win.’
‘I’m not sure if I understood it.’
Then how can you think it was good? ‘Which part?’ The whiskey howled.
‘Everything you didn’t say.’
Ceci N’est Pas Une Personne,’ the whiskey whimpered. ‘I was eighteen. It was about a soldier and a prophet.’
‘And?’
‘If there wasn’t any more for you, Q, then there wasn’t any more.’
‘Why did you stop writing?’
I haven’t. ‘Because I had written.’
The smile softened. He took his whiskey in one.
‘How much of it was true?’
‘Most of the time travel.’
The moment happened again, ‘How much of it was true?’
‘You mean-’
‘I mean the resentment.’
I was angry when I wrote it. At everything. ‘I was eighteen, I felt everything.’
‘She’d be proud of you.’
She’d think I was a stranger. ‘She wasn’t the sort of person you could disappoint.’

I’m curled on a stool, relatively sober, but my bones crumple over one another with the weight of apathy. I’d be four inches taller if I ever straightened my spine. Quentin is on the makeshift stage, addressing the room like he’s purging art from a lung. His organs are a gallery of fears. Along the bar, gnarled fingers cradle a stout whiskey glass, ice barely remembered against the heat of palms. A napkin, folded into a soft origami crane, rests wet and sagging at the beak. Younger hands are nearer to me; the forefinger and thumb absently massaging a pale ring of skin. A trail of water meanders closer still, waltzing towards yet more hands anxiously padding curves against the condensation of a cold pint. I look down. My own knuckles are pronounced from constant popping and cracking but otherwise soft and unmarked. I don’t know the faces of these men holding their vigils, but their stories are poorly hidden. Clues on fingertips. Relationships lacing joints. None are listening to Quentin. His words are drowning in the dock.

When We Were Alive, Cover Reveal

Okay, lads. Here it is. Here’s the cover. My previous post detailed the process of working with my publisher to decide on a cover we were both happy with, so have a click there if that’s of any interest to you.

When We Were Alive

I’m really pleased to have a cover that is (hopefully) neutral, whilst still being relevant to the story. I think it avoids being masculine or feminine, it could be picked up by a reader of any age, and it doesn’t presuppose the type of person who might enjoy the story. When asked ‘Who is the target audience of your book?’ I always think, can ‘people like me’ be the answer? And by that I don’t mean a white female in her 20s, I mean someone who has a crippling fear of death, only likes simple coffee, loves dogs and hates cats, doesn’t want to grow up in some ways but grew up too fast in others, feels most alive when scared, cracks their knuckles, feels trapped by routine, is super into the idea of sea-monkeys, feels guilt from others’ sadness, loves pulling fluff out of their eyelashes, dropped their snack biscuits in a puddle at age four and is still haunted by it, doesn’t believe in ghosts, gets freaked out by them anyway, and at the same time desperately wants to see one so that life and death still have mystery. Just someone human, really.

Whilst I adore pretty books, and I obviously understand the necessity of commercial design, I think reading is so personal, that it seems absurd to subtly suggest a book should be read by a certain ‘type’ of person. If some guy who works in finance and plays rugby at weekends loves Twilight, that’s his prerogative. If there’s some twelve year old girl sitting in a room plastered with One Direction posters, staying up into the middle of the night reading The Electric Kool-Aid Acid Test, fine, that’s what she’s into. People are complex, let’s not insult them by telling them what they should read. How the hell am I meant to know who will like my book? If anyone will like my book? I’m going to be grateful to every single person who takes the time to sit down and read it.

Of course, assuming that a pink glittery book cover would be aimed at young girls, or a stark, black minimalist cover at adult males, is a problem in itself. But right now I’m just showing you the cover of a book I wrote that will be available on real shelves in physical shops. Or you can pre-order it, which I think you can do here (or at least there will be a link to Amazon there, I don’t know, I just do the writing).

Please buy, read, and then pretend you like my book. Thank you.