When a Man Writes a Woman: J. David Simons Shares His Process
Men have been writing women for centuries, from Shakespeare’s Lady Macbeth, Flaubert’s Madame Bovary, Tolstoy’s Anna Karenina, Lewis Grassic Gibbon's Chris Guthrie in Sunset Song to William Boyd’s Hope Clearwater in Brazzaville Beach. Women have been no slouches either when it comes to creating memorable male characters, of course. Just look at Shelley’s Frankenstein, Ayn Rand’s Howard Roark in The Fountainhead, Emily Bronte’s Heathcliff in Wuthering Heights, Harper Lee’s Atticus Finch in To Kill a Mockingbird and Donna Tartt’s Richard Papen as the narrator of The Secret History.
For my own part, I have written two novels now with women as the main protagonists - The Liberation of Celia Kahn (Saraband, 2011) and A Woman of Integrity (Freight, 2017) and I am often asked how difficult is it for a man to write female characters.
In its context, it is the kind of question I would expect but I believe the questioner is usually surprised by my answer. And that’s because I don’t particularly treat writing women any differently from the way I would write men. We are, after all, people before we are gender.
I am usually inspired by a very basic concept that is universal to all of us
When I set out to write a novel, I have usually been inspired by a very basic concept that is universal to all of us. In other words, the core idea of the book will be that it is about, for example, denial or rejection or integrity. I then think of the narrative vehicle for that concept and from there I invent the characters who will drive that narrative. Sometimes these characters will be men, sometimes women. It doesn’t really matter to me, for irrespective of gender, these characters will have the same universal response to the issues at hand.
An elderly person will begin to fear death, a spurned lover will suffer rejection, a politician may have to forfeit integrity for pragmatism. Consequently, when I sit down to write, I never think – ‘Oh, I need to put myself into some kind of feminine state of mind in order to write this.’ As a result, readers have often told me that my writing often ends up sounding gender-free.
I do have one important caveat to this approach. And that would be if I were writing about an experience unique to women e.g. childbirth, a mother-child relationship, rape, abortion. I have skirted around some of these topics peripherally in my novels but I have never dealt with them as the core issue. I realise that if I were to delve into these female experiences, I would no longer be able to rely on my imagination (with all its patriarchal conceits) but I would have to carry out assiduous research (particularly interviews with women, oral testimonies and so on) in order to find the truthful and authentic female voice.
I would no longer be able to rely on my imagination
I appreciate we are living in an era where there is an increased awareness around the issue of cultural and gender appropriation. While I believe as a writer I should be able to write what I want, I also believe that if I am to drift into areas of culture, gender and sexuality in which I have little or no experience, then I must do so with a sensitivity, a discipline and a curiosity that will allow me to discover and thereafter articulate an authentic voice rather than to rely on superficial knowledge or bland stereotypes.
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