Last Tuesday, at my first signing for Doing the Devil’s Work, a woman in the audience asked, “How do you write a woman character? You’re a good writer, but you’re, you know, a man.”
Ever since my first Maureen Coughlin novel back in 2009, The Devil She Knows (the hero of which is a twenty-nine-year old waitress), I can safely say that’s the question I get the most. Okay, maybe not that exact question, but since the series began, the big question in almost every interview and the question that gets everyone leaning forward in their chairs at readings is: How do you, being a man, write a female point of view?
Often the implied addendum to the question is the word “well,” since people are rarely curious about someone else’s ability to write poorly. Fortunately, no one has asked (yet) in a “who do you think you are/what were you thinking?” tone of voice. Fortunately, too, the reviews for the series have been good and mostly centered on the strength and complexity of Maureen’s character. Yes, it helps my credibility (and my writing) that my editor is Sarah Crichton, a woman in charge of her own imprint at FSG, and someone not known to let crap writing slide, no matter who it’s by or about. When I think about it, though, very little of our work together has dealt with Maureen’s believability as a woman. We talk more about the men.
Yet despite being asked this question about writing a woman so often, I admit I seem to have failed to concoct a suitably entertaining and witty go-to answer. The one time I jokingly alluded to the infamous quote from the film As Good as it Gets (“I think of a man; then I take away reason and accountability”), the interviewer had no idea what quote, movie, or character I meant. I’ve considered giving the answer a New Orleans twist. I do live in a city where people as readily get in costume for a half-marathon as they will for Halloween. A man in a dress here doesn’t raise eyebrows, whether it’s Fat Tuesday or a random Wednesday in June. So, for a New Orleanian, literary cross-dressing shouldn’t be difficult. Except for the fact that mere literary cross-dressing, impersonation, would constitute failure; everyone would see through the disguise and see me underneath. I’m not a fan of that kind of writing—the kind that draws attention to the strings, and to the author holding them. If I’m doing my job well, you should forget about me, and my gender, and yourself, too, and be absorbed in the story.
My boring answer? I ask myself: what would Maureen do? I don’t think, “What would a woman do/think/feel/want/fear?” but what would this one unique person, based on the way her life has been and is now, choose or think or feel? She has to be real all the way through, right down to the bone. Her beating heart should look the same as yours, whoever you are. And I need to make you feel that.
For me, a story succeeds or fails according to the strength of its characters. I hold my own work to the same standard. Only think of Maureen, only worry about Maureen, and let the rest take care of itself. To me, character is what makes a story believable. It’s my belief that an audience will follow a great character anywhere, from the dark alleys of Gotham City to the top of the Empire State Building and even, if they really captivate, from the seedy bars of Staten Island to the mysterious streets of New Orleans, and beyond.
Bill Loehfelm Bill Loehfelm is the author of The Devil in Her Way, The Devil She Knows, Bloodroot, and Fresh Kills. He lives in New Orleans with his wife, the writer AC Lambeth, and plays drums in the Ibervillains, a rock-and-soul cover band.
Photo by Celeste Marshall