Tuesday, February 5, 2019

I'm Going To Talk To You About Women.

(Originally Titled - The Male Feminine.)


A friend of mine once made the observation of my writing that I am able to grasp female protagonists really well. It hadn't actually occurred to me that there was anything especially remarkable about this but on reflection, it is clear that as an author, I have gravitated towards strong women characters in my work.

In my first novel, The Hambledown Dream (2010), I conceived a grieving young lawyer, Sonya Llewellyn, a fiercely independent woman who is left to pick up the pieces after the death of her true love. Hers was a character study in grief based, in part on my observations of my paternal grandmother, who lost her husband to cancer after 48 years of marriage. In Gifts of the Peramangk (2012), I portrayed a complex Aboriginal matriarch in Virginia Delfey whose secret gift may or may not hold the key to her family's redemption. Here, I was influenced by my experiences as a community nurse, working with many Aboriginal families in the suburban fringes of Adelaide and noting how central and authoritative matriarchal figures are.


Casey Schillinge as portrayed by a stock photo.

In my 2016 psychological thriller, The Recipient, Casey Schillinge is a young heart transplant recipient who is introduced to us as her life hangs by a thread. At the eleventh hour, she is given a second chance of a donor heart. In the subsequent story, she is remade as a troubled young woman who sees her gift of this life saving heart as a curse that holds a dark secret. In this instance, there isn't so much a template for this particular character as there is an instinctual drive on my part to create a compelling female protagonist who, in the tradition of strong pop culture heroines like Ellen Ripley, Lisbeth Salander and, more recently, Imperator Furiosa, gets to kick some serious butt.


Australian actress Sophie Bloom was the inspiration for Isabelle Sampi in The Artisan Heart.

in my 2018 novel, The Artisan Heart, I returned to my romantic roots with a gentle tome about a brilliant paediatrician, Hayden Luschcombe, who - having lost everything after a tragic event - returns to his home town in the mountain country of Southern Australia. There he encounters Isabelle Sampi, a struggling single mother who is trying to resurrect a moribund bakery in the town of Walhalla whilst raising her hearing impaired daughter. Isabelle is introduced as another independent, no nonsense woman who is driven to succeed as a business woman and mother and has no time for matters of the heart. Her secret past makes her wary of men in particular, until the handsome and damaged young doctor arrives in town and gradually dismantles her defenses. The story starts out with Hayden as the protagonist, but I like to think that Isabelle becomes the protagonist by the end of it. 

Where does predilection to write female characters come from? As a male writer, I have tended to occupy a space that many would argue is not suited to me. Well, I can say that it was never a conscious "thing" where I said to myself - 'I'm going to break through a gender wall and shake things up'. 

It kinda just happened.

I simply enjoy writing women and, as my many readers have fed back to me over the years, they very much enjoy reading them, noting how fully realised, dynamic and believable they are.

The fact that I am a male writer who chooses to portray strong female characters doesn't make me unique but, I realise that it does place me into a fairly niche group - one that has been regarded with some antipathy in literary circles. 

In a 2013 article for The Hairpin, blogger Ester Bloom bemoaned the apparent inability of male writers to accurately portray female characters. "Far too often...when you open up a book by a male writer—even a good male writer, and occasionally even a great male writer—you encounter ladies who are a variation on one or more of four themes: virgin, whore, mother, bitch."


Ellen Ripley *is* Woman.

Bloom goes on to deride the mysoginistic tendencies of male authors in their depictions of women based on these four themes. Though, she does acknowledge some works where men have, sometimes, gotten it  right...almost.

Putting aside the healthy dose of snark contained in the article, it illustrates the kind of antipathy I hinted at; the suggestion that men can't possibly hope to accurately portray women in fiction.

I say bollocks.

I recounted to Australian romance author Georgina Penney on the Bookish Tarts Podcast, that in drawing my protagonists - regardless of who they are -  I am,first and foremost, drawn to their humanity and how that humanity serves the story I'm telling. What are their goals? What are their motivations for achieving those goals? How do those goals serve the story? These things happen regardless of gender. 

When it came to sketching the characters, having decided they were going to be women, I'm certainly not bound by arbitrary themes such those mentioned by Bloom - nor am I writing with an agenda. It comes down to observation.

My own observational skills are keen. I am inspired by human behaviour and interaction and I reflect on the people who have influenced and inspired me. It happens to be the case that a lot of those people are women.

Central among these are my partner, my mother and my two grandmothers. These are women who have nurtured me and guided me in life, who I have communicated with and learned from. There are the colleagues I have worked along side as an Intensive Care Nurse - often in high pressure situations requiring a special kind of resolve. And there are my writing colleagues - my publisher and editor, fellow writers and artisans with whom I collaborate with and learn from.  All of them are strong and independent women, filled with wonderful complexity and dynamism -from which I have mined enthusiastically for material.


Jean was as tough as Ellen Ripley...possibly tougher.

I admire and respect these women and they have enhanced my appreciation of what makes a strong, well drawn female character. It is perhaps, no accident that their character traits find their way into my fictional creations.

There isn't any great secret to writing character - be it male or female. The key ingredient to any character is an ability to imbue them with and convey genuine humanity, one that invests the reader in the protagonist's journey. As a writer, I see it as essential to be able to observe and accurately reflect that humanity.

Oh, and women are really great.

DFA.

Sunday, February 3, 2019

The Shape Of Water - A Schwannoma Diary (#11).

I saw my neurosurgeon last Friday for my 6 week post operative review. It's kinda hard to believe that six weeks have past since my surgery. Time moves in such elastic ways. 

We reviewed my progress. It's been patchy. I'm not moving freely. Even with the physiotherapy exercises I've been doing, it's hard to loosen up. Walking is a chore for the most part and I can't tolerate walking long distances, say more than a kilometer. It's hard to get in and out of my car, my bed or chair. I experience pain at the surgical site and down into my legs, along with long bouts of pins and needles. Incontinence is still an issue but, so far I've avoided any significant accidents. This requires a regular toileting regime, forward planning - especially on outings - and a keen focus on what my body is telling me. I do get strange sensations, which I've attributed to warnings that I need to take heed of.

With the activity I've been maintaining however, I do believe things are improving. At the very least, I'm coping with them. My neurosurgeon prescribed some new medication that will hopefully, address the pain issues and the nerve irritation that is causing the pins and needles.

The one question I had for her during my review last Friday though was pretty much the only thing I wanted to get an answer for.

Can I get back in the pool?


When I had my original surgery back in 1989, my then surgeon was happy to allow me to get in the swimming pool after a similar time frame. As a result of this, not only did I discover a love for swimming, I became really good at it. So I knew going into this surgery that the pool was going to be my Holy Grail. 

My neurosurgeon this time around prohibited me from going swimming until she had reviewed me. Her primary concern was my wound. She wanted to ensure it had healed properly before exposing it to water and risking infection. I accepted this, but I was disappointed that I couldn't start as soon as possible. 

You can imagine how pleased I was when I put the question to her on Friday and received her answer. 

"Absolutely!" 

I felt like I was receiving a Christmas present - all over again.

The Unley Swimming Pool at Forestville here in Adelaide is a pool I've been swimming at on and off for twenty years. It's an Olympic sized pool and it's a friendly place. After dropping the kids off at school, I headed straight there. After 9AM, the early morning lap enthusiasts and competition swimmers tend to taper off so competition for lanes is minimal. I went for the recreation lane today. 

I had an idea of what I was going to do once in the water but for this first session, I winged it a little. I adapted some of my 'on land' exercises to the water and set about constructing a regimen that ended up looking like this; 

Stationary calf stretches 10 reps x 10 seconds right leg.
Stationary calf stretches 10 reps x 10 seconds left leg.
Stationary side stretches 10 reps x 10 seconds right arm (down right leg).
Stationary side stretches 10 reps x 10 seconds left arm (down left leg).
Stationary leg kicking (against side of pool) 2x 1 minute.
Walking (strides) 25m x 10.
Jogging steps 25m x 10.
Side strides 25m x 10.
Breast stroke (gentle!) 100 meters. 
Cool down walk 25m x2. 

I won't go into deep explanations of each of these, but feel free to ask me about them in the comments and I'll try to explain them if you're interested. 

The session took me about 45 minutes. 

Suffice to say, from the moment I entered the water, I felt amazing! Water and buoyancy affords the body so much freedom of movement and I was able to stretch so much more easily than I can on land. The exercises I chose were designed to achieve both a muscle stretch and a nerve stretch through my lower back and legs and I chose to limit them once I could feel them in my calves in particular. I felt that was good indicator. Curiously, I felt the stationary leg kicks and the breast stroke in my right buttock, close to the mid-line. On land, most of the pain I've been feeling has been centered around my left buttock and sciatic nerve. I'm not sure what the significance of that is but I'll bring that up with my physiotherapist when I see him tomorrow.


Leaving the water after that first session, I felt a little shaky - but it was a good shaky. I felt like I had achieved something important and I felt a rush of endorphins - ones that have been in short supply lately. I'm well keen to do it again. But I know I need to pace myself. 

This is a big milestone for me. Since the surgery, I've been looking towards this moment. I've been thinking about it. Planning (loosely) what I would do once I got in there. I knew it would be good...and it was. 

I love the shape of water. 

DFA.

Tuesday, January 8, 2019

A Moment In The Air - A Schwannoma Diary (#10).

I can't remember how long it's been since I've been to a beach. 

The sun on my face. 

The sand between my toes. 

The sea breeze. 

My dog is just as struck by the beauty of the Adelaide beach on which we sit. I've let him off the lead and he's galloped across the sand, his floppy ears flailing like sails. He's snapped at the air like it's some sort of treat. 


On the beach, I can stretch my legs. I can stride a little bit, even though the pins and needles keep reminding me that they're there. I can accept the pain because where I am feels so bloody good! 

There's a young Dad frollicking with his infant son near the edge of the foam as it races up the sand. The boy squeals with joy and it's hard not to smile. Right now - I get it kid. 

To sit on the sand with a straight back (because I *have* to keep a straight back) and look out over the jetty. To marvel at just how wide open everything is. The sun and the light! The air! The breeze on my face! 

I've been surrounded by the four walls of my house for far too long.

I almost don't care that I move like an 80 year old. That I probably should have taken some pain relief with me. That there's not a toilet close by.

I can see a kiosk nearby. 

You know what? I'm gonna treat myself. Yes I am.



DFA.