I returned late last night from the DFW Writers’ Conference, deeply tired but very happy to have spent several days with such a diverse group of writers. I’m so grateful for the invitation and for the enthusiasm and kindness shown to me by organizers, attendees, and other guests alike. Most of all, I have to thank Jennifer Duggins for both her efforts and her effervescent presence. I was inspired this weekend, both by the people I met and by the fact that DFW Con is a place where writers of every literary stripe gather in mutual respect and encouragement, no one thinking their brand or style is any more legitimate than any other. For writers, that kind of camaraderie is food for the soul.
When Jennifer contacted me to ask if I’d deliver their Sunday keynote, I was a little nervous. It’s not something I’ve done a lot of. But then she told me the them was “Writing for a Better World,” and I was in.
Several people have asked me to post the text of that speech. So here it is, for those of you who may be interested. Thanks for reading.
Writing for a better world.
We never really grow up. Never really leave behind the children we were, or forget the lessons we learned then—at least not for long. We change, though. THAT, we do. Common wisdom suggests that people do not change, but we do. We can. And the simplest and most difficult way to do that is to choose it.
As a kid, and later in college, and later in adulthood, I have met people who have accused me of being perhaps a bit over-earnest. There’s a dichotomy there, because anyone who knows me will tell you that I am one sarcastic son of a bitch. Growing up in New England, you learn sarcasm around the same time you learn to walk. That’s just sparring. Keeping your wit sharpened. But when it comes to things I care about, I am often painfully sincere. Some people are made uncomfortable by that sincerity. Others distrust it, presuming it hides some ulterior motive. Still others deride sincerity as terminally uncool. Well I’m guilty of giving a damn. And I’m not ashamed.
Which is why I can begin, un-ironically, with this.
When Robin Williams died and I learned the heartbreaking truth about his pain, I wanted to make sure my children knew him from something other than Aladdin. I pulled out the film of his that had most inspired me, the Peter Weir film Dead Poets Society, about an English teacher who inspires a group of boys at an American boarding school in 1959. Williams’s character, John Keating, not only helps the boys to face their troubles, he inspires them to care about one another and to aspire to a better future, to dream about the roles they might play in achieving it for themselves.
In the moment that resonated with me most, Keating challenges the boys to interpret the meaning of the Walt Whitman poem “O Me! O Life!” In this moment, the teacher lays his heart bare not with confession or personal revelation, but with bold earnestness…utter sincerity. He inspires these boys because they can see and feel how much his message to them, means to him. The pertinent lines of Whitman’s poem come at the end, and Keating reads these lines aloud.
“The question, O me! So sad, recurring – What good amid these, O me, O life?
That you are here. That life exists, and identity,
That the powerful play goes on, and you may contribute a verse.”
Keating repeats that last line.
“That the powerful plays goes on, and you may contribute a verse.”
I am no literary stalwart. I’m a storyteller, mostly a genre writer. I write horror and fantasy, science-fiction and mystery and comic books. Many would not consider these serious works, but despite my sincerity I never made it my goal to set the literary world on fire. I have only ever wanted to tell stories. To entertain. I don’t write about politics, but I also don’t try to erase my convictions from the page. When we put words on the page and we know those words will be read by others, even if all we really want is to tell stories that people will enjoy, we need to remember the influence that fiction can have. All you need to do is think back to the books that helped to formulate who you are. That influence is undeniable. Without it, none of you would be sitting in this room.
Epiphanies come at the strangest times. I’m terrible with chronology, but if memory serves this one came not long after 9/11. I was being interviewed about horror and the usual question came up—“What scares you the most?”
Because I’m an over-earnest son of a bitch, I took the question very seriously.
“Nothing scares me,” I said, “more than the fact that we’ve finally reached the point when politicians have stopped bothering to pretend they aren’t lying to us.”
That sort of sentiment doesn’t make its way into my work very often, but when it does, you end up with something like Tin Men, a military SF thriller that came out last year. I won’t bore you with the pitch, but suffice to say it’s full of the things about the future we’re building that scare the shit out of me. And it asks, from a wide variety of angles, a question that echoes in my mind all the time.
What do we stand for?
What do I stand for?
What do you stand for?
Which always leads me to think about the characters I’m putting into my work, the stories I’m writing, and what they’re saying to my readers. What do I owe them? What do we owe our readers?
The answer, of course, is honesty. And, if we can achieve it, inspiration.
I’m not suggesting that we go easy on our readers. They’d hate that, and so would we.
The good guys don’t need to win. We don’t owe our readers that. But we do owe our readers and society an acknowledgement that when the good guys lose, it is a loss. Maybe even a tragedy. There will always be those writers and readers and critics who disagree, but I believe that fiction ought to have a fundamental moral center, a narrative awareness that acknowledges certain behaviors as wrong, unsavory, even evil.
I’m not suggesting that we shy away from the darkest stories, from the most profound tragedies, from characters so evil they make the reader cringe, hold their breath, sleep with the light on. But only a glimpse of light will allow readers to recognize the depth of real darkness, to feel the depth of genuine tragedy, to recognize true evil.
Of course, no two of us will share precisely the same moral code or frame of reference. Given the current political climate in this country, that may be more true than ever. But let’s begin at least by agreeing on this much—we believe in freedom, equality, and the right to go about our business without being raped or murdered. I’m sure we can add plenty to that, but let’s keep it as our baseline. I’m not inside your heads. I can’t know what you believe or what you hold sacred. The only thing I can do is talk about my own experience, and what it means to me, and how I hope it applies to you.
Our society is changing, and like it or not, we are changing with it. Life is a series of both epiphanies and gradual realizations. I am not going to change the kinds of stories I write, or the fact that I write them mainly to entertain myself and to entertain readers who want to come along for the ride. But over the years there has been a certain evolution for me, and I want to talk to you about that.
I want to talk about representation and presentation. About the world we live in, and the worlds we create in our writing. About being a thoughtful citizen of the literary realm.
I started my first novel as a senior in college. When writing that novel—Of Saints and Shadows—I did a number of things that were outside the mainstream without even realizing I was doing them. One of those things was to make Meaghan Gallagher, the book’s female lead, bisexual. I started writing it in 1988 or ’89 and sold it to Ace/Berkley in 1992. I’d love to claim that I was being thoughtful or proactive in some way by making that character bi, but it honestly never occurred to me that it was something especially odd for a mainstream book. It fit the plot, made the character more interesting. When I asked a few writers to read it, hoping for blurbs, one of them came back with very kind words, but also mentioned that he could never have written that character…that he wouldn’t have dared. To this day I’m not sure if he was worried about backlash from the publisher or from readers who might be offended by the inclusion of the character.
I’d been around gay people my entire life. My older sister, Erin. My uncle Sonny. Assorted cousins. One of my mother’s dearest friends. I still remember a fight my parents had when I was very young, when my mother claimed she didn’t know anyone who was gay and my incredulous father shouted at her a litany of the people in her life who were, in fact, gay. I remember thinking, even as young as I was then, ah, well, that explains a lot. I remember the sadness that permeated my sister’s life during the height of the AIDS epidemic, when so many men she knew were dying. I remember my mother telling me, one night, that if I ever told anyone else that my sister was gay, she’d never speak to me again. She was emotional that night. She didn’t mean it. And she’s long since come around, enough to host my sister’s wedding at her house. But the moment stayed with me.
Still, I had no agenda back when I was writing Of Saints and Shadows. LGBT people were simply a part of my world, and my fiction reflected that world. By the second novel, Angel Souls and Devil Hearts, two of the leads were female vampires in a mature, committed, complex relationship, one a lesbian and the other bi. Gay characters have continued to appear in my work in the decades since then. They’re just a part of my world, and they’re a part of your world, too. Which is why they belong in our fictional worlds.
But there’s more to representation than just presentation.
In Of Saints and Shadows and its sequels, Peter Octavian starts out as a private detective who just happens to be a vampire. The fact that he’s a vampire is not the all-consuming focus of his character. Likewise, Meaghan Gallagher is a law firm paralegal who just happens to be bisexual. Whether you present diversity in your fiction for some higher purpose or simply because it’s how you present the world we all live in, character must come first. Sexual preference isn’t character. Gender isn’t character. Race isn’t character. Those are among many things that inform character, but they are not in and of themselves character, and if you use them as some kind of shorthand to suggest a type, you should think about your goal with that choice. Are you relying on the prejudice and presumptions of others to fill in details?
I’ve talked very generally about introducing gay and lesbian characters into my work because that was the first time anyone pointed out to me that there was anything unusual or requiring thought about presenting people with experiences other than my own. But Meaghan Gallagher isn’t just bisexual, she’s also a woman. This may come as a shock to you, but I am neither of those things. It’s no coincidence that the main protagonists in most of my adult novels are straight white cisgender males. It’s an easy, comfortable place for me to begin. The ground is stable underfoot when I’m starting with a straight white cis guy, and when you’re not actively thinking about representation, then it’s easy to default back to whatever your personal stable ground might be.
My young adult novels are a bit different. The majority of them feature teenage girl protagonists. Some of my friends will tell you that’s because I’m a teenage girl at heart, and they’re probably not too far off the mark. But when I write these girls, I’m thinking character first. Jenna Blake, the protagonist of my ten-book Body of Evidence series, is a young college student dealing with imminent adulthood and the way that creates new conflict between her divorced parents. She’s also struggling with the way her aversion to blood complicates her desire to become a surgeon some day. Her boss is disabled. Her roommate is Japanese. Her co-worker is a gay man in a committed relationship. Her first serious boyfriend is black. Maybe I was thinking a bit about diversity by then, but I was more focused on my own college experience and the people who populated my world then. They are all characters first. They’re people, first.
In recent years, I’ve changed. And that’s what I really want to talk to you about today. That change, and why I think we should all be changing, now and for the rest of our lives.
I published two novels in 2015, Dead Ringers and the aforementioned Tin Men. Of the three women with major roles in Dead Ringers—two of whom I would call the central characters—one is black, one is Indian, and one is a Chinese woman with a pregnant wife. Tin Men is similarly diverse, though most of the time the characters’ minds are trapped inside robot bodies.
I’ll be honest with you. Though I’ve made greater efforts toward diversity in my fictional worlds, those efforts fall far short of a crusade or even political correctness. I’m not on a mission. It’s still just representing my world, and my shifting perception of it, the things I’m learning. Maybe because of that, I’m naïve. Certainly I felt a bit naïve when I read one of the reviews of Tin Men and, in reference to the main character, Kate Wade, the reviewer actually wrote these words: “Why do you have to say she’s black?”
Yep. Think on that a moment. “Why do you have to say she’s black?”
Naturally my first instinct was to bristle at this, thinking the reviewer must be a racist whose nostrils flared in disdain at the presence of a disabled black woman as the true hero of this military science-fiction thriller. Actually, though, this criticism was coming from the other side of the argument, suggesting in some way that I still don’t understand that we ought not to mention the race of a character at all.
I’m not criticizing that position. I simply don’t understand it. And I sure as hell don’t agree with it.
Now, before I continue, let me say this.
There are people who view writers of one race as unfit to present the experience of characters of another. The same thing holds true for gender, sexual preference, religion, etc. And I think that’s valid and honest. On a long list of words I might use to define myself, one of them is “Feminist.” But I am well aware that men raising their voices to fight other men over the rights of women is a double-edged sword. So I don’t want to speak in place of a woman, but if I can do something to help quiet the voices speaking against her, I want to do that.
My point is that I don’t feel fully qualified to present the true experience of a woman, or a person of color, or someone in the LGBT community. But I am a human being, and I do understand pain and love and hope. And if I can’t present the true experience of diverse characters, I can at least present those characters with thoughtfulness and respect. I can present diverse characters with humanity.
So let’s get back to Tin Men for a second, and the reviewer who wondered why I had to say Kate Wade was black.
And let’s go back much further than that.
I didn’t grow up in a particularly enlightened environment. I had the advantage of having diversity in my world, but as a kid, I did and said things that are painful to remember. I laughed at every off color joke and retold most of them, more than once, never understanding how much pain lived inside the words I spoke.
But I learned. I’m far from perfect, but I like to think that the arc of my life is bending toward kindness and fairness and respect. And I believe deeply—despite all of the ugliness we see happening out there and all of the people who benefit from sowing the seeds of fear and hatred—that the arc of our society is also bending in that direction.
When I read that review asking Why I had to say Kate Wade was black…I answered the question. I wrote a blog about it, and I want to share some of that with you now, because I think, in many ways, that blog is why I’m here, at this conference, where the theme is “Writing for a better world.”
We live in the age of outrage, and people will always find a reason to burn.
I have to say Kate is black because most of my readers will otherwise assume she’s white, and I want them to envision a world where the most formidable character, the most competent, the one they’ll all follow (including the guy you assume is the protagonist), is a black woman with no legs.
I have to say she’s black (just a couple of times, not enough to belabor the point but enough so you can see her in your head, particularly since most of the novel she’s inside a robot) because if they ever make the movie, I want to create an environment where it would be difficult for studio executives to cast a white actress.
When Tin Men was in development as a film, the screenwriters attached to the project created a presentation for the studios they would be pitching it to. The presentation included photos of actors meant to represent the cast, to give the studios some visuals to hang onto while the writers spun out the story for them. Guess what? The image they chose to represent Kate Wade was of a white woman. I refused to allow it. They argued that it didn’t make a difference, that once the movie was greenlit, the producers and director could cast whoever they wanted. I insisted that it did matter, because by doing this, by pitching the character to them as white, they would be giving the studios very clear permission to ignore the race of the character as written. We would be telling the studios that we were in favor of erasing people of color in favor of white faces. And that is something we simply can’t do.
A few weeks ago, I watched a very old film called Gentleman’s Agreement, starring Gregory Peck. Peck stars as Phil Green, a journalist who—after moving to a new city—decides to write an expose about anti-Semitism by presenting himself to his new co-workers and acquaintances and the world as a person of the Jewish faith. It’s uncomfortable viewing for many reasons, but the title of the film comes from a conversation in which Green’s fiancée is trying to defend herself against the suggestion that she herself might be anti-Semitic. A Jewish friend uses gentle inquiry to bring her around to the realization that no matter how much she FEELS horrified by the behavior of her society friends and acquaintances, by staying silent, she is tacitly approving and encouraging the behavior she claims to loathe.
Why do I have to say she’s black?
Because there are people who don’t want her to be.
There are people who don’t want their protagonists to be anything but what they are, just as there are people who want you to be afraid of anyone different from you and who think the very idea that those different people want to be treated equally is an affront to common decency. Those people need someone to explain to them the meaning of the phrase common decency, but they’re out there. Some of you might agree more with them than you do with me, though I hope not.
So many people—ordinary people with hearts just as tender as yours and dreams just as big—suffer from the messages they receive from the world, messages that tell them they are worth less than others, or even that their differences make them abominations. Freaks. When the real abominations are those who would use those differences as an excuse to harm or ostracize them, to crush their spirits. Those messages from the world lead to depression and suicide as a byproduct of cruelty and heartlessness inflicted for no reason other than that some people don’t fit into the box others expect them to.
Earlier, I talked about entertaining people. I said I’m nothing but a storyteller, and that’s always been true. Always will be. But entertainment, my friends, can change the world. It has always had that power. The way LGBT lives have been presented in entertainment has contributed mightily to acceptance in our society, and by that I mean the presentation of LGBT people as humans, just like anyone else.
The arc of social change is bending toward acceptance of our differences, but we aren’t there yet. This year, all over the country, people frightened of those differences are doing everything in their power to spread that fear, to spread hatred and bigotry in hopes that those things will make otherwise decent human beings ignore the injustice inherent in a society where some of us are afforded rights and privileges and protections that are not afforded to others. There is no way to view this as anything other than the panic of those who would do anything to protect their ability to discriminate, to spread hatred, without recrimination.
This pushback against progress has led us to a hateful, paranoid environment perfectly constructed to nurture the injustices typified by the racial strife in Ferguson, Missouri and elsewhere…the anti-Muslim fearmongering…and the hysteria over allowing trans people to use the bathroom appropriate for the identity of their hearts.
If we’re meant to be writing for a better world, then that means a better world for everyone. A world where every person is judged by their words and their actions, by what they bring to society’s table. If we’re writing for a better world, then we need to reflect the real world around us, in all of its motley beauty. We need to approach the world and its people with love, not hate. With kindness, not judgment. If we do not understand the lives that different people lead, then it is incumbent upon us as writers to do our research, to go and learn, to educate ourselves.
We cannot represent the true experience of people whose lives are fundamentally different from our own, because we have never lived their lives. We can never know what they know, or feel what they feel.
But we can respect it. We can honor their lives and fears, their pain and their love. We can reflect that in our work. Let me be clear. The messages the world is sending are destroying people’s lives, maybe even inspiring them to take their lives, and we have the power to help change those messages.
Change the message.
Write for a better world.
“The question, O me! So sad, recurring – What good amid these, O me, O life?
That you are here. That life exists, and identity,
That the powerful play goes on, and you may contribute a verse.”
Fort Worth, Texas
April 24th, 2016