Cabbages and Kings

A diary by the authors of the Louis Kincaid series

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Location: Fort Lauderdale/Elk Rapids, Florida and Michigan, United States

We are the New York Times bestselling authors of the Louis Kincaid series and other stand alone thrillers. We have taught writing at major conferences for ten years.

Sunday, March 26, 2006

Women doing men. And vice versa

Got a great fan letter the other day from a lady named Rose O'Hara:

Dear P.J.: My husband is a Stephen King fan. Has read all his books and needed a new author. We went to the bookstore and found your first Louis Kincaid book. Well, he is hooked and is always looking forward to the next one. Here's the funny part. He doesn't think women can write as good as men. He thinks P.J. Parrish is a black man. I just found out when I went to your website [that you are women]. This is a good one. I can't wait to tell him."

Wish I could say this is rare. But we get a lot of fan letters that come addressed to Mr. Parrish. Most of them, in fact. Whatever the reason -- that our protag is a man or our style hardboiled -- many of our readers assume we are male.

Now I'm a card-carrying feminist. (Well, I would carry one if there WAS a card). And I used to be miffed about this Mr. Parrish thing, believing that I had a duty to carry the standard for female crime writers. (Maybe I did strike a blow for the crime writing sisterhood in the O'Hara household at least.) But you know, after living nearly ten years now as the neuter P.J. Parrish, I no longer take offense. I'll let reader Wade Beeson, in his recent email to us, tell you why:

"As a compliment, I could not decide if you were male or female, as you seem sensitive and understanding of both sexes. Thank you for a provocative read."

The women writing men and men writing women thing is a pretty hackneyed subject. It's dragged out for at least one conference panel a year. And I suspect Joe Konrath, Jerry Healy, T. Jefferson Parker et al, are as tired of explaining how they "do" women as I am tired of talking about how I "do" men.

It boils down to one thing for me: If you can't slip into the skin of another sex (or race or anyone outside your paltry sphere of experience) you have no business even trying to write. Failure to write believable characters of ANY kind is the supreme failure of the imagination.

"Madame Bovary" is one of my favorite books. From the first time I read it, I was awed by Emma. And by her creator's ability to bring her to such vivid life. I mean, I had just run my Visa up buying three pair of Charles Jourdan shoes when my rent was overdue. How did Flaubert know how I got to that nadar?

Flaubert "did" women well. But when he said "Bovary, c'est moi," he wasn't claiming he was his character. Actually, he once admitted he was terrified by "the need to invent." (Which I find vastly comforting!) He was a literary magpie who read medical textbooks to write about clubfeet, observed the town folks around him, and when he had to write a chapter about a agricultural fair, actually went to one.

It's said he probably even stole the whole idea for Bovary from a scandal that was going on near his town at the time, buying into the advice of his friends who told him "write what you know."

For years after his book came out, he peevishly maintained he just made the whole damn thing up.

But Flaubert WAS Bovary in a very basic way. His powers of observation, his imagination, his sensory antennae, his understanding of human nature --- all those things that make up what we call writer's talent -- it all allowed him to inhabit other skins. It allowed him to create one of literature's greatest female archetypes.

This man-woman thing is swirling in my head today as my sister and I write chapter 38 of our new book. The finish line is in sight, but it has been a hard race. See, this book is the first in a new series featuring a female protagonist name Joe Frye. But we are so used to living in a man's skin, that we are having a bitch of a time getting into her head. For the first time in years, I can sympathize with those of you just starting out -- those of you still trying to fit into that new skin.

Joe is taking shape. As are the men around her. A whole new world is coming to life every day under my fingertips. It is frustrating, frightening all over again. And deeply thrilling. I tapped into something inside myself to become Louis. I will plumb the female side of myself for Joe. And in the process, I will willingly lose something of myself.

Here's Flaubert talking about that process:

"What a delicious thing writing is --- not to be you anymore but to move through the whole universe you are talking about. Take me today, for instance: I was a man and woman, lover and mistress; I went riding on a fall afternoon beneath the yellow leaves, and I was the horse, the leaves, the wind, the words he and she spoke, and the red sun beating on their half-closed eyelids, which were heavy with passion."

Isn't that, in a nutshell, why we write?


Anonymous J. Carson Black said...

I, too, know what it's like when someone assumes I'm male. (I was on a panel last year with Jim Born; he wrote this salutation to my panel mates and me: "Gentlemen".)

Add to this the fact that so many men these days have female protagonists.

I have a friend who writes a male detective, and she had the exact same problem you have. She decided to write a female cop, and all of a sudden things got tough for her. She didn't expect that. But she had been with her male character for seven books. She knew the guy, so I think it was more the fact that she was dealing with the unfamiliar.

I agree, if you have sufficient imagination, and a working knowledge of how people in general think, it's pretty easy to write about members of the opposite sex. It's easy for me, since I'm married to someone I see as a complete human being.

Today I had a booksigning where all the people in the audience (all, being three) were men. I read from my book, a police procedural/thriller, hoping they would see that even though I was female, I could appeal to them, too. They bought books. One of them said that he liked reading men more than he liked reading women, but it wasn't anything against women. But he liked what I read, so he bought my book.

10:41 PM  
Blogger PJ Parrish said...

J. Carson: Well, I assumed you were male the first time you posted here. I can't even say why, give the fact your name gives no clue really. Yet I made some sort of odd automatic judgement.

Like you said, I suspect my difficulty writing my female cop Joe stemmed from not being familiar with her as a person yet, and it is not gender-specific. Still, it is weird...

11:00 PM  
Blogger Bernita said...

Beautiful quote.
That's exactly it.
Thank you.
Sometimes writing men seems more of an adventure, if one is not a man.

6:24 AM  
Blogger Mark Terry said...

My novel, Dirty Deeds, was written in the first person with a female narrator and I'm, uh, a guy. I've received many nice compliments from readers and reviewers about how convincing Meg is. My editor and agent and publishers for that book are all women.

I was on a panel at Magna cum Murder 2 years ago that was "Writer as the Opposite Gender," and it's an annoying topic, to be sure. Author Robert Greer was there, and he's an African-American, and in one of his books at least, his main character is a Vietnamese woman. I made some comment that this has nothing to do with genitalia, it's all in our head. Robert, who was cranky that day, snarled at the audience a bit about how he found the very question insulting, and put a racial spin on it, talking about how he didn't appreciate people putting limits on him because he was male, that he had spent his life ignoring people telling him all the things he couldn't do because he was black, and he's now a physician and novelist, etc.

Oh well. I see no particular reason why men can't write about women and vice versa, any more than men or women can write about hobbits, elves, dwarves, Martians or aliens from any other planet. If anything I find more historical novels to be unconvincing because the thought processes so often seem too modern.

When someone asks me how I can write convincingly as a woman, my answer is: "I use my imagination."

It's not really that hard. And if anything, the trick isn't to get inside the woman's head, but to realize how people react to your character depends a lot on their gender.

But again, observe and use your imagination.

I am not my characters, male or female. If I understand what makes them tick, what their motives are, what some of their experiences are that shape them, what they want, then I can make them real and they will behave in ways consistent with their identities, and their gender is part of that--not mine, but theirs.

Mark Terry

9:10 AM  
Blogger Jude Hardin said...

I chose to write under the name of "Jude" because:

1. It happens to be my middle name.
2. I like the name, even though I hated it as a child.
3. It is not gender specific.

Statistics show that about 80% of book buyers are women, so I think my choice makes sense from a marketing standpoint. If someone sees my name on the cover and assumes the book was written by a woman, I have no problem with that.

The character I'm writing about now has testosterone oozing from every pore, but my first novel was in first person from a 28 year-old woman's POV. It was fun getting inside a woman's skin (no Buffalo Bill jokes, please) and I very well might try it again in the future. The sexy scenes are the most interesting, I think. Although I'm very much heterosexual, it was rather revealing trying to imagine sex from a woman's perspective.

"Imagine" is the key word here. Sorry, but no method-type research for me in those types of scenes.

9:16 AM  
Anonymous J. Carson Black said...

At least we're in the same boat! :)

9:18 AM  
Blogger J.D. Booth said...

I had a woman introduce herself one time and when she heard my name, she began chuckling. She had read a few articles of mine (I'm a freelance writer) and said she always thought I was a woman. And no, I wasn't offended!

11:09 AM  
Blogger PJ Parrish said...

Hi J.D.
And welcome to my blog.

You aren't, by chance. the J.D. Booth I knew in college are you?

If so, email me.

11:20 AM  
Blogger OutletTeam said...


I really enjoyed reading this blog. I work for a youth program in CA and I was researching lesson plans to add to workshops we do for middle school and high school youth on gender stereotypes. I never even thought about the gender of an author and how that might affect the writing.

This thought continues to pop up in my head (and as a result of real life experiences)... what is the deal with gender anyway? Why is it important, and why do we have only 2 to "pick" from?

I am a very masculine lesbian, right on the line of transgender. I work with lgbtq youth everyday. I have to critically analyze gender all the time to help the youth I work with process their identity. So this question always comes back - what of gender, and why only 2?

Yesterday I had a co-worker drop into my office to ask if I knew out of the names he had on his list, what gender each name was. They were all Chinese or Japanese names that we could not pick out as male or female because we are your basic white Americans. :) I had no idea who was male or female by the name. When he left I thought to myself - "who cares?" He is the development director though, so he needed to send letters to each of these people and of course had to have Mr. or Ms./Mrs. on each to be formal and professional. I still ask... "who cares?"

I believe society puts WAY too much emphasis on gender and what we think of as natural differences between men and women. At the same time we as a society are trying to create an equal culture and see all as equal. Why is this so difficult?

I was inspired to write to you for no other reason than to throw this idea out there. I have had ideas of writing a book where the main character's gender is either not discernible or is assumed to be male until the end. I think that would be an excellent story! It is my passion to breakdown gender, especially as a binary. This blog just sparked my thinking around this.
Thank you!
Eileen Ross
Project Outlet

1:48 PM  
Anonymous web development india said...

In india its very common, especially in villages the women are running the household and they earn majority of the income for family.

4:40 AM  

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