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How Female Novelists (quietly) Change the World

For many years, novelists fought the marketing hurdle that nonfiction gives you something (information), while fiction takes something away(your time). Many of us always knew that to be untrue, but it’s hard to explain to someone who wants “just the facts, ma’am.”

Now we’re finding out that isn’t  the case at all. Researchers have found that reading fiction changes your brain’s ability to function and make important interconnections for days after you finish reading a novel.

(http://www.theatlantic.com/education/archive/2014/01/study-reading-a-novel-changes-your-brain/282952/)

But I believe fiction does something else important, albeit less quantifiable.

Fiction changes us. It changes how we think, how we view the world, what we expect, what we believe we’re capable of.

Let me note that I’m specifically not talking about the purposeful troublemakers, God bless them, such as Harriet Beecher Stowe (“the little lady who started this big war”), George Orwell or other political novelists. How they ignite arguments and change the world, for better or worse, is front and center.  Instead, I’m considering the instances of just darn good storytelling, of people spinning a yarn that involves and entertains the reader, and seems to be happening to a hero or heroine with whom the reader identifies: a normal person, just like us.

MStewart-1-Obit-master180Much of this thinking on my part has been triggered by the recent death of Mary Stewart. It’s hard to believe, at this point in time, how very different things were in the world of genre fiction in the mid 20th century. How women–even the smart ones–were “stand-by” characters who pushed the male hero forward and occasionally fed him important information. That’s if they were smart. Much more often, they distracted him with their “feminine wiles.” In either case, they didn’t exactly move the action. Or they were fully fleshed out characters, like Rebecca in the novel of the same name–but they were trapped in a world defined by men (and really mean women). Then came Mary. She purposefully wrote the kind of mystery/suspense novels she wanted to read: where the women were the active protagonists, marching into the fray.

Her heroines weren’t superheroes. In her obituary in The Guardian, she’s quoted as saying she would “take conventionally bizarre situations (the car chase, the closed-room murder, the wicked uncle tale) and send real people into them, normal, everyday people with normal, everyday reactions to violence and fear; people not ‘heroic’ in the conventional sense, but averagely intelligent men and women who could be shocked or outraged into defending, if necessary, with great physical bravery, what they held to be right.”

Stewart called her books “light, fast-moving stories, which are meant to give pleasure, and where the bees in the writer’s bonnet are kept buzzing very softly indeed,” saying she was “first and foremost a teller of tales, but I am also a serious-minded woman who accepts the responsibilities of her job, and that job, if I am to be true to what is in me, is to say with every voice at my command: ‘We must love and imitate the beautiful and the good.'”  You GO, woman!

Now, I don’t want to slight men here; I love men; they face their own challenges that are not easy. But I have to say, Mary-Stewart_2912427bgrowing up in the 20th century, girls were taught, nearly universally, that even if we were capable of doing something and the opportunity had presented itself, we had to first get permission. Being proactive without first getting someone to sign off on our decisions  is still a fearful thing to many of us. Mary’s heroines were scared, but they did it anyway. And if they could, darn it, so could I.

Mary Stewart’s book that rocked my world was The Crystal Cave, the story of the young Merlin–but told with a modern sensibility, not as a medieval bard’s tale. “The day my Uncle Camlach came home, I was just six years old.”  OMG. The fantastical and the every day married in such a way that made the everyday holy and magic, and made the stakes of being yourself so costly and dangerous but profoundly worth it. Life could be like this. Writing could be like this. This was the path that called me, and once I’d taken the first step onto it, there was no turning back.  Thank you, Mary. Thank you very much.

Many of the writers I most admire follow Mary’s advice that “the bees in the writer’s bonnet are kept buzzing very softly indeed.” To me, this is a very important part of affecting change in a person, and eventually, in society. By picking up a novel, you get to walk a mile (or ten) in that person’s shoes. Try on a new level of courage, of action, of thought, of living in a larger world, just to see how it fits. Perhaps before you would be comfortable with those changes in your skin, you will be comfortable with them, by proxy, in the character’s skin. And that’s how the possibility takes root.

Many, many writers have taken us forward down Mary’s path of “the beautiful and the good.” Here are some of my all-time favorites. Let me just note that the number one qualification for being on this  list (in my mind is a very long version) is that you are one hell of a writer, who takes the craft very very seriously!

astrid-lindgrenAstrid Lindgren. Seriously, was their ever a girl who needed less permission than Pippi Longstocking? She was stalwart, courageous, a fast friend and a defender against pirates. She was also hysterically funny. Apparently, she caused all sorts of trouble with those who are grand proponents of doing as your told and following the rules. Astrid wrote many other books, and none of her heroines  asked permission.

Fannie-FlaggFanny FlaggFried Green Tomatoes at the Whistle Stop Cafe is a tale of women with lots of troubles in their lives and lots of folks telling them what they can and can’t do. You get so involved, it’s not even a question about who it’s proper to love. Love is always proper. Heart, hilarity, and really good barbecue.

Anita DiamantAnita Diamant. In The Red Tent, Ms. Diamant tells the familiar biblical story of Jacob and his children–or, more specifically, Leah, Rachel, Zilpah and Bilhah and their children–through the eyes of daughter Dinah. Turns out men and women tell the same history very differently, and it’s about time the other voice was imagined and heard.

 

Montgomery_LL.M. Montgomery. Lucy  Maud Montgomery lived a life uncomfortably like those of her heroines Anne Of Green Gables and Emily of New Moon. After her mother’s death, she was given by her father to be raised in a loveless home by stern aunts. Instead of bemoaning her lot, she lived in her imagination, and wrote stories about young girls who, through force of their personalities and knowledge that they belong to “the tribe that knows Joseph,” are able to transform the world around them. Her books  have transformed the lives of many many girls the world over since.

writer-JK-Rowling--001J.K. Rowling. We all know the story; the young, single mother on welfare who toiled over a novel it seemed no one would publish. Instead, Harry, Hermione and Ron showed kids and adults the world over how to live in a magical world where good and evil clearly exist, and children are able to affect their own destinies, as well as that of the world around them. Well done, Jo Rowling. Well done.

The Crystal Cave pippi longstocking red tent Friedgreenbook harry potter emilyofnewmoon__span

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5 Sexiest Male Characters in Modern Fiction (A Thinking Woman’s Guide)

Okay, I realize that what constitutes sexiness is a very personal thing. Could be you’re a curvy size 0 with a name like Tapathis Nau with no fear of disease or desire for commitment and Bond, James Bond, is right up your alley. God bless, you’ll get no tussle from this quarter. All yours.

For some of us, what makes a character attractive is a more robust mix of attributes. I’ll admit my top, in real life, is nobility of spirit. Courage, commitment and caring are right up there. Talent seasons everything. But something’s different on the page. In literary life, I like my heroes unattainable. Someone who is so heroic, he has too much on his mind to fool around with this silly little thing called love.

EXCEPT when he falls, for one singular woman, he falls HARD.  And we all know, were we ourselves fictional and he’d only met us first, it could have been…one for the ages.

So.  Here’s my short list.  These are presented with the hope you will share your list with me.

 

Ari Ben CanaanAri Ben Canaan.  This is where it all began for me. Politics aside, in Leon Uris’ book Exodus, there was a character so selfless, so courageous and so heroic, I was instantly in love. Ari exuded nobility of spirit, and I knew immediately that was not only the kind of fellow I wanted to marry, it was the kind of fellow I wanted to become. Even Paul Newman, bless his heart, did not capture the full essence of the Ari who was on the page.

 

Merlin CC coverAmbrosius. Yes, the Crystal Cave is about Arthur, and Merlin and (very notably) Uther Pendragon. But Mary Stewart presents Ambrosius is the prince that rises above all of them to repel invaders at the wall, live in a just way, temper his hotblooded brother Uther, and basically sew the seeds of the beginning of Great Britain and what would become the Round Table. He was also celibate…well, except for this one princess with whom he was still (secretly) in love, and the child they’d had together…

Gregory Pech as Atticus FinchAtticus Finch.  Need I say more?  To Kill A Mockingbird is narratred  by his young daughter, so the sexy isn’t front and center. But Atticus had a wife, obviously loved her, and could sure use help with some world-changing. If you ask me. Moral integrity and quiet courage are in as short supply today as they ever were. 

 

Jamie Fraser. Oh, Diana Gabaldon. In Outlander, she created that most illusive of characters, the courageous, OUT-102_20131106_EM-1710.jpgheroic, sexy man who finds his soulmate and stays true to her while continuing to have really really sexy conjugal relations. Yes, it involves time travel and the Scottish highlands. And yes, it is finally being made into a series by Starz. Whether Jamie will remain the well-spanked, well-built Scotsman who swaggered onto the pages of Outlander remains to be seen.

Mrs. MikeSergeant Mike Flannigan. Of the Canadian Mounted Police.  When 16-year-old Bostonian meets her Canadian sergeant with “eyes so blue you could swim in them” in 1907, a love story with a man and a wilderness was born. Mrs. Mike is not only a love story, but a story of a marriage and how love deepens and grows through hardship and wonder.

 

Yani. So it should come as no surprise to readers of the Eden Thrillers that our heroine Jaime Richards has a thing for men who have nobility of spirit. As she says in the upcoming Plagues of Eden, “For many years of her life, Jaime had assumed she would never get married. Not that she had anything against marriage, but she tended to fall for knight-errant types who were too busy slaying dragons to consider applying for a mortgage.” In other words, Jaime is me (and B.K.) in this regard. Bar set pretty darn high.Yani

So in Chasing Eden, she meets this mysterious man who kidnaps her in the ruins of Ur, enlists her help to recover a lost sword, and runs her through the ruins of Babylon, where she’s kidnapped once again. But before the story is over, he has also cared for and saved a terrified young boy who is bleeding to death, and an elderly man who is being pursued by the baddest of the bad. Now that I think about it, Yani is kind of Ari meets Jamie meets Atticus and Ambrosius. Mostly the first two. But did we succeed in creating a sexy thinking woman’s hero?

Let us know. And let me know who YOUR nominees are for sexiest hero!

Uris_Exodus-lowresMockingbird coverThe Crystal CaveOutlanderChasingEden_audio-cover

 

 

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Real life. Technically, the blog about the literary heroes is over and you’re free to go. But this all got me started about the fact that, sure enough, in real life, I really have always been a sucker for nobility of spirit. In fact, I remember reading the book A Man Called Peter as a girl, and bursting into tears at the end. Not because the courageous Scottish preacher died, but, as I cried to my father, “What if I can’t find a man like Peter Marshall or you to marry? Statistically, there just aren’t enough to go around!”

So, the fact is that I also appreciate real life heroes and nobility of spirit. It’s why I spent two years talking to Holocaust survivors and family and friends of Raoul Wallenberg, the young Swedish architect who saved over 100,000 Jews from Hungary at the end of World War II.

man called peter

 

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It’s probably why I’m married to Bob Scott, who is currently planning CREATING COMMON GOOD. A Practical Conference on Economic Equality, a conference with the new Archbishop of Canterbury, Cornell West, Barbara Ehrenreich, Rachel Held Evans and others, next January.  And why I’m so proud to visit my dad, on whom Peter Marshall had nothing, and who goes to dinner at his retirement community as “God’s secret agent,” sitting with different folks each night, just seeing where he can listen and bring healing. It’s probably why my co-authors are Chaplain (COL) B.K. Sherer, who cares about each and every soldier and cadet under her care.  Oh, and Axel Avian who truly believes that every kid (and grown up) can change the world.  How that has happened, I really can’t tell you, except that I am blessed indeed.

 

 

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