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HAPPY HOLIDAYS FROM ROCHELLE HOLLANDER-SCHWAB!
I’m a straight woman, Jewish, from New York and a grandma who’s been married 50 years. But in my fiction I’ve created a variety of characters, including gay men and lesbians, African-Americans and people who are Catholic and Protestant, as well as Jewish.
Recently, a post on an Amazon.com fiction discussion board took issue with straight women who create gay male characters, arguing that a woman writer could not portray an authentic gay male viewpoint. Similar criticisms have been made of white writers who create African-American characters – including the characters of “the help” in the bestselling novel by that title.
These critics raise a valid point – members of any group, whether they be African Americans, Jews, Hispanics, gay men or lesbians, etc. know their world from the inside, in a way that most outsiders cannot hope to.
Yet the members of any group are not “peas in a pod.” My fellow Jews differ greatly from one another; the gay men and lesbians I know are no more like each other than are straight women. And for me, it would be limiting indeed to create fictional people exactly like myself.
When I write fiction I don’t feel, in fact, that I am creating my fictional characters. They come to me full-blown and demand to be written about. And as other fiction writers have experienced, they often take the story to places I never expected it to go.
It’s true that it took little research to depict the character most like myself: Sheila, the protagonist of A Departure from the Script. That’s because Sheila is also a Jewish grandma from New York, whose daughter has suddenly told her she is planning a same-sex wedding. My own lesbian daughter has never had a wedding, and did not even have a partner at the time I was writing the novel, but I had seen similar situations at the PFLAG support group I helped facilitate. So I was writing not only about a milieu I was familiar with but in a voice that I was familiar with.
Obviously, I was more familiar with the voice of Sheila than with that of David, the gay man who is protagonist of A Different Sin. The latter novel takes place at the time of the American Civil War, before the term “gay” had even been coined. David, an artist for a New York illustrated newspaper, becomes the lover of a fellow newsman, but is stricken with guilt for the “sin” of loving another man. Trying to escape the “occasion of sin,” he volunteers as a war correspondent covering Grant’s 1864 drive toward Richmond. Faced with the horrors of bloody Civil War battles, David is forced into a final confrontation with his own nature.
There was certainly a lot more research involved in developing the characters of David and his lover, Zachary, than that of Sheila. To start with, of course, David and Zach are men rather than women, and gay men at that. In fact, several members of the critique group I was attending were so discouraging about my ability to depict these characters, and in particular to depict any sex scenes between them, that I bought The Joy of Gay Sex as a back-up to my imagination.
Most of the research I needed to do had little to do with sex, however. (There are relatively few sex scenes in A Different Sin, and a quick glance at The Joy of Gay Sexreinforced my instinctive feeling that it is not that difficult to imagine sex of whatever variety.) Rather, I needed to research the history – not just the dates, places and difference between right flank and left flank in a battle – but the outlook of a person who lived in those historical times. Writing the love story between David and Zachary was easy. Understanding the confusion and guilt of a man who grew up over a hundred-fifty years ago, with no context for understanding his desire for Zach beyond a few Biblical lines of condemnation, took more work.
Of course all of us have felt guilty about something at one time or another, and one modus operandi of fiction writers is to extrapolate their own emotions to those of their fictional characters. In the case of David, I needed to understand not just what his emotional experience of guilt might feel like, but how the place and time in which he grew up shaped his attitudes toward his sexuality as surely as growing up in the ante-bellum South shaped his attitudes to slavery or the proper role of women.
Getting the attitudes right for the time is as important as getting the historical facts right. Just the other day, I read a review of a best-selling new historical novel that praised the historical research but faulted the characters for having an oddly jarring contemporary sensibility. I pored over books, newspapers and diaries of the time, and hope that this is a mistake I have sidestepped in writing about a gay man in the mid-Nineteenth Century.
As I mentioned at the start of this blog, a number of critics have suggested that writers stick to their “own kind.” But doing so is not as simple as it sounds. Even when I am writing about characters seemingly much closer to home than David and Zach, I find that my fictional people are different from me in ways I sometimes find difficult to bridge – ways which might never occur to critics who urge writers to write only with their own authentic voice.
For example, in all of my novels, my characters have relationships with their brothers and sisters. I’m an only child. It was harder for me to think my way into a relationship with a sibling, when I’ve never had one, than to imagine what it would be like for a woman to fall in love with another woman, which happens in two of my books. But should I limit myself to writing solely about only children?
In the early Nineties, I attended Outright, a conference of GLBT writers. I had just finished and published In a Family Way, a novel about a custody fight over the child of a lesbian couple after the birth mother is killed. The biological mother, the co-mother contesting for the child, the gay man who donated sperm and is now suing for custody, and his partner are the four viewpoint characters.
One afternoon I had lunch with a lesbian writer, a woman of my age (late 40′s at the time) and, like myself, the mother of grown children. We discussed our books over lunch; she didn’t even comment on my choice of two lesbians as viewpoint characters. But she said she understood completely that the hardest part of developing the character of the co-mother for me was imagining a woman with grown children who would be eager to start all over again raising a baby. “It would be a reach for me as well,” she said.
To me, a lot of what makes writing fiction exciting and worthwhile is making that reach into the minds and hearts of people who are not just like me. And I am thrilled when someone of another race or sexual orientation tells me that yes, I “got” a character right – when the director of a local Black History Center told me I understood how the fugitive slave who is the protagonist in my first novel (As Far as Blood Goes) would have felt, or when I received an email from a gay male teacher who said that A Different Sin had helped him in his journey of coming out to himself.
So I’ll go on writing the characters that invade my writing imagination, and hope that research, empathy, extrapolation and observation will help me to understand and write their stories with as believable a voice as I can.
Rochelle Hollander Schwab is author of four novels, all but one with gay themes. Among her short pieces is an op-ed titled “I Want to Go to my Daughter’s Wedding” that was included in a college textbook on writing. She lives near Washington, DC with her husband of 50 years; they have two grown daughters and three grandchildren.
Rochelle has been active for years in Parents, Families and Friends of Lesbians and Gays (PFLAG). She says that, plus her relationship with her two daughters, spurred her fictional explorations of family issues. These include: A Different Sin, best described as a combined gay romance and Civil War novel; its “prequel,” As Far as Blood Goes; and In a Family Way, the story of a custody fight over the child of a lesbian couple when the birth mother dies.
Her most recent novel, A Departure from the Script, is a novel of love, family and same-sex marriage. It won several awards, and was acquired by Insight/Out Books, a GLBT-oriented book club. It and In a Family Way were also selections of Reading Group Choices.
You can find her novels and stories here.
Her Advent Calendar giveaway is: Either a paperback or a Kindle version of “A Different Sin.” Leave a comment to be entered into the draw. Winners to be announced on Christmas Day.
The BONUS BUMPER PRIZE QUESTION (don’t answer this yet - write them down and I’ll ask you to email them in on Christmas Eve.)
3. How many candles are there in a traditional Advent Wreath?