Bouchercon 2019. More Real Than the Housewives: Unlikeable Women Panel. Friday, 1 November, 4PM in Reunion G-H.Recorded by Patrick von Wiegandt and transcribed here by Gabriel Valjan. Any errors are my own. Photos: John Thomas Bychowski, unless otherwise stated.
Panelists: Katrina Niidas Holm (KH), Megan Abbott (MA), Jennifer Hillier (JH), J.M. Redman (JR), Angie Kim (AK), and Laura Lippman (LL).
KH: That’s not what you want to hear when you’re about to start the panel, ‘Katrina, I’m pouring the vodka.’ Okay, and good afternoon. Welcome to the More Real Then the Housewives: Unlikeable Women. My name is Katrina Niidas Holm, and I’m a freelance mystery reviewer, and I’ll be your moderator, and I’m going to set aside time at the end of our discussion for questions so please be thinking, and remember that questions end in question marks. [Photo: Bolo Books Composite Sketch]
Without further ado, Megan Abbott is the author of nine novels and one work of nonfiction. Her latest Give Me Your Hand was shortlisted for the CWA Ian Fleming Steel Dagger Award and is a finalist for this year’s Best Novel Anthony. Her 2004 novel Dare Me is headed for television [USA Network trailer], and she has won or been nominated for the Hammett Prize, the Shirley Jackson Prize, the Pushcart Prize, an Edgar, Anthony, Barry, and Macavity Awards, to name but a few.
Next to her is Jennifer Hillier, who is the author of five novels. Her most recent, Jar of Hearts, appeared on a bevy of this year’s lists; won the 2019 ITW Thriller Best Hardcover Novel. She is a finalist for this year’s Macavity Award for Best Mystery. She is up for an Anthony Best Novel here in Dallas. Jennifer also writes a regular column for The Thrill Begins.
J.M. Redman is the author of the New Orleans-based Micky Knight detective novels; the most recent being Girl on the Edge of Summer and the Nell McGraw series, which she writes under the name, R. Jean Reid. Her novels have garnered a Foreword Gold First Place Mystery Award and numerous Lambda Literary Awards, wins and nominations. She’s also co-edited three anthologies with Greg Herren, one of which, Night Shadows: Queer Horror, was nominated for a Shirley Jackson Award. [Photo: Live Journal]
Angie Kim is the author of Miracle Creek, which appeared on Time’s and Amazon’s Year’s Best Lists, and was named a Top Ten Apple Books Debuts of the Year, and also earned her a spot on Variety’s Top Ten Storytellers to Watch list. Her work has also appeared in Vogue, the New York Times, the Washington Post, Glamour, Salon, and Slate. [Photo: Twitter]
Finally last, but not least. Laura Lippman is the author of the Baltimore-based Tess Monaghan series. She has also written 11 standalones, including Sunburn which is up for a Best Novel Anthony this year. Are you sensing a theme here? And Lady in the Lake, which was released this past summer, to great acclaim. Laura has won, or been nominated for a multitude of awards, including the Agatha, Anthony, Edgar, Barry, Macavity, Nero, Gumshoe, Hammett, and Shamus.
Before we get started, I’d like to remind everybody what this panel’s description was:
The mystery genre has been blowing up the stereotype of the ‘good girl,’ creating a new demand for books featuring unlikeable characters that are often described as ‘unlikeable.’ But what makes a woman ‘unlikeable’ and is it simply code for complex?
So, I’d like to start with a show of hands, How many of you think your most recent book actually features one or more unlikeable female characters?
The description posits that ‘unlikeable’ is code for complex. Do you agree, or is ‘complex’ itself merely a euphemism for a very specific set of qualities?
LL: That was the shortest panel on record. I would like to think that all the writers here are really interested in creating complex characters because those are full characters, fully realized characters. This idea of likeability has been hanging over books for a long time, and not just in the mystery genre. I’ve had students in my class at Eckerd College [in St. Petes, Florida], where I teach a writer’s workshop every January say, ‘I was told my manuscript was rejected because I didn’t have a likeable protagonist.’ I think that is just a nice thing to say to you. I think that’s a nice way to reject someone but I don’t find it particularly meaningful, and you have to know in your heart of hearts that’s not right. Is Hannibal Lecter likeable—people apparently really enjoy reading books about…I think what we are actually talking about is this cultural issue that women were supposed to be nice, and we’re supposed to be accommodating, and we’re supposed to get along, and we’re supposed to understand, and so both the culture and the books have been sort of opening at the same moment, just as women in the world at large, in various workplaces have been: ‘I’m really tired of being nice, I’m really tired of making you feel good about the ways in which you demean me and don’t take me seriously,’ I think it’s just natural at the same time in the culture women began to push back, that people began to write books in which women were less concerned with being liked, and concerned with what they want and how they are going to get it.
AK: And in my book, I have a group of mothers who are in this enclosed submarine-like chamber, who are being very vulnerable with each other; they are actually talking to each other, about things that are really shameful to them, moments they’ve had and thoughts that they’ve had that made them feel like monsters because they had those thoughts. I can’t tell you how many women I’ve had come up to me, or written a comment, or reviews or whatever, saying: ‘I’ve had those same thoughts.’ Whether they be moms with kids with special needs, which is something that happens in my book, or someone who has gone through the trauma of—which I’m going through right now with having kids who are teenagers. And so I feel like we’ve all had these shameful thoughts, and I think society has this expectation, especially with women and especially for mothers. There’s this myth of the Good Mother (capital G and capital M). I feel like we need to show the characters at their vulnerable moments when they’re being honest with each other, and saying these thoughts out loud so we all know that we have had them, and none of us feel like monsters for having them, because it’s just human.
KH: In addition to likeability and mothering, are there very specific things that are code and will land you on the unlikeable list?
JH: I’ve never given a lot of thought to unlikeable women until I started writing my first novel that I was workshopping. This was long before I got published. The character was a sex-addicted professor having an affair with her student and she was engaged to a really nice guy who didn’t know this was going on. I got a lot of feedback in the workshop that said, ‘Nobody would ever read this. Like she is not likeable,’ and it killed my confidence because I thought I was writing something interesting. I changed big chunks of the book to make her more likeable. I took out her sex addiction, I made her almost forced into this affair, and changed other places to make her more likeable.
I finished the book and started to send out queries and sending out manuscripts, and it was getting rejected, left and right, because the writing wasn’t resonating with agents. I went back and I thought I was going to go back to what I did in the first place because that felt better to me. I changed it back to the original version, where she was this unlikeable woman who made terrible choices and had to dig her way out of the choices she made, and that version was the one that got published [Creep, 2011]. The feedback I got afterwards still gets dinged for her being unlikeable, but I think what I decided as a writer is that it’s better to write something that’s interesting than just to write someone who is likeable.
KH: Jean, your New Orleans private investigator Micky Knight is a sarcastic, self-absorbed; she drinks too much and she sleeps around, and these are all characteristics typical of a hard-boiled male PI. But are these qualities readers find unlikeable in male protagonist or just in female ones, and since you have a queer protagonist, Do you think this sort of behavior is a bigger perceived sin for a gay character than a straight one?
JR: Yes, there is always a dividing line between what men can do, and what women can do, particularly with emotions: the way men can be angry, the way women can be angry. Yes, she drinks a lot. The first book came out in 1990, when there weren’t many drinking women PIs back then. I thought I was being original. The other thing, too, about my private eye that sort of changes things somewhat is that she’s a lesbian. I am, too. Okay, write what you know; and that sort of changes perceptions and, in some ways, if you are a lesbian, you’re kind of a man and not kind of a man, and you can get away with stuff. You can also get dinged for other stuff because there’s no way you can be feminine enough, if you already transgressed that sexual boundary and so that makes you on the fault lines of unlikeable.
When I started writing it, I want my voice, our voice, because at the time there was Sue Grafton and Sara Paretsky. I liked them but I was, We’re still not part of the story. I thought I really would like to write a story about a lesbian and I looked into the mirror and said, ‘Then maybe you need to write one.’ And then I thought, ‘What would really make a woman become a private eye and do that?’ I realized that she had to almost be a damaged person, and a person searching for justice, in a way that’s desperate and that immediately takes her out of the nice girl role. You can’t be nice and ask for something that you’ve never been given.
KH: Along those lines, and this is a question in general for the panel. Are the things that get a male protagonist branded as an antihero, the same things that get a woman deemed unlikeable? And do we ever call female protagonists antiheroes? If not, then why not?
MA: Do we ever call a male protagonist unlikeable? I’m trying to think of an example of that. An element of that I find so interesting, and I agree with everyone on the panel. I’m always surprised at how often that the charge of unlikeable female characters comes from other women. I feel maybe more so because women read more crime novels, but I do think that there is an element of it that is, ‘We can’t show everyone what we are really like. You’re breaking the code. We have to be perfect. We have to please and be accommodating and you’re somehow violating it.’ When that podcast or TV show Dirty John was out, which was about this terrible and homicidal [spoiler] con artist who took advantage of woman after woman, there had been so much criticism of the women he had swindled and hustled, so much more than this guy who had stolen and poisoned and attacked [women]. It was so staggering to me somehow that he is coming out somehow as the antihero in this scenario, and the women are coming out as unlikeable, so I do think that sometimes women can be the harshest judge, because we are afraid of somehow being exposed for having real feelings. [Photo: Joe Marino for New York Daily News]
CH: Laura, between series protagonists, Tess Monaghan and Lady in the Lake’s Maddie Schwartz, you have created two fictional journalists, who some may deem unlikeable. Do you think that is a coincidence, or are there characteristics specific to the profession that a segment of the country finds objectionable in women?
LL: First, there is a big span of years between Tess Monaghan and Maddie Schwartz. When I created Tess, I thought that Tess was likeable. But, I also saw that she wasn’t at her best. She was a young woman, she’s out of a job, she’s lost, and it was true to my experience that those are not the things that make you a nice person or a barrel of laughs. I saw Tess as someone being, in the best of circumstances, a likeable person but going through a tough time. To me, she was actually a boon companion. I liked writing the Tess novels because I was writing about my imaginary best friend. Those were novels I was working on in the Nineties, to 1997.
Jump forward twenty years, yes, literally. Twenty years. Maddie Schwartz is much calculatedly created to represent everything I fear I might be at times. What’s her major drive? The story. She wants the story. ‘Get me to the story.’ She can be incurious, she can be very full of herself, she can be very self-centered and, why not be honest, it’s not that I fear that I am those things. I’m sure I am those things sometimes. I think it’s a particularly interesting question for people who write crime fiction, especially if you’ve ever been inspired by a real story, to ask yourself, ‘Is what I am doing right? Am I exploiting someone? Is what I am doing of enough value if I cause pain?’ These are questions I wrestle with each time. I created someone who is more ruthless than I am. She really doesn’t doubt her entitlement to have what she wants, and I recognize that is a meta-quest. I go back and forth. I’ve contradicted myself in the same conversation. I’ll say, ‘Sure, Maddie is not likeable’ and then someone in the audience will say, ‘I like her’ and then I’ll be, ‘I like her, too.’
I definitely admire her. I have to say that characters like Maddie, Polly in Sunburn, characters in all the panelist’s books, I just find it a lot more interesting to write. There is a lot of good girl/bad girl dichotomy in my books, but the fact is women switch in and out of those two roles. You’re not one or the other your whole life. It’s just so much more interesting to write about people who aren’t worried about being liked.
KH: Ambition. They’ve got that in spades.
LL: Ambition is almost a pejorative, but definitely a pejorative when applied to a woman. Nobody has ever said, ‘she’s ambitious’ and meant it as a compliment.
AK: And I think that is the thing, men can be very unlikeable. Don Draper [Mad Men] or Walter on Breaking Bad, or whatever it is. They can be despicable, they can have despicable goals, but as long as they are good at what they are doing and they are successful, then we are like, ‘Oh yeah’ whereas women, if they are successful and there’s ambition, and they put the ambition above everything else especially their family, their marriage and their kids, I think that is what makes everyone say, ‘Oh, she’s despicable. She’s a bitch. A total bitch.’
KH: Megan, you’ve kind of cornered the market when it comes to writing unapologetic, ambitious teenagers. I think it is rare to read a review of your work that condemns the young women for their aspirations. Do you think ambition is more acceptable in female characters when they are young than when they are grownup journalists? If so, why do you think that is so?
MA: I’m sort mystified by all of this. I love Maddie. I suppose a teenager who is ambitious is probably just not a threat. Aspirational —which is sort of the word they’ve foisted on millennials for ambition in an economy that isn’t going to reward them for it. I’ve had a lot of people frightened by the young women in the books, but that is sort of different from unlikeable. Though I sometimes I get the I write about mean girls when I write about teenagers, and that is a diminishing term to me. I love mean girls. It’s a way of making it small, and let’s make it not a threat. Girls behaving badly. Pranks and all that nonsense, rather than seeing what I think are quite beautiful stirrings of wanting things. Maybe it is like Don Draper and Walter White wanting the Big Dream, the dream we’ve all been told to believe, but somehow these little girls are just becoming troublesome.
KH: Jennifer, Jar of Hearts followed Georgina Shaw, who is a successful pharmaceutical executive who was incarcerated after police discovered that when she was a teenager she had helped her serial killer boyfriend dispose of her best friend’s body after he had raped and murdered her. Geo is a protagonist and point of view character, but is she a hero? A villain? Is she a little bit of both? Do you think readers like her?
JH: Readers very decidedly decided not to like her. I don’t know if I liked her, honestly. She does very terrible things, and I think the bigger crime in her story is that she doesn’t own up to them. I think that is another expectation that we have that when you’re a woman is that when you make a mistake, you should say ‘I’m sorry’ and she never did. She never admitted it and she even had the audacity to build a life on top of the awful thing she did, and went on to have success, meet a successful man and get engaged and try to be happy.
I think people reading the book, the feedback I got after chapter one “ I feel bad for her” and chapter two was, ‘Oh my God, she’s a bitch’, and for chapter 3, ‘she’s nuts’. It kind of went back and forth, and I think my biggest pet peeve when I hear about unlikeable women is that if a guy is unlikeable, he’s an asshole but, if a woman is unlikeable, she is crazy. Why can’t a woman be unlikeable and an asshole, too? Some women are assholes. So when I was writing the book I was like, ‘Am I worried about how this will read?’ But then I was, ‘No I’m going to not try to be worried’. As women we are complex, and we do terrible things and still be good people. We can make horrible mistakes and maybe not want to apologize, and because we’re just like men in that way.
KH: A quality that we have might’ve touched on, but haven’t discussed that I think factors in hugely whether readers like a character is maternalism. Several of you explore this theme in your books, and I don’t think anybody has done it more extensively than you, Angie. Can you talk a little bit more about the myth of the Good Mother, how it factors into your Miracle Creek, and why writing a book about three mothers, who sacrifice normal lives in order to help their children landed you on a panel about unlikeable women?
AK: I know. I was really excited about this panel until but someone, ‘Was it you, Meagan, who said we should have a contest to see who was the most unlikeable?’
It’s interesting and I think one the things you just asked about: the internality, it’s when people will say to me, ‘All your characters are unlikeable, which some do. Absolutely. I actually love that because, to me, that means I managed to get really inside the character’s heads. My novel is written from the perspective of seven P.O.V. characters. Each chapter follows a character, and I try to write in a very close third [point of view] where you are really getting raw unfiltered thoughts of these people. What I tell readers in book clubs and things like that, is that if we all walked around and people could know what we were thinking at any point of any day, but holding back from saying and doing, we would all be unlikeable. The fact that I sort of had this camera in this character’s deepest innermost thoughts and that by virtue of seeing that, you maybe feel some of that, to me says that I did what I set out to do. So, if people tell me they are unlikeable, then that is fine and not only that, but to your point about the sacrifices is that a lot of the book is about people who have given up everything. Immigration. People have given up their homeland, their languages, and the comfort of their family and friends to come half way around the world to a place where they know no one, and where they are completely uprooted from their lives and displaced. To have made that kind of sacrifice and done some of those things in the name of parenting and then behave those characters accused of being , ‘Well, the way they did it; we don’t really like it or approve of,’ is therefore, unlikeable and not noble is, I think, really interesting.
KH: So, on the flip-side. Laura. At least two of your protagonists, Maddie from Lady in the Lake and Polly from Sunburned, abandon their children. In your most recent Tess Monaghan novel, Hush Hush, it deals with both infanticide and Tess’s own struggles with motherhood. For a long time, it seemed that bad mothers were almost taboo to write about in crime fiction. Why do you think we are seeing so many now, and what is behind your most recent fascination?
LL: Let’s move back for a little because I’m obsessed with this [article] I saw from Reese Witherspoon. Data changed her life, which is to say that when streaming services first started and when they were getting information about Who watches What, they were like, ‘Oh, it turns out there are a lot of women who want to watch movies about other women. We didn’t know that.’
When it became data, it changed television and it changed what is getting made. I’ve been coming to Bouchercon since 1995, and I noticed there are a lot of women here. And I will give Gillian Flynn a lot of credit because I think Gone Girl kicked the door open.
On a related matter, because I was writing something and I was struggling with the idea whether someone inside a cultural phenomenon can know that they are inside a cultural phenomenon. I reached out to Gillian and said, ‘Do you and your husband ever discuss the fact that you changed the face of mystery publishing for more than a decade? You did that.’ I think what is happening is that there is a growing awareness of who our audience is, and they are grown up and don’t need a cup of sugar, and they are interested. Who do you talk about when you go out to lunch? You don’t talk about the nice people. I spend very little time talking about the nice people in my life. ‘She is lovely, but what about So-and-So?’ Fiction functions that way, and I also feel that when I wrote Sunburn in particular, I was very consciously paying homage to Ann Tyler’s Ladder of Years, which was the fantasy novel of 1995, in which a woman gets up and abandons her family on a beach. Everybody wanted to read that book. Ann Tyler’s treatment of it is one thing, but it also could be a very hard-boiled story, and that is what got me going. I think it’s really a common female fantasy. I swear to you, I talked about it with my Lyft driver this morning. It was her fantasy. She is telling me, ‘I tell my husband and my kids that one day, I’m just gonna be gone, and they’re like, ‘Mom, you’re gonna live forever, and I said, ‘I didn’t say dead, I said, GONE.’
KH: I think we might need to end right there. Meagan, throughout history, there’s been a tendency for society to pathologize female anger and aggression. Did this propensity figure into your decision to set Give Me Your Hand, which is a book about female ambition and competition, in a biology lab?
MA: I was fascinated by the dearth of women in sciences all, and a dearth of research into women’s bodies, and what there is tends to focus on different variations of the concept of hysteria, the craziness and uncontrollability of women. I think it does tie back to the mother issue because of this sense of the female body being out of control, terrifying, and all the stigmas and taboos we have about the female body in its various functions, at the same time we have this concept of the female body as this center of desire. Women, throughout their lives, have a sense that they are being looked at in one way or another. A part of this is the armor that women wear when they go out at night and so much a way we live our lives, and I think it all plays out interestingly in crime fiction where you’re dealing with threat, the way you’re dealing with the ways women choose to armor themselves. In all my books I guess that sort of seems to come up.
I have a book called The Fever, which is about this bodily illness that takes over these young women. Dare Me, which really to go back to your point Laura, would not have been made seven years ago when it first went into development. Now, with streaming and algorithms, there are statistics being made about the weight of the body on women and being pathologized, put under a microscope, investigated. This even occurs in virtual space now online, and the ways women experience social media. I think I’ve expanded that answer now, into all the culture. I think as women we think about all the time, think about it so much that we aren’t even conscious about it because we just wear it all the time.
KH: Jean, Micky matures a lot over the course of your series, to the point that in your most recent novel Girl on the Edge of Summer that I’m not even sure she qualifies as unlikeable or, if she does she’s very introspective about it. Was this a conscious decision, or did she mature as you matured? And how have your fans reacted to her evolution?
JR: It’s one of the challenges of a series, and the advantage of a standalone is you can make them really unlikeable. In a series, it’s about finding the balance between they’re a total asshole and a complete jerk, and their movement in character as the books come along. I’d like to think that I’ve matured. Some people may disagree. One of the things I think that she wrestles with, and we all wrestle with is, ‘Who is allowed to be fully human? Who is allowed to take that entire space? Who is allowed to be really flawed and angry? Who is constrained when they can do that?’ And when we look at the way the world is sliced, if you’re female, being angry and taking power, having ambition is often difficult to do and I think that is something she struggles with. ‘How do hold onto that power? How do keep creating that space, when it’s a space you aren’t supposed to be in? Because you have to reclaim it every single day. You don’t get it automatically. I think that one of the challenges with being unlikeable and flawed is if you are female that it is easier to fall into that category. What happens to the women who are told, ‘If you feel like that, you’re not a good mother, you’re not a good daughter or you’re not a good sister. You’re being too angry and you’re disturbing the workplace. Why can’t you be nicer? Don’t be so politically correct.’
What kind of small violences do we do when we tell people you have this place, and that is where you stay? I really think that at this moment, not just in our writing, what we’re doing in all these books we’re saying, wu can have this space, but even outside of all that, there’s this huge fight about ‘Who can be fully human? Who can take that space?’ It’s a fight that for some of us that is incredibly, incredibly relevant to our lives. I have the Supreme Court talking about whether I can be fired.
KH: Jennifer, Geo is not your first flawed character. In your debut novel, Creep, as you said started with a sex-addicted psychology professor who had an affair with a graduate student, who also turned out to be a psychopath. What fuels your fascination with these types of characters, and what is the appeal in writing about them?
JH: I think it’s a healthy—maybe not healthy—a safe way to explore every dark thought that I’ve ever had. It’s a way to imagine someone younger talking to someone. Haven’t we all had the thought of, ‘What would it be like if I punched you right now?’ You’re not going to do it, but you think about it, just to wonder what their reaction might be, and so writing characters like this is my way of going, ‘What is she lied about this?’ And that lead to with, ‘What if she covered that up?’ And that leads you to, ‘What if she hurt someone?’ I think it’s just a way for me to explore that train of thought, and put all that somewhere where that’s not going to hurt someone really. It’s something healthy and safe.
KH: Scores of think-pieces have been written on character likeability and many of them, you’ve mentioned this earlier, Laura, have propped the theory that if you’re an unpublished writer seeking representation or publication and you submit a manuscript with an abrasive heroine you’re likely to receive rejections citing likeability. Angie, Miracle Creek is you debut. Did you encounter a lot of resistance in your path to publication? How difficult was it for you to find an agent and then an editor, who was willing to let your character be their messy selves?
AK: I’m so glad that you asked that because I really wanted to talk about that, because when you were talking about data, and I wished someone would compile that kind of data for books as well, which I think is a little harder to come by.
This [Miracle Creek] is my debut novel. With respect to agents, I think I had a relatively easy time; but I remember when she sent it out she had set a date for the auction and she said, ‘This weekend before the book auction you’re going to talk—and she gave me a whole list of editors who were interested in acquiring the book—to them this weekend, one by one. I talked to a whole bunch of editors, and I’d say about half of them said, ‘I love the book, but there are especially a couple of scenes towards the end, where a couple of moms are talking about—the book, I should say, is about a mother on trial for murdering her eight-year old son, who is killed in a horrific, awful way. Towards the end of the book there are a couple of mothers talking and confessing to each other that they had fantasies of their kids dying. ‘What would’ve happened if my kid had died, instead of surviving this coma and becoming a child with special needs, and chronic illnesses and thing like that.
About half the editors said I had an uphill battle talking to my marketing department about how people are going to respond to this. ‘How are we going to market this because this is a mother accused of killing her child and, on top of that, there are some characters who have confessed to having had those very shameful thoughts. I remember the week before publication. This was my first big interview with Artie Shapiro with NPR, and he read that part we are talking about. This shameful thought. There was a part of me that was like, ‘I love Artie so much,’ and I loved that he picked this part that I love to read on the air. It was amazing and we had this amazing conversation about it. On the other hand, we talked for an hour and I knew they had to edit it down to ten minutes, and I called my publicist immediately. I was like, ‘Oh, I loved this so much; it was amazing, but do you think you should call the on-the-air producer and say, ‘Maybe not have that be part of the ten minutes?’ I was really afraid that the public encountering my book for the first time would be like, ‘oh, it’s about mothers who want to kill their kids.’ This is going to be a disaster. We did decide not to do that and they did air it, but in a way with context so people actually said nice things about it, and people didn’t send me hate mail which I was grateful for. It was huge thing, and we talked about how, ‘If you took out that scene especially, we might have more bidders, maybe three more publishers at the auction.’
KH: For those of you who are publishing veterans, Do you encounter less push-back now than you did earlier in your careers? Do you find yourself taking bigger risks, now that you’ve gotten a toehold in the market?
LL: One of the funniest things that happened to me with my most recent book Lady in the Lake is I had a Hollywood producer mansplain the ending to me, and he said how tragic how things end for Maddie. I’m like, ‘It is? I don’t see it that way’, but I don’t want to talk about it more in depth because it would be a spoiler for those who haven’t read the book. There are a lot of things you can say happens to Maddie, but I don’t think it’s especially tragic.
Early in my career I was asked to rethink some elements of my third novel [Butchers Hill] for the very good reason because it would’ve been out of step with the two novels that had come out as a part of a series, and since then I would say that the note that I get is: it’s never to make it nicer, to never to make sweeter or less grim, but to sort of have the sense that wherever I have delivered my characters to, that I’ve done right by them. That’s the best way I could describe it, so I think it’s never had that much…‘Sure you can write a novel about two eleven-year old girls who kill a baby, and let’s see how that turns out.’ It turned out great. I had it great. I’m odd, in that I’ve written all my books for the same editor. I have a very different relationship than what people have. When you’re over 20 books in, there’s a lot of trust. My editor has spanned two husbands now.
KH: This is kind of a question for all of you. Jennifer Weiner has written extensively about her belief that many female writers reject likeability in an attempt to be seen as more serious and intellectual. Do you agree? Do you think female writers have to write unlikeable female protagonists in order to be taken seriously?
MA: Again, I don’t think they are unlikeable. It was just the premise. I think that’s more about the tone of a book. I don’t think of crime novels ever being accused of being downbeat, heavy lifting kind of tomes. It’s a curious thing. I think I get why Jennifer Weiner is saying that: her work has been dismissed as Chick Lit for so long, and put in this box, whereas writers whom I love, such as Tom Perotta can write books about domestic situations, about being a parent; and they’re given serious author status. I think one of the wonderful things about the crime fiction community is that we all write about terrible people all the time. I think there’s this wild freedom in it, much along the lines of what you were saying for the reasons why we read these books: we want to see people do the things we wouldn’t or couldn’t do, but maybe think about, or occasionally pondered. I think that does give us a kind of freedom. [Photo: Squeak and spoils from Bouchercon Toronto, 2017]
KH: Do you think it’s even possible to write a full-fleshed character that is 100% likeable?
LL: It’d be a great challenge. Whenever I think of a book like that, I think of Nicholson Baker’s The Everlasting Story of Nory, that is ever as close to a likeable character; it’s about a ten-year old girl going about her day.
CH: Some ten-year old girls can get really mean.
LL: That’s true, too. It’d would be a great challenge. Novels require conflict. What kind of conflicts—
MA: It’s making me think. I’d just heard that Little Women is coming out. The new movie adaptation. I heard that Laura Dern plays Marmee. That’s how old I am now, that Laura Dern is playing Marmee. There’s a speech there in the movie, where Marmee talks about how angry she is, and it comes from the book and nobody realizes it. She has a lot of anger about her husband being gone and these four brats she has for kids, and she even wants one of them to die. But no, it’s always been in there.
AK: Also again, I think it’s about perspective, too. If you were to write a character like that, you would have to be from a very distant perspective where they’re not the POV character, and you don’t have access to their internal thoughts and things because I can’t imagine being honest to a complex, real fully-fleshed out character, and to really exploring their internality and have that being completely likeable; that in Little Women is about as likeable as we get, and we don’t have any scenes form her POV, right? That’s probably why. If she had written from her POV, there’s probably so much stuff in there about resentment, about why am I the only one…
JH: I also don’t want to read stories like that, because I feel that’s how we live already. I write fiction and I have no shame saying that I’m a commercial writer and want to entertain someone with their story. I go through my daily life being as nice to people as I can be. Polite. Good manners. I don’t necessarily want to read that in my fiction. I want to read about the stuff we are not allowed to do in polite company. To me that is more fun, and as a reader that is what I enjoy, so that is what I write.
JR: One of my interests is how do flawed, messed-up people search out justice, and how do we— even though we don’t want to do this, do that—make those incremental decisions that can lead us to doing the right thing or doing the wrong thing. I thought about it. If you want to talk about a book with an unlikeable character: Lolita. Except he’s charming, but you read the book and you’re like, ‘What a horrible monster’. He gets away with it because it’s written by Nabokov. It’s a good book, but I think you can do that, but it’s, ‘How do you make it work in a way that engages readers and doesn’t put them off. I think it would be fascinating to write a book from Beth’s [Little Women] perspective. Maybe that’ll be the next movie? The Trials of Beth?
KH: Favorite unlikeable female protagonist that you did not create?
LL: Again, I like her. Probably Mildred Pierce. She is literally happy about which daughter dies. If she has to have a daughter die, she knows in her heart that she got the one she wanted.
LL: With Eva Wylie?
LL: What a great character. Amazing character.
MA: I’d say Phyllis from Double Indemnity is one of my all-time favorites, with or without Barbara Stanwyck playing her.
JH: I’d have to pull the Gone Girl card here and say Amy [Dunne].
AK: I was just going to say that.
JH: I wanted to be more original, but it stands the test of time.
AK: I’m actually going to go with Tess from your novels. I think she’s very likeable, and thought the whole evolution was great but what I loved about all that was when she was doing all the stakeouts and stuff and she was breastfeeding her baby. I loved seeing things like that, and the fast sense of women doing things like that and trying to make things work. I felt that was such a fresh perspective and made me feel like, ‘She’s a real person.’
KH: I know the typical thing to do is ask you what you are working on next, but I’m trying to sell your books. Everyone in the audience is certain to head to the Book Room for the signing that is taking place afterwards, but what one book of yours would you recommend to someone who has never read you?
AK: Can I go first, because it’s really easy for me? Definitely Miracle Creek, given that it’s my one and only book.
LL: If I had to pick just one, I’d pick Sunburn because it is an homage to Postman Always Rings Twice and to a lot of James Cain. I’m certain someone will say they dislike Polly but I love Polly. I adore Polly. The book is written from the perspective of someone who adores that character.
JH: Jar of Hearts. It’s my favorite book that I’ve ever written and I think it was the only book where I said what I wanted to say, and exactly the way I wanted to say it. I do think you get better with every book but that’s my most recent one.
JR: I’d say my third one, The Intersection of Law and Desire, because it was published by large publisher. The first two books were published by a smaller publisher. It was the book where I finally felt like I was a writer and a lot of things came together. It’s probably the epitome of what the series is about. If you don’t like it, you’re probably not going to like the series. If you do like it, I have ten books.
MA: I’ll probably go with my most recent one and say, Give Me Your Hand. I’ll warn you, there’s some unlikeable characters in there. They are in all of them, so I might not be the author for you.
KH: We’ve got eight minutes for questions from the audience. Actual questions and not comments.
Q: Do beautiful women get away with being unlikeable more? [paraphrased by KH]
LL: I went to Art Taylor’s class to talk about Lady in the Lake and the students observed that both of the main characters in that book were very beautiful and why was I interested in beautiful women? Because I am interested in the power that was available to women in that time—that would have been the only power. I think people will find a a way to dislike a woman coming and going; she is too pretty; she’s not pretty enough. There’s always something. They’ll find a way.
One of the things and I’ve said this at conference, and that is when you take the broad view of the crime fiction genre when you took a broad view of it was that a lot of our best work was based on the model of a beautiful woman dies and a man feels bad about it. At least the beautiful women in my life are standing and breathing and in my books. That was my contribution.
Q: Is it harder for female authors to write unlikeable characters?
JH: I think so. I feel pressured to be nicer. It’s not autobiographical or something. I feel the need to show that I’m normal and I’m fine. Someone got caught up in my book but that’s not what I do. I don’t know that my male author friends might’ve had to meet this same standard.
LL: Being male and female online is just a world of difference; there’s no comparison to being female on the internet.
JH: Do you delete any tweets? I delete mine if I determine if they’re bitchy and I don’t want to be bitchy.
LL: I don’t delete. I find that people tend to be incredibly generous to me and tend to give me the benefit of the doubt. I’ve been working on a book of essays called My Life as a Villainess [Release Date: 5 May 2020]. If you look at the subject matter in this book, you’ll find that I call myself an asshole, I call myself a rotten friend, and I’ve never had more fun than writing about all the ways I have failed to meet other people’s standards. It’s just great fun.
Q: I find likeability to be subjective. How do you get your audience to root for your characters?
MA: This brings up something I wanted to mention earlier, which often is a valid view. I find that this happens, particularly with readers and with earlier drafts for me as a writer, and that is when you haven’t let the reader in and given them something valuable to know about that character; you haven’t rounded them out, you haven’t teased out their nuances and their complexity. Sometimes that comes to me later in the draft, but often when I’m reading and I won’t use the word unlikeable, but I’ll feel shut out and that is what that is about, and I’m always working on in drafts. You might not like them but you’re going to understand them. Maybe that is a better way to think about it.
JR: You also pick the point in their lives where they have a story to tell. We don’t talk about the entire life of our characters. We talk about specific points, and so what is compelling that would fascinate the reader even if that character is unlikeable in this particular point in their life.
MA: I think that would suggest some insight into the reader’s experience. You wouldn’t have to assume as a writer that if you don’t fully round out a character, readers will find something to connect to, but you have to meet them halfway, and be generous. I feel that in the books I don’t like, the author has contempt for their characters, does not like them, thinks they’re villains—a word I don’t like to use. Often I can feel when an author likes their characters, you feel like you are in it with the author there.
LL: It’s on us to have empathy for our characters. Readers can decide from there whether they like the character or not. We have to have full empathy for every single character—the worst of the worst.
MA: I think that’s why ultimately I do balk when people say, ‘Oh that particular character is unlikable’ because even if they do certain things or say certain things or think things that are despicable, if you give readers enough background so that they can have empathy then they become relatable, and then the action they took that seems despicable in chapter two, by chapter ten becomes like, ‘Oh I understand now why she did that and it makes me sympathetic towards her and root for her not getting punished for that’, and I think that is the key: letting people in to the right moments that explain the roots of that [behavior].
[this photo: author Hilary Davidson]