Monday, January 18, 2016

Why do I write gay characters?

A friend asked me this. She knows that my book starring a gay male couple (zero sex--they do hug, as I recall, but they're too busy staying alive to have sex) takes a hit: on sales, on reviews, on my averages at Amazon. I’ve told her I have received hate mail about it. And other mail that isn’t hateful but asks why I would do something so “bad” when my other books are so “good.”

The answer is really quite simple. Because I write about all kinds of people and like all kinds of people (not every person, mind you, but many diverse ones). I would no more go back and edit that book to make it about a heterosexual couple than I’d erase my lesbian great aunt or cousin or my gay friends out of my personal history.

If you want a more complex answer, when I started writing natural disaster thrillers, all set in the US, I thought it would be fun to celebrate one of the great things about America: its diverse population.  So I jotted down a list of disasters, the different states where I’d set them, and many sorts of people I wanted to pretend to be for the course of writing the novel and thought I could fake being believably. (For that is a great joy of writing, to imagine being in someone else’s shoes for a few months.)

It isn't just pride about my nation's diversity that makes me write about people who reflect the reality of life here. I sometimes think about homophobia. I knew there were pockets of anti-gay sentiment out there, bizarre as I find that, and I wanted to explore how that might be exaggerated in the face of a natural disaster in one of my books. I didn't know which novel at first, but it was on my list of interesting events to put into a novel.

Most writers who feel as I feel put a gay character into the background of a novel. Some don’t even mention in the text he’s gay but feel pride that they know he is in their heart of hearts. And good for them. I now suspect they’re smarter businesspeople than I.

As I began outlining Quake, I had just binged-listened to the movie-review podcast Linoleum Knife, and hearing Alonso and his husband Dave bickering made me laugh--and occasionally cringe--and when I sat down to type “Chapter 1” of that novel's outline, I started with a bickering married male couple. (In no other ways are those characters the two film reviewers, though, whom I've never met and likely never will. Not even the topic of the bickering is the same.)  And beyond that, I just wrote the book. I didn't realize that it would be a problem for people smart enough to read novels, particularly science-based thrillers. (Seems naive of me, in retrospect.)

Don't want to read it? That's fine. I read what I like, and you read what you like. And hooray for the differences between us and our tastes. But will I change the novel or avoid writing another gay character in the future because I'd make more money or have better overall ratings at Amazon or never have to open another hateful ranting email if I did avoid it? No. No. A thousand times no.

Because there are some costs that are far greater to me than these.
“Our lives begin to end the day we become silent about things that matter.” -- Dr. Martin Luther King
 Ending homophobia matters.