Photo by Tomás Peñalver
Today we’re thrilled to have Martha Conway with us. Her latest novel, THIEVING FOREST (Noontime Books), is the story of seventeen-year-old Susanna Quiner, who watches as a band of Potawatomi Indians kidnaps her four older sisters from their cabin. With both her parents dead from Swamp Fever and all the other settlers out in their fields, Susanna makes the rash decision to pursue them herself. What follows is a young woman’s quest to find her sisters, and the parallel story of her sisters’ new lives. The book explores the transformation of all five sisters as they contend with starvation, slavery, betrayal, and love.
Martha’s first novel 12 Bliss Street was nominated for an Edgar Award, and her short fiction has appeared in The Iowa Review, The Mississippi Review, The Quarterly, Folio, Carolina Quarterly, and other publications. She graduated from Vassar College and received her master’s degree in Creative Writing from San Francisco State University. She has taught fiction at Stanford University’s Online Writer’s Studio and UC Berkeley Extension, and is a recipient of a California Arts Council fellowship in Creative Writing. Born in Cleveland, Ohio, she now lives with her family in San Francisco.
Martha tweets ten-minute writing prompts every morning on twitter (#10minprompt). Follow Martha on her website, her blog, Facebook, and twitter.
Forget Heroes: Why Heroines Are Important
There’s a joke I once heard that seems applicable to heroines: If the three wise men had been three wise women, they would have asked for directions, gotten to the stable on time, and helped with the birth.
I love that joke not only because it’s funny, but because it reminds me that you can get to work and get yourself dirty without losing your glow of distinction. The traditional hero tends to stand apart from the people he meets along the way, touching down only briefly on his way toward a larger goal. Heroines, however, can retain and even add to their luster by interacting with others; didn’t Princess Diana famously take off her white glove to shake hands with an AIDS patient? That gesture made her more human, but it also singled her out.
In the same way, female protagonists can offer a new dimension to adventure and quest novels, which is a personal connection to the people and communities they encounter. Although Susanna Quiner, the heroine I created for my quest novel, was a bit grudging when starting off on her journey (reluctance is common among heroes), I wanted to show her living with and learning from the communities she encountered. It was important to me not only that she became immersed in different cultures, but that each one gave her something she didn’t know she needed. I wanted her to be a character that developed and changed along the way—that’s the modern kind of hero or heroine. Elizabeth Bennett becomes a character who can love Mr. Darcy after family developments force her to let go of some of her own pride.
What surprised me, however, were my own prejudicial feelings that rose up every once in a while, which basically could be summed up as follows: “But a woman just wouldn’t do that then.” They wouldn’t leave the cabin, they wouldn’t embark on a journey without a man, they wouldn’t go anywhere without a gun. For some reason, the gun issue in particular plagued me. However, I was lucky that the story was set in a time when guns needed to be hand packed with powder and then lit (I still don’t get that), and if anything got wet, forget it. Since my novel takes place among rivers and swamps, in the end a gun seemed less useful than, say, a portable cooking pot.
Continue Reading »