Recently, I had a disturbing conversation with a relative that made me stop and think about what I’m doing as a novelist.
He told me that members of our extended family were disappointed – that may be too mild a word – with me for writing “Water Music,” a homoerotic novel, which he says reflects badly on him. He refuses to read the book.
He suggested that those who have read and liked it were misguided in their kindness toward me and, far worse, that the late aunt who raised me – and whom I knew better than all the world – would’ve disapproved.
I was demoralized, furious and amused in that order – amused because I realized how much of him I had poured into all the disapproving daddies that my gay heroes face in “Water Music.” So I’ve had my revenge before he ever uttered a word.
Nor did his critique sway me to his viewpoint despite my initial deflation and anger. I continue to believe with the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. that injustice somewhere is injustice everywhere. I cannot oppose gay marriage – as my relative does – because I believe such opposition is a form of discrimination. And as Pope Francis recently remarked about gayness, “Who I am to judge?” – words this relative would do well to consider.
But he did get me thinking about another big issue: What does a writer owe her family, friends and public?
I think first and last a writer owes them the truth. If she’s a journalist, then she must represent the many truths she’s writing about – easier said than done. As legendary Washington Post editor Ben Bradlee said, “We don’t write what’s true. We write what people say is true.” True enough.
The fiction writer has a different challenge. She must convey the psychological truth of her story, even if, as I anticipated, it’s a message that not everyone wants to hear.
The novelist Laurell K. Hamilton knows this too well. Her “Anita Blake: Vampire Hunter” series has veered off into the realm of sexual violence, with overtones of S&M, homoeroticism, shapeshifting – you name it. It’s the kind of writing, mixing the natural and the supernatural, that I cannot do and have no wish to. But it’s extremely well-crafted.
Other fans, however, have been put off by the direction the books have taken. Yet she has remained true to herself, content to let the chips fall where they may. Perhaps she realized a long time ago that every following lost is a following gained.
That and a writer writes what springs to mind, what she sees in her head.
A writer writes what she’s compelled to.
A writer writes what she herself wants to read.
And in so doing, a writer explains the world to herself even as she explains herself to the world.
That is, if she has the courage to try.