A “Decisions & Revisions” special edition.
It’s always seemed odd to me that, in crime fiction, a moment of intimacy is a moment too far. Especially since quite a few of the books in our genre happily dwell on the minute details of depraved murders.
But I’ve noticed something different lately. More and more writers are willing to cross into ground long considered forbidden in service of their characters. And when I refer to intimacy, it’s not just sex. These writers — almost always women — are also willing to risk developing characters and stories that break the boundaries of traditional crime fiction, having readers assign their protagonists the controversial “unlikable female character” label, and writing outside a genre landscape often as conservatively narrow as network television.
The network-TV comparison is apt, actually, because these books remind me of the revolutionary onset of HBO. Sure, there’s nudity, but there’s so much more. There’s risk with character and story and an intoxicating sense of righteous trespass.
I asked three authors — all of whom have flourished while producing work that crosses crime fiction’s traditional boundaries — about their work and the choices they made writing it.
Jennifer Hillier is the USA Today bestselling author of seven psychological thrillers, including the national bestseller Little Secrets, which was a finalist for the Los Angeles Times Book Prize and the Anthony Award, and Jar of Hearts, which won the ITW Thriller Award and was shortlisted for the Anthony and Macavity awards. Her latest thriller is the bestselling, critically praised Things We Do in the Dark.
May Cobb is the author of three novels, the latest of which is My Summer Darlings, which was recommended by “The Today Show,” CrimeReads, Booklist, Shelf Awareness, and many more, and follows the critical and public enthusiasm her prior novel (The Hunting Wives) received. Her essays and interviews have appeared in the Washington Post, the Rumpus, Edible Austin, and Austin Monthly.
Katie Gutierrez is the author of the bestselling debut novel More Than You’ll Ever Know, which was a “Good Morning America” Book Club pick and has received praise from the New York Times, the Los Angeles Times, the Washington Post, Parade, the Millions, and others. She is also a National Magazine Award finalist whose writing has appeared in TIME, Harper’s Bazaar, the Washington Post, Longreads, and a variety of other publications.
All of you are rather fearless when it comes to writing female characters who make difficult choices and run the risk of bearing the “unlikable female” label. Have you experienced that pushback, and is it of any concern to you?
KATIE GUTIERREZ: I’ve read a few Goodreads reviews (I know — stay away!) that referred to one or both of my female protagonists as unlikable, but to me this is lazy criticism. Fiction offers so many opportunities for engagement, and if a negative review focuses simply on the likability (or not) of exclusively female characters, without explaining what “likability” even means to that particular reader, it says more about their resistance to discomfort than it does about the novel itself.
Also, insisting on female likability (because this is not a critique foisted on male characters, or men in general) suggests likability off the page should be women’s primary objective, which infuriates me to the core! Because ultimately, what does it mean for a woman to be universally likable? First, I’d say it’s an impossible standard: People will always find reasons to dislike women.
But if it were possible, I think that to be universally liked, a woman would need to always act morally (but according to whose idea of morality?), be pleasant, and serve others, ideally while smiling and being conventionally attractive (but probably not too attractive, lest she seem threatening or arrogant). From birth, boys are expected to be messy — “snips and snails and puppy dog tails” — while girls are “sugar and spice and everything nice.”
It’s a double standard rooted in misogyny, in ensuring women’s primary role is to make others, typically men, comfortable. Likability is inherently limiting, and literature should expand us.
So, no, I’m not concerned with whether my characters are considered likable. I’m concerned with making them human.
MAY COBB: Do you have a sec to pull up a chair and listen to my tale? Kidding aside, I was not prepared for that pushback when my second novel, The Hunting Wives, was released. I know that books aren’t meant to be for everyone, but boy, did I really find that out quickly.
Some reader reviewers really took issue with my female characters being “unlikable.” I knew I’d written an edgy read but didn’t think it would be so polarizing. Which, honestly, only makes me want to double down on writing so-called “unlikable” female characters and push the envelope even further.
I find it so interesting and telling that likability is almost never discussed when talking about male characters.
JENNIFER HILLIER: When I was workshopping my first book, my protagonist was labeled an “unlikable female” by one of the male participants, who said he was certain nobody would want to read a book about a sex-addicted psychology professor who’s having an affair with her student. I took that feedback to heart and changed the character into someone I thought readers would like.
It got rejected by every agent who read the first three chapters.
I decided then that an interesting female character was more important than a likable female character, and I changed the book back to its original version. Creep became my debut novel.
There are probably a hundred things I worry about when it comes to my writing, but I can say that writing an unlikable female character is no longer one of them.
How do you know how far to take a character’s questionable choices? Do you ever find that a character’s relatability to readers has gone too far? And does someone (beta reader, editor, agent) keep you in check?
MC: When drafting, I get very method with my characters. I honestly believe the Stephen King adage that stories already exist, it’s just our job to unearth them as carefully as possible, so I try and get out of the way and really let the characters talk to me and guide the story.
For better or for worse, I try and not think about their questionable choices. If it serves the story, those terrible choices stay in the draft.
But yes, I work with an excellent developmental editor who, in the early stages, helps to question whether a character is relatable, but never likable.
And then, of course, once the draft goes to the publisher, my fabulous editor there helps further that conversation to hopefully make the book as strong as it can be without diluting the edgier stuff.
JH: I often don’t know how far I’ve taken it until I’m editing, because my first drafts are very unfiltered. I always get excellent, honest feedback from my agent and editor, but ultimately, I trust my gut.
There’s a scene in my last book, Little Secrets, where the grieving mother makes a very dark choice. The copyeditor commented that it didn’t ring true to him for a woman to do what this character did. I disagreed with his feedback and kept the scene as is.
I still get comments from readers today that the character’s choice in that book felt very real to them, that they might well do the same thing under the same circumstances.
KG: I’ve been so fortunate to work with people whose visions align with mine, so I didn’t experience any pushback on either [the characters] Lore or Cassie’s likability. In fact, at one point, my editor commented about Cassie in the margins: “She’s such a bitch! I love it.”
But relatability is slightly different, more grounded in common moments of humanity. A reader might not be able to relate to Lore’s decision to secretly marry Andres while she’s already married to Fabian — with children, no less — but they might be able to relate to the fact that she’s the first to wake up to make breakfast and the last to shower with the water now cold.
They might be able to relate to her bored wait in the school pickup line or her concern for her aging parents during a crushing recession [or] her pride in her career or her guilty yearning for a different kind of life.
While I wasn’t consciously striving for relatability in either Lore or Cassie, I felt that if they were complex and contradictory in the ways all of us are complex and contradictory, there might be enough for a reader to see pieces of themselves in these women despite their more questionable choices.
I don’t expect, or even necessarily want, readers to relate to my characters at every moment. I don’t think that’s the point of fiction.
But I also think fiction is most powerful when we do see parts of ourselves reflected back, perhaps in ways we’re not used to seeing. And even if we can’t relate to a certain character, it’s possible to understand them, and that’s powerful, too. To me, all this goes back to imagining the characters as richly and writing them as honestly as possible.
And to that end, my agent, Hillary Jacobson, and editors, Jessica Williams and Joel Richardson, absolutely pushed me, particularly with Cassie. They flagged moments, scenes, or whole chapters where she felt flatter than Lore, underdeveloped, and asked the right questions to inspire deeper work.
It’s not terribly common to write about sex in crime fiction — typically, it’s alluded to, and the camera pans away before anything goes further than kissing. Yet sex seems to be a subject women authors are more comfortable (and frankly better at) writing. Do you agree with that assessment?
JH: If sex belongs in the book — to raise the stakes, to move a plot forward, to show character development, to add complexity to a significant relationship, or even just to create intimacy that deepens the emotional tone of the story — then I’m all for it. I’ve written my share of sex scenes, but by no means am I an expert.
I do agree that women are generally better at writing sex into our fiction. Why? My best guess is that it seems to be easier for women to think about and describe sex from an emotional place. I feel the best sex scenes focus less on the mechanics and more on the feelings.
MC: I love this question and agree with this assessment.
I wondered, when I started out reading crime fiction, why the camera does indeed pan away for the most part, and it inspired me to keep the camera rolling during steamy scenes. For me, sex — like money and death — is a powerful force that should be explored to its fullest. Plus, it’s fun!
As to women being more comfortable — and better at — writing sex scenes, I feel like that’s a question that requires a strong cocktail and many hours to unpack.
KG: I think crime fiction is evolving so much that the boxes it used to fit into don’t apply anymore — which is to say, I feel like I read a lot of sex in crime fiction these days!
But to your point, it is mostly by women authors who understand that sex is a major driver of human behavior, for better and worse, and that much more goes into a good sex scene than stage directions of who puts which body part where. Women also tend to avoid the florid, off-putting anatomical descriptions that made the #menwritewomen hashtag go viral.
Instead, often the power and even sexiness of a good sex scene is when a writer uses it as another lens through which to explore desire, fear, love, violence, or power — and women do this exceptionally well.
Who are some of the women writers who inspired you? Were they in crime fiction or a different genre?
KG: Oh, so many! In addition to May and Jennifer, so many women writers inspired me while I worked on More Than You’ll Ever Know: Megan Abbott, Celeste Ng, Tayari Jones, Tana French, Jesmyn Ward, Steph Cha, Janet Malcolm, Michelle McNamara, Angie Cruz, Melissa Rivero, Cristina Henriquez, and my friends Julia Fine, Amy Jo Burns, and Sara Sligar. The book was already in copyedits when I read Rachel Yoder’s Nightbitch and Jessamine Chan’s The School for Good Mothers, but they blew me away and made me wish I’d gone even deeper into the motherhood themes (but hey, there’s always the next book)! And so many others I’m going to remember as soon as this interview is over, no doubt.
MC: I’m so inspired by the work of Amanda Eyre Ward, who is a teacher and a friend. Her novels are multi-layered, and I’m always blown away by her razor-sharp voice. She straddles genres, but her latest, The Lifeguards, fits squarely in crime fiction and is an absolute stunner of a suspense novel. While starting out writing crime fiction, I was also obsessed with Tana French — like “read her novels over and over again” obsessed.
JH: I will forever shout-out Heartsick, Chelsea Cain’s first book in her Archie/Gretchen series, as the book that made me want to write thrillers back in 2008. She was the first woman thriller writer I’d ever read, and I found her boldness in writing a female serial killer so inspiring. I’m also a huge fan of Chevy Stevens because I always know from the first page that I’m in a Chevy Stevens novel. Her voice is distinctive, and she has great storytelling instincts, which is something I would love for readers to feel about me.
May, your novels really dive deep into a very specific group — suburban, middle-to-upper-class housewives — and I’m so taken aback by how deeply and fearlessly you plumb their emotions. How do you tap into that insight, and do you ever worry about writing what you uncover/discover?
MC: Thank you so much! Again, I truly just try and get out of the way and let the characters lead me.
For me, voice is the most important thing, and when I can hear their voices in my head, I let them run wild. In my latest, My Summer Darlings, there is a character, Cynthia, who is sort of a repressed housewife, and the way I was able to access her voice was by having her write her scenes in a secret journal. That was fun to get to know her that way.
I’m not usually worried about what I’ll uncover — okay, so sometimes I worry that the reader will think I’m having the same issues in my life — I just hope that it’s juicy enough to warrant writing a whole book about.
More Than You’ll Ever Know is such an ambitious novel, particularly for a debut, both in its scope and the depth of the characters. Katie, what was the most challenging element of writing, in particular, Lore and Cassie?
KG: Any dual-POV novel runs the risk of a reader finding one perspective more compelling than the other. Lore came with a major, built-in hook of the double marriage, which created a challenge with Cassie: how to make her as compelling as Lore and as crucial to the overall shape of the novel when her history, secrets, and biases would be much more subtle. And, also, how to develop that emotional resonance when Cassie’s chapters carried the procedural-investigation elements.
I went through dozens of revisions for Cassie. Early on, I rewrote all her sections from third person to first because third felt too distant for her; I couldn’t capture the intimacy I wanted or the tone of youthful, ambitious self-righteousness she often possesses. I rewrote her pivotal scenes with her fiancé and her dad and brother countless times.
I had to drastically change the pacing, bringing her meeting with Lore forward at least a hundred pages sooner than in the original draft. I had to figure out how long to withhold some of her family secrets — long enough to reflect her own reluctance to deal with them, but not so long it would feel manipulative to the reader and ultimately like a letdown. And then I had to keep track of her entire investigation, often reordering when she made certain discoveries, chasing down abandoned red herrings or forgotten clues, making sure it all came together in a believable way.
This is why I’m so grateful to have worked with my agent and editors. If readers are as invested in Cassie as they are in Lore, it’s because of their brilliant and very thorough (!) editorial feedback throughout the process.
Jennifer, Things We Do in the Dark is your seventh novel, and you’re generally considered one of crime fiction’s most provocative and inventive writers. Has your freedom as a writer grown or lessened in that time, particularly in regard to the characters you’ve created?
JH: Am I? Who said that? Who do I Venmo? Just kidding, I don’t know how to Venmo.
Seriously, though, that’s a massive compliment. I definitely don’t consciously try to be provocative or inventive. I still abide by the advice I always heard when I was just starting out: Write the book you want to read. I know I’ve come a long way since my first novel, but that doesn’t mean I feel more fearless or less self-conscious.
I’m still afraid, but of different things now than when I started out.
I’m still self-conscious, but not about the same things I used to be.
At the end of the day, my favorite stories are still women’s stories — how we grow, how we change, what we want, why we want it, who we love, what we’re capable of. As I evolve as a person — and also as a mom, a wife, a friend, a sister, and a daughter — so, too, will my novels. I don’t think it’s possible to do one without the other.
E.A. Aymar’s next thriller, No Home for Killers, will be published by Thomas and Mercer in early 2023. You can subscribe to his newsletter, Crime (Fiction) Works, HERE. There are monthly prizes and stuff.