Writing Like a Man
I love a good story. When I was growing up in East Vancouver I’d hang around the kitchen listening to my aunt, uncles and parents tell lively tales about their blue collar jobs and the war years. So it’s not surprising that those subjects would appear in my debut novel, Underground. What I hadn’t realized when I began the project, though, was how tough it would be to write exclusively from a male point of view, and a soldier’s at that. I was in foreign territory.
It helped that I had been a tomboy who loved war movies and westerns, so that was the first place I turned for help. Next, I interviewed veterans as well as hunters, to ensure I got the manly stuff right. I also enlisted a group of readers I called The Men. They checked my copy for such details as operating a rifle, gutting a moose, and yes, even passing water. One of them advised, “Men don’t urinate, they piss, and they don’t hitch their trousers and spit every two paragraphs, either.”
Whenever I found myself wondering how a man would react in a certain situation I asked myself how I would react in that same situation. Physical apparatus and preferred vocabulary aside, we are all human beings who grieve, love, hate, and can be brought to tears at the sight of a child suffering. We are not that different.
I think I got it right. I received a fan letter, hand-written, two pages long, and it was from a man named William, an inmate in a prison facility in Ontario. He’s originally a BC boy, raised in the interior, who found much in common with my protagonist Al, whose experiences in work and war were not so different from those of William’s father, great uncle and grandfather. They weren’t so different from William’s either, a man for whom life’s circumstances have relegated him to a world without women. And it moved me to learn that my words had touched him so far from home.
Now I’m writing a novel told from the perspective of a woman. It felt awkward at first. I’d spent several years in a man’s boots, and grown somewhat comfortable in them. Initially, I over-compensated, and had my gal flouncing around in heels and Victorian dresses. All wrong. I was writing like a man trying to write like a woman, and failing. If my gal was to survive in the frontier setting I’d created, she’d have to be of tougher stuff. I had to rewrite. I got her a pair of work boots and a set of coveralls and gave her a fondness for cussing that would make Al blush. And then, for one occasion only, I put her in an evening gown, just to see what might happen. I’ll stop there. Any storyteller, male or female, would do the same.
June Hutton is the author of the debut novel Underground (Cormorant Books). Called “taut and lean, elegant and poetic” by the Globe and Mail, it was shortlisted for the Ontario Library Association’s Evergreen Award. Her previous writing has appeared in literary magazines and anthologies as well as on awards lists, winning the Pottersfield Portfolio compact fiction competition. June is a member of the SPiN writing group along with novelists Mary Novik and Jen Sookfong Lee. She leads writing workshops at Langara College, and is at work on a second novel about news, guns and opera.