Jeffrey Lent takes a hammer to the popular advice for young writers, “Write what you know,” and shatters it. In his new book, “Before We Sleep,” 17-year-old Katey Snow goes on a journey of self-discovery. The story follows Katey, her mother Ruth, and her father Oliver in a tiny Vermont town in the 1960s as they grapple with the aftereffects of World War II.
Lent, who, to maintain transparency, is my uncle, has written numerous historical fiction books including “In the Fall” and “A Slant of Light.” He will be on a panel at “Islanders Write” on August 14, talking about how to write believable characters from a different gender. I sat down with him recently to talk about gender in literature, and why it’s important to go beyond what you know.
Why do you feel the need to write outside of your own gender?
As humanity, we look to artists and writers to help explore issues that we are conflicted about or don’t fully understand. Artists, therefore, need to be able to cross all of those lines. I feel like we’ve got this really weird, strong divide going on in America right now that’s part of the problem rather than the solution. We’re walled off into little groups where we can’t cross this line or that line. As artists, we have to be able to make mistakes. It’s part of the conversation, it’s part of the dialogue. If we can’t get a dialogue going, then we’re just going to be circling around in our own tight little spaces and making the same mistakes.
What do you think about the debate going on about political correctness constricting art?
It truly mystifies me. We’ve hit that point where all that does is enforce the problem, and it does nothing to build bridges of understanding. We’ve been failing spectacularly ever since people broke off into tribes. It’s hardwired into our DNA to create an “us” and “them,” an “other” that we can compare ourselves favorably to. There’s no real factor there except for the need to define yourself in comparison to somebody else.
Do you feel there is a difference between genders, or is that superficial?
I think there are strong differences, and less differences than we sometimes think. I think women tend to be able to access their emotions more readily than men do. I think that leads to a lot of problems for men, trying to hold stuff in and hide it.
What we’re doing right now is talking about the theory behind the practice, and the theory is much trickier ground than the actual work of crafting characters. In the second half of the 20th century, there was a subgenre of literary fiction where white men were writing about white men in colleges. That’s because a lot of white men were teaching in colleges and that’s what they knew about. It was horrible. That’s why almost nothing remains out of that stuff that people still read today. Part of the job of the artist is to push themselves into unfamiliar territory, learn about it, and then try to express it.
How do you develop your characters?
There’s a bit of a mystery in that. I’m not trying to make it sound weird, but I had four unpublished novels before “In the Fall,” my breakthrough book. Something happened in the writing of that book. I’d been practicing — literally, and I opened myself up to the story instead of having it all mapped out in my head before I started. One of the results of that is that I literally see the scenes in my head and my characters are talking to me and I’m taking down what they’re saying. Sometimes I’d be typing as fast as I could to get it down, and other times I’d be wandering around the house and trying to let my brain free up and let the scene come back in. The other part is that along with the dialogue, the scripted passages are even more mysterious. I see it very visually in my head, what I’m trying to describe, how I arrive at the specific language that I do to make those descriptions, I don’t really know. I write stuff down, and it kind of comes out and works, but then I tinker with it.
There’s a certain amount of fun and a certain amount of anguish in figuring out these people. On a daily basis, you have to struggle against the perception in the back of your mind that you’re probably not getting it right, and just trusting that you’ll be able to push it into shape. That’s part of the process.
Do you feel like some characters come easier than others?
I have a sense of them when they first appear on the page; they grow as the story grows and I get to know them better and keep open to letting them swerve around a bit, because that’s what human beings do in life.
Did watching your daughters grow, and their changing interactions with the world, help you, especially with Katey as a character?
Yeah, I think I can say that, but it’s the whole community of young people whom I’ve known since they were young children who have been coming of age in the past five years. Observation is a huge part of writing fiction, which I think takes me back to that notion of white guys writing about colleges because that’s where they are. I like being here because the people I talk to on an ongoing basis are farmers, small merchants, builders, people who work in other art forms. Rural life life puts you in contact with that broader array of people. In larger urban areas, you tend to hang out with the people who pretty much make up your own tribe.
Jeffrey Lent will discuss writing in a gender other than your own on a panel at “Islanders Write” on Monday, August 14, and will be signing copies of “Before We Sleep” at the event. For more information, visit mvartsandideas.com/islanders-write.