On Writing Women, Violence, Bikers, and Romance

First things first:

HERE THERE BE SPOILERS!!

If you haven’t read Move the Sun or Behold the Stars, I’m about to spoil the shit out of them (especially Behold), so, you know…if you care about that, you should stop now.

Ready?

Sure?

Okay.

Now that I’ve self-published a couple of original books, each pretty different in tone from the other, I’ve been thinking a lot about questions of content and narrative.

I’ve only been writing fiction for a little more than a year. I started out writing fanfiction, something I’d been reading for a long time. Now I’m totally obsessed with writing and kinda never want to do anything else. Like, you know, work, interact with my family, sleep, eat. Stuff like that.

Over the course of a year, I wrote eight novel-length stories of Sons of Anarchy fanfiction and a few shorter pieces, all of them of the angsty romance variety. I’m a big fan of big feelings—all the feelings, high and low. My stories are often dark and violent. Very bad shit happens, often to people who don’t deserve it. My male leads—I’ll refrain from calling them heroes—sometimes perpetrate the bad shit that’s happening. They are, after all, outlaw bikers.

Oh, this feels like a good place to pause and note a correction/clarification of a statement I’ve seen pop up in a few places. Yes, I wrote SOA fanfic (I’ve taken it all down because reasons). However, the Signal Bend Series is NOT FANFICTION, AND IT NEVER WAS. It is entirely original. The only thing Signal Bend has in common with SOA is outlaw bikers.

Back on point:

There’s something twitchy to me about a writer explaining her work. Ultimately, although I certainly have a particular story I’m trying to tell, the story you read is at least as much a product of your own context as it is of mine. My master, Joss Whedon, says, “All worthy work is open to interpretation the author did not intend. Art isn’t your pet—it’s your kid. It grows up and talks back to you.” (If I had my researcher hat on, I’d be able to tell you exactly when he first said that, but I can’t find that hat right now. I probably left it on a shelf in the medieval torture section. But it’s one of his quotes that gets passed around a lot.)

Anyway, I could not agree more. There’s a hard, sharp limit to the significance of authorial intention. That said, I’m going to ‘splain some things. If you’re eyerolling right now, I totally get it and won’t take it amiss if you move on with your day. 🙂

(Also, now that I’ve read what comes below, I’m a little twitchy about the way I’m about to analyze my own story and talk about my characters as if these people are real and deep and shit. But they are to me. I’m very rarely driving the narrative bus. Signal Bend is basically an actual place with actual people who live in my head, and I just follow them around with a notebook. And then I look down at what I wrote and go, “Oh, wow. You guys. Look what you did.” So the line here blurs weirdly between my thoughts as a writer and my thoughts as a person who has this strange family she needs to explain.)

And getting back on track:

I’m not all that interested in heroic heroes, or villainous villains. To me, it’s too easy to write a character who always stands on one side of the line between hero and villain. I’m interested in finding dimensions of heroism, and honor, in characters who live violent lives and do violent things. I’m interested in their codes, what honor means to them, even—no, especially—if that honor does not look like the kind of honor most people would recognize. I’m interested in essentially good people driven, or choosing, to do awful things in the service of their families and communities.

Behold the Stars is a very violent book. A lot of the violence is perpetrated against women, and it is indeed brutal. As a feminist of long standing, when my characters lead me to a place where a woman is sexually brutalized, I always draw back and stop. I question and question. When my leads are involved in the brutality, on either side, I question and question a whole lot more.

REMEMBER ABOUT THE SPOILERS? LAST CHANCE.

This was certainly the case at about the midway point of Behold the Stars, when Isaac and the Horde behead a naked and bound young woman while her father watches. “Holy shit!” I thought, “What are we doing here, kiddos? Family meeting! Now!”

I hated to write it, but it was the right thing for the story, and every time I went back, I came away knowing it was right. And here’s why: Show’s fifteen-year-old daughter, Daisy, had been raped to death, by men working for Ellis, our bad guy. Marissa Halyard had been instrumental in putting the men who killed Daisy, and hurt her mother, in the position to do it. And, even knowing what her information had wrought, she stayed and continued getting information. She was complicit and unrepentant. She was young and female, yes, but that doesn’t earn her a pass here.

The Horde code is to pay back what’s owed. That’s their way. It might not be my way, it might not be your way, but the essence of the outlaw is that they live by another code, outside the social norm.

Here’s the other thing: Show is the voice of reason for Isaac, and therefore the Horde. I think that’s fairly well established by the time they end up in the Room with Marissa. Isaac leads with his heart a bit more than his head, and he needs someone to put on the brakes and make him think things further through. That’s Show’s job. The big picture.

But Show is neutralized in that capacity here. More than that—he’s tipped to the other side. He’s broken, angry and grieving. He wants vengeance. In fact, he makes Isaac promise. That changes the dynamic fundamentally, and it is Isaac’s very sense of honor and loyalty that demands that Marissa not survive.

I’m not saying it’s the right choice. I’m saying it was the only choice the Horde could make, within their context.

If not for Vic, though, her death would have been cleaner. Isaac nodded to Havoc, who would have killed her less brutally. Vic took that into his own hands, but even he was answering a call of honor, trying to be true to Show.

As for the torture and threatened rape, again there is a code of payback involved here. But Isaac, at least, is aware of the weight of this choice. And Marissa’s father has some role to play in how what happened happened. He does not save his daughter. He couldn’t have saved her life, but he doesn’t know that, and he might have saved her pain. He doesn’t feel he can. The Horde, too, feel they have no choice. But it’s the Horde, especially Isaac and Show, who refrain from taking the torture any further.

We might look at a scene in which a group of leather-clad men circle a woman bound naked to a table and say, duh. Obviously, the only honorable thing to do here is to let her go. But we’re not outlaws. (I don’t think. I’m not. If you are, though, no judgment. 🙂 )

As for sexual violence in general, it’s a feature in one way or another of a lot of my biker stories, fanfic and original. It’s awful, and I have my own triggers regarding it, but it’s consistent with the world about which I’m writing. The statistics bear it out. Sexual assault happens a lot in the actual world. Horrible, horrifying things, the likes of which my fictional things don’t even approach, happen to women and children every. single. day. In outlaw culture, the rate of occurrence is higher. Pick up one non-fiction book about MC culture—pretty much any one—and understand that in that violent world, women, as a group, are not accorded much respect. They are seen as their bodies, and violence is perpetrated on them in that regard.

So why the fuck would a sign-waving, second-wave feminist be writing biker romance? Because I’m interested in finding ways that women might assert their agency within a world that doesn’t think they have any.

And also, I find leather, Harleys, ink, long hair, and beards really fucking sexy. What? So I have a type.

Writing Lilli’s rape was the hardest thing for me to write, even though it happened off the page. But it, too, was necessary in the story. There’s a payback cycle happening there—from Daisy to Marissa to Lilli—that, even more than Lilli’s comment about it being Chapter 1 in the torture manual, is what’s going on. If the sexual violence in the story seems gratuitous because there’s so much of it, that was kind of my point—Lilli and the Horde are caught in a loop here, and their own actions are perpetuating it rather than breaking it. Consequences.

Lilli is a badass. She can take care of herself. But she’s not an Avenger. She’s not Black Widow (though she could be, with the right resources—with S.H.I.E.L.D. behind her instead of some rinky-dink MC). It was very important to me that Lilli retain her agency, even when she’s naked and locked in a cell. She is vulnerable physically but not mentally. No matter what they do, she never breaks. The only weapon she has is her wits. Despite her pain, despite what she’s experienced, she never stops looking for her edge. And she finds it. I would have loved for there to have been a believable, realistic way for her to get out of that building on her own, but there wasn’t. Too many men, too few Bic pens. She needs a little help, but she asserts her agency over the men who most tried to take it from her.

From my feminist perspective, it’s important to me that I not filter the lens on the MC culture. I’m writing romance, yes, but I don’t want to romanticize what these men do. They have a code of honor (and that’s consistent with real MCs), and a particular sense of contextual chivalry, but they are capable of real brutality. From within that context—to the characters themselves, in whose POV I’m writing—the honor is apparent, even if those of us outside that context would disagree. They are the heroes of their own story, but they are not heroes.

At the end of Behold the Stars, after Signal Bend has emerged intact from their war with Ellis, the media has made the Horde into heroes:

“The Horde were heroes. Fucking heroes. Folk heroes, even. Isaac was amazed. The gunfight down Main Street had drawn the attention of the media as well as state and federal law. News crews had descended on the town in the hours and days afterward. “The Shootout in Signal Bend”—that’s what people were calling it. Like it had starred John Wayne and Clint Eastwood.”

The irony here is that the Horde are not heroes. Despite their honorable intentions, they did terrible things. They got down into the muck and almost lost everything they were fighting for because of the way they were fighting for it. All the destruction in Behold follows from the meth, and Isaac, as he notes early on, is the one who made the devil’s bargain in the first place. Those good intentions led straight to where they usually do.

But as they are not heroes, neither are they villains. They’re just men.

Okay. Anyway. That’s my take on Behold the Stars, for what it’s worth. Which might not be anything at all.

I don’t have a lot of interest in writing the same story more than once, so you can expect, if you are reading the Signal Bend Series, and if you continue to do so, that each installment will be different in tone and content from the others. After Behold, Signal Bend is safe and on the rebound. The next one, Into the Storm, thus, is much quieter. Show’s war is happening on the inside.

If you read all the way down to here, thanks for reading. Sorry if this comes off as, I don’t know…Weird. Pretentious. Something equally oogie.

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10 thoughts on “On Writing Women, Violence, Bikers, and Romance

  1. Pingback: Removing Delusions: Positive Character Role Models | Writing Is Hard Work

  2. Wow.. Thx for the insight of Behold story. I was seriously disturb by Marissa scenes, it was an unusual thing to put that kind of act toward the hero side. It was good that Vic killed her, cause I was almost afraid they will carry on the threat to sexually abuse her.

    As for Daisy death and her mother awful tragedy, it was totally heart wrenching. For me ,her death was blessing because I couldn’t imagine how to survive of those kind of act. Speak of her mother, I also cried for her. She was hurt bad, witnessed by her daughters, and another daughter got hurt too. It was heinous. And somehow I was hoping you will be kinder of written her character.

    Last, kudos for Lily abducted scenes. I thought it was right. How she endured all of it and how she herself finished it by her own hand.

    • Thank you so much for your response. It was hard to write those scenes that were hard to read. I’m glad to know you cried for Holly, too. Even though she and Show had a rough go, and didn’t make a good marriage, I understand her.

      Thanks for reading! 🙂

  3. I, too, was glad that Vic took care of Marissa and that no sexual assault was done to her by the MC guys. It would have brought them down a peg, or two (to my way of overly sensible thinking). I love these books, so far. They take me far outside my comfort zone and are truly ‘calgon take me away’ reads. This series has been truly entertaining. NOT always easy to read, that’s for sure. The first two books are ones I’ll read again – they are keepers in a pile of thousands that only ten percent become ‘go-to-again’ stories.
    I loved the author’s thoughts on her writing and this series. I thank her for sharing her creative renderings with us and I’m proud that she’s tough enough to take the heat in what might be said about this series.
    That said: bring on book three! Thank you.

  4. Thanks for your lengthy explanation. However I don’t understand why no one was assigned to watch over Holly and the girls, after all her husband was the VP of the club and his family was under threat! Even kick-arse Lilli had a prospect assigned over her.

    Oh and I was saddened the violence extended to harmless animals!

    • There was someone assigned to watch over Holly and the girls–Erik. But he was killed. And yes, the bad guys were really bad, going for innocents of all species. Thank you for reading, and for your comment. 🙂 -Susan

  5. Thanks for your reply I must have overlooked that.

    I was surprised you also choose animals as innocent victims. Couldn’t these guys man up and fight each other, lol.

  6. A little late to the party here… but I wanted to comment..
    Susan you wrote: <>>

    I won’t speak for all of your readers, but for me I think of it like this::: The Horde AREN’T the bad guys or bad guys, not really… They might do a lot of bad things, but they are the heroes of your stories. The stories I am reading. I don’t want them to be perfect, but I don’t want them to be the villains (or be evil or wife beaters or rapists).

    You’ve written a lot of sexual violence (rape) committed against your female characters, have you thought of /plan to have a male victim, either a Horde or secondary character?

    Admittedly, I am 2 books behind in the series, (I’ll probably read Show the Fire before All the Sky, I’m thinking) so maybe it’s happened already…we know (the collective We) Rape is a crime based on power and control, and I can only imagine how it would affect a male character…

    So those are my thoughts and that’s my question to you.. What are thoughts on /will you ever have a male rape victim in your Signal Bend series?

    • Thank you Sandy, for your thoughts. I agree with you entirely that sexual violence is about power and not sex. In the world on which my fictional world is based, sexual violence against women is sadly not an unusual feature. With the series still in progress, I don’t feel that I can answer your question directly except to say that it takes place in a violent world, but women are not the only victims in Signal Bend. Thanks again for reading and taking the time to write such a thoughtful comment!

  7. RE-POSTING AS MY QUOTE FROM SUSAN WAS MISSING.
    A little late to the party here… but I wanted to comment..

    Susan you wrote: But as they are not heroes, neither are they villains. They’re just men

    I won’t speak for all of your readers, but for me I think of it like this::: The Horde AREN’T the bad guys or bad guys, not really… They might do a lot of bad things, but they are the heroes of your stories. The stories I am reading. I don’t want them to be perfect, but I don’t want them to be the villains (or be evil or wife beaters or rapists).

    You’ve written a lot of sexual violence (rape) committed against your female characters, have you thought of /plan to have a male victim, either a Horde or secondary character?

    Admittedly, I am 2 books behind in the series, (I’ll probably read Show the Fire before All the Sky, I’m thinking) so maybe it’s happened already…we know (the collective We) Rape is a crime based on power and control, and I can only imagine how it would affect a male character…

    So those are my thoughts and that’s my question to you.. What are thoughts on /will you ever have a male rape victim in your Signal Bend series?

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