I am heading my greatest fear off at the pass, fear of being called a fraud. It’s hard to be called a fraud when you write fiction. Fiction’s made up so it’s inherently fake. But there’s authentic fiction and then there is cliché ridden fiction filled with stereo typical characters who speak in hollow dialogue. The plot goes nowhere or is irrelevant because the reader can’t become engaged with the characters.
There is that adage, “Write what you know.” If we all did that, there would be no science fiction or fantasy. We cannot know what does not exist. Fiction requires that we write about subjects and in the voices of characters whose lives we have not experienced.
My main characters are gay men seeking custody of their daughter from her Christian grandparents. I am a progressive, straight woman who has been married to the same man for thirty-three years and raised three children. I have had none of any of their experiences.
People have stopped me when I’m talking about the book and asked, “Is this real or fiction?” I always take that as a compliment. It could be real, and is for some people, but my story is made up. To ensure that the plot made sense, I interviewed lawyers and a judge, and read the transcript of the Supreme Court decision on grandparents’ rights with a lawyer who deciphered as I annotated. I observed in Family Court, which anyone can do and I suggest it. I read everything I could find about gay families, being gay, what the clergy has to say about it (some written by gay clergy), memoirs, gay fiction and everything published by Dan Savage. I had a gay friend in my office who after perusing my bookshelves said, “You have a gay man’s library in here, Catherine. Why is that?”
Researching to create plausible plot is easy; creating authentic dialogue is not. I had to develop an ear for word choice and phrasing to avoid sounding squirm worthily canned; and to show respect for my characters. Everything I had to do for Richard and Michael, I was compelled to do equally for Frank and Kathleen, the Christian grandparents. In either case I had to be vigilant to avoid lapsing into Modern Family dialogue or a bad version of Jerry Falwell’s homophobic patter. I wanted the reader to be torn between both parties as to who should get the kid, as a judge would have to be. Without that ambivalence the story would have no conflict and would fall flat. All of these diametrically opposed characters had to be authentic and sympathetic.
So I listened to everyone who spoke on or about Gay rights. I observed all kinds of people in conversation. I joined political action groups and read on line. I developed respect for both parties. I listened to feedback on my writing. In first drafts the gay couple was seen by my writing group to be overly virtuous and the grandparents were repelling. One reader, a lesbian, said, “It’s interesting that the Christian couple was so awful to their own daughter.” A straight person said, “What judge would give a kid to those grandparents?” I’d gone too far and no one liked the grandparents. I knew I had work to do. I went to conservative churches and read sermons on line. I watched grandparents in shopping malls and parks protect and dote on their descendants. I actually walked around my room trying to hypnotize myself into being a grandparent. I listened to grandparents where I taught and saw them bravely step up to parent their grandchildren in place of incarcerated children. Slowly a couple with ideology not my own emerged, and they cherished their granddaughter fiercely. I like them. I hope you will too.