Late last year, I was asked to participate in a reading in Baltimore, my hometown and the place where most of my 20-plus novels have been set. Although my next book was still months away from publication, I read from the first chapter, curious to see how an audience would respond to a twist at the end. People gasped gratifyingly when it turned out that the speaker was actually a ghost.
Afterward, several audience members told me I was “brave” to write the passage they had heard. The local newspaper asked for an interview. The interest came not from the introduction of a supernatural element (unusual in my rooted-to-the-ground crime fiction) but from the fact that the ghost was African American. I was literally asked if this was allowed, if I had been given “permission.”
The issue of writing across racial boundaries had been very much on my mind, but I didn’t know how to answer those questions, questions not unlike ones I had asked of several African American writers earlier that year.
The world of adult fiction — so far — has not been roiled by the internecine battles of young-adult fiction, where “sensitivity readers” are common and writers have pulled books from publication after early readers complained about appropriation. But the subject is in the air, and it should be. Publishing is disproportionately white; according to a 2015 survey by publisher Lee & Low, more than 80 percent of editorial employees across the industry identified themselves as “white/Caucasian.” American fiction, like American film, has a “magical Negro” problem, in which black characters often exist primarily to encourage the white protagonist to realize his or her potential, as in “The Help,” which Roxane Gay memorably described as “insulting to everyone.” Or, as I once told a lady on a plane, she liked the novel because it flattered her — of course she would be one of the “good” white people — and didn’t challenge her assumption that she belonged at the center of the story.
When I teach creative writing, I tell my students that the biggest mistake they can make is to try to write around problems, hoping no one else will see them. I advocate running right at the problem, making it the story. I have never shied away from writing characters of color, but that choice is clearly different and more fraught now, even in the 14 months since my last novel appeared. So with my most recent book, to be published next month, I took my own advice, inventing a middle-aged white woman who tries to give her life meaning and purpose by investigating the death of a young black woman. It was a particularly meta choice. This is what I do, after all. I write about death, and the stories are often inspired by real-life crimes, which is another kind of appropriation.
Take, for example, the disappearance and presumed murders of the Lyon sisters, a case that loomed large in my childhood. Katherine and Sheila Lyon vanished from the Wheaton Plaza mall in suburban Maryland in 1975. Thirty years later, when I began the book “What the Dead Know” (which was published in 2007), it was still considered a stone-cold mystery, although a suspect finally emerged in 2013. My story, however, was set in Baltimore, the two sisters were several years older, and the book began with a woman claiming to be the younger of the sisters who had gone missing decades before — a plot contrivance that owed more to the legend of Anastasia Romanov than it did to the Lyon sisters.
The fact is, I was never writing about the Lyon sisters. What I wanted to examine was grief, memory, the fragility of identity and the utter unfairness of life. Still, some readers were appalled. I was asked, again and again, if I had received “permission” from the family. I tended to reply, “Once I concede that there are any subjects I’m not ‘allowed’ to write about, all subjects except my own life will be closed to me.” I still believe I needn’t seek permission to write anything, about anyone.
Except, with my forthcoming book, “Lady in the Lake,” I did. And I regret it. Because when I tried to engage prominent African American authors on the topic of white writers creating nonwhite characters, I made myself the center of the discussion. Was it okay for me to write from the point of view of African American characters? What were the pitfalls? What mistakes should be avoided?
Their answers were polite, even constructive. A friend I queried at a festival said with a cheerful finality, “I’m sure you’ll be okay.” (I’m just relieved we remained okay and was happy when circumstances later allowed me to be a sounding board for her.) Another sighed but engaged with me. A novelist I’ve known for 25 years said something so hilariously odd that I had no choice but to infer that he wanted no part of this conversation. Finally — I’m slow — I realized how tactless my queries were. After years of mocking stories that assuaged white guilt, I became as ridiculous as the protagonists in the books I had derided. Here I was, an earnest white lady, asking outstanding writers — writers working at a much higher level than I’ll probably ever achieve — to comfort me, to tell me I was one of the good guys.
I owe them all apologies, but that is something I’m doing privately. I’m not going to drag them into my mess twice by naming them here. But for the rest of my life, I will squirm at the memory of those conversations, the unearned kindness of the people I buttonholed, essentially demanding their permission and benediction.
The facts are these: I am a lifelong Baltimorean, and my hometown is one of my primary subjects. It is a majority-black city. It is my obligation to try to write about all of its citizens. (I have no financial incentive to do this; my most commercially successful books are the ones that have the least to say about race.) Sure, white novelists could “stay in their lane,” as I saw one social media scold frame the issue, but given the overwhelmingly white state of publishing, won’t that mean more overwhelmingly white stories? Surely that’s not the solution. The long-term fix, instead, is a more diverse publishing industry across the board, which should give rise to more diverse writers and more diverse books.
The book I’m publishing this summer, “Lady in the Lake,” has not only an African American ghost commenting from the sidelines, but 20 other voices as well. Not a single one resembles mine. The characters are white and black, young and old, male and female, straight and gay. The story is inspired by two real-life deaths — a black woman, a white girl — that will be familiar to longtime Baltimoreans, unknown to the world at large. I even dared to imagine what went through Orioles center fielder Paul Blair’s mind during a historically accurate at-bat in July 1966. In creating this wide-ranging cast, I took a lesson from one of my heroes, Donald Westlake, who once said, “I became a novelist so I could make things up.” So I did that — but I also asked that my novel be assigned to a sensitivity reader.
As for the middle-aged white woman at the novel’s center, barreling through the world oblivious to the harm she causes: She doesn’t resemble me in the particulars of her biography, but her methods are uncomfortably close to mine. Yes, to be a novelist means making things up — and, sometimes, getting things wrong. That’s the job. I still believe that novelists never have to ask permission, but they have to be open to being told that they have failed and, in the worst-case scenario, caused real pain.
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