Please welcome today’s guest Susan Bickford–talking about a very important word.
The D Word
Diversity is one of the Holy Grails in genre fiction. It can also be a contentious topic. Not only is the ultimate goal elusive and very personal, the landscape is constantly changing.
This winter, I basked in joy when A Short Time to Die was a Lefty (Left Coast Crime) nominee for Best Debut Novel. Quite a thrill.
All of the nominated books were terrific, so I set my expectations accordingly. Although I had a twinge of regret when I didn’t win, I was thrilled to see that African American author Kellye Garrett won with Hollywood Homicide. The voters at the conference—overwhelmingly white and somewhat older—enthusiastically embraced a story about a character by a writer who was not either of those. Kellye went on to win an Agatha as well.
Last year, Joe Ide, a Japanese American writer, won a number of debut novel awards with IQ (which I loved), a book with an all African American cast of characters.
At the same time, there have been well-publicized controversies over how racial, ethnic, and gender issues have been portrayed in fiction. Apparently sensitivity readers are now a fixture in some aspects of the publishing world.
Meanwhile, I had a potential thorny problem: how to tackle diversity in my second book, Dread of Winter. I was in the midst of edits for my publisher and needed to address this head on.
Of course writers hate to be told they can’t create a voice in their work for characters not like them. Putting ourselves into the heads of people not like us is exactly what we do. I am never likely to commit a murder. How am I going to create a believable murder mystery or thriller without delving into the psyches of other people? Add to that, the world around us is increasingly diverse. Am I supposed to keep my book world filled with people just like me? Yuck.
On the other hand, it’s hard to deny that people of color, different ethnicities, and cultural allegiances don’t sometimes have a point. Looking back, we can find a number of cringe-worthy pieces in literature that we’d rather not acknowledge.
In my first book, A Short Time to Die, the world of Marly Shaw in Central New York was comprised almost exclusively of white people, much as the way that I remembered it from long ago. However, when the action shifted to California’s Santa Clara County, home to Silicon Valley, the challenge was more interesting. I definitely wanted to reflect the world around me in California.
I chose a second narrator, Vanessa Alba, a first generation Colombian American. Vanessa is a detective with the Santa Clara County Sheriff’s Department. She is assigned the task of figuring out why human bones found in the Santa Cruz Mountains can be traced back to two individuals from Central New York. She teams up with Jack (Jackson) Wong, a detective from Santa Cruz County, and heads off to Central New York in the middle of January, where the temperature is dropping to forty below at night—not exactly the tourist season.
Although I speak Spanish, I made a point of interviewing several Latinx acquaintances to gain a better insight into Vanessa’s world. One of my neighbors, a blonde, blue-eyed university professor with a common Hispanic / Spanish last name, told me she could not find temporary housing for her family during their remodel, unless she used her husband’s last name when calling landlords. The things I never thought to notice.
I was comfortable with taking on Vanessa in part because she was a secondary character. I didn’t try to insert myself into her head the way I did with Marly, whom I consider to be the primary protagonist of the book.
My second book, Dread of Winter, will be out in 2019. This is another standalone story. Or rather, the setting of Central New York is the main character that returns to the stage and twists my characters into submission.
As I began this work, I revisited my old haunts and realized that the area “from Albany to Buffalo” (to quote “The Erie Canal” song I sang every week for at least thirteen years) is a lot more varied and diverse than I remembered it, and growing more so every day.
For example, the tiny burg of Peterboro, part of my school system at Cazenovia Central School, was a stop on the Underground Railroad prior to the Civil War, and is home to the National Abolition Hall of Fame and Museum. There are African American families living in that area today that can trace their roots there. Suffragist Elizabeth Cady Stanton was a cousin of Gerrit Smith, an abolitionist and temperance leader living in Peterboro. Elizabeth met her future husband in Peterboro.
I also had a number classmates and friends who were members of the various nations comprising Iroquois Confederacy—the Haudenosaunee (People of the Long House). The guiding principles of the Iroquois Confederacy influenced the thinking of colonial leaders like Benjamin Franklin when it came to designing our own Constitution. Although reduced in size, the Iroquois had a significant impact on the creation of our country, my personal upbringing, and continue to enrich our lives today in New York State and beyond.
I couldn’t back away from these challenges. I was determined to bring these flavors and more into my second book. Stay tuned for Dread of Winter in 2019.
What are your feelings about diversity in books as readers and / or as writers?
Susan Alice Bickford was born in Boston, Massachusetts, and grew up in Central New York.
After she discovered computer graphics and animation her passion for technology pulled her to Silicon Valley, where she became an executive at a leading technology company.
She now works as an independent consultant, and continues to be fascinated by all things high tech. She splits her time between Silicon Valley and Vermont.