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3 January 2012

Yup, interesting title, isn’t it? But I’ve come to the conclusion that it exists. Possibly not in real life – although I’m taking no bets on it – but certainly in the publishing of disaster novels. I’ve always enjoyed a good disaster novel of the SF type. Death of Grass, Day of the Triffids, A Wrinkle in the Skin, Tomorrow When the War Began, One Second After… I have a three-foot shelf of them, and last year I was re-reading the collection for the umpteenth time.
It was then that the full realization of something occurred to me. What I like to read, I tend to write. Thus my work has been published in everything from genre (SF, fantasy, alternate history) to a Western, non-fiction humor, and YA books with a farming background. But I haven’t sold a disaster novel. I’ve written three of them, so why not? All were set in New Zealand, which could be a reasonable explanation for USA publishers rejecting them, but not for New Zealand publishers turning them down.
And I’ve come to the conclusion that it’s sexism. Not against me, (frankly the average publisher doesn’t care if you’re black, white, bright purple with green spots, male, female, transgender, or tripedal Martian) but against the main characters. If you look at almost all published disaster novels, the main character, the one who drives the action or narration, you’ll find that it’s a man. Usually too, he’s a family man, with a wife, two or three children, and sometimes a pet. So, most of those books were written in the 1950s to 1970s, but even most of the more modern ones fall into that category. I’m not saying that the authors should have made their main character a woman, but I am saying that very predominantly those books with a main male character are the works that publishers buy and publish.
This would be helped in that it is mostly men who write this sort of book – and male writers mostly have male main characters in this sub-genre, so the outcome is self-fulfilling. As in, men – the majority of whom who are more comfortable with a male main character – write 90% of disaster books. If the other 10% of disaster books are written by women, some of whom will use a male main character too – while those who use a main female character have their work rejected – that means that only around 5% of disaster books offered to publishers have a main female character. And if they’re rejected they are so few that no one notices this. Here and there one may sneak through, and if it does, it’s more likely to be YA, rather than adult.
I might have wondered why, once I’d come to this conclusion, but I don’t. Because male publishers think that when the chips are down, when everything falls apart and people are dying, killing, and most of civilization is going down the tubes at warp speed, women won’t be leaders, they’ll be the ones needing to be rescued.
The problem was, that when I sat down to write, I wrote three SF/F disaster novels, in the first one of which the main characters were two women who saved each other and a number of other people. Found sanctuary, founded a new settlement and eventually a new civilization. (The other two books also had female main characters.)
So why do I think that there may be publisher prejudice? Two reasons. One is that if it looks like a duck, walks like a duck and quacks like a duck, it probably is a duck. Where are the disaster books written by women and featuring strong female characters? See? Duck!
And the other reason is a lot more personal. I wrote draft one of the first of my three disaster books about fifteen years ago. I offered it to several of our larger New Zealand publishers who without exception praised the writing – but felt that it wasn’t for them. Okay, genre didn’t sell well to NZ Publishers at that time (and still doesn’t sell that well even now) but what nails it for me is the memory of a phone call. I won’t mention the publisher, and I suspect it was a phone call because they didn’t want anything on record. But what he said was, that they liked the book, but felt it would be – ah – of more interest to them if the older character was male. If I did a re-write with that in mind they’d be happy to look at the work again. I said nicely that I’d think about it, thank you for the feedback, hung up – and recited all the Anglo-Saxon I could think of while kicking the desk.
The book had two main female characters because in my opinion women react and deal with massive and widespread disasters differently to men. They have different priorities. I wanted to tell the story of two young women whose world was dying around them and what they did to survive – which did not include turning to a big strong man to protect them. And that was what the publishers didn’t want to buy. Currently we are seeing more strong, dominant (and very well armed) women in the ‘Romantic Suspense’ genre published in America, Eve Krenin’s Driven, and Hidden for instance. It may be that the tide is turning, and in a few years we’ll be seeing disaster novels featuring female main characters that survive on their own. I’m just not so sure we’ll be seeing them here in New Zealand for a fair while as yet.

Hardcover – Grand Central publishing – October 2011. Reviewed by Lyn McConchie.

The next few reviews that I’ll be putting up have something extra. Recently I was talking to a friend who gaped at my personal library (about 7,500 books) and asked if I’d bought them all? How could I afford them? The answer to that is a) they come from a lot of places, and b) they’re the collection of a lifetime, some are gifts, and some I literally paid pennies for. So I decided that the next few reviews would also include the book’s history – and how I came to be reading it.
I first read a book by Marcia Muller in 1991. I was staying with an American friend in New Jersey who reviewed books, (had a library of similar size to mine) and introduced me to books by this author. I read a couple of his copies of her early work during my week’s stay and fell for her characters. The rest of the trip to several other US cities, I dived into used-books shops and raided, to return home on that and subsequent trips in 1995 and 2001, with all of her work to date before starting to acquire it new in mostly hardcover from then on. I never much liked her stand-alone books, but I love her series detective, Sharon McCone. The copy of this book, the latest in her series, was (as about the last half dozen have been) a Christmas present from my friend (and gifted artist, the fox at the head of the reviews section is her work) Sharman Horwood.
So, on with show… City Of Whispers is a furthering of McCone’s background. Several books ago she found that she’d been adopted, that by birth she was Native American, and she met both of her birth parents, discovering as she did so, that she had other half-siblings from her mother’s later marriage. Now one of them, Darcy Blackhawk, has sent her an email, “Help me. I’m in SF.” (That’s San Francisco, not Science Fiction.)
Mildly concerned since the brother in question is a notorious screw-up, Sharon asks around the family, checks a few spots…to find nothing, and it isn’t until she ties the discovery of a dead girl to Darcy’s possible involvement that Sharon begins seriously to hunt him down. Then she receives another message. “Real trouble now. Help me.” But every step of the way she’s a step behind him, and then there’s another murder.
This series has been one that has grown and developed with every book. We’ve watched Sharon go from wrong man to wrong man, to the right one, and for that relationship to become solid, caring, and with an interesting professional crossover. We’ve watched her devastated to discover that the family she’d always believed were hers by blood, weren’t, and find that it really doesn’t matter. Love can be just as strong as DNA. We’ve seen her family expand as she finds her birth parents, makes connections with them, comes to care for them, and discovers that there’s always more heart room when you love.
This has become a series that isn’t just about a private detective, it’s about the damage relationships and family can do, and the healing they can bring. It’s about people, and places, and activities and hobbies, and life in general – and sometimes in the dangerously particular. And all I can say is that I hope Marcia Muller lives a very long life and writes and has published at least one Sharon McCone book every year of it. I recommend this series, and I also recommend that you buy it all and read it from the start. That way you get the full impact and all the nuances – because it’s seriously good work.

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