I appreciate the editorial feedback I got on Southern Discomfort, but that’s not to say I agree with all of it. One which had me scratching my head, for instance, was a criticism that I lack subtlety — I keep hitting my readers over the head with my theme.
I swear to God, I don’t have a theme. I did not set out to write a “Western Union” book, one with a heavy message. So I was somewhat baffled what the hell they were talking about.
My first thought was that they meant the racial aspect of the book. The cast in my early drafts were almost entirely white. While I could have rationalized that easily enough, that felt like bad form. I began thinking about what it would be like in Pharisee in 1973, just a few years after the major civil rights bills had passed. I decided the McAlisters would have done their best not to draw attention from the rest of Georgia, so they wouldn’t challenge segregation law. They would, however, prevent enforcing it with violence; it’s possible for a black worker to tell a white boss “go to Hell” and not pay for it.
For the older generation who remember when lynching was widespread in the South, Pharisee was a glorious haven. A safe place. A place where they desegregated smooth and fast, without conflict or protests (the McAlisters didn’t want that kind of attention either). The Baby Boom kids aren’t so sure — are they really supposed to kiss the McAlisters’ hems just for mandating a kinder, gentler Jim Crow?
I don’t think that’s a theme, though, as much as characterization, both of the cast and the town as a whole. I mean yeah, I’m saying racism is bad but it doesn’t rise to the point of a theme.
Then I thought, maybe it’s the Vietnam War stuff? My protagonist, Maria Esposito, is an ex-Army nurse and Veitnam veteran turned anti-war activist turned radical anti-war bomber. She comes to see my villain Gwalchmai, as no different than the US government, rationalizing the deaths he inflicts as a dirty job someone has to do.
But again, I see Maria’s view of Gwalchmai as part of her characterization. “The Vietnam War was a bad idea” is, god help us, still controversial but it’s not something I’d make my theme in 2022. I do emphasize that Gwalchmai sees himself as the hero of the story and that I think he’s lying to himself but again, that’s character.
If it was really a theme-centered book, I’d probably end with the theme resolved, my point made. My ending (in terms of this old breakdown) is both Event — the crisis in Pharisee resolved, order restored — and Character. Maria gets her character arc resolved, so does Joan, who’s probably my chief supporting player. Some of the other characters, such as Olwen and Liz, get lower-key ones.
In any case, that’s one of the pieces of advice I’m not inclined to take. Which is not to say I don’t appreciate it being offered — I ‘m grateful when anyone in publishing takes the time to give me feedback, even if I don’t agree.
While it has nothing to do with this post, I do like this Richard Powers cover, so here it is.#SFWApro