Something Like… a Book Review

I started reading Jay Bell’s Something Like Summer on June 11 and I finished it that same day, which for me is quite remarkable. I had searched through the gay fiction category because I had questions in my mind as I was writing my next novel where a young teenage boy begins to question his sexuality. Certain things were happening in my character’s life and I wasn’t sure, given his age, if these things would seem shocking or within reason. So I wanted to find a book that portrayed the coming of age of a gay teen – written as literary fiction and not erotica –  about what experiences are normal for boys just coming to realize they are gay and at what age certain acts begin to take place.

Something Like Summer had many good reviews and seemed to fit everything I was looking for. So, I bought it. As soon as I started reading, I was immediately sucked into the story of Benjamin Bentley. He is such a well-developed character that I’m not convinced he isn’t real. He is witty, passionate, quick to act in ways that seem brave but are actually rooted in lack of restraint, self-aware, and determined to be happy one way or another.

Benjamin has been openly gay since he was 14 at a time when this was a rarity (mid 1990s). The book begins in the summer before Ben’s Junior year in high school. He encounters a new guy in his neighborhood who takes daily runs through the park. Ben makes a point of secretly watching (stalking) him. But when school begins, it becomes evident that Tim Wyman is not gay and he is quickly becoming friends with the people who bully Ben. Most boys would give up, but Ben is tenacious and willing to take risks which might pay off in the long run (or might get him into a world of hurt).

The only problem is that Tim Wyman isn’t as willing to take risks, perhaps because his family isn’t nearly as loving as Ben’s. Tim has been raised very differently, the consequences of which neither boy at age 16 can fully appreciate. They each push the other to change in ways that would make it easier on themselves, not the other. The result is disastrous but completely understandable given their circumstances.

As a reader, I wanted things to work out for the two of them. I wanted it to be obvious and easy because that’s what we all want when it comes to love. But nothing about this story was obvious or easy. But it still kept me reading, not necessarily because of the love story, but because I wanted to know what would happen to Ben.

The Something Like… series is written more like a collection of biographies than a collection of love stories. Yes, romance happens, sex happens, break ups and patch ups happen. But Jay Bell writes about the lives of very distinct, realistic characters, which span a decade or more. Each book in the series is about a character which has already been introduced in the other books.

In Something Like Summer, I wasn’t sure if I really liked Tim Wyman or if I believed him. Early on in the book, Tim mentions leaving Kansas after a girl falsely accuses him of raping her. As a woman, I tend to doubt men who make this claim and see them as potential rapists. I wanted something to come out in the story to reassure me that Tim wasn’t capable of doing such a thing. But, Tim is revealed in Something Like Summer to have moments of aggression. I just never was sure, even by the ending.

So, after finishing Something Like Summer, I picked up Something Like Winter which is the story of Tim Wyman’s life as he comes to terms with his sexuality. Something Like Winter begins in Kansas and directly addresses the rape accusation, which is revealed to be a completely false  accusation by a very manipulative girl. I was relieved because that meant I could trust Tim a little more. But generally speaking, I don’t like it when authors portray rape accusations as lies because in the real world already places so much doubt on legitimate claims of rape. But, my activism aside, I realize that this *can* actually happen in real life and perhaps is more likely to happen to someone like Tim with the kinds of people who find their way into his circles. Tim has a big problem when it comes to figuring out who deserves his friendship and attention and who does not.

Both books were very good, but there was a lot of overlap. Most of Tim’s story I already knew from reading Something Like Summer. But what I didn’t know about was Tim’s character. In Something Like Winter, I came to deeply understand Tim and how his experiences caused him to act the way he did. I enjoyed seeing Ben through Tim’s eyes, and I found out what Tim had been up to in the “missing years” of Something Like Summer.

Now I will probably read Something Like Autumn, which is the story of Jace. I already know how Jace’s story will end, but I do not know how it began.

Jay Bell writes in a very fast-paced, candid, and affectionate way about growing up gay and finding love. I enjoy his stories while I read them and cannot stop thinking about the characters when I’m done.

If this sounds like something you’d enjoy, you can get Something Like Summer for free right now. Maybe Jay Bell has it permanently set as free, I don’t know, but it’s worth so much more than that.

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Diverse Books & Myths of Success

People will tell you that all it takes to be a successful (as in lots of people have read your book and paid you decent amounts of money to do it) author is to tell a great story. They will say to you, “Authors cannot claim readers won’t support diverse books. Readers will support any well-written story.”

Why do people tell us that all we need to do is write a “great story” when in reality that’s absolute bullshit?

  1. Willful ignorance. They’re afraid to see it any other way. They might screw up their worldview about how all people (readers especially) are not bias. “Bias isn’t a thing. Anyone telling you bias is a thing are just making excuses for their crappy work.”
  2. Profit. They are self-promoting and optimism sells better than the truth. Telling authors that everything is going to be fine gets more RT’s and less vitriol in response.
  3. Manipulation. They want authors to write diverse books, so they’ll say whatever makes that sound like a good idea.

Just a reminder: I write diverse books. I have written and published books with many different characters: gay, lesbian, bisexual, transgender, queer, Black, White, rich, poor, autistic, and with mental illness. I do not like to write expected, cookie-cutter stories. I prefer to write about interesting people with lives not usually represented in fiction. This is a choice I make because I *want* to write these stories and am privileged not to need book sales to feed my kids. I do not write these stories because I believe every reader will welcome them.

I have been booed whenever I’ve said, “If you want more diverse books, you have to be willing to read books that are not about you. Authors can not afford to write books if only people like their main character will read them.” I get told “That’s a cop out.” Well, I’m not copping out of anything, am I? I am actually still writing diverse books. I am actually doing the thing people beg authors to do. And I promise, my own experience shows that some people refuse to even read my books because “two girls together doesn’t do anything for me.” Well, uhm… I guess if the only reason you read a book is to get turned on, then… I mean, what is there to say to that?

So, I know first hand what happens when you write diverse books. People who identify with the main character read them. My friends read them, friends who usually never read LGBT fiction. They loved my stories and it didn’t matter that the characters were gay (or whatever). So, it is actually true that a great story will be great regardless of what label is attached to the character. I do not dispute this part of the argument. But in order for someone to know a book is great, they have to be willing to read it in the first place.

Getting mainstream readers to buy diverse books is a challenge when bookseller categories already ostracize such books into their own little group. LGBT fiction gets put into a category all its own, often with subcategories separating gay from lesbian as if books can’t have both. These are categories most straight people seldom wade into. There is an idea that LGBT characters are written for LGBT readers, each letter for itself (L for L, G for G, etc). Sorry, but my books aren’t written that way. They are diverse in their entirety. So, where do I place them? Can I convince gay men to read my story with lesbian characters? (On rare occasions, yes I have). Can I convince lesbians to read my story about bisexuals? Do Whites think of books with Black main characters as “Black books” for “Black people”? There are many questions just like these, just interchange the labels. We are a society of separations and booksellers make it easier to keep the walls up than to tear them down.

When people say, “I need diverse books so that my Asian son can see himself as the superhero.” I understand this need. I agree that such a book, (actually many books), should exist for him. But the math is fairly simple here. If you write a book with a minority main character and the only people who buy the book are people within that minority, then the profits are going to be very small. To be a “successful” book, readers of all races must want to read it. Regardless of our wishful thinking, it isn’t going to matter if the story is good or bad if a large portion of readers will not even pick it up to give it a shot.

People in minority groups have been reading characters unlike themselves all of their lives. I don’t need to tell that Asian mom that she should be willing to read characters unlike her son in order to support the diversity movement. She already does. And so do members of the LGBT community. They read the books that big publishers publish, which are mostly centered on white, straight, cisgender characters.

Of course not every reader does this. There are readers who read a variety of characters and appreciate the diversity. Of course this is not meant as a scolding of “all you people”. I’m only pointing out that there are things society needs to do better. Honestly, if you have found your way to my blog and are even reading this, you probably aren’t the problem.

So what *is* the problem? The problem is that expectations are too high, both writers’ and readers’, and frustration ensues. Writers think that because “Diverse Books” is such a big movement that they are going to find a huge readership waiting for them if they just write a great story about a minority character.

Readers, for their part, want books with characters like themselves to be more than simply written. They want those books to be bestsellers, to win awards, and be in the hands of their peers. They don’t want to have to sift through an ocean of books to find the indie-author writing what they’ve asked for. They want the book they want, but they want it to be popular, easy to find, and mainstream. Authors alone cannot make that happen, not even with a kick-ass story.

There is a lot of work involved in changing our world into one with diverse books. Authors begin that work by creating the stories. But that is only a tiny part of what happens next. The people holding the most power are the readers begging for diversity. Our success depends on whether or not they are willing to seek out, support (as in pay money for), and promote the stories they want. Are they willing to suggest a book with a minority character to someone not in that same minority? I hope so.

I hope we all grow as readers. I hope, as an author and a reader, I push a few hesitant folks into enjoying stories about characters not like themselves. I hope more authors will create diverse worlds in their books, worlds which reflect our own reality. I hope this movement grows until there is no longer under-representation of any group.

But I will not lie to you and say good stories will sell no matter what. I will not tell you, readers, that you have no role to play here. Slowly, we authors will gravitate toward diversity as the mainstream audience slowly comes to meet us halfway. It takes both of us and it won’t be easy for either. But we’ll get there.

I’m Writing an Autistic, Gender Nonconforming Character

I frequently put off writing my work-in-progress. I began writing this novel during the summer of 2015. I took a break at the end of October and wrote a completely separate Christmas novelette, which I had published by the first of December. So it isn’t that I have writer’s block. It’s that This Project is ominous. This Project is both extremely needed and extremely likely to upset someone(s).

I am writing this blog post now in hopes that airing my concerns, which for the longest time I remained in denial about, will finally set them free and out of my head. Hopefully, I can write this and move forward with my work.

The hangup is this: an important character, though not the main character, is a gender nonconforming autistic teenage boy. I do not know the specifics of how he feels about his gender because I have only now (as of yesterday) introduced him. I have put off writing about him for months because of how problematic his existence is likely to be.

There are many ways a person can be gender nonconforming. There are many words to use to describe a person as they appear and as they see themselves. There are also many words to avoid at all costs. I want to allow this character to define himself as the story unfolds, even for me as the author.

But here is the problem: gender nonconforming characters are rare. Representation in fiction is rare. There are a thousand different ways to present oneself within transgender, genderfluid, genderqueer, and other communities. Some desire bodily changes. Some desire appearance changes. Some see the world as the problem because society has mis-defined gender in the first place. These beliefs fall along a spectrum of degrees and not every person in these communities believe the same way.

To sum up my concern: I cannot write about a gender nonconforming person and have them represent an entire complex group of people.

Multiply this by 2 because the same thing applies about this character being autistic. There are thousands of ways to be autistic because autism is a spectrum disorder (even the word disorder is objectionable to some). My character is only being his own autistic and is not trying to be a poster boy for all of autism.

When writing a character who falls into an underrepresented category, people unfamiliar with such groups tend to think that character is, in fact, a poster boy. Look at what has happened with Rain Man. It isn’t that Dustin Hoffman did a terrible job acting his part. It’s that people assume every autistic person is like Dustin Hoffman’s role in the movie. Nothing could be further from the truth.

Every person who does not act in a way that is socially accepted for their birth-assigned gender *will not* fit into the same box and that shouldn’t even be expected. Why is there a box?

Every person who is autistic *is not* the same. They do not have the same struggles, strengths, or coping mechanisms.

So, why am I writing this character at all if it’s so difficult?  If this character was real, he would likely be very misunderstood by the general population. And even within the groups he would most identify with, there would be people not quite believing him. Okay… so maybe they would believe him, but would they believe *me* as I tell his story? That is what I don’t know.

I have an autistic son, but not an autistic teen. I care about autistic representation in fiction, but I am not writing about my son. This character is his own person and no one I know in real life.

I know well a number of gender nonconforming teenagers. I care about how this subject is represented in fiction, but I am not writing about the teenagers I know, nor am I writing *for* the teenagers I know. This character is his own person and this story comes from within me.

Not to imply that real life humans have not informed me about who this character is. I have listened to many people’s grievances about how they are misjudged and stereotyped. I have thought about these problems on a very personal level because of the people in my life. I do not want to do harm to any community by the way my character is represented to a mainstream audience.

It’s a fine line, one I feel confident I can figure out how to walk. It is important to me that I do figure it out. But, it is also terrifying because I know, beyond a shadow of a doubt, that someone(s) will feel I did an injustice in the way I created this character. He will be picked apart no matter what.

And that is why I struggle to make myself write him into life. And maybe this speaks to why many other authors simply write cookie-cutter characters instead of risking having their characters unintentionally speak for entire groups of people.

I am not perfect.

My character is not you.

I love my character.

I love you.

And I hope some good comes of it all.

Happy Ending or Die in a Fire

Romance is a popular book genre. Romance novels follow a predictable pace toward a predictable happy ending. They are light reads which leave the reader feeling optimistic in the end. I have read many romance novels in my life and enjoy them when I do, so I get the draw. I understand why they are important. I understand why, now that e-readers make reading more private, many men are beginning to read them.

But my books are not romance novels. I love romance *a lot* and so I typically include lovers in my stories. I write about relationships, but not with the intention of leaving you on cloud nine in the end.

I’m taking some time to write this blog post now because I often see people complaining about books which do not have a “Happily Ever After”. I see people complaining about characters dying because they are targeted for their race, gender, sexuality, disability, etc as if the author is actually the murderer just for having written such a storyline.

And this brings me to a conclusion I feel I need to proclaim: I do not write books to make readers feel good. (Though you will sometimes)

Additionally: I do not write books *solely* so you can see yourself in the pages. (Though you will sometimes). I aim, mostly, to make the reader see how not to be the villain.

When I set out to write Winter Seedlings, Jute and Allie were meant to move off to Illinois and open a little bookstore on the corner of some downtown street. That’s what I wanted to happen. Two girls in love finding a happily ever after. But Winter Seedlings was never a F/F romance novel. From the very beginning, Winter Seedlings was about childhood sexual abuse and how challenging it is to define love because of it. Jute withdrew herself entirely from intimacy while Allie did the opposite; she believed her only value was in how well she pleased others sexually. I wanted to explore what would happen when those opposite forces collided together. In the end, Winter Seedlings was meant to give those who have never experienced the trauma of abuse a glimpse into the psychological effects it sometimes causes.

I wrote Winter Seedlings for people who did NOT already know what it’s like to be abused.

And maybe I’m wrong for having approached it that way. Maybe I should have created it in a way that was light and fluffy and left everyone feeling warm inside.

But honestly, I was pretty upset about the issue. I didn’t want people to read it and walk away feeling like they hadn’t a care in the world. I wanted them to walk away feeling very, very thoughtful. I wanted them to care about what happened to those characters in a way that would stay with them in the real world where they could make a difference in real lives.

The same was true for Silencer. I tackled a lot of tough issues in that novella. Race, police brutality, mental illness, grief. Silencer is the kind of book that is meant to get inside you and twist you up, make you feel what you don’t want to feel so you’ll walk away with a lot more empathy when it’s over. It’s not written to make you feel good. And it’s absolutely not written because *I* as an author want bad things to happen to minorities or the mentally ill.

Not everyone can read books like I write them. Not everyone wants to dig so deep and work so hard emotionally. I don’t blame them. If you’ve lived your life with a certain pain, the thoughts of rehashing it through fiction can seem like torture. I do make an effort to avoid minimizing the bad things that happen in my books as if those bad things are easy to get over, and I make an effort to write from the victim’s POV and not the abuser’s. I avoid sensationalizing trauma for those who feed off hurting people. But I know my efforts can still, at times, not be enough. I respect anyone who says to me “I couldn’t read your book because it was too triggering”.

I have pulled my books out of LGBT fiction categories because most booksellers market that category like romance. Initially, I don’t think I had a clear understanding of where my books fit in. I still don’t. But, I have gained a better understanding of *why* readers read certain genres, and that has helped me know where my books do *not* belong. If a bookseller has a Psychological Fiction category, that’s usually a safe place for me to set up residence.

So, what have you learned from reading this? Hopefully, you don’t read it and think I object to your reading preferences, or your need for a HEA (happily ever after). I think you should be able to reliably find the books you are seeking and shouldn’t have to read books that upset you.

BUT, I also think that you shouldn’t complain about the existence of books which do not have a HEA. Complain if the author categorizes such books as romance, yes. Complain if the trauma is sensationalist and the storyline lacks empathy, but don’t complain just because someone dared to write a tragedy.

Oddly enough, I’ve actually been knocked for one of my books ending in a way that was “too tidy”. I don’t know what readers want from me. 😉

If you are an author, cherish every reader who “gets you”. Because there will always be plenty of others who would only use your book as a doorstop, or perhaps as a projectile aimed for your head.

My final thought: Let’s all try to see the best in each other.

Books by Julie Roberts Towe

Click the books, buy the books, read the books, review the books. Thanks!

We Need Readers of Diverse Books

There has been a cry for diverse books. People, both children and adults, want to see themselves represented in fiction. They want to see people like themselves as heroes, princesses, achievers, and romantic love interests (maybe not all in the same book). Not every hero in real life is a White, cisgender, heterosexual, attractive man without any disabilities. Why should every hero in fiction be that?

The cry is for authors to write main characters and families which are not stereotypical, and to include a range of characters that reflect the diversity that exists in the real world.

There is also a cry from activists within commonly oppressed groups of people for the authors of these stories to be as diverse as the characters. All authors are not White men, but most who find success in the current system are White men. Do we want White men to tell all the stories about Black mothers, Native heroes, or Autistic experiences? Or would we prefer to have a Native author find success in writing from a Native point of view?

It seems simple if you look at it from a distance. “If Blacks do not like the books that are on the shelves, why don’t they write their own?”

Well, they do. But in most cases, there are not enough personal funds to get those books on library shelves. This is true of most indie-authors. We can write all day, but it takes money to get the word out. Or we can rely on publishers to offer contracts and hope they offer them to those diverse authors. But publishers only care about diversity to a certain point. Ultimately, they have to make money, and they aren’t going to make money if lots of people don’t line up to buy the books they offer.

So it comes down to the demands of readers; and it must go beyond demanding to see yourself in the pages. This is an example of why:

When I wrote my first book series, Winter Seedlings, it was never intended to be a book shelved in the gay fiction section. It was an answer to the call for diverse characters and it was intended to be sold as general fiction. I wrote it for everyone.

But, with two female main characters falling in love with each other, it was easily mis-categorized. I put it in gay fiction, then lesbian fiction. My mind was on the cry from people wanting to see themselves in the pages. I wanted to say to them, “You are in these pages. I’ll put this book in your category so you can find it.”

Winter Seedlings didn’t really belong there, though. I moved it to Women’s Contemporary Fiction, then moved it out after observing how buried it was in erotica (which Winter Seedlings is not). It is currently parked in Coming of Age fiction and Psychological Thrillers.  Truly, it hits a lot of topics.

Unfortunately, sales dwindled outside of the LGBT categories.

I have come to believe that most people buy books with the expectation that they will identify with the main character. It is obvious that a lot of heterosexual people DO NOT WANT under any circumstances to think they can relate to the experiences of a lesbian, gay, or bisexual character.

I have seen similar issues play out with cultural and ethnic diversities. Privileged groups like to see that privilege represented in stories, but not called into question. Even if the main character is unlike them in some way, they can still relate as long as the background noise hums the same as their own background noise. So, many non-Black readers might enjoy reading a story about racism and the harm done to Black communities, even if the hero were Black as long as it stayed compatible with the White narrative. But they would shy away from reading a book written by a Black author with an all Black cast of characters portraying the world around them without a nod to the White narrative. That kind of book would be labeled “African American” and shelved somewhere away from mainstream novels.

Maybe it’s okay to segregate our books that way so readers can “find themselves”. Do you think so?

The trouble is that in order for publishers to invest in minority cultures, the majority of people must be willing to read varying narratives. If not, there will be little money to be made.

This paradox plays out all the time. Authors struggle to find the balance of writing an honest story about an underrepresented culture in a way which will be appealing to a large audience without feeding stereotypes or oppression.

But at the end of the day, the ability to increase the diversity in books lies with the readers, not the authors. We have to believe that it makes us better people to place ourselves in the shoes of others by reading works created by groups we do not identify with. We have to believe the sky is not going to fall if we enjoy a book about two women in love. We have to believe that diverse books are not something created FOR oppressed groups, but for all of us.

As much as I strive to include a broad range of characters in all my books, and attempt to avoid sensationalizing them or making them tokens for consumption, I am still a White author. As much as I try to get right the various POV, I am still coming at the art of writing with my own privilege. I am not the one to speak for anyone but myself, nor do I attempt to do so.

My latest novella, Silencer, deals with racism, but the main idea of the story is how suicidal thoughts can be like a dangerous drug which can both comfort and kill those dealing with depression. I feel I have done justice to the issues of depression, suicidal thoughts, grief, and racism. And though two of the most important characters in the book are Black, this book does not qualify as being outside my demographic because it is mainly about a White woman’s POV.

As a reader, I search for books by authors writing about subjects close to their hearts, subjects which reflect their own experiences in life. I find them much more rewarding because they have a believability which goes beyond the typical White-author-looking-in-from-outside kind of fiction. That doesn’t mean that all authors should fill every book with people like themselves. But authors have a point of view which is going to come through no matter how they dress up their main characters. That point of view is going to reflect the culture in which they grew up and surround themselves.

Reading diverse books by diverse authors helps us, as authors, broaden our points of view. Reading books by diverse authors helps ensure those authors can afford to keep sharing their important perspectives. So, I challenge you, and myself, to seek out diverse authors, even more so than diverse characters. Value those perspectives which originate from within a culture. And most importantly, don’t be afraid of discovering that you can, in fact, relate to two boys being in love. That won’t make you gay, but it just might you a better human being.

Winter Seedlings: Jute Confronts Her Mother

I’m sharing an excerpt from Winter Seedlings. This is a small part of Chapter 3 when Jute confronts her mother for abandoning her for four days. Winter Seedlings focuses on the effects of childhood sexual abuse and the difficulty of overcoming them. It’s a journey fumbling toward self-love with a broad range of diverse characters.

In this scene, Jute has been up in the woods behind her house collecting kindling. It is the first week of January and bitter cold. On the way back to the house, she sees her mother getting out of a GMC Jimmy driven by a man Jute doesn’t recognize.

*****

          As long as it takes me to walk to her, she never stops smiling. She is like that when people are around. Even when she shouldn’t be. She makes it hard to stay mad at her.

“Jute, this is Jerry.”

She turns to him and smiles, then looks back at me grinning. She lowers her voice seductively, “We’ve been sleeping around.”

“Momma!” I glare at her. She is trying to be funny but it makes me mad.

“What?” She says, batting her lashes at me and still grinning. “I’m finally free of that asshole. I can do whatever I want.”

She shrugs and walks past me like she’s Marilyn Monroe walking into someone else’s run down shack.

“Momma, I don’t care what you do or who you do it with. Just keep the details to yourself. Okay?”

I follow her up the porch steps and drop the kindling in the cardboard box by the door. Instead of going inside, I head back to the wood pile and pick up two small logs, leaving the largest for tonight. When I enter the house, Momma is in her bedroom talking to me through the door as if I have been there the whole time.
Ignoring her, I open the wood stove door. The heat is heavenly warmth on my face. I grab the poker and jab at the ashes and burned pieces of wood before throwing on the logs. I hear the snapping and cracking and try to focus on that instead of how angry I am at Momma for being gone so long. I can’t keep the door open any longer or the room will fill with smoke. I reluctantly shut it and hear Momma saying, “Jute, are you out there?”

I stand up and take my hat off. Jerry is standing by the couch, rocking on his heels and toes with his back to me. His hands are in his pockets and he’s looking at a picture of Jesus. It’s the only picture in the room, left here by the previous residents. This must be an awkward moment for Jerry. I don’t plan to make it any easier.
Before he has time to gawk at my shaved head, I walk through the kitchen to Momma’s room. She is sitting on her bed in her underwear. Her back is to me, bent slightly forward as she puts one leg into her black pants. Her olive skin stretches over her bony spine. Everything about her is not enough. Even the blanket on her bed looks threadbare. It wouldn’t even keep a dog warm.

A sigh escapes me. “Momma? Momma, what are you doing? We’ve been here a couple of weeks. You can’t run off with the first guy asking if you have change for a dollar.”

She doesn’t turn around. She looks drained. Her voice lacks all the entertainment qualities it had when Jerry could hear her, “If you had been listening to me a minute ago, you would know he isn’t just any guy. I don’t know what I would do without him. I have been a prisoner for too long, married to that crazy man. So, don’t tell me now that I should still think about that psycho before I make my decisions. I’ve snagged a nice man this time. He bought us those groceries, you know.”

My words come out quiet and empty, “That was nice of Jerry.”

Memories of the last week flash through my mind: The day I scraped the mold off the bread and ate it with mustard. I missed the bus Thursday. Missing school meant missing a free lunch. The next day Allie had to pick me up after school so I could make up the Chemistry test. Allie has always made up for Momma’s negligence, but Allie graduated early and is moving to Ohio tomorrow. I don’t say any of this aloud. Momma doesn’t care. If she knew how I felt, she would just use it to hurt me. She didn’t even want me here.

I pick up the hair brush and start to brush through the tangles in Momma’s hair. I gather it in my hand, turn it in a twist, and pin it. She stares at herself in the mirror. I’ve always loved to play with Momma’s hair. It is bittersweet to do it now. She picks up a small mirror and moves it so she can see the back of her head. She kisses the air and snort laughs.

“Oh, my heavens, who is that wretched old woman?” She giggles before pushing up her nose with her thumb and crossing her eyes.

“Momma, you are beautiful. Shut up.” I smile at her reflection, failing again to stay mad at her.

She winks at me.

I tell her, “Now, put on a shirt. And not that red and gold shirt with the clocks all over it. I hate that damn thing.”

I leave the room and find Jerry standing at the fridge with the door open. He’s pulling a container of cottage cheese out of a grocery bag and putting it in with the other items. There’s sliced cheese, bologna, a bag of apples, and a can of peaches. I see bread on the kitchen counter. I pick up the bread box from the kitchen table and carry it to the counter. We can’t leave bread out or mice will get in it.

“Got a mouse trap?” I don’t look to see if he smiles. It was a bad attempt at humor. I sigh.

Finally, after closing the bread box, I look over at him. He’s staring at me, mostly my stubbly hair.

“Is Jute your real name?”

“It wasn’t. But, it is now.” I don’t offer details. I don’t tell him that Momma named me Judy after herself. I don’t understand why she did that. The name Judy is bad enough without it implying that I am also my mother’s replica. I’m nothing like her. When I started kindergarten, I insisted everyone call me Jute. It stuck. We changed it legally when Momma married Earl and he officially adopted us.

“What do you think Judy is doing in there?” I see his eyes land on my tiny scar, then shift around my face trying to find a soft place to land. He gives up and looks away. My face might be full and round, but it isn’t a place to find comfort.

“She has trouble making up her mind,” I say as though I’m not being mean. “I’ll check on her.”

Opening the bedroom door, I see her shoving her folded up blanket into the top of her closet. She’s wearing the clock shirt. There is a suitcase open on the bed, full of her clothes. Her dresser is cleared except for a bottle of baby lotion.

She turns to me and forces a weak smile. She walks toward me as if she is on a t.v. screen. She is just walking toward the camera.

*****

Books by Julie Roberts Towe

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Who Does That!?!?!?

It is not rare that someone will tell me what another person did, followed by “Who does that?!?!” and I have to answer “Me.” I’m not always “normal”. But I understand how it is to wonder why other people do things so differently. I was guilty, when I was in my teens, of viewing the world through only my own sensory input. If I didn’t like it, why would anyone else? If I didn’t enjoy that terrible beet purple color matched with sea foam green, who would? If I didn’t like the smell of cooking bacon, who would?

As a writer, I think about readers who are still in the phase of denying that anyone unlike them can be believed. I know there will be people reading my books and thinking, “Who does that?”

Writing realistic characters may mean landing them in safe zones where no reader will hang up on their oddities. If you say your character enjoys the scent of a skunk, you had better established lots of reader trust before doing so. But, in reality, I know someone who likes the smell of skunks. Really.

The other day on twitter, someone said it was really annoying when authors will describe what a kiss tastes like, because “Kisses taste like spit”. And authors commented in semi-agreement. I stared at that conversation and pondered if maybe they were living in a different world than mine. Truly, how could anyone not register the taste of someone’s kiss, especially if it’s the first time kissing that person? Yet, when faced with readers making claims about “everyone sees things the way I do”, we begin to doubt ourselves.

The first time I ever kissed a boy was the summer between 5th and 6th grade. Our church youth group went on a field trip to Silver Dollar City (which is now DollyWood). My best friend set me up with the cousin of the boy she was “dating”. I was so shy it was debilitating. Before we got on the ride which would take us on a boat through a dark cave, my “date” spit out his Skoal on the ground by our feet. (Romantic, huh?) I might have been shy, but I knew what was coming. The taste of his kiss reminded me of my pappaw’s spittoon, but not in an entirely bad way. It was minty and tobacco-y and I analyzed that cerebrally because it was my first kiss and I had to THINK about it and REMEMBER it.

I don’t know that I’ve ever kissed anyone and not thought about the taste of it. Sure, on rare occasions a kiss won’t taste like anything to me, but I assume that’s because our kisses taste the same, not that they taste like nothing. I have a weird appreciation for the taste of beer in a kiss, but despise the smell of beer otherwise.

So, suffice it to say, the idea that anyone would say kisses taste like spit makes me want to say, “Who says that!?!?!” The answer: someone. Really they did.

This issue of readers only believing characters are “real” if the characters mimic their own responses and perceptions comes into play when writing about diverse characters. If you are going to be an author who writes about the topics which are off the beaten path, you have to reconcile this. There are choices which must be made about how honest you want to be about a character at the risk of losing believability.

For instance: Many grown men in the south will call their mothers “Mommy” their entire lives.

Another example: Some gay men live boring lives and are perfectly suited for walk-on parts in a book without a need to make them flamboyant or controversial .

Also: Adult autistic characters may be able to identify every single insect they see, but never recognize when they need to take a shower. Other autistic characters may meet social expectations with no problem when at home, but may completely forget how to do so when in a new environment. Some autistics do not speak. Others speak with flair and are very expressive. Others speak with a nearly unbelievable amount of intelligence, very nerdy, very informative, like they are giving a lecture and not a conversation. The variations of what it means to be autistic are so widely different, that taking on the challenge of creating such a character is almost certain to get readers saying, “Who does that!?!?”

But, the problem is not that the character is not realistic. The problem is that some readers do not have a realistic expectation of others, in stories or in life.

So, if you do go off the beaten path and you worry if readers will follow you, the answer is, “Not all of them, but those who do will never forget it.” Some of us really appreciate when you don’t dull your character’s senses.