Tuesday, November 6, 2012

Political Animals

By Hilary Davidson

"Don't get political."

That advice was given to me early on by more than one writer. They pointed out that everyone buys books, regardless of political affiliation. You don't want to turn off part of your readership with your opinions. No one actually said, "Don't talk about religion." I suspect that's because they assumed it was understood.

It's smart advice. Unfortunately, I've never been able to follow it.

According to Aristotle, humans are political animals. (Old Ari actually said, "Man is a political animal," but I'm paraphrasing to remove the sexist slant. Wait, was that political? Oops.) When I first read those words, they resonated with me. Often, political issues are treated like a game, kind of an our-team-versus-their-team battle that should really be left behind on some sports field. To me, politics are about what we value and how we live, and I don't believe in easy distinctions that divide people into two camps. Humans are much more complicated than that.

In my novels, some characters are more explicit in their political and religious views than others. The most obvious is Jesse Robb, the gun-toting, Bible-quoting Okie who first appeared in THE DAMAGE DONE. Jesse admires Will Rogers and Ronald Reagan, and if someone asked him to define himself politically, he'd say conservative. But Jesse is also a gay man, and his experience with intolerance and bigotry — which is made explicit in THE NEXT ONE TO FALL — has shaped his views. The tension between what Jesse was raised to believe, and what life has taught him, is at the heart of the character.

My main character, Lily Moore, describes herself as a lapsed Catholic, but she steers clear of politics early on. That was a deliberate choice. Lily is someone who has tried to escape the harsh reality of her early life by embracing film, fashion and travel. In THE NEXT ONE TO FALL, she's questioned by a Peruvian police officer named Felipe Vargas; it doesn't go well:

“What is your vocation, Miss Moore?”
The question was a relief. “I’m a journalist.”
That earned a nod from him. “Ah, I see. Like Angel Paez.”
“I don’t know who that is,” I admitted.
“You are a journalist visiting Peru and you do not know of Angel Paez?” His surprise seemed genuine. “Paez founded the first investigative reporting team in Peru at La Republica in 1990. He has exposed government corruption, international drug trafficking, and concealed warfare. He has written for papers from Mexico to Japan.”
“Oh. He sounds like someone I would like to read.” It was embarrassing to admit how little I’d prepared for this trip. Normally I did a lot of research, but in this case, I’d floated along in my hazy state, trusting that Jesse knew enough for both of us.
“What do you write about?” Vargas asked.
“You are on staff at an organization?”
“I freelance. And I write travel guidebooks for Frakker’s Travel Guides.”
If he’d been vaguely interested in my profession before, he was completely dismissive of it now. “Guidebooks?” He frowned. “I see tourists here and in Cusco, their noses buried in those guidebooks. So you are one of the people providing them with a superficial, stereotypical picture of my country? Those books are horrible. I remember seeing one that told travelers to avoid Lima, that it was dirty and there was nothing worth seeing there. The capital of my country!”

What Vargas states explicitly is an issue that Lily has started to struggle with — namely, does her work have any value beyond promoting purveyors of luxury travel? Does her life? Her outlook changes in THE NEXT ONE TO FALL. Librarian and reviewer Lesa Holstine described it this way: "Her trip to Peru... turns her character inside out, changing her from a vulnerable, lonely woman to a defiant one fighting for justice." The fallout from that is something I explore in the third book, EVIL IN ALL ITS DISGUISES, which comes out in March. It's not a spoiler to admit that Lily is a character who is becoming more political as she evolves.

One thing that I don't believe in: authors using characters as mouthpieces for their own views. If you want to hear my opinions, come see me on Twitter. I've never enjoyed books that preach at me under the guise of fiction. Characters have their own inner lives, and it's up to the writer to reveal what makes them tick. Their views on politics and religion are part of what makes them human — and real.

*          *          *

It's election day in the United States. Whatever else you do today, please vote. I know this won't be easy for people displaced by Hurricane Sandy, but there are some measures in effect in New York and New Jersey to make voting possible for those affected by the storm (follow the links for details). Links to each state's board of elections are here. Keep David Foster Wallace's words in mind: "In reality, there is no such thing as not voting: you either vote by voting, or you vote by staying home and tacitly doubling the value of some Diehard's vote."


Meredith Cole said...

Hopefully the reason no one is commenting today is because they're all out voting right now, Hilary!

Love, love the David Foster Wallace quote--thanks for sharing.

Chris said...

Hilary, you touched on my ultimate barometer for whether politics and/or religion are incorporated successfully into a novel: if the views expressed are authentically the characters', I'm generally okay with it (barring any truly abhorrent positions); if they're simply the writer's, I've no interest.

Reece said...

Well said, Hilary. And I'll echo Meredith -- love that David Foster Wallace quote.

Hilary Davidson said...

Thanks for the kind comments, everyone! Glad the DFW quote resonates with others, too.

BTW, I know some people are having to wait for hours to vote. My precinct, which never has a line, was insane today (for a very good reason, since many, many New Yorkers who were affected by Hurricane Sandy were voting there). Fortunately the poll workers seem to have everything moving smoothly.