Artist Chat: Representing Women in Literature
Earlier this summer I had the pleasure of being part of an artist’s chat with to award-winning author Karen Essex. Karen has written many books based on hidden stories behind famous women like Kleopatra, and it was fascinating to hear her insight into how women are represented across the media, and talk with her about the roles that we as authors play. Read Karen’s full bio at the end of the post, or visit her site here.
Our conversation went deep quickly, digging into why we each feel it is important to have strong female protagonists, our opinions on Hollywood’s current “Kickass Women” trend, and the hidden history of women’s health and mental health treatment.
Karen said something during the interview that really struck me:
“All female history is hidden history. If you try to do research about women’s lives, you will find yourself having to read between the lines of written history because no one has recorded female stories.”
I hope you find our conversation as illuminating and thought provoking as I did. The transcript is below this picture:
Host: Ladies and gentleman, welcome to the Solipsis Publishing artist chat series. I am Scott James, director of publicity for Solipsis Publishing, and I’m very excited to have two authors here today, talking about representing women in literature. We have Karen Essex who is an internationally bestselling author of five novels, including Leonardo’s Swans, which tells the stories of rivalries among the powerful women who were painted by Leonardo da Vinci. That sounds super cool. The novel was a runaway bestseller in Italy, and as I know, she occasionally takes people to Italy to do tours, so you should check her out if you’re interested in doing that. That novel won a prestigious award for foreign fiction, and she’s also done extensive adaptation work throughout Hollywood. She’s had articles published in lots of magazines, things you’ve heard of like Vogue and Playboy, and as a native of New Orleans, she currently divides her time between Los Angeles and Europe. Karen, welcome to the artist chat.
Karen Essex: Thanks Scott, thanks for having me.
Host: Absolutely. Also here, we have Gar LaSalle, who is published by Solipsis Publishing. He is author of the award winning Widow Walk saga, which follows one family’s journey through the frontier of America during and before the Civil War, beginning in the 1850s. Book three of his five book saga is actually going to be published later this year. If I remember correctly, Gar, you have just finished the final manuscript for that book. Is that true?
Gar LaSalle: That’s right.
Host: Excellent. In addition to being an author, he’s an accomplished filmmaker, a sculptor, and an Emergency Medicine physician.
Gar LaSalle: Thank you, Scott.
Host: Okay. Well, like I said, we’re talking about representing women in literature, in historical fiction as well as biography and just literature in general. I’ll open this up by just acknowledging that both of you have chosen to write several books featuring and celebrating strong women. Can you just tell me a little bit about why? Karen, let’s start with you.
Karen Essex: Well, that’s a very complicated question for me because the reason I decided to focus my work on exploring the female experience in history, my novels are all thus far historical fiction, and the reason I have written those novels is because women are basically hidden from history. All female history is hidden history, and if you ever tried to do historical research about women’s lives, you will find yourself having to read between the lines of history because no necessarily has recorded female’s stories.
There are a lot of reasons for that. One is that up until the middle to late 19th century, most women, most, and I mean almost all, were basically illiterate. Women weren’t even taught to read or write beyond enough math to do the books for the farm. That sort of thing. Women were certainly not writing about their own lives, and because history is basically written as a series of battles and conquests and regimes, women weren’t there. I just wanted to illuminate the female historical experience and women’s ability to succeed and influence history in spite of the kinds of challenges that they faced. That’s, in a nutshell, what brought me to what is become my life’s work, really.
Host: Yeah, indeed. That’s a very strong nutshell of yes, a complicated question for sure.
Karen Essex: I will say the thing that started the ball rolling was that I was reading because I was thinking about going back and getting another degree, which is one of my favorite things to do, in women’s studies, I was reading about the real history of Cleopatra, and I was stunned because I realized that the real Cleopatra had absolutely nothing to do with this seductress, the Elizabeth Taylor sort of heaving bosom seductress. I thought, wow, except for a few scholars, this was many years ago, no one knows this. I thought, “Well, I’ll write a novel about the real Cleopatra.” I thought, “Well, this will be easy. I’ll research it for six months, and then the next six months I’ll write it.” Well, that was in 1992, and I wrote two books about Cleopatra, and they were published in 2001 and 2002.
Host: 10 years later.
Karen Essex: Yeah, turned out to be a huge undertaking but anyway, it was just the idea of the way that a character like a historical figure like Cleopatra who was brilliant and spoke nine languages and was a great diplomat, et cetera, et cetera, had just basically come down to us as a seductress, which was very far from the truth.
Host: Yeah, and it makes sense from what I know of Hollywood. My experience [crosstalk 00:06:21] in Hollywood, that would be the element of half-truth that is pulled out into a movie. Interesting. You wrote two novels…
Karen Essex: Yes. The first novel is Cleopatra’s life before she met Julius Caesar because history treats her as if she sprang to life the moment she met Caesar when she actually had a fascinating life before she ever met him.
Gar LaSalle: Karen, these were fiction or were these nonfiction?
Karen Essex: They were historical fiction.
Gar LaSalle: Great.
Karen Essex: I guess you would call it biographical historical fiction.
Host: Nice. Well, for those listening, we’ll put the links to those books, and yeah, that could be an entire interview in and of itself I’m sure. Well, Gar, how about you and this question of you’re on book three of your own series and why have you chosen to center it around a strong woman?
Gar LaSalle: Well, that’s interesting. I’m not sure that it’s necessarily all about strong women as the stories have evolved. The central character of the saga is a very gritty protagonist who is fictional. But the story, about a pioneer family’s survival in the mid-nineteenth century Pacific Northwest is based on historical fact. When I did the research on the actual events that occurred — the murder and beheading of a prominent settler — I was drawn to the story of his widow because of what I found in her diary. There were less than 3,000 non-Native settlers in that area at that time. She was isolated, depressed by the weather and taken by doldrums of pioneer life, fearful of Indian predation, trying to raise a family in the absence of her husband who was never there because he was always involved in a number of ambitious things. He was revered. She ran the farm in his absence but was given no real authority.
I tried to see life through her eyes. The way the story was originally written — as a treatment for a screenplay about a woman’s efforts to recover the remains of her murdered husband, I realized that it needed much more. What would be better and more compelling than changing her quest to her attempts to recover a kidnapped son?
The more research I did, the more I realized that her circumstances were common. Frontier women had to be strong as hell. I believe in fact, they had to be stronger than the men in most circumstances, because they had huge responsibilities and yet the men were given all the privileges. Women were treated as third class citizens in many respects.
I have two daughters who I want to emulate the many strong women with whom I have had the privilege of working in my professional career.
Karen Essex: When you mentioned about your daughters, one of the reasons that I’ve continued with this work is I have a daughter, and when she was little when I was writing the Cleopatra books, and I would always talk to her friends and say, “What women do you admire?” They didn’t know any women from history at all. The only female they could come up with was Madonna. …so I just thought, “This has to change… I have to do this for them, you know? They have to know that women have come before them and done something more than cook.”
Gar LaSalle: The history itself is fascinating, and I’ve tried to take it from the perspective as a physician too and the privileges that were given to male physicians. When I went to medical school at Cornell in 1973, there was one woman in our class of 100. The prevalent rationalization I heard back then to justify that disparity was that “women couldn’t be good physicians because they just didn’t have the strength or durability to practice medicine” or “they would take up precious spots in medical school, but then not ‘give back’ because they likely would get pregnant and drop out of practice.”
That’s all changed, and fortunately, It all changed pretty quickly. By 1985, when I went back to New York to work on a documentary about the changes in medicine in the ‘fin de siecle’, half of the class was female. I observed the interaction between the medical students, and recall being impressed with how tough smart and tough the females were. They were more than holding their own with their male counterparts.
Karen Essex: It’s very interesting, the whole history of women’s health that no women until now have been active in research about women’s health, and so even women’s health has come to us from a male perspective. It’s fascinating.
Host: You touched on some of that with even women’s mental health. Is that the fair way to say it, Karen with Dracula in Love?
Karen Essex: Absolutely, yes, in Dracula in Love.
Host: Yeah, say a little bit about that because that from the medical perspective we’re talking about, that was shocking to me.
Karen Essex: Well, based on a lot of very solid research too, people think that I should say in my book Dracula in Love, which is a telling of the Dracula myth from the perspective of Mina Harker. When I reread some years ago the Dracula tale, Bram Stoker’s Dracula and there’s the one character Renfield is an inmate in the mental institution, and what occurred to me was, which I knew from my women’s studies, a mental institution at the end of the 19th century would not have had one mad vampire acolyte in it. It would’ve been loaded with women who were committed just because they were thought to be hysterical based on acting like women. Women were committed for all kinds of women. Husband wants to remarry, tired of the old wife. Let’s just declare her, get a physician to say she’s hysterical and let’s put her away. One of the biggest reasons that women were put in mental institutions in the 19th century was for being sexual, so women who had sex drives were thought to be aberrant. That was aberrant behavior for a female.
I think it’s mentioned in Dracula in Love, and this was a story that just broke my heart based on research. A 15 year old girl was committed because she did cartwheels on the front lawn, and her parents saw her and said, “This is not female behavior. There’s something wrong with this girl.”
Host: Wow. This is late 1800s?
Karen Essex: Late 1800s. Many of our grandparents and great grandparents were born at that time, so in terms of history, it’s pretty recent and pretty shocking.
Gar LaSalle: I did similar research for the third book and the history of psychiatry during the 18th and 19th century. It was primitive back then Not that it’s perfect now, There was collusion between physicians, male physicians, and the asylum administrators.. It was a convenient way of being able to essentially acquire the woman’s estate of a woman by having her committed. Institutions were filled with women who were treated in that way.
Karen Essex: Oh, yeah. The treatments were horrific. Force feeding through a tube and the water treatment, which was basically torture, sticking women in tubs of ice cubes and then forcing them to drink cold water. It was thought to calm the hysteria.
Host: Whoa. That’s torture.
Gar LaSalle: Then they actually had contraptions that drowned people. Then they would resuscitate them. They’d fill the tank all the way up with water till the person could no longer hold their breath, and then they would drain it and resuscitate them. i
Host: Well, this brings up something that I think is really interesting about the work both of you are doing, which is if you look around at books, movies, TV right now, you see a whole lot of dystopian future settings, and I think you’re seeing more, at least I feel like I’m seeing more strong female protagonists in these kind of… hero type or heroine roles. Whether it’s the really popular movie series or a lot of the books that are going after YA audiences. I think it’s interesting that when we project, projecting into the future, obviously you can create the setting as well as the dystopia as well as the storyline. You have carte blanche on that. Both of you work in historical fiction, so my question is what kind of lessons do you think modern readers can pull from or learn from seeing strong female, strong women in historical contexts rather than in these futuristic dystopian contexts?
Karen Essex: Well, it was real. It’s not a fantasy that these women actually accomplished what they accomplished. I have a different take on these women superhero movies and-
Host: Okay, good.
Karen Essex: … cartoons where women are beating up men, girls are beating up boys and all this stuff. I think I’m going to write about this, so let me try this out on you guys.
Host: Do it.
Karen Essex: I look at all this stuff and I think, “Oh, now we have to be ass kickers too?” We have to be beautiful, smart, educated, gentle, soft, but strong, and now we also have to be martial arts experts and snipers? I think in a way some of these contemporary characters, and it goes into fantasy, I think in a way, even though it’s supposed to be about female empowerment, in a way I think it puts yet more pressure on girls. Oh, now I have to actually be able to beat up men. I have a pet peeve, which I adore the show the Americans. Love it. A friend of mine created it. I’m a very devoted viewer of it, but every time teensy Kerry Washington beats the hell out of a big man who’s been… in all the martial arts and every manner of weaponry, I just think … I don’t like it. Don’t prey upon my fantasies. I find it bothersome, this thing that is supposed to be empowering I actually find quite bothersome, so that’s my sort of non-fiction thinking these days.
Host: Well I think-
Karen Essex: I don’t know what you guys think about that.
Host: Gar, what do you think?
Gar LaSalle: Well, I think that certainly the appetite for Hollywood has been to try to find, the term I’ve heard over and over again is kick ass. A kick ass woman. I think that’s fine. I think that my sense is that there’ll be circumstances in which a woman certainly can deal with somebody who is stronger than her, but there’ll be circumstances where that’s not going to be the case. The reality is that brute force is going to overwhelm a smaller person in most circumstances unless a person is exceptionally skilled, so I don’t find that necessarily possible, and the more that it pushes on that into the impossibility area that it undermines something that is much more significant, it seems to me.
I think that the qualities that are there are very there without having to push on that envelope, necessarily.
Karen Essex: This thought just occurred to me. In a way, it’s just another way of defining positive qualities through male qualities, right? Remember when, I remember when I entered the business world, it was the mid 80s and we all were supposed to look and act like men, right? We had big shoulder pads, we wore black, we wore suits. We were supposed to be very tough because the masculine qualities are considered the positive qualities, so I just think all of this, now you’ve got to be able to beat people up too, that’s just another way of saying, “Well, if you’re strong, you have to be strong in this way,” as opposed to what you’re talking about, which is a mother protecting a child, going out on a limb, risking her own life to protect a child. That’s a strength too. I would rather personally see more of those stories than stories in which women have super heroic powers to beat up men. That just doesn’t really interest me that much.
Karen Essex: I’m thinking of, I’m sort of pursuant to what you just said, there have been studies done about female law enforcement officers, and the most positive thing is not that women are great snipers or that they can beat up criminals, but that women have a distinct ability to defuse violent situations. Let’s celebrate that. I read that one study. I have never seen that talked about in any other contexts when we’re talking about law enforcement, but I think that would be something to be celebrated.
Gar LaSalle: A de-escalation process. We teach that, of course, in dealing with violence in the emergency department.
Karen Essex: Oh really?
Gar LaSalle: When you’re directly confronting it, you figure out a way of essentially deescalating the process and then entering into a negotiation process where there effectively is a of course win-win opportunity for both of the parties
Host: Karen, just what I’m hearing you say is, or first of all, I think that take on the representation of female empowerment, what you’re saying is I would please explore that for all of our benefit. Talk about it.
Karen Essex: … this is inspiring me to write an essay about it or something.
Host: It is pretty fascinating that I hadn’t thought of them that way, but sort of the classic dystopian YA novel that is, or even the Disney one, a Disney version of the empowered woman is very, very similar to Odysseus or something. It’s very male hero cycle archetype, just a woman doing those things, which is kind of what [crosstalk 00:31:05] I hear you saying.
Karen Essex: Hunger Games. You know, she-
Host: Hunger Games, yeah.
Karen Essex: She certainly doesn’t use her feminine qualities to, you know, she’s a marksman.
Host: Just sort of substituting a woman into a storyline that were sort of the traditionally male trait celebrating storyline.
Karen Essex: Right, exactly.
Host: Interesting. I love that both of you are doing things with historical fiction, and especially, you said it very succinctly, Karen, just they’re real stories. Even if they aren’t 100% factual historical figures, in your case, Gar, both of you are pulling out real stories or stories that have the capital T truth as well as the truth of history in your case, Karen. Yeah, just telling that this is what needed to happen and history wouldn’t have happened, sort of riding the scales, riding the balance of history.
Gar LaSalle: I feel like I, Karen, what you mentioned about celebrating the things where there are differences. Not that one then says to the, quotes the other side of the aisle, so to speak, that, “Well, that’s not your domain. You can’t do that.” It reminded me of something, statistics that we used to see in dealing with medical malpractice. The difference between males and females getting sued and then some of the qualities of the physicians who get sued, and it’s coming down to something that relates to the ability of someone to communicate with another human being, and the ability of one person be able to empathize with another person and the ability to listen. We have done studies where we recorded the amount of time interacting with the patient, and we found that female physicians spent much more time listening to their patients, interrupting fewer times. And they are sued, proportionally, less frequently as a result
I believe that there’s a correlation to be drawn to the notion of empathy and the ability of a women to listen in comparison to their male counterparts in the medical field, generally.
Karen Essex: I’m sure you’re right. My best friend in New Orleans who I grew up with is a rheumatologist, and she is the kind of doctor who will sit with her patient and hold their hand and listen to what they’re feeling. I just had the experience of taking my mother to a couple of doctors, male doctors, and all they did was talk. I was kind of noticing the difference, the mansplaining. Here’s what’s wrong with you.
Host: Yes, I didn’t realize that was what’s wrong with me.
Karen Essex: When I hear stuff like that, I think, “Well, why can’t we learn from each other? Why can’t we take these qualities and help women to be more assertive and help men to listen better?” That’s my vision of a better future. Not feminizing men or masculinizing women.
Host: I love it. Well, we are actually fast approaching the end of our time together here.
Karen Essex: That went by quickly.
Host: Yeah. What you’re saying leads into my last question for each of you, which is what can we expect from each of you in the near future? Do you have a project in the works that you want to tell us about? Karen, have you decided where to publish your essay on this yet?
Karen Essex: No, I haven’t decided that yet. I have just actually, I am finishing my first contemporary novel.
Karen Essex: Which is inspired by certain sex scandals that are ripped from the headlines, and so events of the present have kind of inspired me to write about sexual politics in a contemporary way. I’m not going to abandon historical fiction, but I’m just finishing. In fact, maybe even tonight, finishing my first contemporary project.
Host: Oh, that’s exciting. Can you share any details or how long, will it be a while before we can see that?
Karen Essex: Well, the only thing I want to share is that it is inspired by certain shocking sex scandals that have come out recently. We have a certain person in office, and that has influenced by work quite a bit. That’s what I’m doing now. Before Gar tells us what his plans are, I just want to say I would love to see you write about a female doctor.
Host: Ah, yes. Fantastic. I would love to see that too …what’s that?
Karen Essex: I’m just a writer, right? He’s a writer, a physician…
Host: Awesome. Well, folks who are interested in Karen’s work that she’s talked about on here as well as that book in the future, which is likely many of you, we’ll definitely leave you links to find everything that Karen is doing. Gar, how about you? What’s on the horizon?
Gar LaSalle: Well, as I mentioned, the third book is now with the editor and will come out in October along with edits of the first two books.. The first book has been optioned for a feature film, and I’ll be spending a lot of time working on that. There are two more books planned in this saga and I have… research for the “orphan trains” that shipped 250,000 across the country from 1855 to 1917. 250,000 kids!. I will ride trains and go into small towns throughout the Midwest farming communities and just try to get a sense of what the environment was that these children were put into.
Also am working on a documentary. We’ve done majority of the filming for that. It’s called “Never Say Die.” Part of that is following children who have terminal conditions with neurologic or metabolic diseases. It’s how we deal with death in our society.
Then I have an article that I’m going to be actually doing a podcast on pretty soon. It’s called “Taking Out the Guns”, and it’s the story about, it’s a personal story that relates to this fascination we have with weapons in American society.
Host: Fantastic. Well, okay. It’s been my honor and certainly a pleasure to have both of you. Karen, thank you very much. Gar, thank you very much, and everybody, I hope you enjoyed today’s artists’ chat about representing women in literature.
Gar LaSalle: Thank you, Scott. Nice meeting you.
Karen Essex: Thank you very much, guys. Really a pleasure.
And here are the show notes from host Scott James of Solipsis Publishing:
- 2:30 – Why they chose to focus their work on strong women: Karen talks about why she has chosen to focus on the women’s experience of history, reminding us that:“Women are… hidden from history. All female history is hidden history. If you try to do research about women’s lives, you will find yourself having to read between the lines of written history because no one has recorded female stories. I wanted to illuminate the female historical experience and women’s ability to succeed and influence history in spite of the challenges they faced.”
We talk about why that is, and what it means for history and how it motivates what she said has become her life’s work. At 5:00 she talks about how finding that the historical Kleopatra was nothing like Hollywood’s version of Elizabeth Taylor as Kleopatra sparked two of her earliest books.
- 12:00 – How their work is driven by their daughters
- 15:00 – The hidden history of women’s health and mental health in history, including women being committed to mental institutions for reasons as simple as being emotional or having a sex drive, and about the brutal treatments that amount to torture that were typical at the time.
- 21:00 – The Dystopian and “Kickass Women” tropes in Hollywood and what they mean for storytelling and how many strengths women bring to the table that are not emulations of violent male traits, like conflict resolution as police officers or de-escalation skills in an emergency room setting.“Even though it’s supposed to be about female empowerment, in a way I think it puts even more pressure on girls. Like, ‘Oh, now we have to be able to beat up men?’… This thing that is supposed to be empowering, I find it quite bothersome.” — Karen Essex“I don’t find [those storylines] necessarily plausible, and the more [Hollywood] pushes on that… it undermines something that is much more significant, it seems to me. I think that the equalities are very real without having to push on that [kick ass female] envelope.” — Gar LaSalle
- 36:00 – Future ProjectsKaren is finishing her first contemporary novel dealing with sexual politics inspired by the kinds of shocking sex scandals we see in the headlines today. You can find more of Karen’s work at http://karenessex.com, and her books on Amazon here: https://www.amazon.com/Karen-Essex/e/B001HCXNNQ.
Gar is putting the finishing touches on The Fairness of Beasts, the third book in his Widow Walk saga. He is also working on a documentary called “Never Say Die,” that deals with how our society views death, and an article called “Taking the Guns Out,” which looks at our obsession with guns in entertainment media. You can find more on his work at https://www.garlasalle.com
KAREN ESSEX is an internationally bestselling author of five novels, including Leonardo’s Swans which tells the stories of the rivalries among the powerful women painted by Leonardo da Vinci. The novel was also a runaway bestseller in Italy and won the prestigious Premio Roma for foreign fiction. She has done extensive adaptation work throughout Hollywood, and has had her articles published in many magazines, including Vogue and Playboy. A native of New Orleans, she currently divides her time between Los Angeles and Europe.