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May 21, 2015

Writing as a Girl --- Guest Post by Robert Sharenow


A lot of people advise that you should “write what you know” --- if you grew up in New York City, set your story in Harlem or Park Slope. If both of your parents were doctors, fill your tale with medical jargon. And if you’re a male, write from the perspective of a boy or man. Author Robert Sharenow, however, would beg to differ --- his new novel THE GIRL IN THE TORCH is not the first, but the second novel he wrote featuring a female protagonist. In the blog post below, he tells us why he decided to write distinctly what he doesn’t know.


THE GIRL IN THE TORCH is my third published novel and the second that features an adolescent girl protagonist.  The story centers around Sarah, a Russian Jewish immigrant at the turn of the last century who hides out in the Statue of Liberty after the death of her mother.  My first book, MY MOTHER THE CHEERLEADER, was written in the voice of a poor Catholic girl growing up in New Orleans during the Civil Rights Movement.    I’m not Catholic.  I didn’t grow up in New Orleans. And I’m not, nor have I ever been, a girl.  So I’m often asked why a middle aged man like me would want to write from the perspective of a girl, not once, but twice?

Typically, I get interested in telling a particular story and the characters naturally form around the core of the idea.  In the case of my new book, I wanted to explore the immigrant experience and the enduring power of the Statue of Liberty as a symbol of freedom and the promise of America.  In Emma Lazarus’ famous poem, the statue is described as “The Mother of Exiles.” I fell in love with the idea of the statue becoming like a surrogate mother to an orphaned girl.  

In MY MOTHER THE CHEERLEADER, I was writing about the group of white women that protested the integration of the New Orleans public school when an African American girl named Ruby Bridges started attending.  I felt that the most powerful way to convey that story was through the eyes of the daughter of one of the racist mothers.   I hoped to enhance the bitter irony of mothers harassing and threatening an innocent little girl like Ruby by having the story told by an innocent girl.

For me, one of the greatest thrills of writing is to get inside the head and understand the experience of someone completely different from me.   I enjoy discovering new voices and imagining the world from an alien perspective.  I always hope that my writing process will be an act of exploration, discovery and empathy.   

Many of my favorite books are ones in which the authors took the greatest leaps of narrative imagination.  I’ll never forget the first time I read Jean M. Auel’s THE CLAN OF THE CAVE BEAR and how brilliantly she captured the prehistoric world, convincingly detailing the mindsets of her heroine Ayla and the more mentally limited Neanderthals.   I was also awed by William Styron’s SOPHIE’S CHOICE and wondered how a Southern man could so well capture the plight of a Polish Holocaust survivor.  More recently, Mark Haddon’s THE CURIOUS INCIDENT OF THE DOG IN THE NIGHT-TIME brilliantly conveyed the perspective of a 15-year-old boy with autism. 

Some aspiring authors mistakenly believe that their writing must be a direct reflection of their world or personal experience, drawing their inspiration from writers like Jack Kerouac, Lena Dunham or Ernest Hemingway.  Certainly, this approach works for many of our greatest writers, but all of my own attempts at quasi-autobiographical fiction felt forced and not very engaging.  It was only when I attempted to jump into someone else’s skin that my writing came alive.   Even writing this blog did not come as naturally as writing about someone else or a different time and place.   Some part of me always questions whether the details of my life, process or mental state will be of any interest to anyone.   

My second novel, THE BERLIN BOXING CLUB, is told from the perspective of a boy, as is a new novel I’m working on.  But I think writers should free themselves to write about anything and anyone that interests them.  If you’re a boy, try writing as a girl.  If you’re young, try writing as an old person.   If you were born in the 1980s, try writing as someone born in the 1780s.  Finding your voice as a writer may very well entail finding someone else’s.

Robert Sharenow is an award-winning writer and television producer. His novel THE BERLIN BOXING CLUB was awarded the Sydney Taylor Award by the Association of Jewish Libraries and received starred reviews from Publishers Weekly, School Library Journal and Kirkus Reviews. He also serves as executive vice president and general manager of Lifetime. He lives in New York with his wife, two daughters and their dog, Lucy.