Mark Pryor is the author of the Hugo Marston novels The Bookseller, The Crypt Thief, The Blood Promise, The Button Man, and The Reluctant Matador, and the stand-alone Hollow Man. He has also published the true-crime book As She Lay Sleeping. A native of Hertfordshire, England, he is an assistant district attorney in Austin, Texas, where he lives with his wife and three children. The Paris Librarian (Seventh Street Books) will be out August 9, 2016.
The question has been posed to me in several ways, by numerous people, and with varying degrees of politeness: how and why did I create a transgender French police Lieutenant for my Hugo Marston series, and did doing so cause me any concerns?
Allow me to explain, using geraniums and pastries as props.
My first novel, The Bookseller, is set in Paris during the winter, and at one point my protagonist Hugo Marston is wandering the streets and enjoying the old buildings, appreciating the hotels with their window boxes that “spilled red geraniums.” Later in the story, Hugo takes a trip to the Pyrenees Mountains where he enjoys a nice meal followed by a crème patisserie layered with strawberries.
A year or two after the book came out, I received an email from a reader who said she’d enjoyed the story and characters very much, but she felt the need to point out two things: that geraniums don’t flower in the winter, and one can’t get strawberries in the Pyrenees in winter.
On that second point, I phoned my dear old mum who lives in the very village Hugo visited and asked whether that was true, whether she could get strawberries during winter.
“Can I buy strawberries here?” She was confused by the question. “Yes, but I’m sure it’d be easier for you to buy your own, rather than me send you some,” she said. “They’d be mushy by the time they got to Texas.”
“No, mum, I meant do they sell strawberries there in winter? If you want some, can you get them?”
“It’s not 1950 here, you know. Of course you can, they’re just a bit more expensive,” she said. “Why are you asking silly questions?”
I emailed my reader back and politely pointed out the availability of fresh fruit in the Pyrenees. Ever the gentleman, I declined to point out that many of the geraniums in Paris’s window boxes are fake. Pretty, but fake.
All of this is to say that I hesitated before I created the character of Camille Lerens because I knew that if I got her wrong, there would be consequences.
I hesitated a lot.
You see, there’s an old writers’ saw that says, “Write what you know.” It’s obviously a recommendation and not a rule but generally speaking it’s a good one. It doesn’t mean, by the way, that you should only write about things you already know. I take it to mean that if you can research a subject or visit a place to give your story authenticity, that’s just fine. Plastic flowers and strawberries in winter? Check.
But a transgender, black police woman ain’t no bowl of strawberries. Characters are people, not mere places or objects, and for a book to convince and charm its readers the characters have to be real. I didn’t want to create a character I couldn’t make real, I couldn’t do justice to. And on a topic like this, there was a lot of room to not just get it wrong but to get it insultingly wrong.
But I also wanted to create a book, or series of books, that reflect the changing world around us—I gave my first Paris detective a Spanish name, because Europe today is more of a melting pot than ever. I made Hugo’s first love interest a confident, professional woman because, as my mother pointed out, this isn’t the 1950s.
This wasn’t enough, though, because I realized that with just one exception, all of my major characters in that first book were middle-aged white guys. So sure, the characters themselves might seem real but they lived in a world that was pretty homogenous. Take a look around, I told myself, that world is long gone. And yet I stuffed my book with… middle-aged white men.
Including the bad guy.
I introduced Camille Lerens in the third novel, The Blood Promise, after the untimely demise of her colleague (no names, no spoilers, but I’ll admit I even surprised myself!). Right there and then it seemed like a good time to change things up a little. We hear about the need for diversity a lot in today’s world and I agree that it’s important. Important in books, too, and by bringing Camille into that novel I now have wonderful dose of diversity for the series. But why specifically her, the way she is?
There’s a reason, sure enough. You see, the older I get, the more keenly I become aware of how lucky I am. With my writing career, my legal career, with my family and friends. Sure, I worked hard to get here but I’ve had help along the way. And there’s one thing I’ve not had to deal with, ever: discrimination. (Apart from the time a criminal defense lawyer filed a motion to prevent me using my English accent in trial! (http://www.daconfidential.com/2009/10/i-say-tom-ah-to-you-try-to-stop-me.html.))
The combination of good fortune and my realization that others aren’t as lucky have combined for the past fifteen years or so to make me strive to understand people who are different, either through choice or by dint of nature. I’m as straight as an arrow but I’ll fight for anyone in the LGBT community. I’m as white as snow, but heaven help you if you utter racist slurs in my presence.
Which is all to say that writing Camille Lerens is a way to understand a different world view. To explore it. For me, yes, but also a way to subject my other cis-gendered characters to someone different from them. And this isn’t a purely political exercise, not at all. In every book I strive to put my protagonist Hugo in situations that test him in one way or another. Maybe physically, maybe mentally, maybe emotionally. For a straight Texas male to come across, and have to work with, a black transgender cop was a reminder to him, as well as to me and my readers, that the world is changing in wonderful ways and welcoming that change moves us all forward.
In talks and at book signings I often describe Hugo as a “fish out of water,” a cowboy-boot wearing Texas lawman on the streets of Paris. And any story is enhanced, I think, by that concept of a character not just fighting the bad guys but fighting a part of himself, striving to find himself in his new location. Camille Lerens was a fish out of water for much of her life, right up until she was able to live as herself, realize her true self. I like that she can do that on the pages of my books, with good people like Hugo, Tom, and Claudia to support her.
Not that she should get comfortable.
Camille’s predecessor learned that in crime fiction anything can happen at any time, which means that no one is ever completely safe from the knife or the bullet. Oh no, because as much fun as I have with my gaggle of good guys, I really love dreaming up the wicked characters and when it comes to carrying out their evils deeds, Hugo, Tom, and Camille need to understand that they don’t discriminate either.
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