When trying to understand the XX ask yourself Y
A Session with Tom Avitabile (an XY in good standing)
“Reading a novel is like being in a car and taking a journey. The narrator is driving. And whether he drives fast and cruises the curves or whether he’s pedestrian and pokes through the plot – he’s in control. Tom Avitabile is a cocky chauffeur and The Eighth Day is one hell of a ride.” – Anonymous via Amazon
Yep that was me… a cocky, confident, chauffeur. Driving the keyboard through the highways and byways of creativity, arriving at a manuscript with a devil-may-care, damn-the-dangling-participles, full-speed-ahead bravado.
Ahhh, but my new book, Give Us This Day, is my first, full-fledged jump into the life, psyche, and thought patterns of a female character. Specifically, my FBI-agent-turned-Quarterback-Group-operative-turned-director-of-a-federal agency, Brooke Burrell. When I first started to write Brooke in this new story, I already had a good character base for her developed over three books where she not only grew into her character but into her life. However, what I eventually realized was that there was a safety rail in the previous novels. She was in a traditionally male line of work. Therefore, she had to interface and meld into a workplace mindset that was decidedly testosterone-laced. So if I went too heavily male in her actions or motivations, I felt and hoped the reader would allow it or excuse it as Brooke merely reacting to the male-dominated environment in which she had to deal. Easy to write a woman in that context! Piece of cheesecake.
Another aspect that I hoped would make readers forgiving of my female depiction was that prior to this new book she was only a supporting character. Therefore, I could define her by reflecting her, carefully crafting what other characters said and thought about her. That allowed me to choose how deep into her “wiring” I wanted delve or whether I wanted to leave it to the external observation of the other characters to fill in the blanks.
Now in my fifth book, Brooke is the main character while my usual array of main and minor characters takes a supportive role. Many times in the story she is all alone with her thoughts. There isn’t anyone around to reflect off, so I have no choice but to go inside her, into the “female mystique.” Let me tell you, it’s scary in there!
When writing Brooke in the outer, physical domain, I can throw the world at her and make her deftly respond, win, lose, or draw. But delving into her being, dissecting her psyche, in an effort to actually write the parts of her that make her “her” needs a female mind map. The problem is the map is replete with symbols and markings that most males are genetically incapable of deciphering. That’s because males have only one x chromosome, while arguably women are women because they have two. With that additional chromosome comes the ability to see the world and life differently. We males are given the Y chromo-thingy as a consolation prize, but I guess that only helps with war, hunting, conflict, football and copious consumption of beer, most ironically Dos Equis (Double X’s or XX)!
Now at times like this, I desperately cling to the adage, “You are a piece of all the characters you write.” So, Hello Brooke, welcome to my inner female. Sorry to say there’s not much organic female development inside of me. That leaves me with only one path to the inner sanctum of the female mind: reverse engineering!
By this, I mean that, as I am writing Brooke and I make a choice on an action or decision she makes, I have to constantly ask myself not only, would a woman do that? But, Why? Why would a woman make that choice? Even if it’s the same choice a male would make, it may not be for the same reason. To get to the female “why,” my only path was to reverse track externally observed female behavior back to the initiating intention and instinct. This tracing of the logical steps back into the mind of the woman that I am defining means creating motives and histories, impulses and predilections that become the causes that result in her behavior.
For an example here’s the “ouch” that caused me to tape this warning above my computer’s screen in 24 point type: When delving into the working of the female mind, always, always, always assume that you are wrong. Just ask any female and you’ll quickly confirm just how wrong you are. But then ask another female and see how wrong the first woman was! No, no, no, not that Female #2 agrees with you, noooo, you are not even on the same page as her. The terrifying reality is that she doesn’t agree with Female #1!
Okay, so back to me. I recently was educated to the fact that having a male character ask a female character for permission to call her by her first name, i.e., “May I call you, Brooke?” Is actually worse than chauvinistic. I quote from the response of a beta-reader who commented on my manuscript, …
“It’s a huge power play and condescending for a man to address a woman who is an equal or better by her first name. It’s like him asking her to get coffee for him. She’s [Brooke is] a sharp cookie and should be offended or at least think he’s a sexist a**hole by his asking.”
I had two simultaneous thoughts when I read that… First, thank God for this reader and her sharing of that critical piece of social decorum of which I was totally unaware, ill informed, and insensitive. As, apparently, were a few other female early readers who missed it. (See the Female#1/Female#2 divide above)
My second thought was…I am never going to talk to a woman ever again. God knows how many faux pas I commit per minute in just even the most innocent and casual chat with someone of the opposite sex. Yikes, I don’t want to ever be a sexist a**hole, EVER! Much less announce and confirm that fact in un-retractable, Times New Roman set 11 on 14 in 435 pages that will live on somewhere or on some shelf or digital file until the sun flickers out.
In another part of Give Us This Day:
Brooke spent two hours aiding the injured and supervising the recovery. Detective Greyson found her slumped on the side of a fire truck catching her breath. “Here.” Reaching for the coffee, Brooke said, “Thanks” to the female detective.
“We got a temporary command post set up across the street. There’s a quiet place in there and a pretty clean bathroom.”
“Yeah, it was getting to be that time.”
On the way over to the bathroom she noticed something that lodged in the windshield of a cab that was covered in bricks, dust, and debris from the building. Embedded right into the glass was a mangled cameo pin. With effort, she removed it from the shattered windshield.
Brooke exited the bathroom and found a small office in the large blue-and-white motor home the NYPD had converted to a mobile command post. She shut the door and sat in the desk chair. She put her face in her hands and let out a deep breath. Then she felt something in her hair. She rolled out a glass pebble, another piece of the window they broke to get free. Then she pulled the broach out of her pocket. Charlene had a brooch just like it. She hadn’t seen Charlene among the survivors. She thought of all the people she worked with, most of whom wouldn’t be going home tonight, wouldn’t be kissing their loved ones or hugging their kids, all because they worked in one way or another for her. Her bottom lip began to quiver and she had herself a good cry.
Later, Brooke is overcome with emotions during a memorial service for 19 members of her team who were killed in an attack on their offices. An attack that was intended to kill her. Instead a woman in her unit who was always mistaken for her was in the crosshairs.
Security was tight at Saint Patrick’s Cathedral. Due to the imminent threat and her team’s total focus, there wasn’t time to go to each individual funeral of the nineteen people killed in the rocket attack. So this one memorial service was organized for the workmates and families to grieve collectively. In the following days, each victim would be buried separately in his or her hometowns and with their families in attendance. But for now, this ceremony was the only way for the unit to grieve and to keep the investigation on pace in a race against time.
“Ronald Bixby…” the Monsignor read out loud. “Son, brother, nephew. We pray for you and your family.”
As the names were read, the family members sobbed and cried. Each name brought new gasps and wails as the oppressive reality of the finality of it all collectively resonated across the cathedral.
For the family members it was a bad “day-mare” from which there was no waking up, no escape. As for Brooke, she hadn’t had a minute to grieve properly. But now, in this hallowed, gothic basilica, her emotions became a torrent of cringing reverberating images. The echoing off the stone and marble of each name as it was read aloud brought shimmering images of the agents and coworkers fading from her field of view. Her hands started to shake. Tears welled up and her chest heaved with shorter breaths as all the trauma and danger of the last few days finally found a weak spot in the mental steel that was the armor plating her sanity.
As she turned her head away from the altar, her eyes fell upon a little girl of three or four. She was in a little jumper dress with white shoes dangling down from the pew that she and her family were sitting in. The man next to her had his arm around her holding the innocent child close as she played with a little doll in her hands.
“Charlene Logan…” the Priest read. “Daughter, sister, niece, mother…we pray for you and your family.”
“That’s mommy.” The little girl said innocently.
The man sitting next to her tried to hold back, but he lost his stoic battle as his quivering lower jaw opened and an “Oh my God,” escaped. He then pulled the little girl in tighter and kissed the top of her head and rested his cheek on her hair with the beret in it.
As roiling heaves erupted from within her, Broke abandoned trying to hold back her emotions and she broke out in deep sobs. So unprepared was she that she had no hankie, no tissue. Why don’t I have a tissue? the outwardly stalwart director and former agent-in-charge of just a few seconds ago asked the woman inside her. It was the first time she’d needed one since her brother Harley died.
Peter Remo, sitting next to her, handed over his hankie. She accepted it with a nod, and dabbed her eyes.
She sensed she was attracting attention. She had to get out of there.
She rose and headed to the side aisle. She walked over to the father and child. She smoothed the little girl’s hair. When the father looked up at Brooke with teary eyes, she extended her hand to him. He went to shake it but instead she placed Charlene’s broach in his hand and folded his fingers around it. When the man opened his hand and saw the cracked and singed broach, he started to breathe in rapid breaths, attempting to stave off full-fledged wailing. Brooke put her hand on his shoulder, gave him a squeeze for strength, and walked away.
She made her way past the little gift shop and out a side door. The NYPD patrolman on post on the other side of the door was there to stop people from entering, so he just nodded as she flashed her creds and hit the street.
Brooke walked south a few hundred feet, hailed a cab on Fifth Avenue, and told the driver to head to South Ferry.
After a few minutes snaking through the midday traffic to get to the FDR South, the driver looked in the rearview mirror and said, “You okay, Lady?”
Brooke nodded through her tears and closed her eyes.
Brooke kept seeing that little girl, Charlene’s daughter. The she thought of Charlene, who would never see her daughter ride her first bike, or see her in the dress she’ll wear to the prom, beam as she graduates, or cry as she gets married. Charlene would never hold her grandchildren. Brooke laid out on the backseat and cried into her folded arm. The driver was concerned. “Lady, please don’t throw up in the back of my cab, please.”
In the scene in the back seat of a cab, it all comes crashing down on her. All the emotions, death, destruction and carnage, the loss of friends and coworkers. I had to be careful here; I couldn’t be guilty of inferring that because she’s a woman she can’t handle the reins of leadership. So I went inside and made her emotional response on her own failings, as in failing to protect her team, failing to anticipate the bad guys’ next move, failing to protect that little girl’s mommy.
Brooke sat on the seawall at the tip of lower Manhattan looking out across the water. The Statue of Liberty stood as silent sentinel over the harbor. Various ships, boats, and ferries crisscrossed the harbor as she sat. Her phone vibrated. She glanced down at the 631, Long Island area code but didn’t move an inch to get it.
Her mind was a debating society. The two parts of who she was were warring and going at it. The “warrior” in Brooke was screaming to stop this nonsense and get back to work. The “woman” in Brooke argued that she had failed to live up to her number one rule: “Everybody gets to go home…”
“No, I ain’t saying nothing like that Ramón, all I is saying is that you didn’t have to lie to me…”
“But I didn’t. You going to believe Darnell or me?”
Brooke looked over to the young couple arguing as they passed her bench, and their words faded. Right now she would settle for arguing with Mush. Just to hear his voice. She needed him. He would see her point. No, he’d side with me, the Warrior Brooke in her brain, countered.
She pulled her feet up under her onto the bench, wrapped her arms around her legs, and rested her chin on her knee. Her phone buzzed again. This time she didn’t look. It eventually stopped as she focused on a spot in the middle of the bay. The undulating water hypnotizing her, she imagined it was the Arctic or the Pacific, wherever Mush was right now. How she needed him, how much she needed to be held in his arms and for him to tell her everything was all right. She unconsciously tightened her arms to her body as if he indeed had his arms around her. It made her sigh. The phone buzzed again. This time she looked and was shocked. The caller I.D. read “USS NEBRASKA.”
Later, I bolster her “episode” with soldiers and special ops men who have led men in battle and suffered loses of people. They commiserate with Brooke and offer understanding that they all went through it in their own way, processing the unthinkable so that they could remain effective and complete the mission.
“Brooke’s in the building.” George said as he popped into Bridgestone’s office, which was about to become Brooke’s again… Bridge hoped.
“No, Brooke is here,” she said as she entered and put her bag down on the table.
“Brooke, I can’t tell you how glad I am to see you. Some lamebrain thought it would be a good idea for me to step in until you came back…”
“You okay?” “I am now, because of you.” Brooke gave him a peck on the cheek.
Bridge had had many commanding officers, but that was the first time any of them had ever kissed him. “I didn’t do anything.”
“That call was the most important call of my life.” “Oh, that?”
“Yeah, that! How did you ever pull that off?”
“The Commander-in-Chief, pacific fleet – your husband’s commander – and me went through SEAL training together, so I tapped an old poker debt.”
“And how much did the President owe you? How did he know that phone call would do the trick?”
“He was in command of a fighter squadron in the first Gulf War. He knows what it’s like to lose people. And so do I, so we figured it was the best medicine to get you up on your feet and back in the game.”
“I don’t know Bridge. Sounds a little too touchy-feely for macho guys like you and the boss.”
“Let’s just keep that little chestnut between us, okay Brooke?”
Even after the writing is over I still flip-flop on these troublesome questions: Is it sexist to treat a woman’s thoughts, emotions and logical processes as different from males? On the other extreme, is it sexist to homogenize all human interaction, reaction, and inaction to some mode of “normal” despite the gender of the protagonist? Then the self-consciousness encroaches: Am I full of smug avarice and blind self-intellectualization to even dare invade the internal machinations of the opposite sex? Then the pity party joins in: Is no matter what I write automatically wrong because I am not a female writing it?
So that’s it. That’s the fear, the reason for me, this formerly cocky, confident chauffeur’s current nail-biting apprehension. The nightmare vision that a woman will read what I wrote and think, “SHE doesn’t work for me.” Or worse what I call homogeneous-augmentation: “All you did was write a man with breasts!”
Well, Brooke is all written now. She’s out there in the big world. I hope I have given her all the attributes of character and flaws of humanity that make her a compelling figure. But like most fathers, I pray that I just made her not only a good person, but a good woman, as well.
Okay, now you try it! Here’s a little “eXXercise” to stretch your cross-gender writing muscle. This works for the XX’s and the XY’s:
Exercise 1 Exercise: Three characters: your choice M/M/F or F/F/M. Your choice: open dialog or internal thought or both. Your challenge: Reaction to one of them doing or saying something and the perception of the other two with the female’s take differing from the perception of the male as to intent or motivation.
Example: John and Mary witnessed Sue slap a man across the face. Mary knows that slap emanated from some filthy, sexist thing he must have mumbled, because Mary herself has been a victim of sexual harassment. John knows that Sue has found the man cheating on her, because he got slapped like that when he strayed. Sue then cries. Mary knows it’s because she is upset at the lewd suggestion that she is cheap and tawdry. John knows it’s because she is hurt; he has seen those tears on the face of his ex-wife. John says to Mary, “Poor Sue.” Mary says to John, “Good for Sue!” John counters, “Good for Sue? She’s been dumped!” Mary says, “All you men are alike. You think that somehow if we don’t play your sick games, then you’ve rejected us!” She slaps John.
Have your own fun!
About the Author…
“Most of Washington really works this way. Homeland Security had better read this one and take corrective action.” That’s what US Ambassador Michael Skol said about The Eighth Day. Readers with lower security clearances have been equally enthusiastic. Crystal Book Reviews called The Hammer of God “the best this reviewer has read in a long time.” Avitabile writes stunningly realistic thrillers filled with tension, humor, great characters, and a seemingly limitless imagination.