I was in a bookstore recently and someone asked me if it felt weird to be a guy writing from a girl’s perspective. Before I could answer, a bookseller who’d been listening in turned around and said: “He’s not deaf either, though, right?”
Actually, she could’ve kept going:
“He’s not eighteen.”
“He didn’t grow up in the States.”
“He didn’t attend a US high school.”
“His high school in England was single-sex.”
“He’s never played in a rock band.”
“He’s never managed a rock band.”
And on and on . . .
I’ve always thought that apart from entertainment, the main reason we read is to experience the world through someone else: to see things as they do, to face and overcome the hardships they encounter. This is also the main reason I write: for the privilege of empathizing fully with someone I will never be. The success of failure of a book often hinges on the author’s ability to pull this off.
In Piper’s case—she’s the narrator of FIVE FLAVORS OF DUMB, by the way—I had to do a lot of research: I mean, she doesn’t know anything about music, whereas I have a Ph.D. in music; she’s deaf, but I’m not. But most of my readers aren’t deaf either, and probably don’t know much about deafness. Whereas a LOT of my readers are female, which is why your question is so interesting. And embarrassing. See, it’s like this . . .
Confession time: In order to get fully inside Piper’s head, I had to get help every now and again.
In DUMB, Piper crushes on a boy. To be honest, I wasn’t completely convinced why she would like him all that much. So I asked my wife and sister-in-law: “What makes a boy attractive to a girl?” Now, as someone who has been happily married for a decade, I probably ought to have had some idea of this already, but I didn’t. And so both of them dutifully gave me a list of things that they would have found attractive in Piper’s situation. And I thought: “Huh. That makes sense. Cool.” And I included it. All of it.
Then there’s the moment where Piper makes out with someone-who-shall-remain-nameless. And I thought: “Huh. I’ve never kissed a guy. I wonder what that’s like.” So I asked. And again the answers were really illuminating, so I kept them in mind as I was writing the scene.
But you know what? As much as I had to ask for help for some parts of DUMB, I actually wrote 99 percent of it without asking for any advice at all. And the reason, I think, is that most of the challenges teens face are universal: they affect boys and girls equally. I completely understand Piper’s feelings of resentment toward her parents at the beginning of the book, because anyone would feel that way. I also know as well as Piper what it feels like to be an outsider at school, to crush on someone without them feeling the same way about me, to want to excel academically without having friends think I’m a geek/nerd/dork/loser (choose your noun). And, like Piper, I felt everything intensely as a teen. Seriously, I over-thought everything, and had enough hang-ups for entire class of students. Thankfully, I get to channel that into writing now, which is perfect.
So what was it like writing from a girl’s perspective? Fun, interesting, educational. And a lot like living high school all over again. Only this time, it was co-ed!