Heroines of the Sexual Gothic and Where Do Writers Get their Ideas?

Sunday Morning Writer’s Blog

Readers and journalists are forever asking writers, where do you get your ideas from? This is a hard question for writers to answer. Sometimes ideas arrive like the ping of an email dropping into your computer. Other times they develop gradually, like an obsession that gets bigger and bigger the way a snowball grows as it rolls down hill.

An easier question for me is, where do my characters come from? Looking back at a lifetime of writing fiction, I have to admit that my main characters are usually parts of me that broke off and then were repressed because dealing with them felt too dangerous during the time when this aspect of myself surfaced.

The best example of this is the novel I wrote about a distant ancestor, the giantess Anna Swan, The Biggest Modern Woman of the World. Anna (1846- 188) stood seven foot six in her stocking feet and weighed 413 lbs. when short, dainty and demure women were the Victorian ideal. When I was twelve in the late 1950’s, I was six foot two during an era when girls were supposed to be five foot two with eyes of blue. One summer I grew six inches so I worried that the march of my head to the ceiling was unstoppable. I was secretly convinced that I was going to have to exhibit myself for a living, the way Anna did.

Anna was my bogey woman, the self I didn’t want to become so I quickly shoved her out of mind until I was in my late twenties and starting to write fiction. I came across her name in a magazine article and soon I began to dream about writing the story of a giant woman living in Toronto’s Casa Loma. Then I decided it was a performance piece about giants and midgets. I put on that performance piece with Toronto choreographer Louise Garfield in Toronto’s Dance Lab in 1979. In 1983, I published a novel about Anna’s life, sticking to the basic facts (which were extraordinary, like Anna.) But I put in my own interpretation about how Anna felt about growing up in Nova Scotia, exhibiting with P.T. Barnum, meeting Queen Victoria and marrying the Kentucky giant, and giving birth to two giant babies, both of whom died.

See what I mean? Anna was a living, breathing myth. And finally, I could investigate her when I was mature enough to imagine how she felt about living her short, spectacular life.

I’m still interested in Anna’s story and what it means for me and other women so I’m staging a performance reading called Heroines of the Sexual Gothic to celebrate Anna and my other fictional characters. Sexual Gothic is a term that describes fiction written exclusively, extremely and even grotesquely about the body. That is, the body is a metaphor for trauma and that’s true of most of my female characters because I was traumatized by my own female body when I was young. I suspect complexes or traumas about their bodies is still true for most girls and now even for many boys because physical perfection is expected of both genders in this age of electronic media and the Internet.

The first staging of Heroines of the Sexual Gothic will be a fundraiser for the Toronto Women’s Bookstore June 7. The Billie Hollies, an all girl folk-Noir quartet, is part of the performance reading. I was knocked out by their music last year at a Random House event called Torn From the Pages. Louise Fagan is the producer and Mariel Marshal, assistant dramaturge.  After our work-in-progress is over, we intend to put on a finished version of Heroines of the Sexual Gothic in Toronto and New York next year. The above image is of Anna with her husband Martin Van Buren Bates, who was four inches shorter. I’ll write about agents in my next Sunday morning blog.


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