Saturday, June 18, 2011

I'm Not a 16-Year-Old Girl by Bill Cameron

Bill Cameron is the author of dark, gritty mysteries featuring Skin Kadash: County Line, Day One, Chasing Smoke, and Lost Dog. Bill’s short stories have appeared in Spinetingler, as well as the Portland Noir, First Thrills, and the forthcoming West Coast Crime Wave and Deadly Treats anthologies. His work been nominated for multiple awards, including the Spotted Owl Award for Best Northwest Mystery, the Left Coast Crime Rocky Award, and the 2011 CWA Short Story Dagger Award. He lives in Portland, Oregon, where he is currently trying to get a handle on a new character.


by Bill Cameron

You might notice something about me: I'm not a 16-year-old girl. In fact, I have never been a 16-year-old girl, though I once knew a drill sergeant who begged to differ.

So it was with some trepidation that I tackled the story of the teenaged Ruby Jane Whittaker in County Line. What do I know about being a 16-year-old girl? Hell, at my age, I barely remember being a 16-year-old boy. Clearly I was out of my mind when I set foot on this path.

But the way I see it, if the writing isn't hard, it's no fun. I want to explore characters well outside my range of experience. With each book I've written, I've tried to put myself in a life I've not lived, whether it's Eager, the skate punk of Day One or Jake, the damaged killer in Lost Dog. Skin Kadash himself is a stretch. Though there are pieces of me in him, he and I are more different than alike in many ways. Still, compared to many of my characters, Skin is a comfortable pair of well-worn loafers.

To me, reading is about understanding. And through understanding we gain empathy. Whether we're reading for escape or for a challenge (or both), I think our greatest takeaway is our world grows larger. As a writer, I see the same process at work, only magnified. It's been said writers need to know everything about their characters, right down to the color of their underwear, even if it never appears in the story. We can't limit ourselves to the character on the page, but must see the character beyond the page.

So when I turned my attention to young Ruby Jane, I endeavored to know as much about her as possible.

And what do I know about being a girl becoming a young woman? On one level, not much. How could I? Aside from the fact I'm a middle-aged man, we're all islands living inside our heads. We don't even share a present with those around us, as the speed of light itself restricts us to ever reacting to events infinitesimally in the past.

But on another level, I think there's a fundamental humanity we all share. As Haley Isleib, friend and fellow writer, said, "We're all people." And how do we come to understand the people close to us? We listen.

I'm a reader even more than I'm a writer, and to the extent I've captured the essence of Ruby Jane's young womanhood, I owe a debt of gratitude to other writers. Fiction may not necessarily be about facts, but it is about truth, and from it we can gain great insight into what it means to live other lives.

Of course, though I sometimes forget it, life is more than reading. I'm a father of a daughter, now a young woman herself. She's elegant and intelligent and beautiful and funny. I learned a lot from her watching her grow up. And she has friends, and my own friends have sons and daughters. As writers, as readers, as people, I think we are well served to open ourselves up to the experiences of others. When we listen, we learn to feel, and our lives are enriched.

My goal with Ruby Jane was to express an understanding of a life I will never lead, to honor a pain I can never feel and to celebrate a strength I hope I never need. It's a goal I have for all my characters, a goal which grew out of seeing what others have shared through their own stories.

So my question to you is what characters have leapt off the page for you and enlarged your own view of the world?


Ellis Vidler said...

What a thoughtful article! I really like the way you look at writing and your characters. I'd like to read about Ruby Jane and Skin. Thanks for such a good post.

Bill Cameron said...

Hi, Ellis. Thanks for reading and for the kind thoughts. Should you decide to give Skin and Ruby Jane a try, I'd love to hear what you think.

Kaye Wilkinson Barley - Meanderings and Muses said...

Bill - Welcome!!!! I tried like the devil to get your piece posted last night, but Blogger would not cooperate.

This is a terrific piece and, I think, I wonderfully well-said answer to those who think you can only write about what you know.

I can't wait to read about more Ruby Jane.


Harley May said...

I love this so much, Bill. Wonderful, wonderful.

Jonathan E. Quist said...

Bill, that's something else we have in common. I'm not a 16-year-old girl either. It's a small world, after all.

For me, perhaps the most world-enlarging character is Sue Grafton's Kinsey Millhone. When I first read A is for Alibi I was about thirty, and had never encountered anyone named Kinsey. It started somewhat hard-boiled, and I liked the character immediately, but it wasn't until several pages in that the first physical description appeared, and I realized that Kinsey Millhone was a woman. That came as a bit of a shock, as I had assumed right from the start that Kinsey was an oddly-named tough-guy male P.I.

Discovering that you still hold a deeply-rooted prejudice that had been long dismissed at an intellectual level is a bit of a jarring experience. But ultimately, reading A through H in the series back-to-back was instrumental in putting that piece of cultural baggage behind me.

Kenneth R. Lewis said...

Hi Bill:

'Lemme Guess. You were out doing some birdwatching, and you spotted a rare, silver pixieheaded Carolina Chickwing...but upon closer inspection of its feathers you saw that it was only Kaye? Seriously though, folks, did you know that Bill Cameron really is a bird watching enthusiast, in addition to being the finest crime fiction writer in the Pacific Northwest? Well, he is, and he is. Hey, I'm not just a fan of Bill's, I am a FAN. What was it Renee Zellweger said to Tom Cruise in "Jerry Maguire," you had me at hello? Bill had me at "Lost Dog," his first Portland crime novel, and "Chasing Smoke" followed by "Day One" only got better. Can't wait to read "County Line"! I have nominated Bill to be the Featured Author at this year's Oregon Book Fair here in Jackson County, and I'm hoping to corner him there this fall to get an autograpghed copy.

Julia Buckley said...

I think I can confidently say that there is a sixteen-year-old girl in all of us. :)

And having enjoyed Ruby Jane's character in LOST DOG, I'm looking forward to experiencing her in this new book. Congratulations on the launch!

One of the most influential characters in my life was Rodion Romanovich Raskolnikov in CRIME AND PUNISHMENT. He was bad yet good, and he made me question the very nature of goodness and belief.

Neil Plakcy said...

This post really hit home with me because like Bill, I'm a middle-aged man, and I just wrote a book with a sixteen year old girl as protagonist and narrator.

It is an amazing feat we assume, isn't it-- to put ourselves in the mind of someone so different from ourselves, and yet look for the common characteristics that make us all human.

Great post, Bill!

Bill Cameron said...

I'm catching up after my drive up to Seattle and back today. I tried to post from my phone, but Blogger wouldn't let me log in.

Jonathan, I had the exact same experience with Kinsey. Someone recommended the first book and I started reading it without even glancing at the back cover. The realization Kinsey was a woman caught me by surprise too. But, like you, I came to love the books very quickly. Sue Grafton is marvelous.

Harley, thank you. :)

Ken, I gotcha covered. Thank you too, my friend.

Julia, you're probably right, if we only acknowledge it. :) I'm glad you like Ruby Jane. I going to be very non-authorly and admit I adore her.

Neil, I'd love to read it. What's amazing to me is the fact that, as mystery writers, we often put ourselves into the minds of killers and psychopaths, and people rarely think twice. Yet that strikes me as a greater chasm to cross for most of us than gender, or culture, or even race. Yes, we need to be serious students of human nature, as another friend put it, and respect the differences were hope to portray. But if we do, I think it's a wonderful opportunity for us as both writers and human beings.