Karin Bishop Books

Karin Bishop

Identity, Lipstick, and Alfred

I may be known for writ­ing about trans­gen­der char­ac­ters, but that’s rel­a­tive­ly recent. I have writ­ten all of my life, but with a big gap in the mid­dle when I trav­eled pro­fes­sion­al­ly (before the age of lap­tops). In school, I’d won some fic­tion awards and gone the usu­al high-school-and-col­lege-cre­ative-writ­ing-mag­a­zine-edi­tor route, but for years my writ­ing was non-fic­tion, most­ly tech­ni­cal writ­ing for man­u­als, newslet­ters, sales mate­ri­als, and what­ev­er the client ordered.  All along I’d been writ­ing fic­tion on my type­writer, then my desk­top com­put­er, and now I live in my laptop!

My non-fic­tion writ­ing was sol­id and paid the bills, but I need­ed to know the qual­i­ty of my fic­tion so I began par­tic­i­pat­ing in every writ­ers’ con­fer­ence and writ­ers’ group around. Loved the con­fer­ences; hat­ed the groups. There was more ego and back­bit­ing than lit­er­ary cri­tique. I took grad­u­ate cours­es in fic­tion and screen­play writ­ing. I found more egos and back­bit­ing, and now fla­vored with pol­i­tics and ide­ol­o­gy. In the writ­ers’ groups a work might be dis­missed as ‘sim­plis­tic’ while the same piece at uni­ver­si­ty was dis­missed as ‘Marx­ist’.

I found that the face-to-face nature of a group or class cre­at­ed prejudice—in the lit­er­al sense of ‘pre-judg­ing’ even before the sto­ry was read. This was espe­cial­ly appar­ent after we were encour­aged to “tell us a lit­tle about your­self”. Cri­tiques became prej­u­diced by the age, sex, edu­ca­tion lev­el, and back­ground of the author—none of which, I felt, should be a fac­tor of a lit­er­ary cri­tique in a learn­ing environment.

I want­ed my writ­ing reviewed, not my life. I with­drew from the groups, fin­ished the semes­ters and still wasn’t sure about the qual­i­ty of my writ­ing. Writ­ers’ con­fer­ences are still valid and I attend when­ev­er pos­si­ble, but I decid­ed to find writ­ers’ groups online, hop­ing the anonymi­ty and geo­graph­i­cal dis­burse­ment would shift focus from the writer to the writing.

That anonymi­ty worked both ways; I began notic­ing sim­i­lar cri­tiques, from strangers thou­sands of miles away. I noticed time and time again, regard­less of the pres­tige of the forum or par­tic­i­pants, there was evi­dence of read­er bias based on the authors’ bios. Men were told they could­n’t write romance; women were told they could­n’t write action or suspense—not that they weren’t allowed, but that they could­n’t write them well to con­vey any expe­ri­ence that they “quite obvi­ous­ly did not have”.

It was the tyran­ny of Write What You Know. This is a dic­tum taught in count­less Writ­ing 101 class­rooms, yet this is a lim­i­ta­tion; writ­ers must use their imag­i­na­tions. It’s ludi­crous to expect writ­ers to only write about what they per­son­al­ly know and expe­ri­enced. Mark Twain knew about river­boats, hav­ing pilot­ed on the Mis­sis­sip­pi, so he could write about that. But he’d nev­er been a black man—so, fol­low­ing Write What You Know—he should­n’t have writ­ten about Jim. And so the world would have lost Huck­le­ber­ry Finn.

I real­ized that part of the Write What You Know tyran­ny was respon­si­ble for the bias, how­ev­er spe­cious. Writ­ers in work­shops faced bias against loca­tion: “Oh, you’re from the mid­west? You could­n’t pos­si­bly under­stand life in Los Ange­les.” Against age: “How can you write about an elder­ly man? You’re a woman, and only 24.” Against edu­ca­tion: “You set your nov­el in a uni­ver­si­ty, yet your bio shows that you only grad­u­at­ed from high school.”

It struck me that these biased com­ments were only made because the oth­ers in work­shops knew the writer—that “share your­self with the group” busi­ness on the first day, how­ev­er well-mean­ing the instruc­tor’s request.

I exper­i­ment­ed; I sub­mit­ted an action-romance to an online writ­ing group, and used a male author name. The group’s response was that the action was grip­ping and sus­pense­ful, but that “You don’t real­ly under­stand how women think.” I sent the exact same man­u­script to a dif­fer­ent writ­ers’ group, but with an unmis­tak­ably fem­i­nine, Vic­to­ri­an-era name. The response? “You don’t real­ly under­stand how men fight. The descrip­tions of the rooms and clothes have nice details, though.” The exact same manuscript!

Con­se­quent­ly, I have two ‘exper­i­ments’ in oper­a­tion: First is my own anonymi­ty. I do not divulge any per­son­al details. I am a col­lege grad­u­ate who has trav­eled exten­sive­ly and held a num­ber of dif­fer­ent jobs—so I’m like a lot of oth­er peo­ple. Beyond that, I try to main­tain my, um, invis­i­bil­i­ty. Obvi­ous­ly, this means no Face­book pho­to and detailed bio! I am also exper­i­ment­ing with a form of cor­po­rate ‘brand­ing’, with all of my books hav­ing the same cov­er back­ground. When read­ers scroll through their ebook col­lec­tions on their device, you can always spot a Karin Bish­op book—even when the cov­ers are reduced to the size of postage stamps.

I believe peo­ple buy and read a Stephen King nov­el, or Jodi Picoult or John Grisham, for exam­ple, regard­less of the cover—because they trust the writing.

I want my writ­ing to be judged on its own mer­its, and not because of a pret­ty girl or studly guy on the cov­er! So I am exper­i­ment­ing with a cov­er “brand” with repeat­ed symbols—my cov­ers all fea­ture a chess­board, the clas­sic bina­ry, only mine is not black-and-white; my chess­board is grayscale, rough­ly sym­bol­iz­ing the gra­da­tion of gen­der. The back­ground is lace; the bright red lip­stick is the most obvi­ous fem­i­nine icon, yet is also phal­lic. And the head of the lip­stick is split, as a bishop’s mitre would be, which is a joke on my name.

So, with famil­iar­i­ty, my cov­ers should lose any influ­ences over the writ­ing they con­tain. And due to my expe­ri­ences with bias, I am lim­it­ing any influ­ences over my writ­ing by being pur­pose­ful­ly reclu­sive. Take my writ­ing as you read it, and not what you may read into it by know­ing details about me.

As to influ­ences on my writ­ing? Every book ever read, and every movie ever watched. All music and lyrics heard, all paint­ings stud­ied, and every­one I’ve spo­ken with or watched. It may seem to be a facile expla­na­tion but it’s also quite accu­rate. I also lis­ten to peo­ple all around me, in malls, air­ports, salons, gro­cery stores, or just pass­ing them on the street. I lis­ten to what they’re say­ing, how they’re say­ing it; their word choic­es and cadences. I might even learn some of their likes and dis­likes, and what moves them.

But I am also influ­enced by Alfred Hitch­cock­’s the­o­ry of the ‘MacGuf­fin’, the plot ele­ment that dri­ves the nar­ra­tive but is not itself of impor­tance. In his film Psy­cho, Mar­i­on steals $40,000 and flees. The theft of the mon­ey isn’t the point of the movie; it’s the MacGuf­fin, the mech­a­nism, that gets her to the Bates Motel, which is what the movie is about. In his film Noto­ri­ous, the whole point is to get Cary Grant and Ingrid Bergman togeth­er, although the super­fi­cial plot is about radioac­tive sand in wine bottles.

Nobody watch­ing a Hitch­cock film actu­al­ly cares about the forty grand or bot­tled sand. Nobody cares whether Indi­ana Jones actu­al­ly finds the Taber­na­cle; we’re along for the ride. Nobody cares about ‘the let­ters of tran­sit’ in Casablan­ca. All we care about, what moves us—what we cry over and cheer for and remember—is whether Cary and Ingrid get togeth­er, about Indy’s adven­tures, and about Rick and Ilsa’s part­ing in the fog.

First and fore­most, I want to write sto­ries that move people.