Bestselling author Matthew Hall has penned seven books in the acclaimed ‘Jenny Cooper’ series. Hazel Davis, understandably, had some questions about a man writing women.
Matthew Hall has worked as a barrister and screenwriter, writing more than 40 hours of primetime drama for BBC One and ITV, including Kavanagh QC and Dalziel and Pascoe. His debut novel, The Coroner, which introduced recurring protagonist Jenny Cooper, was nominated for the Crime Writers’ Association Gold Dagger in the best novel category.
Why did you choose to write a female lead character, given that you’re, er, a bloke?
Contemporary female characters can embody all the complex demands placed on women. Men have their challenges, too, but I went to school and university with women who I assumed would have very similar trajectories to their male peers, but for whom life, and particularly family life, has sent them in very different directions.
Women have to juggle work and invariably being the principal emotional and practical support to children. They demand and expect more of themselves than men; they feel their shortcomings more acutely; they are more self-critical. Their experience of constantly being pulled in many directions means that few women ever feel they have succeeded in the principal aspects of their lives. And when you meet a woman who is a success professionally and emotionally, suspicion attaches…
“Popular fiction tends to present women in positions of professional authority either as tougher than their male colleagues and lacking in emotional range, or as bleeding hearts. I was determined not to do either.”
Women’s dilemmas, especially in an age of emotional intelligence in which we link children’s present and future wellbeing to the input of parents, are simply more interesting and more pressing than men’s.
What does a female character give you that a male one doesn’t?
Over the course of writing seven books featuring Jenny Cooper I think I finally know the answer to this one. I wanted to write about a character with a vivid and often troubled internal life. I wanted a character who would empathise deeply (a coroner deals with bereaved families, after all), and one that that at times had an almost spiritual connection with the dead.
These things would have been possible with a man, but I’m not sure that readers would warm to a man who was as emotional as I might have made him. As a society we still expect men to be strong and unfeeling if they need to be. Jenny Cooper doesn’t have to do that. If she feels passionately, she can more easily exhibit it than a male character could.
There may also be something else in play. I have come to realise that I have put a lot of myself in Jenny and it has probably been easier to channel this through a female character from whom I have a bit of distance. She shares elements of my own psychological history.
Why did your publisher try to disguise the fact that you are a chap by insisting initially that you were to be called MR Hall?
Over 70 per cent of novels are bought by women and it was thought that it might confuse readers to know that a female character was being written by a man. I protested mildly but, whereas my editor had been very sparing in her notes on the text, she was adamant that I would be known by initials.
Last year, my publishers changed their minds and decided that I should be called by my real name, Matthew Hall. I think it’s to do with prevailing marketing wisdom. We live in age of full and frank exposure, and writers now have to connect with readers in myriad ways. Pretending to be someone else no longer works.
How do female readers react to your being a man writing a female character?
They’re often surprised and then a little intrigued and often want to know who I have modelled Jenny Cooper on. It has never once proved a problem. If a story is good and a character is truthfully constructed, then readers really don’t seem to mind about the sex of the author.
Why did you make Jenny so psychologically flawed? Is this playing into a stereotype of women not coping with pressure as well as men?
In the first few books in the series Jenny suffers a lot with anxiety, which we increasingly suspect has its origins in a traumatic, formative experience. She has panic attacks and self-medicates, often to a reckless extent.
It’s a fact that women suffer from anxiety conditions more than men (men tend to exhibit aggression, the flipside of anxiety, more than women), but I had suffered a lot with a similar condition in my 20s while practising law, and I gave Jenny some of my experience.
I’ll stick my neck out and say that perhaps it takes a male writer to create a female character who is not constructed from the point of view of a woman reacting to what she perceives society’s expectations of women to be. I don’t measure Jenny against any sort of male yardstick. She’s not trying to beat men or prove herself as a woman, she is simply trying to be the best coroner she can be and to deliver justice.
It never occurred to me that I might be playing to a stereotype of a woman suffering stress more acutely than a man might – I wasn’t. I was trying to explore a complex issue through a character whose responses to her problems were not entirely rational.
“I have come to realise that I have put a lot of myself in Jenny and it has probably been easier to channel this through a female character from whom I have a bit of distance.”
I have known male lawyers who have to medicate before going into court and people practising their professions at a high level while coping with depression, alcoholism and drug addiction. Sex and gender doesn’t come into it.
Popular fiction tends to present women in positions of professional authority either as tougher than their male colleagues and lacking in emotional range, or as bleeding hearts. I was determined not to do either.
I began my working life as a barrister and had many female colleagues. They could be tough in court, but sensitive in dealing with people outside it. They could be warm and caring mothers and they could do office politics as aggressively as any man. In other words, they were fulfilling many different roles and had to be far more adaptable than men.
Do you have any particular female influences?
My female influences aren’t especially literary ones. The influences on my writing are all personal ones: my grandmothers, mother and wife. Female friends and neighbours whom I have seen dealing with their families’ illnesses and crises while trying to hold down jobs; women working in tough careers who then have to take time out to raise children or look after elderly parents; women who don’t have husbands and children but who have to cope with living in a world that still finds that strange; and younger women (particularly in the time we live in right now) who feel they have to conform to false and ridiculous aesthetic ideals.
These are all people for whom life is inherently complex and fraught with compromises – that’s my raw material.
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Hazel Davis is a freelance writer from West Yorkshire. She has two tiny children but the majority of her hours are taken up with thinking about Alec Baldwin singing sea shanties and the time someone once called her "moreishly interesting".