Diversity In Books

About a year ago I noticed something about my books. I realised that all of my characters were white and straight, with the exception of the head teacher in The Boy With The Thorn In His Side. Or at least they were white in my head; obviously readers may have imagined them differently. I have to admit I felt a bit ashamed by this. It was never intentional of course, not to write about more diverse characters, it’s just that I’ve always lived in a very white area, where everyone I grew up with was white and so on. As for writing characters that were gay, this had also never occurred to me, I guess, because I’m not gay.

After realising this, I decided to change the ethnicity of my main character Elliot in Elliot Pie’s Guide To Human nature. It wasn’t a huge change. I just mentioned that his absent father was Indonesian, making him mixed race, with dark skin and hair, unlike his mother who has blonde hair and fair skin. Not much is made of this in the book. It did, however, tie in nicely with the hatred his mother Laura feels for the people who live in her claustrophobic neighbourhood, such as Tony, who likes to knock on people’s doors to warn them there are immigrants living behind them.

At the time, I spoke to a lot of other people about the topic of diversity in books. My daughters thought I was right to change Elliot’s ethnicity, and were quite appalled that all my characters so far had been white and straight. Other people said to change his ethnicity seemed a bit like a token gesture, and if he was white in my head I should leave him like that. I’ve since thought about the decision in other ways too. For instance, does a white writer have any right to write about a character who has a different cultural background to them? I would argue that they do, as long as they have done their research if research is needed. In this case, it was not. Racism is not an issue for Elliot, only his mother, who cannot stand the Little England mentality of people like Tony. His mother is in a state of despair about the state of the world, and for example, cannot understand the callous attitude people are having towards the refugee crisis.

I decided to leave Elliot as mixed race and think about it again later. If he persisted as blonde-haired and blue-eyed in my head, then I would change him back. But for me now, after about a million drafts, he is darker skinned than his mother, with very dark hair. He’s become this Elliot in my head, so I’m pretty sure that’s the way he’s going to stay.

While Elliot Pie was with beta readers, I took a break from it and wrote a rough draft of a YA novel about an alcoholic teenage singer. I’ve blogged about this story idea in the post  Untold Stories , as the original story was one I penned aged 16 and then discovered in an old suitcase under my bed. In the original story, again, everyone was white, straight and working class. In this new version, as I was writing it, the characters changed. One of the secondary characters became gay, and the main character, Bill became bisexual. Well, I say bisexual, but this is not entirely confirmed by the end of the novel, and he certainly doesn’t waste any time feeling confused or upset about what he is or isn’t. He just has a lot of fun kissing his best friends, one of whom is female and one of whom is male.

Now, again, why did I do this? I think there are several reasons. I think because diversity in books has been on my mind. It’s been on my mind because I too have noticed how many of the books I read contain, straight white characters and this has started to annoy me. It’s been on my mind because of my children, who are, to my great pride, growing up to be the sort of people who are accepting of anyone of any culture, ethnicity or sexual preference. In many ways, my children educate me on the issues facing the LGBT community. Plus, I feel that with recent political events, and the horrific rise of hate crimes against ethnic minorities and LGBT  people, we all have a responsibility to stand up for equality and decency and kindness.

With all this on my mind in recent months, it’s no wonder it crept into this rough first draft. It was not intentional, but rather an organic and natural progression. It felt right for the characters and added to their storylines hugely.  Have I got it right? Who knows at this point? I will see how it all reads once I get around to the second draft.

And as for Elliot Pie’s ethnicity, this still feels like the right thing for the book. So, what do you think? As readers, do you feel the books you read have enough diverse characters? Is diversity in books important to you? Do you ever feel certain groups in society or ignored,

So, what do you think? As readers, do you feel the books you read have enough diverse characters? Is diversity in books important to you? Do you ever feel certain groups in society are ignored, sidelined or stereotyped in literature? What about you writers? Do you write about diverse characters, and if you do, is it intentional or natural? Do you tend to write about characters who are similar to yourself? Or do you feel writers have a responsibility to open people’s minds up to other lives, cultures and backgrounds? I would love to know your thoughts, so please feel free to join in the conversation!

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Author Interview: Karl Beckstrand

Karl Beckstrand is an American author and public speaker with forty ebooks under his belt. He recently contacted me to see if I would be interested in reading and reviewing his award winning YA novel To Swallow The Earth. I readily agreed, as the book sounded so intriguing;  a suspense filled Western and Winner of the 2016 International Book Award, Literary Classics Seal of Approval, and 2016 Laramie Award Finalist. You can read my Goodreads review here. Having read and enjoyed the book so much, I wanted to know more and Karl kindly agreed to an interview. Here he explains how he came upon the original manuscript for To Swallow The Earth, talks about his journey so far as a writer and offers his advice to others. Enjoy!

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1) To Swallow The Earth is authored by yourself and Ransom Wilcox. Could you tell us more about who Ransom was and how you came to co-author the book with him?
Ransom Wilcox is my grandfather. I inherited his unfinished Y.A. manuscript. It’s suspense set in the Nevada silver rush–and it won a 2016 International Book Award (also a Laramie Award finalist). My grandfather grew up exploring the Sierra Nevada Mountains on horseback nearly a hundred years ago. My challenge was to develop his characters while preserving the action and authentic language.
2) How much work did you need to do in order to prepare the book for release?
Several months’ worth. He had Carson City as the opening scene, but the other communities were fictitious. I had to look up which real cities would fit his descriptions, develop the characters, fill in some gaps, and polish the overall story.
3) Will the story of Wade and Patricia extend into any more books?
I suppose that depends on how much demand there is for sequels!
4) When did you first know you wanted to be a writer?
It kind of took me by surprise. In college I would get ideas for books and scribble them down (when I should have been doing my homework).
5) Tell us about your writing and publishing journey so far. For example, which paths you have followed and why?
After college I joined a writer’s group and met a gentleman who wanted to publish one of my juvenile manuscripts. Unfortunately, he died the day we were to print. I got a crash course in publishing/marketing. One other publisher asked me to write a true story about an immigrant child. I knew about a girl in my family history who arrived in the USA alone, not knowing English. I developed the account—and then got hooked on family history. Now I’ve written several stories on immigrants and several multicultural books. I’m also working on a graphic novel and an audio version of To Swallow the Earth.
6) What is your usual writing process? Are you a plotter, or someone who starts writing and waits to see where it will go?
I try to write or research every day in the morning. I usually get most of the plot outlined right away, but twists and extra material often strike me at any odd time. For non-fiction I have to research and get the facts right, as well as create a good beginning, middle, and end. These books are rewarding to me because they preserve true acts of courage/faith for new generations to witness.
7) What advice do you have for a new author about to launch their first book?
To launch means you’re about to embark on a lot of marketing (even if you’re with a large publishing house, authors must do a lot of the publicity). If you’re just starting a book, write every day. Write from your heart—from what you know first-hand. Don’t try to write about something that you think is popular (unless that’s what you know). You don’t have to have an agent but you should always have a professional editor. Have several people critique your work—people who won’t gloss over glitches. These people can help you be your best.
8) Can you tell us anything about your next release? What are you working on right now?
I have a book in the works that teaches how to earn and manage money. It’s called The Bridge of the Golden Wood. It will have illustrations (kind of a parable) but I will market it as a business/how-to book.
9) What would you most like readers to take away from reading To Swallow the Earth?
Pure excitement: What if you came home after a journey and your family was no longer there? What if someone else was living in your house, running what you used to manage—and trying to kill you? Could a beautiful woman be behind it? Wade Forester has to stay in the shadows. His father has disappeared, and his sister won’t speak to anyone. Patricia Laughlin is searching for her family as well. Few people gain her trust or approval. Wade must decide if risking his life to help Patricia means aiding the enemy. And Patricia must choose a killer to trust with her life.
10) Tell us three interesting things about yourself
I was raised in paradise (San Jose/Silicon Valley) —the perfect climate, much like Valparaiso (Chile, where I lived for two years [LDS mission]). I have a bachelor’s in journalism (never planned to be a reporter) and a master’s in International relations. I teach media at a state college in Utah and speak on traditional vs. digital/self-publishing. I’m an arts/media junkie (music, art, films, books, theater—oh, and history!)
Karl Beckstrand
Premio Publishing & Gozo Books
Action & language books with black, white, Asian & Hispanic characters

 

Thanks again to Karl for agreeing to be interviewed! I truly enjoyed To Swallow The Earth and would highly recommend it to anyone who fancies something a little different! It certainly is a page turner, and incredibly visual. Beautiful, in fact. If you want to know more about Karl you can follow him on FacebookLinkedInTwitter and YouTube. You can find his books on Smashwords and Amazon.