Special Edition — How We Write the Heroine’s Story: Interview with Author Jody Gentian Bower

Jody Gentian Bower’s new book, Jane Eyre’s Sisters: How Women Live and Write the Heroine’s Story, is sure to change some minds about the path of women’s literature. I am pleased to post the following interview with Jody. I know readers will find both her thinking and her commitment to the process of creating her book inspiring and informative. You can hear Jody in further conversation with me on this KPTZ.org podcast.

Sheila
Jody, your book takes on the task of revealing a new way of thinking about the heroine in story telling, in classics and popular media. You describe several ways scholars have described the journey for females and disagree in part with what has been said and published about this. Can you tell us about this?

Jody
Most of the writers who’ve written about the heroine journey start with the Hero’s Quest model put forth by Joseph Campbell in The Hero with a Thousand Faces. They may change some parts of that model, they may call the different stages by different names, but in the end, they’re still using a masculine model, they’re still using Campbell’s terminology. It’s kind of like they’re trying to describe how women form friendships by using metaphors from football. What I found in women’s novels is an entirely different pattern that needs a wholly different terminology. For example, I avoid the word “heroine” and instead use Aletis, a Greek word that means “wandering heroine,” much of the time, because that’s what the protagonists of these stories do — they leave home and travel to new places.

Sheila
How did you develop the project of writing Jane Eyre’s Sisters to explain and reveal your findings on the subject?

Jody
Well, as I describe in the Introduction to the book, it was not something I planned on at all. I was in a book club that read a lot of books by women authors, and after a while I began to notice that many of the books we read had essentially the same plot, the same cast of characters, whether it was one of the great books by 19th-century Englishwomen such as the Brontë sisters, Jane Austen, or George Eliot or a recent novel by an American woman such as Alice Walker or Marge Piercy or my favorite author, Ursula Le Guin. I got interested and tried to find a book that described this pattern I was seeing, but no one had written about it! I found several books about the heroine’s journey, but they weren’t based on women’s stories. At some point it occurred to me that if I wanted to read a book about this, I would have to write it!

So I embarked on the journey, which took a lot longer than I expected. I totally stalled out about 18 months in, and finally realized I needed to go earn my doctorate to learn what I needed to learn and also to gain the authority I needed to publish a nonfiction book. That was a four-year detour, but totally worth it. The book I wrote as a result is much, much better than the book I could have written before.

Sheila
What was most startling to you as you collected your thoughts and information?

Jody
How blind most literary analysts have been throughout time to the way women write, the kinds of stories they tell, the great wisdom that so many of these authors have to share. Women writers are still being judged even now against a masculine set of criteria, and if they don’t meet those criteria, their work isn’t taken seriously.

Sheila
Can you say a little more about this being judged and not taken seriously?

Jody
For one thing, critics have consistently been harsh towards women who write female characters who don’t conform to current societal ideas of how women ‘ought’ to be. This is a common refrain in criticism from the earliest works of published prose: the character is not ‘believable’ or even ‘unnatural’ because she speaks out, does things women aren’t supposed to do, or worst of all, demonstrates that she has a sexual side. Charlotte Brontë came under fire because Rochester tells Jane Eyre that he’s had a mistress; the critics said no ‘lady’ would permit a man to talk about such things. Even in the 20th century, women who wrote characters who liked sex, such as Doris Lessing, were accused of writing about — and possibly being — ‘nymphomaniacs’.

As for not being taken seriously, as late as 2011, the editor of The Times Literary Supplement excused the fact that his publication reviews works by men 250 percent more often than they do works by women by saying that women don’t write “important” books.

Sheila
Oh, my! And the problem rages on! What does it mean to you that the Theosophical Society is your publisher?

Jody
This was an act of true synchronicity. I met Richard Smoley, the Acquisitions Editor for Quest Books (the publishing arm of the Theosophical Society), in 2006. I did not know that he worked for Quest; I knew him only as the author of a couple of books on Western mysticism that I had read and enjoyed. We talked for a long time about his books before I mentioned that I had an idea for a book. He asked me to tell him about it, and when I did, he said, “We would be very interested in publishing such a book!” I took that as a sign that I was meant to write the book, and so I quit my job a couple of months later and got started. And I have to say that Quest has been very good to me. I feel very lucky.

Sheila
Why do you think that your book was a good fit for this publisher?

Jody
They publish serious nonfiction on a range of topics, not just religion. And at the time I met Richard, they were looking to expand into publishing more books relevant to women. My book fit both criteria, I guess!

Sheila
How do you think your book may change the perspectives of women writers and men who write about women?

Jody
Right now I see a lot of people who are trying to write “kick-ass” heroines who act just like a male hero would, and it doesn’t quite work. There’s a different kind of heroism that the great women writers . . . and quite a few male authors, like Shakespeare, Dickens, Tolkien . . . have tuned into, and I think works better for most female protagonists. And not just them, but male characters who are not “heroic” in the traditional sense. One thing I noticed was that the Aletis eventually attracts a man who says, essentially, “You know what? I don’t want to go along with society’s rules either; I’m going to be like you.” That’s the power of the Aletis: she transforms those around her just by being herself.

Sheila
This seems the opposite of the hero who must learn to be someone else than he has been. Am I right?

Jody
Well, my interpretation of the traditional hero is that he has to prove that he’s the right man to take over the leadership role for his town or country or whatever. He does this by accomplishing something amazing, and then everyone says, “Yay, you get the throne and the princess!” He has to step up to his inner greatness, which he may not have known he had, but that greatness is what other people want from him as well. So in a way there’s no conflict other than the trials he faces while proving that he is the Hero. People want him to be who he is.

The Aletis, on the other hand, spends her journey trying to figure out how to let her inner self walk proudly in the world despite all the efforts by others to make her be the person they want her to be — usually, someone who takes care of others. The conflict comes because she feels herself to be much more than that. It’s not that she has greatness in her, although she may; it’s about being seen as a unique individual with the right to determine her own life.

Sheila
Interesting! Which Shakespeare, Dickens and Tolkien heroines contain the kind of story that you found in the great women writers?

Jody
Viola of “Twelfth Night” by Shakespeare is a perfect Aletis: she is shipwrecked on a foreign shore and to survive, puts on male clothing and passes as a man, gaining employment with the Duke Orsino and quickly becoming his companion and confidant. When he finds out she’s a woman, the Duke says, “You’re the one for me!” — not because she’s pretty, but because she’s clever and courageous and loyal. Dickens tends to write completely submissive female characters, but in his last complete novel, Our Mutual Friend, he gives us the working-class Lizzie Hexam. Lizzie refuses to be forced into marriage to a man she doesn’t love (Bradley Headstone) and also refuses to let the man she does love (Eugene Wrayburn) seduce her, because her pride in herself is too great. She’s also physically strong and saves Eugene when he’s nearly beaten to death by Bradley Headstone in a jealous rage. Finally, Tolkien’s Éowyn in The Lord of the Rings is sick to death of being expected to stay home and watch the house while her brother and everyone else gallivant about being heroic. So she disguises herself as a man, rides into battle, and accomplishes the impossible task of killing the evil Witch-king — one of the great moments in the book comes when the Witch-king tells her “not by the hand of man will I fall,” and she tears off her helmet to reveal her long golden hair and says, “But no man am I!” But it’s a hollow victory for her, and as a result she realizes that she doesn’t want to be a killer, she wants work that affirms life.

Sheila
Thanks for this window into the way you analyze plots about the Aletis journey. What has pleased you about the response of the book’s early readers? What has surprised you?

Jody
So far people seem to love it, which is wonderful. My favorite quote from many of the early readers is, “I am giving this to my daughter!” I like the idea that I’m not just talking to women of my own generation, but to younger women as well.

The big surprise is how many men have loved it too. One man of my acquaintance, a gentleman in his 70s, was so excited about it he couldn’t stop talking about the things I said about how men have suffered just as much from a society that doesn’t value the feminine.

Sheila
Can you share some of his perceptions?

Jody
He especially liked the part about the societal expectations put on men to never, ever reveal emotions or any other behavior that could be construed as ‘”feminine” and how limiting and harmful this can be for men.

The owner of Island Books, on Mercer Island, WA, Roger Page, loved it so much he couldn’t stop talking about it. John Gordon Hill, a Seattle film-maker, wrote a rave review on Facebook and tagged all the influential women he knows in the Seattle arts community who he thinks will love it, and a young man just out of college told me he’s sending a copy to his linguistics professor “who loves this kind of thing.” And my 90-year-old father, who’s now read it twice through, keeps telling me about books he’s read or real women he knows of whose lives fit the Aletis story, such as Gertrude Bell.

Sheila
As the grandmother of two grandsons, I am very pleased that the book gets this kind of response and hope more and more men say what these men have. What are more of your hopes for the book and its audience?

Jody
I’d love to reach the same audience that Clarissa Pinkola Estés found with her book Women Who Run with the Wolves. I think that group would find a lot of meaning in my book. I’d also like to see it become a textbook for classes in women’s literature and scriptwriting. Fiction writer Pamela Moore Dionne thinks my book should be required reading for people earning their MFA in Creative Writing.

Sheila
How are you promoting the book to general audiences as well as interesting professors in using the book as a text?

Jody
Well, I’ve got a website, jodybower.com, I’m on Twitter as @DrJodyBower and Facebook as Jody Bower, I’m booking readings in different bookstores and other venues, I’m working on promoting the book through my graduate school, I’ve got at least one college professor so far who wants to use the book in her course on Heroines, Quest is putting ads in a bunch of different magazines from Ms. to Psychology Today and arranging Internet and radio interviews, and I’ve been working on getting the book before people like Elizabeth Gilbert, Jean Shinoda Bolen, maybe even Oprah. I’m also putting together a workshop based on the book for women, and I’ll be presenting at several conferences this spring and summer, including the Popular Culture Association’s national conference, which is huge, and the Pacific Northwest Writers Association conference.

Sheila
I am impressed by your energy and promotion efforts. How does one work on getting the book to the big names like Gilbert, Bolen and Oprah? It sure would be wonderful if Oprah’s cable station could help women find your book.

Jody
Well, a friend heard Gilbert on Oprah’s Sunday show talking about how there are no good books on heroines, and I promptly e-mailed the marketing director at Quest and she sent a copy to Gilbert’s agent with a note about what Gilbert had said on the air and the suggestion that my book might fill that gap. We’ll see if it works! And if she passes it on to Oprah… As for Bolen, we’ve met before and we have a couple of mutual friends so I’m hoping to pass her a copy through one of them.

Sheila
Yes, so often we have the important parts of a network right among our friendship and acquaintance circles. While we are talking about promotion, might you share with us how you got yourself booked into the conferences as a presenter?

Jody
That’s one advantage of the PhD; it gave me credentials and connections. I network pretty intensively with other alumni of my school; for example, we’ve got a Facebook page just for sharing leads on possible publication or presentation opportunities. Also, I’ve joined several organizations that have interests similar to mine; they all put on conferences and they solicit proposals for presentations at those conferences. Simply attending conferences that interest you provides wonderful opportunities to connect with others and get the word out about your work. I went to the Associated Writing Programs conference in Seattle last year and worked all the booths, handing out my card and getting cards and information from the different organizations and magazines; I’ve gotten a couple of essays published as a result.

Sheila
And getting your bio around with those essays is sure to develop interest in your book. What information and thinking are you pursuing now that you have written Jane Eyre’s Sisters?

Jody
I interviewed to give a TED talk at the TEDxSeattle event, which unfortunately has now been cancelled, but putting together that talk made me realize that there’s another theme in the Aletis story that I didn’t bring out in the book — a very different approach to problem-solving than we currently use for most of our issues: political, health, relationships, etc. But there’s actually quite a lot of historical evidence that the “unheroic” way might in fact be much more effective and long-lasting. So I’m thinking a lot about the lessons from history and how I can relate major transformations in society to this other model.

Sheila
So this is the topic of a second book?

Jody
Yes indeed, the book about the heroic vs. transformative approaches to problems. The working title is Change the Dance, Transform the World.

Sheila
Given that you went back to school for a doctorate when you decided to write the book that became Jane Eyre’s Sisters, what do you think the pathway to this next book might entail for you?

Jody
Not another doctorate I hope! No, just a lot more research — this time, historical rather than literary. It’s a good thing I love to read as much as I love to write! But my first book taught me that the path is going to twist in ways I can’t predict.

Sheila
It is always good to know that up front rather than forcing the journey of writing the book to conform to an idea of the journey hoping it will make it easier to write. Is there a question you wished I’d ask? Please tell us and give us the answer!

Jody
Who are some of my favorite heroines? Jane Eyre of course! I also love Celie of The Color Purple, because she comes the longest way of any of the characters I talk about; she’s SO suppressed at the start that when she finally stands up for herself it’s a wonderful moment. Then she finds her creativity and ends up transforming everyone around her, including Mister, who was her chief oppressor.

Also, I have a special fondness for Flora Poste of Cold Comfort Farm — but I’m not going to say why, I’m going to say, “Read the book!”

Sheila
Here’s one of my favorite questions: What would you say to writers who believe they have a book in them that has never been written?

Jody
Start writing it today! Even if you have a lot of research to do, even if you haven’t really worked it out in your mind yet, start getting words on paper. And I’d also advise people to talk to a professional editor early on. Think of an editor as an architect who can help you design your book from the get-go. If you wait to call in an editor until after the book is mostly done, too often it will be like hiring a contractor to fix all the mistakes you made building your house yourself: it will take longer and cost a lot more! A little guidance at the start from a good editor can help you clarify your ideas and envision the structure of the book. But only you can write it.

Sheila
And only you can figure out the twists you mention, the new information and thoughts that come along the way. Thank you, Jody, for all the information and most of all, for one terrific book we might all add to our bookshelves!


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