An Unsuitable Job for a Woman – guest post by Christi Daugherty

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An Unsuitable Job for a Woman

I was a university student when I decided what I wanted to do for a living. It came to me at two in the morning. I watched All The President’s Men on the tiny TV in my Texas dormitory, and saw my future on the screen. I would be a newspaper reporter.

During my last month at university I applied to 40 newspapers in the southern US for a job as a journalist. One, the Morning News, in Savannah, Georgia, hired me over the phone.

I’d never been to Georgia in my life, but I couldn’t wait to get started. I was hired as the crime reporter. I had little idea what that would entail, but it sounded like something Woodward and Bernstein would have done when they were my age.

My first day, a body was found floating in the Savannah River. I was sent to cover it. I wore the clothes my mother had bought for me – white ankle trousers, a floaty pink top, little heels.

In that outfit, I had to hike a quarter mile through spiked weeds on uneven ground down an earthen levee to the distant point where the police had gathered at the water’s edge.

By the time I reached them, I was sweating, my always uncontrollable hair a dark cloud. My pink top had caught on a thorny plant and torn. My little heels were filthy.

Two detectives stood alongside a cluster of uniformed officers and two divers in wetsuits. Every single one of them was male. Hell, even the corpse was male.

I could hear the cops laughing before I reached the muddy shore.

‘Can I help you?’ the detective asked, fighting a grin as I approached.

‘I’m the new reporter at the Morning News,’ I explained, trying not to look flustered.

‘Well,’ he said, glancing at the men around him. ‘This is our lucky day.’

They all openly checked me out. My figure. My face. My clothes. The uniformed cops snickered behind their hands and whispered comments I couldn’t quite hear.

The whole time, the body lay behind them. Very obviously and horribly dead. It was a hot summer afternoon. The smell was absolutely overwhelming.

In that instant, I wanted to run back up that levee and keep running until I got back to Texas. Back to my mother’s house. Back where I belonged.

But I stood my ground. I sensed, through some preternatural journalistic instinct, that a lot hung on that moment.

What I didn’t know at the time, was that the detective making fun of me was the head of the homicide squad. If I impressed him, my entire job was made.

Win over the lead detective and he’ll tell you things no one else will. Slip you information that can help you beat the competition. Make your editors happier. Make your job safer. Get you a raise.

I didn’t know any of that, at the time. To me, he was some paunchy, old man with bad glasses in a cheap suit making fun of me on my first day.

And yet. For some reason, I didn’t run. I got out my notepad, summoned all the dignity I could muster, and said, ‘What can you tell me about the body?’

Grinning broadly, the detective stepped aside, gesturing at the bloated corpse and replied, ‘Well he’s right there. What can you tell me about the body?’

Clearly, he’d noticed I’d been doing my level best not to look. My stomach was churning.

Still. I looked.

Rigor mortis had set in while the man was face down in the water. They’d rested him on his back. His arms reached up stiffly as if he wanted a hug. Dark green river weed dangled from his fingertips.

‘He’s a middle-aged black man, in a striped, short-sleeved shirt and khaki slacks,’ I said, writing as I talked. ‘His shoes are missing.’

I didn’t need to write it down – I would never forget it – but it gave me an excuse not to look for a second. When I didn’t look, I could breathe.

‘Shoes always fall off,’ the detective informed me. ‘Probably lost them when he hit the water. Tell me, something. You think he fell in there today?’

‘No. I think he’s been in there a while,’ I said. ‘But don’t ask me how long.’

‘I won’t ask you,’ he said, pointing up the levee. ‘I’ll ask them.’

I turned to see a forensic team hotfooting it towards us, carrying bags of equipment.

The detective walked past me to greet the medical team. At the last second, though, he stopped.

‘What’s your name?’ he said.

‘Christi Daugherty,’ I told him.

‘Welcome to town. You’ll do fine.’ And he handed me his card.

It was only a cheap business card with his name and the main police phone number on it. But to me it was gold dust.

I’d passed a test.

Now I understood what I was up against. The job would be hard. It would challenge me.

And I could handle it.

I was a journalist for a decade before writing my first novel. When people ask me why I write about women doing jobs that have been, in the past, traditionally male; or why I so often write about women who learn to be stronger than they think they are; or why my characters fight against odds that seem insurmountable – I think about that day.

They say you should write what you know.

Well, I don’t know any women who don’t fight against the odds.

 

The Echo Killing by Christi Daugherty is out now!

Guest post by Stella Duffy, author of Money in the Morgue.

Category: Author Post

Stella Duffy on growing up in New Zealand, her feminist father, and why she’s pleased Money in the Morgue will be published on International Women’s Day…

      

Stella Duffy photographed by Gino Sprio

 

I grew up in Tokoroa, a small town in New Zealand. We moved there when I was five from a council estate in Woolwich, south London, and even though my dad was returning to the home he had left at the start of the war in 1939, both of my parents were economic migrants making a new life in the late 60s and ’70s. Very occasionally, when people hear I spent my childhood in New Zealand, they trot out the tired line about New Zealand being ‘like England in the fifties’. I don’t know where they’ve visited, but they can’t be talking about the vibrant, multi-cultural community in which I grew up. They can’t be talking about the nation that had universal suffrage decades before the UK or the nation that invented the welfare state. All the same, there are some clichés that persist, and the kiwi man as a Neanderthal sexist is certainly one of them

My dad was a bloke. He was a traditional, left wing, union-man, bloke. He had to leave school at 14 (no money), he joined the New Zealand air force at 18 (it was WW2 and he chose to fight fascism) and was a Prisoner of War for almost four and a half years. He was part of a generation of young men who suffered terribly throughout the war and had no support at all when war was over. I’m the youngest of seven children and to say our father was damaged by his war experiences – and that the damage was inflicted on us too – would be putting it mildly. And yet …

He made a great stew. He did the dishes after every meal. He believed women were as valuable and as capable as men. He told me as a child, “Don’t get married early, don’t have children early, have your life, travel, do what YOU want to do.” My parents were 41 when I was born, from an older generation than most of my friends’ parents, but – perhaps because they had both had bad wars, as working class people so often do – they were much more political, thoughtful than many of my mates’ parents who were a good twenty years younger. My mother worked full time (she had to, we were poor), and their example – of working hard at whatever you do, of valuing local community, of speaking up about injustice and unfairness, has been hugely important throughout my life.

I’ve often tried to work out why my father seemed more of a feminist than many men his age and younger, why he did a share – not 50%, but a sizeable share – of the housework, why he simply assumed that I would work in any field I chose, whether they were traditional female roles or not. One of the reasons is that he grew up in New Zealand in the 20s and 30s. He grew up in a society that had given the vote to women in 1883, and not merely partial suffrage as we’re celebrating this year in the UK. His own mother was a force to be reckoned with, inheriting a pub at the age of 21 when her parents died in the flu epidemic. My father’s brother became a sheep farmer, and his sister and brother-in-law had a dairy farm – both of my aunts worked on their farms, as farming women always have done. New Zealand women, the women of Aotearoa – Maori and Pakeha (white) women – were strong and present in the fight for suffrage, in the birth of the welfare state, in the nation’s economy.

Stepping into Ngaio Marsh’s shoes with Money in the Morgue has given me a chance to revisit those people, the forthright women, the hard-working men, the ‘characters’ of my childhood and my family. Marsh loved London and England, she was of a class and generation that still sometimes called England ‘Home’, but her love of the land and the people that formed her is clear in her work. As a huge writing success in the UK and USA and in translation, and dividing her working life between writing and theatre, she was very much an ‘international woman’. In my own work as a writer, theatremaker and equalities campaigner (for both the Women’s Equality Party and Fun Palaces, the campaign for cultural democracy I co-founded in 2013), I welcome the example of women like Marsh – stepping up and creating their own work, refusing to be limited to just one field of endeavour, as easy with a group of young artists as with equally successful peers.

There is a huge amount of work still to be done towards genuine equality, for women, for women of colour, for women living in poverty, for everyone living at the intersections of disadvantage. International Women’s Day gives us a chance to remember this and to look to our foremothers for inspiration. I love that Money in the Morgue is published on IWD, which also just happens to be my dad’s birthday. He’s been dead thirty years, but I think he’d approve of the young soldiers I wrote into the story, blokes doing their bit – alongside some amazing women, doing theirs.

Money in the Morgue is out on the 8th March.

Rachel Sargeant on her gripping psychological thriller The Perfect Neighbours

Category: Author Post

Rising star Rachel Sargeant talks about her new novel, The Perfect Neighbours, a dark and twisty psychological thriller with an ending you won’t see coming…

When Helen moves abroad with her loving husband Gary, she can’t wait to meet her fellow expat teachers from the local International School. But her new start is about to become her worst nightmare…

As soon as the charming family across the way welcome Helen into their home, she begins to suspect that all is not as it seems. Then Gary starts to behave strangely and a child goes missing, vanished without a trace.When violence and tragedy strike, cracks appear in the community, and Helen realises her perfect neighbours are capable of almost anything…

 

What inspired you to write this book?

The Perfect Neighbours came out of two ideas. The first was to do with the setting. I lived for ten years in an expat community in Germany and always thought it would make a great setting for a book if I could find the right story. When I moved back to Britain I read in a newspaper about an audacious and outrageous crime. I did some research and discovered that many people every year fall victim to this type of crime. I wondered whether something similar could happen in a closed community where everyone knows everyone else’s business, or thinks they do. Bingo: I had my story.

 

What’s your favourite and least favourite thing about writing?

My least favourite thing is the blank sheet of paper at the start of a new project. It really is sheer panic that I might not be able to think of anything to write. But once I’ve got a draft down, I enjoy editing it.

My favourite thing about writing is being able to create my own world. People in it do and say exactly what I want them to. Sometimes real life can be so much harder to navigate. I also absolutely love it when people tell me they’ve read one of my books and liked it. That is a wonderful and humbling privilege.

 

What’s one book you wish you had written?

There are lots of great books that I admire for their ingenious plots, memorable characters and excellent technique, but I’ve just got to keep on being me and writing what I can, hoping that readers will like it.

 

Name your 5 favourite books

I’ve got about 30 favourites so I’m picking 5 at random here.

 

One Day in the Life of Ivan Denisovich by Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn

We are shown (but never told) the brutality of a Stalinist labour camp. For me this is writing brilliance.

The Handmaid’s Tale by Margaret Atwood

This was the first “grown-up” book I read. Until then I’d assumed I wouldn’t be able to understand anything classed as literary fiction. But this is written in plain English and packs a shattering punch. I got it. It opened a new genre to me.

A Meal in Winter by Hubert Mingarelli

Short and stark, this novel considers how ordinary men can commit unspeakable atrocities.

Love, Love Me Do by Mark Haysom

Told from five viewpoints over the course of one day and at times reminiscent of Brighton Rock, it explores loyalty, abandonment and post-war trauma. Serious but also nostalgic, gentle and funny.

One Good Turn by Kate Atkinson.

I love the Jackson Brodie detective stories and this one is superb. Thinking about the ending – which I didn’t see coming – always puts a big grin on my face.

 

If you weren’t writing, what other outlet would you be involved in?

School librarian is my day job. I spend my time encouraging children to love books and helping them make the reading choices that work for them. I read a lot of children’s and young adult books. It’s the best job ever.

 

What’s one thing your readers don’t know about you?

I can’t ride a bicycle.

 

What’s your next project?

I’ve just completed a crime thriller set at a school reunion. Ten years earlier a girl disappeared at the school leavers’ ball and has never been found. The girl’s father asks one of her school friends to attend the reunion and ask questions. But not all the guests are willing to give answers. It’s told partly in flashback to school days and descends into some dark places.

 

The novel I’m currently working on is set in a university during freshers’ week. Four girls from widely different backgrounds find themselves sharing a flat in a student hall. One girl leaves after two days, but one of the others, despite fighting her own demons, has a sixth sense that something sinister has happened. (Oh, and she can’t ride a bicycle either.)

 

I also return now and again to my draft of a gritty comedy set in Scunthorpe in 1983 when a serial killer is disposing of members of a dance troupe.

 

What’s another thing your readers don’t know about you?

I lived in Scunthorpe in 1983…

 

Name your 5 favourite movies. 

Despite writing dark crime novels, I like colourful films that make me smile. My all-time favourite is Grease. I also like Hairspray, St Trinian’s, High School Musical 3 (great set piece dances reminiscent of an MGM musical) and Chitty Chitty Bang Bang.

 

What’s your favourite performance from any movie?

I often think the best performances are the ones that you don’t notice as performances; the actors make the characters seem believable and normal. However, one larger-than-life performance that sticks in my mind is Gene Wilder as Willy Wonka in Willy Wonka and the Chocolate Factory. Although he wasn’t Roald Dahl’s choice for the part, I thought he brought a subtlety to the role with a quiet, intelligent menace behind the eyes.

 

What’s your favourite love story? (movie or book)

I’m not a huge fan of love stories but one of my favourite ever books is Precious Bane by Mary Webb, published in 1924. I picked it up when I moved to Shropshire, where Webb lived and set her novels. It’s written in a pretend dialect of nineteenth century country people which takes a bit of getting used to but ultimately works well. Prue is a clever, dutiful, hardworking girl with little prospect of marriage because of her hare lip.   Enter itinerant weaver Kester, a man who doesn’t run with the pack.  I loved the romance between Prue and Kester, two intelligent, compassionate people in a community which doesn’t value either of these qualities.

I’ve only read it once and daren’t return to it in case I ruin the magical memory I have of it.

www.rachelsargeant.co.uk/