BEHIND THE BOOK
Sending a Woman to Do a Man's Job Also Known as Why Not a Male Character:
Vanessa Michael Munroe, the lead character in The Informationist series, is very much a woman in a man’s world: a chameleon and an information hunter. Independent, lethal, and with a very dark streak, she’s not quite what one might expect of a missionary’s daughter. She hates killing, but she’s oh so very good at it. And Michael, as I prefer to call her—tall, lean and somewhat androgynous—spends a lot of time dressed as and operating as a young man.
I had no idea at the time of her creation that this gender ambiguity would draw so much attention or that it would set her apart from the handful of other strong women who inhabit an otherwise predominantly male genre. This aspect of her character was deliberate on my part, but not as any way to make a statement, nor with any intention of creating a feminist hero of sorts. It was done purely out of a sense of realism: operating as a male was the only way a woman with her skills would ever be able to do the job that she does in the countries that she does it.
We still hear about gender inequalities here in the United States, but they are minor compared to most other cultures. Long before I started writing I’d spent many years abroad, four of them in Africa. While living in Kenya I had to make a trip back to the U.S. and the most affordable route was hopscotching through the Middle East to Europe—which was how I found myself on a layover in Bahrain conversing with two American nurses who lived and worked in Saudi Arabia. They recounted for me the ordeal they went through as women there. No matter that they were Americans, they still weren’t allowed to drive, could never go anywhere without a male escort, had to keep their heads covered at all times, and on and on the list of rules went. Their experiences would have been completely different had they been men. I also lived in Japan as a teenager and witnessed the level to which men dominated all aspects of politics and business in what we perceive as a modern society. The concept of a woman trying to operate as an equal in a man’s world and how difficult this would actually be was a reality I’d been immersed in for years. Even a casual browsing through international news demonstrates daily how powerless and disrespected women are around the globe.
When creating the type of woman that Michael is, it didn’t seem a particularly bold move on my part to have her switch between male and female roles depending on what best suited her needs. In her own words, trying to explain her career to someone in THE CATCH, "I'm a spy for hire. I travel to developing countries, dictatorships, banana republics. I analyze strategic threats to get a feel for what's going on on the ground--the stuff that news outlets don't report and governments try to cover up. Then I figure out who holds the true political clout, who to bribe and who to avoid, and if I'm paid well enough, I do the bribing and make sure my employer's name never sees print. It's dangerous. It's taxing. I've made enemies. You get the idea. And those are the jobs I've done on the record." Her chameleon nature, the ability to blur the lines between gender seemed the only logical way to write a woman who does what she does.
So then I’m asked, “Well why write a gender ambiguous character at all? Why not just write a male character?” and to me, that question is its own answer—that it’s even asked—that the implied acceptable alternative to writing a woman smart enough and capable enough to function as a man in a man’s world is to of course, write a man. In real life, women (who want to remain women) don’t have the option of just magically making themselves men. That right there explains exactly why Vanessa Michael Munroe is who she is. And she’s not alone in that. There are a number of women throughout history who have lived as soldiers, seamen, frontiersmen and male spies. Likely for the very same reasons.
It’s never made sense to me, not even when I was a teenager in the very male-dominated religious cult into which I’d been born, an environment where women were expected to be subservient helpers, that girls should be viewed less than boys simply because the other sperm won. Yes, it’s true that there are biological differences between the sexes, and neurology has shown that male and female brains are wired differently. But even taking those factors into account I have always believed that people are people, and it is not the color of our skin, or the genitalia we possess, or the clothes that we wear, or cultural expectations that determine what we’re capable of or that make up the sum of who we are, but rather the things that we do, the choices we make, and the lives that we lead. For that reason, Vanessa Michael Munroe just made sense.
The best explanation of her strength comes from Cara Hoffman, author of So Much Pretty, when she wrote that Michael went "beyond stereotyped or reactive characters,” that she was a “hero first and gendered person last,” that she had a “gender-blind naturalness.” And yes, that is exactly who Michael is. She is a person. Who happens to be female. Who will do whatever it takes to get the job done. And if that means having to pass herself off as a man and kicking butt along the way, then that’s exactly how she’s going to do it.
Taylor Stevens is an award-winning and New York Times bestselling novelist who—by odds and expectations—should never have become either successful or published. Like many aspiring authors Stevens had no credentials or platform, and no direct route into the publishing world. But, unlike most, she was also limited by a life of cultural isolation and a sixth-grade education.
Born into an apocalyptic cult and raised in communes across the globe, Stevens grew up as a child laborer, cooking and cleaning for up to a hundred at a time, caring for younger commune children, or out on the streets begging on behalf of commune leaders. Books, movies, music, and pop-culture from the outside world were strictly forbidden, and she finally gained unlimited access to fiction after returning to the United States in her early thirties. Her books have since been published in over twenty languages, with The Informationist optioned for film by James Cameron’s production company, Lightstorm Entertainment.