A group of published UK-based authors and illustrators of picture books, children's and YA.

Writers of strong women: My Writing Heroes

In writing this blog post, I discovered something interesting about myself: my writing heroes, who I have long considered diverse, are actually similar.  Although it may at first seem odd to compare Anne McCaffrey, Ursula Le Guin, David Gemmell, Stephen King and Terry Pratchett, these are almost all cross-genre writers of YA literature (some were writing YA when the genre was in its infancy).  Dragonsinger, Earthsea, The Eye of the Dragon, Amazing Maurice and His Educated Rodents, these are just a few examples of YA literature written by writers who otherwise are considered Adult.  All of these authors appear on fantasy or science fiction shelves and they all write works with clear messages and strong female characters.

When, as a young girl, I grew out of Enid Blyton, and decided I most liked books with lots of adventure and peril, I moved onto Ursula le Guin’s Tales of Earthsea.  I literally read about Ged / Sparrowhawk until the book was falling apart.

The majority of Le Guin’s main characters are people of colour (one reason that her front covers rarely depict her main characters – a discussion for another blog!) and in her adult work she conveys gender ideals with frightening intensity.  Her work is highly moral and yet gripping enough for a ten year old.  She, as much as anyone, began to teach me that women, too, could be strong, could stick up for themselves and have ambition.

Seeing my interests veering towards fantasy, my Uncle gave me my first David Gemmell book: Lion of Macedon. I never looked back. I read everything Gemmell ever wrote over and over again and fell in love with Parmenion, Waylander and Druss the Legend. In my opinion David Gemmell is without a doubt the best writer of heroic fantasy (and anti-heroic fantasy) there has been.  Reading his work is a masterclass in how to create a hero.

Gemmell once summed up the content of his novels with these words: “Love, friendship, honour, courage and redemption”. He was fascinated by what he saw as the true nature of heroes (he believed them to be unreliably heroic), and this ambivalence runs through almost everything he wrote.

Redemption is a key theme in my own work.  All of my main characters have shadows, are flawed and fighting the darkness within as well as the darkness outside, most likely influenced by Gemmell.

Gemmell also writes compelling female characters: Miriel, Derae and Ironhand’s Daughter to name but three.

After he became wealthy, Gemmell quietly supported many small charities and good causes. He gave generously to a women’s refuge and to a rehab programme for young addicts, and he did much to encourage novice writers.  What a hero.

Seeking more to read I discovered my most enduring love: Anne McCaffrey. The chronicles of PERN, from Dragonflight to Dragon’s Kin still live in my bookcase alongside her Brain and Brawn Ship series. I’ve read them countless times.

For me, it is Anne Macaffrey’s wonderful characterisation and complete visualisation of a new world that makes me go back time and again. Her books are character led and although some are decades old, they don’t seem so.

Like Le Guin, McCaffrey objected to the portrayal of women in contemporary fiction and her first novel, Restoree, was written in response to the unrealistic depiction of women in science fiction and fantasy.  Of it she said:

“I was so tired of all the weak women screaming in the corner while their boyfriends were beating off the aliens. I wouldn’t have been—I’d’ve been in there swinging with something or kicking them as hard as I could.”

Restoree still has relevance today, given the way models are air-brushed and our daughters are duped into thinking they must be size zero in order to be attractive.  McCaffrey writes about strong women and equal partnerships.  Her book The Ship Who Sang, one of her earliest, is also one of my absolute favourites, it makes me cry even on the twentieth read through and I recommend it at every school visit I attend.

McCaffrey’s PERN story of Menolly, Dragonsong (continued in Dragonsinger and Dragondrums), which I absolutely loved as a teenager, was written for the YA market.

McCaffrey was prolific during her 46 year career and she did most of it as a single mother (she had three children).  She was the first woman to win a Hugo Award and a Nebula Award as well as a Grand Master of Science Fiction.

My final two writing heroes are Stephen King and Terry Pratchett.  It was at upper school that I started to read Stephen King (after I was gifted a copy of The Eyes of the Dragon).  My first ever real detention (age fourteen) was King’s fault: I was so absorbed in The Stand that I didn’t hear the teacher calling my name – several times. The book was confiscated and I was sent out of the classroom.  Stephen King writes brilliantly and I admire the way that his oeuvre interconnects so strongly (so many of his villains for example have the initials RF – the same as the villain in The Eyes of the Dragon – implying that each villain is an incarnation of the magician who escaped at the end of that story). The sense of discovery when you read Stephen King is thrilling.

Terry Pratchett’s Discworld novels are among the few that I can literally finish, then turn back to page one and start reading again, without a break.  His work is filled with satire, humour and references to the sciences, literature, history, mathematics.  His work derides homophobia, sexism, racism, war and idiots like me who try to put things in categories.  Yet his characters too live with you, like old friends: Sybil Vimes and Granny Weatherwax are as enduring for me as Helga and Lessa.

My writing heroes have written as parents (and I know how hard that is), they have written in poverty and in riches, they have persevered through career downturns and hard times to become some of the most revered writers of our time.  They are great writers, literary writers, whose prose is gripping and lyrical.  They also fight causes close to my heart: they believe in strong women, they show us how to fight for what we believe in without being a bully, they take down those who would have us give ourselves to –phobias and –isms.  They have fought their own demons.  They are fantasy writers, but what they write about is real.

I am so pleased to have been able to discover these writers and I hope that if you haven’t read them yet, I have inspired you to find them too.

book signing at launchBryony Pearce
Bryony Pearce lives in a village on the edge of the Peak District and is a full time mum to her two small children, husband and cat. She is vegetarian and loves chocolate, wine and writing. People are often surprised at how dark her writing is and since the publication, by Egmont, of the award-winning Angel’s Fury, have started looking at her as though worried she might start serial killing in her spare time. ‬‬
‪She enjoys doing school visits, festivals and events, when the children let her out of the house. ‬‬
‪Her new book The Weight of Souls is published by Strange Chemistry on 1st August 2013.‬‬
‪For more information on Bryony, please visit her website follow her on Twitter @BryonyPearce or like her FaceBook author page BryonyPearceAuthor.‬‬


3 comments on “Writers of strong women: My Writing Heroes

  1. orthodoxmom3
    November 27, 2013

    I can totally understand being so enthralled with a King book that it gets you in trouble. It gets me in trouble with my family occasionally. I’m surprised it didn’t ever happen to me in school!

  2. jarienswords
    November 27, 2013

    I like your analysis of LeGuin as “highly moral yet gripping enough for a 10 year old.” I have not read her and I need to. I think it’s important to *not* dumb down a theme or message too much when writing for young adults. Developing critical thinking skills and a moral compass requires having thoughts provoked and challenged, being taken out of one’s comfort zone.

    A story about LeGuin that I read in “Divine Invasions,” a biography of Philip K Dick (from my potentially flawed memory). Apparently PKD and LeGuin had a public correspondence in a science fiction magazine in the 70s or so. I think they went back and forth a few times. It was mostly positive, but she said that he was sexist–he usually depicted female characters pretty negatively. I adore PKD’s work for many reasons but unfortunately agree with LeGuin’s assessment. He supposedly took LeGuin’s advice to heart and made an effort in his later works to depict females in a less negative and stereotypical manner.

    The point is…LeGuin was courageous in publicly making a negative public opinion statement

  3. Steve Callaghan
    November 27, 2013

    Thomas Harris deserves an honourable mention here, for his characters Clarice Starling & Molly Graham.

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