Guess who’s visiting today?
Kevin Brennan (can you tell that I’m excited?).
Not only is Brennan one of my favorite writers (author of Occasional Soulmates, Yesterday Road, Parts Unknown and Our Children Are Not Our Children), but he writes women characters that are so authentic, so complex and flawed and human and real, that it’s impossible to believe that they were written by a man. I think this is because he secretly harbors a woman’s soul, which is one of the biggest compliments I can give a writer.
But I’ll shut up for now, grab some chocolate and let Brennan take over.
Thanks to Cinthia for inviting me to do this guest post on her blog. It’s always a pleasure and an honor to work with her (and I can’t wait for her second book to come out too!).
My new novel, Town Father, Or, Where Graceful Girls Abound, is a speculative historical novel about a group of 300 women in the 1880s who establish a California town named Hestia exclusively for women.
I’ve had a little trouble categorizing it for people who ask, since it’s not strictly a historical novel (it doesn’t set out to depict with terrific accuracy a certain place and time). It’s not a literary novel in the usual sense, and it’s not women’s fiction per se.
I realized somewhere along the way that what it really is a utopian novel.
We’ve had plenty of dystopias to read about in recent years, but not very many utopias. Ironic, because there’s a large and rich literature of utopian ideas in our history, going all the way back to Plato’s Republic and Thomas More’s aptly named Utopia.
I’m certainly no scholar, but I’ve always been fascinated by the utopian imagination — the ultimate “What if” story.
America in the 19th century — the very period of my book — was something of a hotbed of utopian thinking.
From communities celebrating “open marriage” to the Shakers, many groups found common mercantile life too demanding, too distracting, too competitive, and always inefficient.
Founders of utopian colonies sought to eliminate the negatives and accentuate the positives of communal living, often with a socialist bent, and often with new ideas about love and sex. Maybe the severity of the American brand of Christianity felt too restrictive, or maybe free-thinking souls like Walt Whitman got them to thinking about how things could be in another universe. “But why not try to achieve them now?” they must have thought.
In literature, utopias seem not to be real drawing-board plans for new lifestyles. Long ago I read Lewis Mumford’s History of Utopias and realized that most of them were just speculative romps meant to hash out certain political ideas or solve, on a philosophical level, social problems that seemed insurmountable under current conditions.
You have Looking Backward by Edward Belamy; News From Nowhere by William Morris (my personal favorite); and an array of fascinating tales by H.G. Wells and Ursula K. LeGuin. Often they branch out into the realm of sci-fi, since it’s easier to imagine things being better on distant planets rather than trying to fix them here on Earth. All in all, though, they are essentially wishful thinkings that eliminate whatever obstacles there are to running things more ideally.
And that’s what Town Father is too. A fantasia on how women might rule their own domain if given the chance.
To my mind, it’s obvious that women can do anything that men can do, so from a practical standpoint the story’s within the realm of possibility. The tricky part is reproduction, ensuring the survival of the society into the future. And just as something always seems to knock the average utopia off its feet — competition, ego, human nature — the women of Hestia run into some difficulties.
I set the book in the 1880s in part because of our utopian heritage in America but also because the physical requirements of reproduction in those days couldn’t be gotten around. Now, of course, a determined group of women could use in vitro fertilization and populate the next generation without the aid of a Town Father.
Or, as in Charlotte Perkins Gillman’s feminist utopian novel, Herland, the ladies might figure out a way to reproduce by parthenogenesis. Anything is possible in the best of all possible worlds.
I’m sure our utopian spirit is still intact, so I wonder why nobody’s tried to establish a modern-day Hestia in some out-of-the-way valley.
Then again, maybe they have…
Town Father is available in paperback via the following links:
You can also pre-order the ebook edition of Town Father now and receive it on December 8.