Be nice but not too fucking nice. That’s the last thing private investigator Roxane Weary’s father says to her before his death, and it sticks with her. As a PI, she has no problem with the not too nice part. But women—whether they’re PIs or writers or whatever—are expected to be nice. Likable. Polite. Mild-mannered. If you’re a woman who doesn’t fall into those categories, you might get a label like bossy, or shrill, or domineering, pushy, too emotional, difficult. And once you’re pegged as difficult, you’re in real trouble. Look at Hillary Clinton, a woman who has been actively disliked in public for so long that it led to the election of a playground bully in a weirdly-long tie to the office of U.S. president.
No one looks at the current president and thinks, “Gee, what a nice man.”
No one expects that from him.
But it’s different for women—both real and fictional. We’re “supposed” to be nice. When I set out to write about Roxane Weary, I wanted to examine that, to write a “difficult” woman who doesn’t quite fit into the role that society wants her to fit into. So I wrote the character I always wanted to read about—she’s messy, she drinks too much, she sucks at following instructions, she’s impulsive and argumentative and obsessive and much, much smarter than people give her credit for when they first meet her. I wrote The Last Place You Look before the devastating 2016 election here in the U.S.—oh, the good old days!—and, honestly, I think the election changed the way I think about Roxane a little bit. She was never just “a character” to me, but writing a queer, difficult woman now feels like a small act of resistance.
The very real possibility of LGBTQ+ rights being rolled back affected how I chose to portray Roxane’s relationship with Catherine, her on-again-off-again girlfriend going all the way back to high school, in What You Want to See. I hadn’t intended on putting Catherine in the book at all when I had planned out the book prior to the election, but she really wanted to be in there. She kind of stood in front of my computer with her hands on her hips, demanding—bossily, even—to make it onto the page. I’m glad she did, because I realised the she was right. She did belong in this book because the evolving relationship that Roxane has with her is important to the heroine’s overall story arc.
In the opening chapters of the new book, Roxane is thrust into an ugly world of fraud and con artists and murder—and the line between the “good” and the “bad” people is much blurrier than it was in my debut. Not only that, but you’ll meet quite a few more difficult women in this book, too. I love telling the stories of these women and hope they’ll strike a chord now more than ever.
What You Want to See by Kristen Lepionka is published by Faber & Faber in May (£7.99)