It’s paperback publication day for one of my favourite novels of last year. Vigilante by Shelley Harris is the story of Jenny Pepper, average middle aged mum who becomes a real-life superhero. I’ve reposted my original review below but before you get to that, I had the privilege of talking to Shelley about the book. I think you’ll agree that her responses are fantastic.
One of the reasons I love Vigilante is because Jenny Pepper, ordinary middle-aged woman, could be me (and I’m sure I’m not the only woman who feels that way about her). Could you tell us a bit about how she came into being?
Well, she’s me too – and here’s why: when I turned forty I experienced a bit of an … I don’t know what to call it exactly. ‘Crisis’ sounds a bit dramatic. ‘Event’ sounds a bit British. I think I was in a sort of midlife crisis, truth be told; I’d ended up very, very far from where I’d wanted to be.
As one of my ways of dealing with this, I did an odd thing: I started leaving poems anonymously around my small town. I’d put each one in an envelope marked ‘To Whom It May Concern’ (itself the title of a favourite poem by Adrian Mitchell; this gave me a geeky joy). Then I’d leave them in appropriate places: Wordsworth’s ‘The World Is Too Much With Us’ in the supermarket, Frank O’ Hara’s ‘A True Account of Talking to the Sun on Fire Island’ in the park and so on. The recipients had no idea who’d put them there, and I had no idea what happened to these poems after I left them – whether people just chucked them in the bin or never opened them at all, or loved them, or what.
It sounds odd to say it, but doing that really, really helped me. Something about doing secret things, I think: having a part of me that no-one else owned or even knew about. And then I thought: what if a woman felt like me, and did secret good deeds to help herself feel better? What if she did them dressed as a superhero? And what if, after a while, she couldn’t function properly without that persona? So Jenny was born.
Jenny’s a hero but society sells us the idea that heroes are men, they’re brave and strong and superhuman. Is this your contribution to a redefining of what a hero can be?
Yes, absolutely. And for me it’s obviously about her being a woman, but also about the ‘superhuman’ bit of that question. I’ve found the most remarkable ordinary heroes as I’ve gone through life; we are capable of incredible things. A friend of mine runs a club for vulnerable schoolkids; I discovered recently that the cuts had actually left it unfunded for a year but she kept going anyway, unpaid, because those kids had nowhere else to go. Another friend managed to start a successful writing career in tandem with bringing up her children and being a carer for her parents. That’s what I’m interested in: not glittering lives, but amazing ordinary ones, in ordinary small towns.
The male gaze, the way men (and boys) view women’s bodies and the effect this has on women and girls is one of the key themes of the novel. What message do you want women (and men?) to take from the book?
Often in stories like this, when a woman goes through great emotional changes, her body changes too: the classic makeover, so that by the end she’s acceptable to the male gaze. HOW VERY DULL. It would have been easy for Jenny to get leaner and fitter as the story went on. It would have been easy to show her as wasp-waisted and high-heeled when she fought crime. But I don’t want readers to think she’s OK because she’s thin and beautiful; I could not be less interested in that. Jenny is fat, and she stays fat. She fights crime in flat DMs because only an idiot tries to do it in heels. The men who ignore her at the start of the book carry on ignoring her. So what? She’s a bloody goddess.
What message does that send? To women: stuff the patriarchal values which say you’re only worth something if you’re aesthetically pleasing. You’re a person, not a thing.
To men? This just in: our job is not to be pretty.
The plot of Vigilante has a crime at its centre and a mystery to be solved. How do you go about plotting that, particularly making sure you provide the reader with enough information to keep them gripped without giving too much away?
Oh boy. There’s a particular fiendishness in constructing a crime plot which, as you say, Vigilante is – sort of. There’s a rational line of cause and effect (the ‘truth’ the story is searching for) which you have to disrupt with red herrings, incomplete revelations and misinterpretations, all the while laying a trail of authentic clues.
To get the balance right – that not-too-little-not-too-much you asked about – it helps to remember this truth: no character thinks they’re in a story. And in Jenny’s case, even if she did, she wouldn’t think it was a detective story. When we see the world through her eyes we have to be attentive to what she might be missing, or misreading.
I kept all this in mind, plus there was a fair amount of trial and error. I was also keenly aware that when the writer knows someone’s guilty they’re liable to signal it unconsciously (especially me, because I’m transparent) so I relied on beta readers to catch those tells.
My blog focuses on female writers; who are your favourite female writers?
Sarah Waters, of course, whose novels I buy on the day they come out and keep going back to. Kressman Taylor, who changed her name to sound more male because – not-so fun fact – her editor and her husband both thought Address Unknown (1938) was ‘too strong to appear under the name of a woman’. It’s a masterpiece, and one of the stories I most often recommend. From the same era, Mollie Panter-Downes was an outstanding writer of short stories. Her collection Good Evening, Mrs Craven (Persephone) is a joy.
Other women writers I love: Lissa Evans, Karen Campbell, Ali Smith, Favel Parrett and… oh, loads and loads, Naomi. I’ll think of twenty more in the next half an hour and curse myself for not listing them.
Huge thanks to Shelley. I’m off to check out the authors from that list I hadn’t heard of before. Here’s my repost of my review of Vigilante with a picture of the fabulous new cover design.
Before I was a superhero, you could have walked into my life at any moment, and I’d have been tidying up. Sorting, discarding, relocating: it was my life’s work. And it was exactly what I was doing the night I discovered Elliot’s secret.
Jenny Pepper, 42, manager of a charity bookshop, married to Elliot, graphic designer, with a 14-year-old daughter, Martha, is fed-up of her life. As the novel begins, she is tidying up after her family; Martha is at a friend’s house and Elliot’s at an award ceremony. When she goes into the study, she notices their wedding album poking out of the shelf. Picking it up to look through it, a comic book, drawn by Elliot drops out, the hero Vermilion based on Elliot – he has his eyes. Jen’s impressed with the visuals until she sees the woman who needs to be rescued – ‘She was dressed in a scrap of material cut low over the solid globes of her breasts, high across her hairless groin.’
Once in a while I’d chosen to share with Elliot some of my despair over the way my body had run out of control, and every time he’d been admirably supportive: I love your body, you’ve always been beautiful, aren’t we lucky to be growing older together? Blah blah blah. But look at this, now! This wasn’t just a comic book. It was a window into his desires, and this was what he wanted: big tits, tiny waist, hairless fanny. It wasn’t off-the-peg porn, either. He designed it himself, and he wanted the stuff you cannot have without surgery and childlessness and the kind of constant attention that women like me can’t give themselves.
Jenny doesn’t tell him she’s found the comic. A few days later in the shop, sorting through a donation, Jen finds a fancy dress mask which she initially puts in a pile of unwanted things but there’s her boss Allie’s fancy dress party to prepare for and Jen has an idea.
The first thing I saw was red. Red on my lips, red lacing up the front of my black corset, red lining my black cape, framing the shape of my body. I saw what the shape was, that it was less shaming than I’d feared it might be; the out of breasts rendered voluptuous by the twin forces of the corset and a push-up bra, the in of my waist not the sharp descent I’d want – the bowed line of boning, the roll of fat between corset and skirt – but an in nonetheless. Slung low on my hips, a toolbelt (keys, mobile phone, likely-looking knife designed for cutting cheese). My fists clenched in their satin gloves, the mask dangled from one hand.
But Jen doesn’t get to her party in the superhero outfit because as she walks past an alleyway near the churchyard, she sees a woman being attacked by a man. Initially Jen shouts at him and phones the police but after he laughs at her and goes to punch the victim again, Jen attacks him and sits on him until the police arrive.
Oh God, for a few seconds I was a superhero. I was. The rush of it! A glut of chemicals slamming into my blood, a lightness in my belly, the unburdening of violence. It was a kind of frenzied passion and when it was over the world was different.
Jen runs before the police can see who she is, goes to the party in a completely different outfit and reveals to no one what she’s done. But the costume keeps calling to her; before long she’s out on the streets again and soon teenage girls in Martha’s school year are being attacked and Jen knows she has to do something about it.
Vigilante is a novel about women’s bodies – how they see themselves and how they’re seen by males; about marriage and the compromises and sacrifices you make; about finding yourself and being comfortable in your skin and fulfilled in your work/hobbies.
Harris looks closely at the expectations society places on women – young women in particular – and how these inform the way men think of women. She explores this through images of the body – the cartoon Elliot draws; graffiti on a shop wall of a young woman wearing the uniform from Martha’s school; the way Jen feels about her body and both the comments she endures when she’s wearing the costume and the comments made about her in the press and unknowingly by the people around her – but also through the roles that Jen and Elliot take in their marriage and the resentments they bear when one believes the other is getting to be the ‘goodie’ with their daughter while they take a more difficult role.
The plot’s gripping; the interweaving of several strands – the superhero, the attacks, Jen and Elliot’s marriage, Martha – maintain the narrative drive and make this a difficult novel to put down while Jen’s voice felt like a real, forty-something-year-old’s voice with believable concerns about her life.
Vigilante is a novel in which character, voice, plot and themes come together to create a cracking read. It’s a brilliant book. Highly recommended.
Thanks to W&N for the review copy.