This is the second of three virtual panel discussions by some of the authors whose short stories appear in Me Too Short Stories: An Anthology, edited by SleuthSayer emerita Elizabeth Zelvin. Here's the lineup.
Moderator: Elizabeth (Liz) Zelvin
Participants: Rona Bell, Ana Brazil, Diana Catt, Gin Gannon, Madeline McEwen, Ann Rawson
Ana: "Miss Evelyn Nesbit Presents," is set in 1914 in New York City. Evelyn Nesbit was a celebrated beauty who was raped and ruined by a famous architect and discarded by her abusive millionaire husband. All of this is true. My story imagines Evelyn meeting a silent film producer who has written a script about her shameful past.
Diana: “The Final Recall” is set in a city in the Midwest in the near future. A post-doctoral scientist is conducting neurological research in the field of memory using cutting edge technology that allows her to reconstruct visual memories from cadavers.
Rona: “The Call is Yours” is set today in New York City, but reflects back more than thirty years. The story is about a woman responding to a present-day police call to report sexual crimes no matter how long ago.
Liz: The Call Is Yours was a real police program, NYPD's response to the Me Too movement. wasn't it, just a year or two ago?
Rona: Yes. The call for reporting with no regard to time frame was intriguing.
Gin: "Banshee Scream" is set in a world where banshees exist. A banshee's job is to hunt killers who would otherwise get away with murder, the ones the law can't deal with.
Ann: My story is set in Liverpool, England in 1980. The protagonist moves between two milieux, the very middle class University campus and one of the rougher areas of the city with crumbling tenement buildings and tower blocks.
Maddy: "Stepping On Stones" is set in the early 1960s in Capetown, South Africa during the apartheid era.
Liz: Your descriptions of the South African setting are beautifully evocative and seen through your child protagonist's eyes. Did you spend part of your own childhood there?
Maddy: Yes, I spent many happy and innocent days in South Africa. I’m sure my memory is soaked in nostalgia. The wildlife fascinated me. There were so many dangers in Capetown, primarily from my ignorance and foolhardiness. Despite all this, South Africa was like my first all-time best friend.
Liz: Speaking of danger, an encounter with a sexual predator is at the heart of your story.
Maddy: My older sister has reminded me of the many near misses I experienced during those years. While I can remember them when prompted, they pale by comparison to the warm and comforting memories I have of those endless days without form or fences.
Liz: For all of you: what made you choose an era other than the present and a setting other than where you live now?
Ana: I can only write about historical eras and settings! I wrote about Evelyn Nesbit and the fictitious producer because I could see a lot of parallels between Evelyn’s life in 1914 and the lives of today’s well-known actresses who have spoken out because of the Me Too movement.
Gin: As a retired lawyer, I'm too aware of the limits of law and how often it lets people down, especially women. Improving the law and the related institutions will happen someday, but that process— education and political debates and legislation and court cases—wouldn't make for an interesting story. Banshees can take short cuts.
Rona: It is fascinating to juxtapose current day expectations about reporting sexual crimes and societal norms from other decades.
Liz: Attitudes have changed so much.
Rona: Memory is the key. The protagonist's task is to remember the sexual violence and apply present day norms to that memory.
Diana: I needed to set the story in the near future because the technology as I wanted to use it doesn't exist yet. However, the situation in my story builds on the current state of memory research.
Liz: You mean dementia and particularly Alzheimer's research?
Diana: With liberties!
Liz: I found it chilling to think of our memories surviving us. But if they ever do, I hope they stick to silent films and never advance to talkies. How about you, Ann?
Ann: I went to University in Liverpool in the late Seventies and early Eighties and afterwards lived for a year in the same rough area I described. I was never stalked and attacked like my protagonist. I did have some much milder but still frightening experiences.
Maddy: Today, children have far less freedom to roam, explore, and discover without adult supervision. Bobbie's experience and that of her friends goes unnoticed until she draws attention to herself.
Liz: Have you written about Capetown before? A particularly striking setting is sometimes described as "becoming a character," and your evocative writing has that quality.
Maddy: I've never written about Capetown before. My memory of that time is vivid, in part due to the dazzling quality of light.
Liz: You say nothing about the role of color in society, and that will surprise most American readers, since apartheid is the main thing they know about South Africa in that era.
Maddy: South Africa was embattled in apartheid, but the enclave of British naval personnel like my dad avoided the topic of politics. Now I am aware of some of my many white privileges, but in the 1960s I was oblivious.
Liz: Why did you choose not to make it a more important part of your story?
Maddy: For this story, I glossed over apartheid because I didn’t want the ethnicity of the perpetrator or victim to be an issue. I wanted to focus on the naiveté and vulnerability of the children.
Liz: Last question—how does the way women are treated today compare with how they are treated in the milieu of your story?
Ana: I looked into a lot of historical sources to craft Evelyn’s story. I also read many recent #MeToo accounts. For many actresses, it seems like little changed from 1914 to 2017. Over a hundred years and very little change!
Gin: In the real world, there's much less chance that justice will be served for crimes against women than in my fictional world. My banshee is practically the poster child for believing women.
Ann: In 1980, we didn't have the concept of date rape. Girls and women were more likely to assume that assaults in those circumstances were their own fault. They were less likely to report it as a crime, and they would be more ashamed. I remember being groped by my boss as a teenager. I was totally unprepared for such a thing to happen to me. I told one of the girls at work, but I never told anyone else.
Rona: We have more heightened awareness and questioning about what is permissible now and even what constitutes a crime. Social media brings a whole new level.
Ann: I think things have improved for women a lot since then. But sadly, some of those same feelings of shame and responsibility persist. And even if a case gets to court, the research shows us that jurors still think about the issues in the same way.
Maddy: My mother couldn’t apply for a credit card or buy a house or car on her own. Today, I can do all of those things. However, when I went to buy a phone recently, I could not access the data plan because the account was in my husband’s name. I then, briefly, experienced the humiliation of the clerk calling my husband for permission to add me to the account.
Diana: Some of the attitudes in my story accurately reflect current experiences of some women in science—not-so-subtle comments designed to reduce a woman’s confidence, question her credentials or abilities, and make assumptions about her commitment to a career if she has children.
Liz: And in the future?
Diana: Change takes time. I'm optimistic people can learn, but I'm not so optimistic it will be fixed in the near future.
Liz: That's why we have fiction: to help us envision the changes we’re hoping for.