Women in Literature

An Interview with Karen Essex and Gar LaSalle

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The following conversation was recorded for video as part of the Solipsis Publishing artist chat series, hosted by Scott James of Solipsis.

Scott James (Host): I am Scott James, director of publicity for Solipsis Publishing, and I'm very excited to have two authors here today, talking about representing women in literature. We have Karen Essex who is an internationally bestselling author of five novels, including Leonardo's Swans, which tells the stories of rivalries among the powerful women who were painted by Leonardo da Vinci. That sounds super cool. The novel was a runaway bestseller in Italy, and as I know, she occasionally takes people to Italy to do tours, so you should check her out if you're interested in doing that. That novel won a prestigious award for foreign fiction, and she's also done extensive adaptation work throughout Hollywood. She's had articles published in lots of magazines, things you've heard of like Vogue and Playboy, and as a native of New Orleans, she currently divides her time between Los Angeles and Europe. Karen, welcome to the artist chat.

Karen Essex: Thanks Scott, thanks for having me.

Host: Absolutely. Also here, we have Gar LaSalle, who is published by Solipsis Publishing. He is author of the award winning Widow Walk saga, which follows one family's journey through the frontier of America during and before the Civil War, beginning in the 1850s. Book three of his five book saga is actually going to be published later this year. If I remember correctly, Gar, you have just finished the final manuscript for that book. Is that true?

Gar LaSella: That's right.

Host: Host: Excellent. In addition to being an author, he's an accomplished filmmaker, a sculptor, and a physician who founded Team Health, which is still the nation's largest provider of hospital based services. Welcome to the artist chat, Gar.

Gar LaSalle: Thank you, Scott.

Host: Okay. Well, like I said, we're talking about representing women in literature, in historical fiction as well as biography and just literature in general. I'll open this up by just acknowledging that both of you have chosen to write several books featuring and celebrating strong women. Can you just tell me a little bit about why? Karen, let's start with you.

Karen Essex: Well, that's a very complicated question for me because the reason I decided to focus my work on exploring the female experience in history, my novels are all thus far historical fiction, and the reason I have written those novels is because women are basically hidden from history. All female history is hidden history, and if you ever tried to do historical research about women's lives, you will find yourself having to read between the lines of history because no necessarily has recorded female's stories.

There are a lot of reasons for that. One is that up until the middle to late 19th century, most women, most, and I mean almost all, were basically illiterate. Women weren't even taught to read or write beyond enough math to do the books for the farm. That sort of thing. Women were certainly not writing about their own lives, and because history is basically written as a series of battles and conquests and regimes, women weren't there. I just wanted to illuminate the female historical experience and women's ability to succeed and influence history in spite of the kinds of challenges that they faced. That's, in a nutshell, what brought me to what is become my life's work, really.

Host: Yeah, indeed. That's a very strong nutshell of yes, a complicated question for sure.

Karen Essex: I will say the thing that started the ball rolling was that I was reading because I was thinking about going back and getting another degree, which is one of my favorite things to do, in women's studies, I was reading about the real history of Cleopatra, and I was stunned because I realized that the real Cleopatra had absolutely nothing to do with this seductress, the Elizabeth Taylor sort of heaving bosom seductress. I thought, wow, except for a few scholars, this was many years ago, no one knows this. I thought, "Well, I'll write a novel about the real Cleopatra." I thought, "Well, this will be easy. I'll research it for six months, and then the next six months I'll write it." Well, that was in 1992, and I wrote two books about Cleopatra, and they were published in 2001 and 2002.

Host: 10 years later.

Karen Essex: Yeah, turned out to be a huge undertaking but anyway, it was just the idea of the way that a character like a historical figure like Cleopatra who was brilliant and spoke nine languages and was a great diplomat, et cetera, et cetera, had just basically come down to us as a seductress, which was very far from the truth.

Host: Yeah, and it makes sense from what I know of Hollywood. That would be the element of half-truth that is pulled out into a movie. Interesting. You wrote two novels…

Karen Essex: Yes. The first novel is Cleopatra's life before she met Julius Caesar because history treats her as if she sprang to life the moment she met Caesar when she actually had a fascinating life before she ever met him.

Host: Fantastic.

Gar LaSalle: Karen, these were fiction or were these nonfiction?

Karen Essex: They were historical fiction.

Gar LaSalle: Great.

Karen Essex: I guess you would call it biographical historical fiction.

Host: Nice. Well, for those listening, we'll put the links to those books, and yeah, that could be an entire interview in and of itself I'm sure. Well, Gar, how about you and this question of you're on book three of your own series and why have you chosen to center it around a strong woman?

Gar LaSalle: Well, that's interesting. I'm not sure that it's necessarily all about strong women as the stories have evolved. It's turned out that the central character is a very durable protagonist who is completely fictional, but based pretty loosely on some historical fact. We started with it in the mid-19th century. I found myself as I was, just to tell a little bit about this story itself, found myself doing the research on this drawn to the real widow of the prominent settler in the Pacific Northwest because of what I found in her diary. It spoke about the plight of someone who was on the frontier when there were less than 5000 non-Native settlers in that area isolated, beset by the weather and the doldrums, having to raise a family in the absence of her husband who's off fighting with the Aborigines and doing his entrepreneurial things and getting himself involved in a variety of things like that, and over and over again, you see the desperation of this with very terse passages to that, her frustrations.

I found myself putting myself in that person's shoes, so to speak. Then as the story evolved, it's a story about a revenge killing that actually transpired on Whidbey Island in the Pacific Northwest in 1858. I realized since the story was originally written to be a treatment for a screenplay that the family's circumstances, which as they tried to recover the remains of the head of the family, the head of the head of family, really wouldn't be a very interesting story in some ways. We, as I put the story together, realized well, what would drive the interest of an audience? The thought of taking the widow's story and expanding on that and having her try to recover a kidnapped child would be compelling enough for anybody, particularly anybody who's tried to raise children and understands. I did have a few people tell me, "Well, I just don't get that this is plausible that a woman would put her neck out this way and go off way onto the North and try to negotiate with the kidnappers," et cetera from that standpoint, but everybody who's had kids understood that and said, "Yeah, I'd do that."

The more I thought about it, the more I realized, okay, you've got a strong person who is driven by something that is internal and most people can identify with. Then the more research I did, the more I realized that it wasn't just this particular person who was in that situation. It was every woman who was particularly on the frontier areas. They had to be strong as hell, and they had to be stronger than the men in most circumstances, and yet the men were given all the privileges. They were treated as third class citizens in many respects, so the story of the emancipation of human rights, which not only addresses the rights of minorities, but also of women became a compelling backdrop, I think, for a series that would speak to the evolution of our consciousness about all of this. It's not something that's just granted. It has to be won. It has to be fought for, and what better way of triggering that than to create something that goes right to the heart of anybody who's a parent. That's how I arrived at that.

When I've been asked that question by others, I've also said, "Well, I've got two daughters." When they grow up, they are grown up right now, it's been wonderful to watch them emerge in their own lives as very strong women. I've admired some incredible people that I have worked with over the years who are very, very, very, very capable. Smarter than me. I created a character that's a composite character with all of those qualities that someone could look to and say, "Yeah. This is somebody who is a true mensch in society from that standpoint," irrespective of whether they're a woman or a man.

Karen Essex: When you mentioned about your daughters, one of the reasons that I've continued with this work is I have a daughter, and when she was little when I was writing the Cleopatra books, and I would always talk to her friends and say, "What women do you admire?" They didn't know any women from history at all. The only female they could come up with was Madonna. …so I just thought, "This has to change… I have to do this for them, you know? They have to know that women have come before them and done something more than cook."

Gar LaSalle: The history itself is fascinating, and I've tried to take it from the perspective as a physician too and the privileges that were given to male physicians. I went to a medical school where there was one woman in a class of 100 back in, and I graduated in 1973. That's all changed. It all changed pretty quickly, as a matter of fact, by 1982, when I went back there again to work on a documentary, half of the class was female. I got the chance to observe the interaction between the men and the women who are medical students now, and these women were smart and tough and more than holding their own with their counterparts who had previously been given the ... Deigned to have the privilege of being physicians from that standpoint. There's been a rapid evolution that's occurred, and that's been fascinating too from that standpoint.

There are some scenes in the book and in the screen play that relate to miscarriage where the protagonist aborts as a result of the traumatic events that have occurred. She's through the third miscarriage, and as I studied the medical history and how post-partum infections occurred and the fact that you couldn't get physicians to wash their hands even, common sense that was given, that was brushed aside a predominately male medical society. Predominately, I mean exclusively male medical society. It's very, very interesting as well to touch on all of that.

Karen Essex: It's very interesting, the whole history of women's health that no women until now have been active in research about women's health, and so even women's health has come to us from a male perspective. It's fascinating.

Host: You touched on some of that with even women's mental health. Is that the fair way to say it, Karen with Dracula in Love?

Karen Essex: Absolutely, yes, in Dracula in Love.

Host: Yeah, say a little bit about that because that from the medical perspective we're talking about, that was shocking to me.

Karen Essex: Well, based on a lot of very solid research too, people think that I should say in my book Dracula in Love, which is a telling of the Dracula myth from the perspective of Mina Harker. When I reread some years ago the Dracula tale, Bram Stoker's Dracula and there's the one character Renfield is an inmate in the mental institution, and what occurred to me was, which I knew from my women's studies, a mental institution at the end of the 19th century would not have had one mad vampire acolyte in it. It would've been loaded with women who were committed just because they were thought to be hysterical based on acting like women. Women were committed for all kinds of women. Husband wants to remarry, tired of the old wife. Let's just declare her, get a physician to say she's hysterical and let's put her away. One of the biggest reasons that women were put in mental institutions in the 19th century was for being sexual, so women who had sex drives were thought to be aberrant. That was aberrant behavior for a female.

I think it's mentioned in Dracula in Love, and this was a story that just broke my heart based on research. A 15-year-old girl was committed because she did cartwheels on the front lawn, and her parents saw her and said, "This is not female behavior. There's something wrong with this girl."

Host: Wow. This is late 1800s?

Karen Essex: Late 1800s. Many of our grandparents and great grandparents were born at that time, so in terms of history, it's pretty recent and pretty shocking.

Gar LaSalle: Karen, I did some similar research for the third book and the history of psychiatry during the 19th century and 18th century and forwards. Not that it's perfect now, but it was exactly what you're talking about, and it was a common practice that I found that there was collusion between physicians, male physicians, and the innkeepers or the asylum keepers, so to speak, to do exactly what you're talking about. It was a convenient way of being able to essentially acquire the estate of a woman by having her committed. You're absolutely right in terms of institutions being filled with women who were beset in that way. As a matter of fact, there is a whole series of things that have occurred in the third book that I've written that relates just to that and to the really incredible ways that they dealt with not only women, but anybody who was thought to be insane.

Karen Essex: Oh, yeah. The treatments were horrific. Force feeding through a tube and the water treatment, which was basically torture, sticking women in tubs of ice cubes and then forcing them to drink cold water. It was thought to calm the hysteria.

Host: Whoa. That's torture.

Gar LaSalle: Then they actually had contraptions that drowned people. Then they would resuscitate them. They'd fill the tank all the way up with water till the person could no longer hold their breath, and then they would drain it and resuscitate them. That's how, it was a Germanic treatment that was developed by German physicians in the 17th century as well, endorsed by very prominent physicians all the way until the mid-19th century. Yeah, that's fascinating.

Host: Well, this brings up something that I think is really interesting about the work both of you are doing, which is if you look around at books, movies, TV right now, you see a whole lot of dystopian future settings, and I think you're seeing more, at least I feel like I'm seeing more strong female protagonists in these kind of… hero type or heroine roles. Whether it's the really popular movie series or a lot of the books that are going after YA audiences. I think it's interesting that when we project, projecting into the future, obviously you can create the setting as well as the dystopia as well as the storyline. You have carte blanche on that. Both of you work in historical fiction, so my question is what kind of lessons do you think modern readers can pull from or learn from seeing strong female, strong women in historical contexts rather than in these futuristic dystopian contexts?

Karen Essex: Well, it was real. It's not a fantasy that these women actually accomplished what they accomplished. I have a different take on these women superhero movies and-

Host: Okay, good.

Karen Essex: … cartoons where women are beating up men, girls are beating up boys and all this stuff. I think I'm going to write about this, so let me try this out on you guys.

Host: Do it.

Karen Essex: I look at all this stuff and I think, "Oh, now we have to be ass kickers too?" We have to be beautiful, smart, educated, gentle, soft, but strong, and now we also have to be martial arts experts and snipers? I think in a way some of these contemporary characters, and it goes into fantasy, I think in a way, even though it's supposed to be about female empowerment, in a way I think it puts yet more pressure on girls. Oh, now I have to actually be able to beat up men. I have a pet peeve, which I adore the show the Americans. Love it. A friend of mine created it. I'm a very devoted viewer of it, but every time teensy Kerry Washington beats the hell out of a big man who's been… in all the martial arts and every manner of weaponry, I just think ... I don't like it. Don't prey upon my fantasies. I find it bothersome, this thing that is supposed to be empowering I actually find quite bothersome, so that's my sort of non-fiction thinking these days.

Host: Well I think-

Karen Essex: I don't know what you guys think about that.

Host: Gar, what do you think?

Gar LaSalle: Well, I think that certainly the appetite for Hollywood has been to try to find, the term I've heard over and over again is kick ass. A kick ass woman. I think that's fine. I think that my sense is that there'll be circumstances in which a woman certainly can deal with somebody who is stronger than her, but there'll be circumstances where that's not going to be the case. The reality is that brute force is going to overwhelm a smaller person in most circumstances unless a person is exceptionally skilled, so I don't find that necessarily possible, and the more that it pushes on that into the impossibility area that it undermines something that is much more significant, it seems to me.

I think that the qualities that are there are very there without having to push on that envelope, necessarily. I agree with you, Karen. I don't think that women are being forced therefore to take on something else to their accoutrements from that standpoint. I just think that it doesn't do any credibility to the other areas, which I think are very, very real. Leave the brute force to the guys and the meanness and all the other things that come along. They've been very good at doing that their whole lives, and so why take on that portion to a woman's personality?

Karen Essex: This thought just occurred to me. In a way, it's just another way of defining positive qualities through male qualities, right? Remember when, I remember when I entered the business world, it was the mid-80s and we all were supposed to look and act like men, right? We had big shoulder pads, we wore black, we wore suits. We were supposed to be very tough because the masculine qualities are considered the positive qualities, so I just think all of this, now you've got to be able to beat people up too, that's just another way of saying, "Well, if you're strong, you have to be strong in this way," as opposed to what you're talking about, which is a mother protecting a child, going out on a limb, risking her own life to protect a child. That's a strength too. I would rather personally see more of those stories than stories in which women have super heroic powers to beat up men. That just doesn't really interest me that much.

Gar LaSalle: It's not that a male wouldn't also stick his neck out to rescue his children in those circumstances. I think the reality is that given brute force, that the male is going to have a greater chance of supervening in those circumstances from that standpoint. The challenge then to the woman who may not have the credibility that get accorded to a male in historical contexts or the physicality to be able to, has to deal with it in a different setting, a different way. That I think is possible. That's reality.

Karen Essex: I'm thinking of, I'm sort of pursuant to what you just said, there have been studies done about female law enforcement officers, and the most positive thing is not that women are great snipers or that they can beat up criminals, but that women have a distinct ability to defuse violent situations. Let's celebrate that. I read that one study. I have never seen that talked about in any other contexts when we're talking about law enforcement, but I think that would be something to be celebrated.

Gar LaSalle: A escalation process. We teach that, of course, in dealing with violence in the emergency department.

Karen Essex: Oh really?

Gar LaSalle: When you're directly confronting it, you figure out a way of essentially deescalating the process and then entering into a negotiation process where there effectively is a of course win-win opportunity for both of the parties that end up getting involved.

Host: Karen, just what I'm hearing you say is, or first of all, I think that take on the representation of female empowerment, what you're saying is I would please explore that for all of our benefit. Talk about it.

Karen Essex: … this is inspiring me to write an essay about it or something.

Host: It is pretty fascinating that I hadn't thought of them that way, but sort of the classic dystopian YA novel that is, or even the Disney one, a Disney version of the empowered woman is very, very similar to Odysseus or something. It's very male hero cycle archetype, just a woman doing those things.

Karen Essex: Hunger Games. You know, she-

Host: Hunger Games, yeah.

Karen Essex: She certainly doesn't use her feminine qualities to, you know, she's a marksman.

Host: Just sort of substituting a woman into a storyline that were sort of the traditionally male trait celebrating storyline.

Karen Essex: Right, exactly.

Host: Interesting. I love that both of you are doing things with historical fiction, and especially, you said it very succinctly, Karen, just they're real stories. Even if they aren't 100% factual historical figures, in your case, Gar, both of you are pulling out real stories or stories that have the capital T truth as well as the truth of history in your case, Karen. Yeah, just telling that this is what needed to happen and history wouldn't have happened, sort of riding the scales, riding the balance of history.

Gar LaSalle: I feel like I, Karen, what you mentioned about celebrating the things where there are differences. Not that one then says to the, quotes the other side of the aisle, so to speak, that, "Well, that's not your domain. You can't do that." It reminded me of something, statistics that we used to see in dealing with medical malpractice. The difference between males and females getting sued and then some of the qualities of the physicians who get sued, and it's coming down to something that relates to the ability of someone to communicate with another human being, and the ability of one person be able to empathize with another person and the ability to listen. We have done studies where we found that, in most circumstances, not that this is something that the business side of medicine wants to promulgate necessarily because so much is riven now by trying to push people through the experience as quickly as possible to... We found that female physicians spent more time listening to their patients, interrupting fewer times.

Almost a four or five-fold difference between the male physicians and the female physicians. There's also a correlation between the amount of time that people spent and their likelihood of them essentially finding themselves in the middle of a medical malpractice, not because the mistakes that were being made, but because of the decision on the part of the patient that they were going to hold that person accountable in a legal circumstance. I believe that there's a correlation to be drawn to the notion of empathy and the ability of a women to listen in comparison to their male counterparts in the medical field, generally.

Karen Essex: I'm sure you're right. My best friend in New Orleans who I grew up with is a rheumatologist, and she is the kind of doctor who will sit with her patient and hold their hand and listen to what they're feeling. I just had the experience of taking my mother to a couple of doctors, male doctors, and all they did was talk. I was kind of noticing the difference, the mansplaining.

Gar LaSalle: Right, if I can…

Karen Essex: Here's what's wrong with you.

Host: Yes, I didn't realize that was what's wrong with me.

Karen Essex: When I hear stuff like that, I think, "Well, why can't we learn from each other? Why can't we take these qualities and help women to be more assertive and help men to listen better?" That's my vision of a better future. Not feminizing men or masculinizing women.

Host: I love it. Well, we are actually fast approaching the end of our time together here.

Karen Essex: That went by quickly.

Host: Yeah. What you're saying leads into my last question for each of you, which is what can we expect from each of you in the near future? Do you have a project in the works that you want to tell us about? Karen, have you decided where to publish your essay on this yet?

Karen Essex: No, I haven't decided that yet. I have just actually, I am finishing my first contemporary novel.

Host: Fantastic.

Karen Essex: Which is inspired by certain sex scandals that are ripped from the headlines, and so events of the present have kind of inspired me to write about sexual politics in a contemporary way. I'm not going to abandon historical fiction, but I'm just finishing. In fact, maybe even tonight, finishing my first contemporary project.

Host: Oh, that's exciting. Can you share any details or how long, will it be a while before we can see that?

Karen Essex: Well, the only thing I want to share is that it is inspired by certain shocking sex scandals that have come out recently. We have a certain person in office, and that has influenced by work quite a bit. That's what I'm doing now. Before Gar tells us what his plans are, I just want to say I would love to see you write about a female doctor.

Host: Ah, yes. Fantastic. I would love to see that too …what's that?

Karen Essex: I'm just a writer, right? He's a writer, a physician…

Host: Awesome. Well, folks who are interested in Karen's work that she's talked about on here as well as that book in the future, which is likely many of you, we'll definitely leave you links to find everything that Karen is doing. Gar, how about you? What's on the horizon?

Well, as I mentioned, the third book is now with the editor and will come out along with edits of the first two books. Probably this late summer or early summer. The first book has optioned for a feature film, and I'll be spending a lot of time working on that, and I've already written the first draft of the screenplay. There are two more books in this saga that I have visualized, and I have… research for the orphan trains that will involve some of the same protagonist's family as thousands of children were shipped across the country from 55 to 1917 or thereabouts, 250,000 kids. My intention is to ride trains and go into small towns throughout the Midwest farming communities and just try to get a sense of what the environment was that these children were put into.

I'm also working on a documentary. We've done majority of the filming for that. It's called Never Say Die. Part of that is following children who are terminal with neurologic or metabolic diseases. It's how we deal with death in our society. Then I have an article that I'm going to be actually doing a podcast on pretty soon. It's called Taking Out the Guns, and it's the story about, it's a personal story that relates to this fascination we have with rifles and guns in American society. I'm a lot older than you, Karen. When I was a kid, every TV, I saw the very first TV programs, and if you didn't have a gun in those programs, it was boring. How I grew up.

Karen Essex: What's changed?

Gar LaSalle: Yeah. Right. That essay will be effectively something that relates to an evolution in thought and try to look at both sides of the equation from that standpoint to deal with it fairly from the perspective of somebody who has grown up in a hunting family but also someone who's been an emergency physician. That's what I'm working on right now.

Host: Fantastic. Well, okay. It's been my honor and certainly a pleasure to have both of you. Karen, thank you very much. Gar, thank you very much, and everybody, I hope you enjoyed today's artists' chat about representing women in literature.


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