Susan discusses her novels and the complexities of modern masculinity with Darcy Delany – Yass Valley library
Darcy: What prompted you to write an Australian romantic suspense series?
Susan: Most of us would love to experience a romantic adventure, am I right? Writing or reading a book, or watching a movie has to be the next best thing. It’s like slipping on someone else’s shoes and leaping through a window into another world.
To answer your question of what prompted me, who knows? When I was little I believed every girl had a baby inside her from birth, small as a watermelon seed, that grew, all by itself. My parents had a very hard time convincing me otherwise. As I got older I had a recurring dream. I was in a shop, rummaging through a clothes rack and there, on the floor, between the clothes, was my newborn. I’d given birth. Well, ARAFURA happened more like that, no tiny developing seed. One summer morning I woke up and the outline of a romantic novel was floating around in my head. The characters took care of the adventure and humour, once I began to write.
Darcy: Can you tell us about the first two Arafura novels?
Susan: The first book , Blood, the Wet and Tears, begins with Kat, a sensible Darwin schoolteacher, in a long term engagement with a decent man. Their relationship is a bit dull, but they’re happy enough. In ARAFURA I call them two lovebirds in an invisible cage.
One day a stranger, Adam, arrives in town, and as a favour to her father, Kat reluctantly shows Adam the touristy sights. But in no time at all, Adam has a hotline to Kat’s soul and her ovaries. Here’s an excerpt from ARAFURA Blood the Wet and Tears, explaining the ovaries bit –
‘Kat defaulted to her primal survival skills—the guy had great genes for procreation. Instinct and hormones reminded her she was at the end of a long, evolutionary line of successful couplings on the savannah.’
But is Kat going to admit her instant attraction? Absolutely not, she’s engaged and he’s an unpredictable, loose cannon.
As the story continues, there’s danger, there’s blood, there’s a suspicious dead body, and of course, there’s Adam. Soon Kat is forced out of her comfort zone and questions, not only who this man really is, but who is she?
ARAFURA – Unfinished Business has more adventure, with darker undercurrents woven through the humour and the love story. This time, it’s not just Kat’s love life that becomes more complicated, when a US warship arrives in town and she’s swept up in an amateur terrorist plot. That’s already enough hot water for anyone to be in, so why can’t she keep her hands off her rescuer, when she knows she can’t trust him? To say any more would give away the story…
Darcy: Adam’s not as strong as he seems. Can you explain about heroes with broken wings?
Susan: After writing my first book, I discovered that women have very strong opinions about their ideal mate. Some women approached me and asked, “Where can I find an Adam?”
Then, a very dear girlfriend commented that Adam’s type might be electrifying in their hormonal, primal attraction, but they’re emotionally risky because they have a broken wing. So, even though you’d ‘shag them in a heartbeat’, they’re ‘an unsuitable choice for the trenches of domesticity’.
Now, I understand the concept of a man with issues has some women running for the hills, no matter how handsome and/or exciting he might be. But, seriously, not all ‘broken wings’ are equal! And who’s perfect? We all have problems! I believe it’s important to ask – Is this man willing to face his demons, to heal himself, and grow? Because helping someone who won’t help themselves usually ends in heartache. And if he’s not facing his demons, is he at least trying to do the right thing, and warn you off? Here’s another excerpt from Blood, the Wet and Tears:
“Can I do anything?” Kat asked his retreating figure, not sure what to say, or do. He stopped, silent for so long she didn’t think he heard her. Then Adam turned to face her.
“I think you should stay away from me,” he said, his voice husky and halting, fighting for control. It was simple, honest, futile advice. Without another word, he was gone.
Why do some women expect perfect knights in shining armour? Men are negotiating their way in a changing world too, but unlike women, they don’t talk about it very much.
Sometimes taking an emotional risk with someone can bring greater joy, intimacy and belonging.
I enjoyed exploring all this in ARAFURA, and men have enjoyed reading my books too, as the reviews on Amazon show, which I take as a huge compliment.
Darcy: How did your interest in masculinity and broken wings begin?
Susan: Probably back in gender studies at uni, that’s in addition to my real-life gender studies at uni.
Seriously, I wanted to research that my male lead had an authentic, masculine voice. Of course, it’s now accepted that male and female brains are wired differently, and hormones don’t course through our bodies the same way. BUT…
What fascinated me was how much masculinity varies from culture to culture and across time. The relationship demands on men used to be different. Bring in the money, be dependable and solid, have manly conversations, and keep the kids in line. Men in the past didn’t stress about their sunburnt skin, or getting their chests waxed. Manbags and bromances didn’t exist. They were told:
- Real men don’t cry
- Take it like a man
- Real men are strong, stoic and self-reliant
But have those messages changed very much? There’s still a lot of emotional isolation for males, and I wonder if today’s young men feel a bit lost? Today’s man box appears to offer more masculinity options, (buff sportsman, hipster, sensitive new age guy, the Tinder ‘player’ etc), but do the men of today feel free to show emotions? Can they tell each other when they feel sad?
** As an interesting aside, what does appear to have changed is men no longer wanting their identity solely linked to their day job.
Leading researchers on masculinity claim there’s still a missing, magic trifecta in the man rules which isn’t nurtured in our culture. Robert Masters calls it – head, heart and guts, which encourages the expression of both soft and hard attributes in a man, to be tough and tender. Steve Biddulph agrees.
Relationships are changing too. The modern woman is economically more independent, she’s no longer willing to play the back-up or support person. It seems women still want their men to be protective, but also able to talk about their feelings. They want to be related to in ways that some men aren’t used to. These new demands on relationships raise some men’s insecurities and concerns about not being enough.
Some women, like Kat, don’t realise how much they appreciate an emotionally literate man who has head, heart and guts until they meet one….
Nevertheless, Adam still has his battles with the man rules, believing that asking for help is a sign of weakness.
Darcy: Having flaws isn’t something to be ashamed of …
Susan: Show me someone without flaws! Robert Masters claims shame thrives when men don’t feel free to express their vulnerability. And I wonder how many of you agree with Masters that –
- Shame is an emotion most men feel, but are embarrassed to show
- Shame left unattended in the shadows will determine much of a man’s behaviour.
- Most men spend their lives pretending they’re fine when they’re not.
Pretending you’re fine when you aren’t is the norm for men who’ve been raised to ‘take it like a man.’ People suffering PTSD are also weighed down with shame, especially if you’re in the military, like Adam is, where the culture demands toughness. Adam struggles with the shame of being damaged goods, that he’s not good enough for Kat.
Darcy: You’re also interested in exploring vulnerability in ARAFURA…
Susan: Yes, Kat is cautious about choosing a partner, especially sexy, unpredictable ones who disappear, because she lost her parents when she was very young. So, allowing herself to be vulnerable in a relationship isn’t easy for her. But she begins to realise that without vulnerability, there’s less intimacy.
And it’s the emotional intimacy that Kat finds irresistible about Adam. He has PTSD, but that doesn’t define him. He’s also playful, and curious to know what makes her tick.
“We both have hazel eyes,” he said, studying hers. “Only yours have a touch of green, like the Northern Lights.”
“Thank you.” Adam’s expressive eyes took her breath away, but she wasn’t going to admit that to his face. Not yet. Besides, she’d noticed HIS eye colour within the first minute of meeting him. “Your eyes remind me of…” Kat wrinkled her nose as she inspected them, head on one side. “Mangroves.”
He squeezed her hand. “You’re too kind,” he said, grinning broadly.
Despite Kat’s best intentions, she’s drawn to him, and realises how stale her long-running engagement is.
Yet being vulnerable with the right person can be an act of courage, a source of strength. I enjoy exploring this in my novels.
In Arafura my characters also struggle towards interdependence – when they know they can make it on their own, but still consider interweaving their life with another person. And that involves vulnerability and risk, but surely deeper connections.
Darcy – Do you think heroes in novels can possess masculine and feminine traits?
Susan: If men are taught to bury their expressive, softer sides, I think many women suppress their harder, dominant sides. It’s fun to slowly liberate this in a character and watch them transform. I like the way Kat and Adam continually surprise each other, as they surprise me. In this excerpt, Kat discovers her tough side:
When her vehicle’s brake lights shone red, he picked up the pace, yanking open the passenger door.
“Let me drive,” he said.
Kat threw him a filthy look. “Get stuffed.”
He made a grab for her arm, but Kat white-knuckled the gear stick, and the Jeep took off for the second time. This time she wasn’t going to stop. Hot-footing it to maintain his hold on the open door, Adam made a lunge for the handle on the glove box and heaved himself into the vehicle’s cabin.
“Put on your seat belt,” she ordered, after kilometres had passed in silence.
Adam leant over to search the Jeep’s console and Kat tried to ignore his skin accidentally brushing her arm.
“Where are my sunnies?” he asked.
“Who cares?” she snapped. “They were too dark for polite conversation, anyway.”
Adam gave her a long look, then checked the rear vision mirror as he reached for the seat belt strap.
As Michelangelo said about his statues, “I didn’t create anything, I just pared away the layers and there it was.” I believe all of us have layers, both masculine and feminine. To have someone care enough to help you, who allows you to pare away the layers and reach your true potential – is a precious gift in any relationship.
Darcy: Adam has PTSD, and we can’t explain how because that would spoil the story. What experience have you had with PTSD?
I’ve known two people who grappled with PTSD every day. That inspired me to research PTSD, and how it also affects people close to the sufferers, trauma by association. I’ve discussed it with a psychologist, who was very helpful with the male lead in the third novel.
Am I an expert on love, gender and PTSD? No, but I’m curious. My stories are entertainment, they’re not prescriptive—but I’ve done enough research to learn these things aren’t the same for everybody. I do know that every person, except psychopaths, needs to connect, to feel wanted, useful, and loved. I also hope readers find some laughs along the way. I keep asking questions, and enjoy hearing other people’s thoughts on these topics.
Any questions or comments or opinions about romance and masculinity?
Find Darcy Delany’s I Don’t Date in December (The Modern Fairy Tale Series) and other novels here.
The New Manhood – Steve Biddulph
To Be a Man: A Guide to True Masculine Power – Robert Masters PhD
The Body Keeps the Score, Mind, Brain and Body in the Transformation of Trauma – Bessel Van Der Kolk
Brene Brown’s TEDTalk on The Power of Vulnerability