“Novels have to be about people, not messages.”
Set in Virginia in 1959, Robin Talley’s Lies We Tell Ourselves follows Sarah and Linda, two teenage girls on radically different sides of the civil rights movement – who find out they have more in common than they think.
Though Talley writes about segregation, interracial relationships, and the struggle of the LGBT experience, Lies We Tell Ourselves does not aim to preach. Instead, it tells Sarah and Linda’s story – which just happens to take place amid all the cultural turmoil of the 1950s.
“I couldn’t try to portray the entire history of school integration, and I definitely couldn’t try to make specific points about civil rights, LGBT equality, or anything else,” said Talley.
Talley doesn’t make specific points within her novel about social issues. In a world of We Need Diverse Books, some authors may create a story intending to throw every race and gender and sexual representation into the plot, but Talley’s diverse writing starts from experience.
“My default protagonist is a 17-year-old lesbian,” said Talley said, “A gay chick in her senior year of high school is right at the middle of it.”
And once she started writing, Talley made an active effort to challenge herself to create characters who didn’t change based on their race or sexual representation.
“It’s usually in the early stages of plotting a story that I pause and think, ‘Wait, does she have to be white? Does he have to be cisgender? What if she wasn’t a native English speaker,'” said Talley. “Non-white characters, non-middle-class characters, non-American characters, disabled characters don’t come to me as instinctively.”
Asking these questions of her characters helps her write stories that reflect the world and its readers.
Still, despite all she tries to do, Talley’s aware of her limitations. There are things she doesn’t know and that she may not get right.
“I always try to be conscious of how much I don’t know. If I’m writing about a character who’s different from me, that means I have to do my research and make sure I’m writing that character as authentically as I possibly can.”
For some writers, this can be terrifying territory to enter, but Talley doesn’t shy away from it. Instead, she knows that she has to rid herself of the fear of leaving her comfort zone.
“I have to remember that it’s OK to make mistakes ― but that it’s also up to me to identify the mistakes I make and correct them.”