About The Author
Dawn O'Porter is a novelist, columnist, broadcaster and designer who lives in Los Angeles with her husband and son. She has made numerous documentaries about polygamy, childbirth, Geisha, body image, breast cancer and even the movie Dirty Dancing. She is the critically acclaimed author of two books for young adults, Paper Aeroplanes and Goose. Dawn launched 'Help Refugees' in 2015, a charity that sends urgent care to refugees across Europe. She is also the host of 'Get It On', a weekly podcast where she interviews interesting people about why they wear what they wear. www.dawnoporter.co.uk @hotpatooties /DawnOPorter
Auhor photo © David Loftus
In her first novel for adults, The Cows, Tara, Cam and Stella are strangers living their own lives as best they can - though when society's screaming you should live life one way, it can be hard to like what you see in the mirror. When an extraordinary event ties invisible bonds of friendship between them, one woman's catastrophe becomes another's inspiration, and a life lesson to all. Sometimes it's ok not to follow the herd. Exclusively for Foyles, we talked to Dawn about why she likes to write in the first person, developing a stronger social conscience and sorting the sexist issues in our own lives.
Questions & Answers
What inspired you to write The Cows?
I wanted to write a book that challenged what society expects of women in terms of love and motherhood. Being childfree is not a new subject, but one that I still think underrepresented. The book is also about public shame, and I was excited to play around with the idea that one moment can change your life forever. If you’re unlucky enough to get caught…
After writing two YA novels, this is your debut as an adult writer. How different was it to write an adult fiction novel? Did you have to change your writing style?
Not very if I am honest, other than the characters being older and needing to take more of their history into account. But even with Paper Aeroplanes and Goose, I just wrote as I thought the girls would feel, and it’s exactly the same when writing adults. I never consider my audience. I think if you start to worry that your readers are teenagers, or too young to read something, then you stop being honest. I generally write in the first person because then you can push the limits of honesty - people are most honest in their own heads. So, really, the only difference is that you have to remember when writing teenage characters that they don’t have much life to call upon to guide them through, with adult characters you can justify a lot of their behaviour with their history.
The Cows features three strong women, Tara, Cam and Stella, who are all living very different lives. How did these three characters come to be? Were they inspired by you or people in your life?
No, they are all fictional. There are elements of me in all of them, I suppose. I felt what they are feeling. Cam is the writer in me, the loner. I thought about the journalist Polly Vernon a bit when writing Cam, but she isn’t based on her. Tara is the mother in me, Stella is the part of me that has experienced loss. I can relate to them all, I’ve lived a little part of each of their lives, but the story lines and course of their lives is entirely fictional.
In addition to being very funny, The Cows also depicts grief and pain, and Stella having to make a decision about losing part of her body. Is this a subject close to your heart and was it difficult to write about it?
Not hard to write, no. Close to my heart, yes, but not so personal I felt that it was my story. Like Stella, I lost my mother. But Stella is facing much deeper dilemmas about her own personal health and identity. I’ve met a lot of women in her position, so I felt well researched on the matter and think the prospect of feeling desexualised in a society that tends to sexualise women is a fascinating area to explore.
Social media and the internet have a huge presence in the book – Cam uses it for a force of good but it can also backfire and have some catastrophic effects. Do you think the negatives of social media outweigh the good?
No, I think the good outweighs the bad, but it is inevitable that at some point over the course of a lifetime everyone who uses it will have a negative experience. And those experiences can be crippling. I think we’re all still getting used to it, and finding our voices online. It can be incredibly positive, and be used for so much good. But it does give a platform for hate, and that is the big problem. We open ourselves to criticism like never before. Along with more use of social media, we also need to acquire thicker skins. Which, for a lot of people, might not be a terrible thing. I don’t like being too negative about it because for me (so far) it’s been a very powerful and positive force in my life.
The Cows shows how all three women are judged and pressurised by society – and they also judge each other and themselves. When writing The Cows was your intention to trigger a change in the way that women treat each other?
YES, hugely. We have all been mean, inconsiderate or judgemental, but the hypocrisy of that is that we have almost all received the same treatment. I think it is unrealistic to suggest a world where none of these things happen (I am certainly no angel), but if we are going to open ourselves up this way, offering all of this access into our lives via real life and our twitter or Facebook accounts, then we have to develop a stronger social conscience and think more about the way we make others feel. No one wants to be judged, and no one has to be the same. We need more acceptance in this world, The Cows is just a tiny example of where it’s needed badly.
Cam says “There is one fight – feminism, but there are many different types of women, and pleasing them all is impossible.” In a world where all women are uniquely different, how can we better represent each other under the umbrella of feminism?
Be open minded. Don’t presume because someone isn’t ‘’normal’’ they are wrong. Allow people to live differently and openly. As far as feminism goes, if someone is fighting for equality then they are a feminist. Some women care about clothes, some care about their experience at work. Others care from the perspective of being mothers, others don’t. Feminism is about all women sticking their hand up and saying, ‘I am me, but don’t treat me differently just because I am a woman.’ Sometimes it’s other women who are doing the damage. I saw one journalist call stay-at-home mums ‘jobless idiots’. On Twitter. I actually put that in the book because it was so horrendous. She had the audacity to back up her horrible comment with some weird rant about feminism. To me, she is the problem and the reason we need it. That attitude stinks.
Cam encourages us to take risks, and be active in change: “I think we’ve got feminism to this place where there is too much talking and not enough action... let’s live by the words we preach rather than just say them on social media, let’s be active in change.” Considering the Women’s Marches all over the world in recent months, what else can we do to be more active in change and empower other women?
Make sure the immediate world around you is how it should be. There is no point in saying you are a feminist if you experience sexism at work every day. Feminism is activism, we have to remain active. If more women stepped up and sorted the sexist issues in their own lives, the world would improve. Activism isn’t always reaching far and wide, it can be as small as reporting bad behaviour and supporting other women in your family.
What are your plans for 2017? Can we look forward to another book in the future?
Yes, another three, actually. I just wrote the third Renee and Flo book, and after that I have another one to write for HarperCollins. After that, another Renee and Flo. My fingers ache just thinking about it…