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I Don't Find Writing a Woman as Comfortable as Writing a Man - I Actively Prefer It

06/07/2015 09:23 BST | Updated 05/07/2016 10:59 BST
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The book is called The 3rd Woman, but its heroine is very much my second woman. Don't get me wrong. I don't mean she's the other woman in my life - though my wife might say there were times when it felt like there were three of us in this marriage. No, I mean that Madison Webb, the driving force of my new novel, represents the second time that I have decided my lead character should be female.

She's a journalist on the Los Angeles Times, just turned 30, who's made her name as one of the most fearless investigative reporters in America. As successful as she is in her professional life, she's something of a train-wreck personally. Her last relationship ended in disaster when she and her boyfriend tried - and failed - to live together. She's constantly slamming the phone down on her older sister and seems only to let down her ageing mother. And she is plagued by a constant and horrendous insomnia.

Beyond our chosen line of work, I have next to nothing in common with this person. Even journalistically, we are different animals: I've covered politics for most of my career and have spent much of the last two decades writing columns rather than digging out facts from dark places. Above all, she is a woman and I am a man.

And yet, I found it oddly comfortable to return to writing a heroine rather than a hero - my first female lead since I wrote The Chosen One, published under my pseudonym, Sam Bourne, in 2010. I instantly felt at ease, guided by that sense that I knew Madison - how she would think, how she would speak, even how she would try to get to sleep in the long, slow hours of the night.

Why don't I find it harder to write a woman than to write a man? Part of the credit goes to my editor, Jane Johnson, who gave me a sage piece of advice when I first swapped narrative genders like this, advice that has endured. "Don't write her as a woman," Jane said. "Write her as a person."

It may sound obvious, but it was shrewd. The temptation as a male novelist would have been to over-think a female character's female-ness. To fret over the external, visible business of being a woman - worrying about whether the details of clothing or posture or manner were sufficiently and accurately female. Instead, it made sense to focus on the character's character, focusing not on what made her different from a man but what made her different from everyone else, male or female. That's how I would think of myself, so why not think that way of Madison Webb?

But it goes further. It's not just that I find writing a woman as comfortable as writing a man: I actively prefer it. I'm not completely sure why. It might be that I grew up in a household of women, shaped by the presence of my mother and two older sisters: indeed the torrid, devoted relationship sisters can have with each other is a current that runs through this new book.

But my best guess would be that when writing a male protagonist, I have perhaps strained too hard to make him different from myself, to ensure that I am not lapsing into autobiography. With Madison Webb the difference was there from the start. It was built in. Whatever I did, she could never be identical to me. Even if I dumped a whole cluster of my personality traits on her - and that would be cruel - she would always be distinct. Because she is a woman and I'm not.

Of course the process has its challenges. Occasionally Jane has had to step in to tell me that "no woman would ever dress like that in this situation." But I'm glad to say those correctives have tended to be about what happens on the outside rather than within - so far at least.

More than once, readers have asked about sex scenes. Surely it's, ahem, tricky for a man to describe sex from a woman's point of view. As readers of Sam Bourne can testify, and as readers of the Third Woman will discover, that is not a challenge I have ducked. Did I succeed? I'll let you be the judge of that.

The 3rd Woman by Jonathan Freedland is published by Harper Collins, £12.99