Posted by Claire Siemaszkiewicz on 5th September 2018
Like most people, I’m moved by current events. Like many artists, I’m also compelled to reflect them in my craft. Perhaps to make them more accessible, or understandable, or somehow palatable. Art—be it a novel, an exhibition, a video or other form—helps some of us cope with events or situations that feel insurmountable. Those of us who create for a living are blessed and cursed with this ability. Blessed because we get to purge it by putting it “out there” for public consumption.
And cursed because…it’s “out there” for public consumption.
The recent surge of awareness about how women have been forced to deal with toxic workplaces has hit me hard. It not only forced me to face my own personal experience with ugly masculine work environments, but also helped me understand how prevalent even the most extreme sorts of behaviors still were—now, in the 21st century.
One of the worst trends in all of this is something as worn out as Don Draper’s office booze cart. Slut shaming women who exercise their options with men—that is to say, they have had more than one sexual partner through their lives and perhaps have not quite yet decided that any of them are worthy as life partners—is one of the vilest forms of personal defamation out there. If we stick with the Don Draper analogy (apologies to those who are not Mad Men fans), if the double standard that women had to accept during those years when working their way past the secretarial pool—and of course the millions of women who never managed to do that—were applied to him, it would ruin that guy. I mean, seriously, talk about a slut. Even after he divorced his brittle wife and mother of his three kids at her insistence and rebounded with the sexy chick he’d hired to accompany him and the kids on a vacation, and after she sang him a sexy song in French on his birthday, he still couldn’t keep Little Don in his pants.
And alas, it would appear that the sort of liberties Don and his fellow Mad Men took with women still occurs today. The list of men who’ve been taken down thanks to the brave women whose voices were finally heard is vast. Setting aside the fact that many/most of them get sweet payouts to leave their companies while the women are left to be excoriated almost as much as they are admired, it has taken us quite a way from the apparently heady times in the penthouses of power.
Against this backdrop, I set my new novel, FireBrew. In it, I introduce Harriet Jane Terrance, a successful commercial real estate agent in Detroit, Michigan, arguably one of the nation’s fastest-growing markets. She lives with her best friend in a quaint condo, works hard, goes out to party with regularity, and feels confident in her own sexuality. I.e. she’s not one to shy away from a one-night stand.
Once her serially married broker/boss figures out that she means it when she says she no longer wishes to hook up with him—something she realizes is unwise, not to mention unfair to his third wife—his threat about her “behavior” doesn’t fall on deaf ears. She takes her license and her book of business to an even bigger brokerage, and brings some of her multi-million dollar clients with her.
But it turns out that this new company is openly toxic to women. Within weeks, she must face some of the ugliest behavior possible even after she’s determined to reign in her healthy libido, keep her head down and work. She unwillingly reveals the teeming underbelly of sexual harassment, coercion and outright assault that exists at the famous brokerage, at great cost to her both physically and emotionally.
I won’t kid you—this book doesn’t shy away from the way men who consider themselves Masters of the Universe, deserving of any woman who crosses their path, behave. Please read the warning on the first page. But within the narrative, I embedded a nugget of hope. When Harriet Jane is at her lowest possible point, even with a man presenting himself as her hero, she decides to save herself.
Don’t worry, there is a fabulous HEA at the end. But to me, this woman’s happily ever after is even more satisfying because her inner strength is what convinces this potential hero to cast off his unwillingness to connect emotionally with anyone, much less a woman who seems to draw chaos to her like a Pied Piper attracts rats. They are two broken humans. And they find strength and happiness with each other. But not before Harriet Jane becomes my fictional hero by standing up to the men who hurt her and tried to blackmail her into silence by insisting that she was a slut and no one would believe her anyway. She risks everything she’s built for herself, most importantly her financial independence, to ensure that these men can never harm another woman again.
It’s a crucial message, one I hope will resonate with anyone who believes it was their fault they were harassed, assaulted or attacked, and one I choose to relay using my platform as an author. I am grateful to Totally Bound Publishing for agreeing to walk this path with me.