by Rebecca K. Jones
The protagonist of my first novel, Steadying the Ark, published this spring by Bella Books, is Mackenzie Wilson, a young gay sex-crimes prosecutor. At the time I wrote the first draft of the book, I was in fact myself a young gay sex-crimes prosecutor, and I think that many people, especially those who know me a little bit but not well, assume that Mack is an autobiographical character, but nothing could be further from the truth.
Aside from demographics, Mack and I do have several things in common:
• We are both fierce advocates for society’s victims and believe in the righteousness of the criminal justice system and our chosen careers.
• We both have really dark senses of humor—some might say too dark. Mack’s ex-girlfriend calls her ghoulish, and I wrote my undergraduate honors thesis on gallows humor as exhibited by Jews during the Holocaust.
• We both love the movie The Silence of the Lambs.
Perhaps our biggest similarity is where we have found our communities. One of the most important things I took away from my time handling sex crimes was a close-knit group of friends and allies. I’ve traveled the world, mourned personal losses, and celebrated life changes with people I met in that job. I know that I could call any of them at three a.m. and they would answer, and I would do the same for them. That’s true for Mack as well.
But that’s about where the similarities end. The differences between Mack and me are wide-ranging and, to me, much more interesting than the things we have in common. Mack has a problematic relationship with alcohol, while I barely tolerate the taste of an occasional hard cider. Mack is unwilling to ask for help. She’s arrogant, both personally and professionally. If I were being stalked, I’d be in a hotel under 24/7 armed guard from the first incident, but Mack just goes about her life, pretending none of it is happening.
Mack and I have had very different experiences of being publicly gay, and that’s largely based on our physical differences. Mack is tall and beautiful, with long blond hair and a traditionally feminine presentation. In the book, she has a run-in with a male colleague and comes out to him in response to being asked on a date. As a masculine-of-center person, I move through the world in a way that causes people to assume I’m gay. The difference in these experiences has impacted our interpersonal and professional relationships. I don’t get the kind of male attention that results in Mack being stalked, for example. I’m not that kind of man’s target.
All that being said, I think the biggest difference between Mack and me is how we face challenges. I’m a firm believer in “feel the fear and do it anyway!” I like to tell myself that fear and excitement are just the same neurotransmitters with different labels. (This isn’t true, but I still like to say it. It makes me feel better.) Mack, on the other hand, is a firm believer in refusing to acknowledge fear as a valid emotion. She doesn’t do things despite having fear—she barrels into situations recklessly in order to avoid dealing with fear or anxiety.
There are a lot of things I admire about Mack. She has unrelenting focus and can work impossible hours without needing the kinds of breaks that I need. When in trial, I have to take weekend days off. Mack can throw herself into a case and maintain a pace I cannot. I also appreciate Mack’s confidence in her own position. I am always sure I’m going to lose until the exact moment I learn that I’ve won. Mack does a better job believing that things are going to turn out in her favor.
There are also some very real ways in which Mack’s life feels empty compared to mine. I’m glad I have more in my life than Mack does. I have strong relationships with my parents, a long-term partner, two dogs, and valuable friendships. I travel a lot, while Mack avoids taking leave time. Mack keeps people at arm’s length in a way I do not. I think that’s a safety thing for her—something that hopefully will be explored more in future books. She has a lot of walls up, where I’ve worked hard to let people in and bring them close.
If I worked with Mack, I like to think we’d be friends. Friendly, at least. Mack would judge me for taking time off, while I would judge her for working too hard. In spite of that, I think our similarities would draw us together. We could happily sit at a bar and trade war stories, trying to one-up each other with ridiculous stories from our time in the trenches. At the very least, we could always watch Dr. Lector together!
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