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Inspiration Behind Writing Who Run The World?



Who Runs the World? is a book that we have all been talking about at MKB headquarters! Virginia Bergin stops by the MKB blog to share her inspiration behind writing this thought-provoking and enthralling book.

Over to you, Virginia! 

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I could write a book about why I wrote this book . . .

(Don’t worry! I won’t!)

Who Runs the World? is set in a world in which a virus has killed almost every man and boy on Planet Earth. Such a catastrophe would cause immense grief and turmoil, and throw our world into crisis.

Why would I write such a horrible story?

It all started when a teen friend told me she was studying Tess of the D’Urbervilles at school. She said she did not like it. Specifically, she did not like Tess (‘I hate her. She’s such a sap!’).

My heart sank . . . and, if I am honest, my blood boiled. I studied the same book about 35 years ago. Literary merits and critical analysis aside, that’s generations of teens reading a story in which women are helpless victims and men are cruel oppressors. I wondered whether I could tell a completely different kind of story.

It took several junked ideas and a long, hard conversation with my agent, Louise Lamont at LBA Books, before I came up with the scenario. By setting the story 60 years after the virus has killed almost everyone with at least one Y chromosome, I would be able to explore the possibility of a future, gender-neutral world AND address our current attitudes, because there would be people alive in the story who remembered the way things were.

‘YES TO THIS,’ Louise wrote in reply to the proposal – and my editors at Macmillan, Rachel Petty, Lucy Pearse and Helen Bray , agreed. They invested in Who Runs the World? when it was just an idea.

All I had to do was write it.

Great!

No.

I realised I felt that a world run by women and girls would be a better world. And I had to stop and question that.

The message I’ve received – in all kinds of ways – all my life is that men are somehow better than women. If I made a story that effectively said ‘women are better than men’, I would be turning a lie around and repeating it. If I wrote for adults, I wouldn’t worry too much about that, but I don’t just write for adults, I write for young adults. I realised I had no right and no wish to push my past onto teens . . . and in any case, I realised another thing: I do not know what a woman or a girl is.

I know what biology is, and to my knowledge there is very little evidence that your biological sex determines how you think and behave . . . so what does?

GENDER . . . ?!

This thing we call gender shapes all our lives. From the day you are born gender expectations saturate your world, coming at you from every direction. Even if you don’t experience it from your family (unlikely!), you’re gonna get it from all sides: from advertising (gender expectations are a money-maker!), media, education, government. From the law – and from justice itself. You will get it from your peers: if you are a girl, you are expected to look and behave and think in certain ways; if you are a boy, you are expected to look and behave and think in certain ways. 

The more I looked at it, the more the very concept of gender fell apart before my eyes. These influences aren’t absolutes! They’ve changed throughout history, they’re different in different cultures – and they are entirely of our own creation. Most importantly of all, as far as I can see gender stereotypes cause difficulty and pain for so many of us – and hold us ALL back. To me, the idea that a girl or boy should be a certain way, and be ‘good’ at doing certain things, and probably ‘bad’ at others seems . . . completely crazy – and, if it affects your ability to fulfil your potential (and be yourself), very, very unfair.

I was set free. I had felt so worried about depicting a utopia (because that wouldn’t be fair or right, would it?), and I was worried about the implications if I didn’t (because would that mean I was saying negative things about women and girls?). (Interestingly, I don’t think people worry too much about the depiction of patriarchies in fiction and films. Why is that?) My conclusion was that if I don’t know what a woman or a girl - or a man or a boy - is now, I certainly couldn’t possibly know what a future woman or girl would be like. I decided I was free to imagine this world however I chose . . .

So what you have in Who Runs the World? is a whole load of ideas that interest me – about democracy, justice, economics, education, health care, and so on. They are just details, with which you may or may not agree, and I hope readers will feel free to imagine their own version of this world . . . but what is important in the story is ‘gender’. 

Every line – every word – of Who Runs the World? was a challenge. Many, many times, I wanted to stop writing. I thought I couldn’t do it. I thought it was too ‘big’ for me, too hard, too complicated . . . but I carried on – not because I felt I had answers (I most certainly did/do not!) but because I wanted to find out where the story would take me. I struggled – mightily – to keep my own views out of it, and to just let the characters speak and act . . . which was hard when they disagreed with me, and almost painfully impossible at times in the case of River, the main character.

It is River who tells you this story – and it hurt, very deeply, to try to imagine how a girl who has grown up without any of our gender expectations would think, speak and behave. So, for example, when Mason, the teen boy in the story, says to River, ‘Are you some kind of a goddamn girl?’ my first instinct was to have River react angrily or dismissively to that . . . until I realised she wouldn’t. Being ‘a girl’, being called ‘a girl’, being asked if she is ‘a girl’ is almost meaningless to her – and certainly has no negative connotations whatsoever. Or positive connotations! She just IS.

In her world, being ‘a girl’ means nothing more or less than being ‘a person’. In her world, a girl is enabled to make and speak her own choices. It is a world in which a girl is free and empowered. As all people should be.

Phew. Right; I hope that gives you some idea of how I came to write this story, and of some of the difficulties I encountered. Why I wrote it – the ultimate why – is the same as with any other story: to take the journey. To find out what happens.

My dearest wish is that readers imagine (and write!) (and live!) their own futures, free of gender expectations . . . because, really, Who Runs the World?

We do.


Have you read Who Runs the World? How would you reimagine a world without either gender? Let us know at @mykindabook