Why I Write about Sisters—Even Though I Only Have Brothers
Growing up with only brothers taught author Holly Robinson the importance of sisterhood.
I was never a “real” girl. I detested dresses and preferred being outdoors. My mother was constantly calling me out on my tendency to run wild, saying, “You’ll never get a husband, behaving like that.”
Why did I ignore her? Until I hit middle school, my younger brother was my closest friend. Our Navy officer father was constantly being reassigned and there was no way to keep other friendships. My only girlfriend in elementary school was more like a brother: we built forts, trapped cottonmouth snakes, raced around on bikes, and were such Star Trek groupies that we crafted an enormous USS Enterprise out of an old refrigerator box (she was Captain Kirk and I was Mr. Spock; we wore matching uniforms of red tops and blue jeans).
Even as a teenager, I didn’t “get” girls. My life revolved around my horse, and when my mother started a riding stable business, I was top groom and stable hand. I wore jeans every day and didn’t own a tube of lipstick until after college. In high school, I was a reluctant cheerleader, only because I was strong enough to hold up the bottom of the pyramid, but I was also on the boys’ wrestling team.
I had boyfriends and fell in lust and even in love. I enjoyed observing girls, but I did so cautiously, as if they were apes or panthers that might turn on you unexpectedly. Most girls intimidated me or made me feel sorry for them. I knew they were smarter than they acted.
Finally, sophomore year of high school, I made a friend who was like a sister to me. Biz read the same books, loved horses like I did, and didn’t mind getting dirty, yet she was somehow feminine and sweet, too. Her thick gold hair fell to her waist, and she could play guitar and sing. Biz didn’t wear makeup, but she was beautiful enough to be named Queen of our junior prom, simply by showing up wrapped in a sheet with flowers in her hair.
Biz and I agreed that girls were difficult to get to know and even tougher to trust. Boys were easy: they either wanted to sleep with you or share your lunch. You could always tell whether a boy was mad at you or not; if he did get ticked off for some reason, he probably wouldn’t stay that way.
Despite this lack of sisters in my life, Biz taught me the value of having one, and after high school, I began looking for girlfriends who felt like family. This search extends into my fiction: my new novel, Folly Cove, as well as several of my other books, revolves around sisters and their complex relationships.
In Folly Cove, there are three sisters—the Bradford girls—known for their beauty and singing voices. They have grown up in the historic Folly Cove Inn; as different crises call them back home, their messy relationships start to implode as old hurts and family secrets come tumbling out of various closets.
At one point, as I was writing a scene for Folly Cove involving an angry confrontation between two of my main characters, I had one sister really lose it and slap the other. When I showed this to a friend with sisters of her own, she said, “You totally have to make the other sister slap her back.”
“What?” I was horrified. “I don’t want this to turn into a cartoon scene.”
“Listen,” she said firmly. “If one of my sisters slapped me, you can bet I’d get her back.”
So I did it. I had both sisters do the slapping.
Why do I write about sisters, when I only have brothers, and sometimes need to seek expert advice on the topic of sisterhood?
There are two reasons: I did have a sister once, but she died of cystic fibrosis as a young child, when I was only 12. Since then, I have always wondered what it would be like, if my real sister had been around when she was 13 and I was 20, or when she was 30 and I was 37, and so forth. Losing a sister, I’ve recently realized, is like losing a piece of yourself.
The second reason is because I’m so grateful for the sisterhood I have created. Near and far, I have found friends who are my sisters. We can freely share emotions that range from deepest grief to joy that is too large to contain. We are intimate in ways we can never be with our boyfriends or husbands, our mothers or daughters.
In my novels, as in my world, sisters have the most complex relationships—and therefore have the most to lose if something goes wrong, and the most to gain if they can forgive one another for their flaws and mistakes. That makes writing about sisters difficult, engaging, and therefore enormously gratifying. What novelist could ask for more?
Holly Robinson is a novelist, journalist and celebrity ghost writer whose newest novel, Folly Cove, will be published by Berkley/Penguin Random House in October 2016. Visit her at www.authorhollyrobinson.com and on Twitter @hollyrob1.
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