Holly Brown’s ‘How Far She’s Come’ tells the timely story of Cheyenne, a woman with a history of sexual harassment chasing her dream to work at the Independent News Network. To her delight, she is able to secure a job broadcasting for the network. However, to her horror, the modern professional veneer of the network starts to quickly disappear as she is once again subjugated to harassment from her peers.
Even more unsettling, a diary is left as a warning for Cheyenne by a previous female broadcaster. As it becomes apparent that Cheyenne is being manipulated into events similar to those in the diary, she must change the power dynamics in a toxic workplace to show everyone she will not stand for this aggression without retaliation and truly show how far she’s come.
Thankfully in today’s corporate climate, issues of sexism, abuse, and assault have been given much more media attention than they have in the past. Strong victims have brought private attacks to the public forefront to create an environment of accountability and outrage that only recently became established in our society. Social media campaigns and writers such as Holly Brown have largely helped to give agency back to the people who suffered under these archaic aggressions by featuring stories of empowerment and anger in relation to abusive workplaces.
Rebecca Proulx: How has your career as a therapist influenced your writing?
Holly Brown: I like to write characters with complex psychologies and interpersonal dynamics, and it definitely helps to be exposed to those routinely in my therapy office. My therapy work means I’m continually practicing compassion and empathy, and those are vital skills for a writer.
I’m fortunate in that I’m not a writer with a day job; I’m a person with two careers that really balance each other, and balance me. When I’m writing, my introvert side gets to retreat into the stories I’m creating, and when I’m practicing therapy, my extrovert side gets to connect with people in a fulfilling way.
Being a writer is inherently unstable, in that you don’t always know how your books are going to fare in the marketplace and you’re not assured your next contract, so it’s important to me to have a business that is stable. How you take care of yourself emotionally definitely influences your writing.
RP: The main character Cheyenne is identified at the very beginning as someone who already possesses a history of sexual harassment. Why consciously choose someone with a history versus someone coming to the news organization with a clean slate?
HB: I wanted her to have sensitivities and triggers based on her prior history so that she’s new to the world of broadcast journalism but she’s not new to the world of sexism and misogyny. She experienced the pain of it in the Wild West of the internet, where the incels and pro-rape activists dwell, but she discovers that in the rarefied corporate air, it’s just as pernicious though it takes a different form.
RP: How Far She’s Come tells the story of a seemingly modern and boundary pushing news industry implementing practices that are archaic in terms of gender equality in the work place. What message do you want readers to take away from this troubling contrast?
HB: It’s about the difference between branding and reality, and how people can easily believe their own hype. Within my fictional Independent News Network (INN), they’re doing well-meaning stories in service of gender equality, but that doesn’t mean they’re actually treating their female colleagues with respect.
People can subscribe (quite sincerely) to certain ideals and seemingly fail to notice the disparity between those ideals and their daily behavior. With the #MeToo movement, this has been exposed in story after story, as powerful men from all positions on the political spectrum as well as those in arts and entertainment have been called to account for their actions.
RP: How difficult was it to integrate the eerie diary entries of Elyse into the story?
HB: It wasn’t too difficult because in my earliest draft, the book was half Elyse’s story and half Cheyenne’s. At that point, it was less about suspense and more about developing these women within their different historical settings. It’s incredible to think how much has changed in 25 years, as so much of how we communicate has been transformed by technology like cell phones and the internet, and yet sexism is disturbingly resilient. It morphs.
Because I wrote a lot more of Elyse’s story than ended up making it into the finished copy, I knew her character very well, and it gave me a lot of options for integration. There were many naturally occurring parallels across the two stories, and I needed to choose the ones that heightened suspense most effectively while also underscoring the central premise: how far women have come, and how far we still have to go.
RP: Gender equality and sexual harassment issues have heightened in media presence, especially with the Time’s Up and Me Too movements, making How Far She’s Come incredibly relevant to many women. Do you feel that this is a period of empowerment for women to write, read, and transform the way we treat these topics or that we still have a lot of work to do terms of sharing these stories and enforcing change?
HB: It’s definitely a period of empowerment. While there’s concern about #MeToo fatigue, that people will get inured to the stories and lose their sense of outrage and their impetus for change, I think that the consciousness raising has been amazing. The sheer volume has been eye opening, and now many good men know about the female experience and have developed a mindfulness that there are no bystanders; they can be part of creating a culture that supports women. Entirely new conversations are taking place, and these can be really transformative.
There’s that saying about how fish can’t see the water they’re swimming in, and I think as a culture, we’ve been swimming in a lot of female objectification and invalidation, and all these stories, individually and in aggregate, help us see the water.
RP: Can you tell us about some women who inspired you to invent such a strong female protagonist?
HB: In doing my research, I read a lot of books by and about female broadcast journalists through the decades. Learning what they were up against and how they persevered really helped. Some, like Gretchen Carlson, are actively crusading against sexism and sexual harassment right now. I was also intrigued by Katie Couric and admire Sharyl Attkisson. I’m a fan of Zoe Quinn, who triumphed over Gamergate, and of writer and activist Lindy West.
I’m not saying they’re perfect people or that I agree with them all in their political or personal views, but I think feminism is about common humanity. If you need your heroes to be perfect, you’ll be pretty much bereft of inspiration, and I feel like right now is a great time to look around and be inspired.
RP: What do you think is the most important piece of advice to give to anyone struggling with gender equality in the work place?
HB: You might feel isolated, but you’re not alone. One of the most effective tools to keep women quiet and compliant is to get them thinking that theirs is an utterly unique and individual experience, that they’re less competent than their male peers, or that they’re crazy, and it’s them that’s messed up and not the system. Recognize your strengths and understand where you need to improve personally and where the culture is failing you.
RP: What is one question that you always wish people would ask you and why?
HB: “What are you working on next?”
I love that question because it means there’s continued interest in my writing, and I’m always really passionate about the next thing. Since you asked, I’m working on another book in the vein of ‘How Far She’s Come.’ It’s a topical workplace thriller set in Silicon Valley, which is right in my backyard, and the rumor is that it hasn’t had its full #MeToo reckoning.
How Far She’s Come is now available for purchase.
ABOUT HOLLY BROWN
Holly Brown is a practicing marriage and family therapist in the San Francisco Bay Area, where she lives with her husband and daughter. Her blog, Bonding Time, covers a wide range of mental health, parenting, and relationship issues, and is featured at PsychCentral.com.
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