Can a man ever accurately create realistic, legitimate female characters? Palm Springs author David Hamlin thinks he knows the secret.
“I’m a good listener,” he says. “I’m a great admirer of women who break glass ceilings. There are barriers to be taken down and not accepted, so I write about strong women who fiercely fight for what they want. Throughout most of my adult life, my good friends (have been) women.”
Hamlin’s first two works of fiction, Winter in Chicago and Winter Gets Hot, feature a female protagonist, Emily Winter, a clever and determined reporter working for a Chicago paper at a time when women are just beginning to fight entrenched sexism and reach beyond writing about fashion and entertainment.
Born in Washington, D.C., and raised in Bethesda, Md., Hamlin grew up in a household where there was always a daily newspaper, and where dinner conversation included the political realities of growing up close to the center of government.
“We had neighbors who were high up in the military or members of Congress or working in government agencies,” recalls Hamlin. “It was the culture all around us, and I had the good fortune to experience a superior public school system where we learned an appreciation for government and social action. That was a time of the Freedom Riders and the Congress of Racial Equality. I did participate in some demonstrations.”
That grounding led to a stint as an AmeriCorps VISTA (Volunteers in Service to America) volunteer.
“I spent three years at the University of Maryland after high school and decided to take what is now called a gap year,” he says. “The VISTA program was about a year old at that point. I trained in Chicago at a time when VISTA’s focus was poor and Indian communities. When I signed up, they were focusing on urban areas so, I ended up working on poverty programs in Newark, N.J.
“That was a time when groups like Students for a Democratic Society (SDS) and activists like Tom Hayden were recognizing the needs in black communities. It became the ‘college radicals’ versus the VISTA volunteers. I trained as a community organizer and ended up in Philadelphia for about nine months.
“I gained a far-reaching appreciation for what the Constitution’s framers had in mind when they wrote the First Amendment. We take free speech for granted. The public conversation needs to be wide open, with all ideas, and with regular citizens able to pick and choose what to listen to and what to say, without interference by government.”
After graduating cum laude in English and government from Nasson College in Maine, Hamlin ultimately got involved with the American Civil Liberties Union and served as the executive director in New Hampshire. He was recruited to Chicago—and the infamous Skokie case happened when he had been there only 18 months.
“From the day I arrived until I left Chicago, one of my driving desires was to use that platform to help people understand more of what the Constitution says,” Hamlin says. “The Skokie ordeal was when the ACLU supported the right of Nazis to march in Skokie, Ill., a community with a lot of (Holocaust survivors). It lasted through 19 months of extreme stress and tension. I did most of the media contact and public speaking, and I finally left soon after, largely out of exhaustion.”
How did the writing career come about?
“I had done some writing for an independent newspaper while I was working with the ACLU, but the big project came when I was asked to write a book about the Skokie case,” says Hamlin. “That led to The Nazi/Skokie Conflict, published in 1980, a first-hand account of one of the most controversial free speech cases in the 20th century.
“It was the first time I thought of writing as a profession. My dad had been a publisher and editor and an international reporter for The New York Times. My older brother was an editor. We always had books in the house, and I learned to enjoy reading very early. I discovered mysteries while I was in college.”
Hamlin and his wife, Sydney Weisman, began a public relations firm when they moved to California. “We met when I was with the ACLU in Chicago. I sponsored a conference for lawyers and I needed to get a good publicist. She walked in the door, and we’ve been together now for 41 years.”
What brought them to Palm Springs three years ago?
“We lived in Los Angeles, running our own business, so extended vacations were never an option,” Hamlin says. “We spent time in Palm Springs whenever we could, so it seemed like a natural choice.
“I had written for clients, including a book about the 75th anniversary of the (landmark Los Angeles) Farmers Market. I’d written opinion pieces and even a political satire column. But I wanted to take a run at fiction. You need focus and energy to do it well, so we decided to retire.
“When it comes to writing, you just have to start. That’s the only way to learn how to do it—and read good writers. For me, it was authors like Elmore Leonard, John D. MacDonald, Joseph Wambaugh, and Canadian Louise Penny. There are so many, but I never read them while I’m writing—I don’t want to even inadvertently steal something.”
The striving reporter featured in Hamlin’s first two books is being retired for the time being.
“I want to spread my wings a little,” says Hamlin. “I’m in the early stage of writing another book right now.
“The arc of feminism that I experienced made me a great admirer of women. Their voices are different, and their approach to everything from personal relationships to the culture around them is different. At the ACLU, I began when women were banging on the doors of society. I always interacted with strong women demanding equality.
“One of the lessons I’ve learned in writing a female character came from my wife. She goes ballistic at the idea that men always write about the kind of women who are in jeopardy and running for their lives. She says, ‘Why in God’s name would a woman be stupid enough to wear high heels in the jungle?’”
David Hamlin doesn’t make those kind of mistakes.
Hamlin will appear at Just Fabulous, 515 N. Palm Canyon Drive, in Palm Springs, on Saturday, March 10, from 2 to 4 p.m.
Anita Rufus is also known as “The Lovable Liberal,” and her radio show airs Sundays at noon on KNews Radio 94.3 FM. Email her at Anita@LovableLiberal.com. Know Your Neighbors appears every other Wednesday.