Shannon McFerran On Gender Roles

Inspiration is a funny thing. It can come to us like a lightning bolt, through the lyrics of a song, or in the fog of a dream. Ask any writer where their stories come from and you’ll get a myriad of answers, and in that vein I created the WHAT (What the Hell Are you Thinking?) interview. Always including in the WHAT is one random question to really dig down into the interviewees mind, and probably supply some illumination into my own as well.


Today's guest for the WHAT is Shannon McFerran, author of Synchro Boy.

Ideas for our books can come from just about anywhere, and sometimes even we can’t pinpoint exactly how or why. Did you have a specific origin point for your book?

My daughter joined a synchronized swimming club when she was eight. Her pool had a big dive tank, and an Olympic length lane pool, and a smaller pool for lessons. I’d sit up in the bleachers on a balcony overlooking the pool deck and watch the daily drama playing out with all the different water sports. When my daughter told me that a boy had come to one of the synchro club’s practices but didn’t come back, it got me wondering what it would be like if a guy joined this sport and stuck with it. What might happen in that environment?

At the next practice, I was thinking about it, and the character of a racer came to mind—it was Bart. While I sat there thinking about his story, I started hearing bits of dialogue between him and a buddy, dialogue about trying synchro, and the initial conflict began. When I drove my daughter home from that practice, I sat in the living room jotting down the lines of dialogue that started the story in a notebook while my husband and daughter were doing something else—I just wanted to catch it all. What he was like.

That was in 2014. I was working on a middle grade novel at the time that I couldn’t admit was a dead horse, so I kept flogging that but really wanted to start this story about the synchro boy. In 2015, I dropped the other novel and started writing more than notes, that was also the year FINA accepted the mixed duet for international competition—something that male athletes in the sport had spent years waiting for.

Men came out of retirement to compete at the Worlds that summer in Kazan, and then the community started to get excited, because surely this meant the event would be included in the next Olympics. I started researching the history of men in the sport, and followed Bill May, the American champion, and his story made me so much more enthusiastic than I already was about Bart’s story—because there was a real-world guy who loved the sport and dedicated his life to it and now there was this massive hope that he could have his dream—and go to the Olympics.


I’ve always had a fierce belief that strict gender roles oppress boys and girls. To tell a young boy that dolls are for girls, or you wouldn’t want to read that book, it’s about a girl… or tell an older boy to stop crying, man up—this leads to the de-valuing of sensitivity, and emotion, which the world genders as female. So it’s a de-valuing of the feminine.

Boys need equal access to what society calls “girl” stories, or “girl” forms of expression, in order to embrace their whole person. Yes, things are changing—but not everywhere, not at the same pace. So I looked at the barrier for boys in this heavily feminized sport—even if that barrier is being broken in competition, there’s still a heavy social barrier—and I saw an opportunity to tell a story that would speak to that. Writing Synchro Boy, for me was about writing a fun story—and I had a lot of fun writing it—but for me, it was also an act of feminism.

Once the original concept existed, how did you build a plot around it?

At the heart of the story is the mixed duet event—the only one men can compete in internationally. So what dramatic conflict is there in putting Bart and his duet partner together, under that kind of pressure? Well, if your duet partner drops out, you can’t go on by yourself. You need to be in it together.

The thematic elements were there in the concept from the start—the gendering of the sport, and the obstacles that throws up for Bart. What happens if you join a female-gendered sport, as a guy? Bart came to me as someone very driven, and knowing what he wants, but he was also a character who didn’t want anyone to judge him for what he was doing, or have people think it meant he was less of a guy. And that’s pretty straight-forward. But what would make that even more complicated? What if everyone made judgments about Bart’s sexuality because of his choice to join synchro, but he was still exploring his own sexuality and resisted defining himself in a limited way? And what if he was angry that people though his sport would have anything to do with his sexuality?

And because synchro is a sport with a structure of competitions that happen throughout a year-long season, that presented a structure, an external arc. So I worked with those three ideas—the pair dynamic, Bart’s uncertainty about his sexuality, and the competitions—and the plot came together. Then, 2015 happened, and the drama of the event hitting the world stage entered the story as I was writing it—it was very exciting.

Have you ever had the plot firmly in place, only to find it changing as the story moved from your mind to paper?

Absolutely. And again, after it’s on paper. I’m Queen of Multiple Outlines.

In my mind, Bart did a lot of addressing the reader. I guess it was like he was telling me the story, and I was listening—so it felt like he had an audience, if that makes sense? As I got the story down on paper though, there was a lot less of that, until there were just a few asides. In the end, my editor had me take those out, since there were too few to really have them work.

In my mind, the antagonists in Bart’s story really came from outside of his club—but then when I started writing it, the parental and sports official resistance that he’s up against took a back seat to the conflicts with the girls he swims with, which was a very good change!

Do story ideas come to you often, or is fresh material hard to come by?

A story usually shows up for me as soon as the one I’m working on is “solved.” As I’ve got the story down from beginning to end in a workable first draft, I start thinking about the next one. It might just be characters, a setting, some dialogue… but I’ll start mulling it over when I’m not revising the last one. That hasn’t happened with my current work in progress, so I started to worry that maybe it’s the end of ideas for novels for now—but then I just started over from the beginning on that novel, so I guess it’s not solved. I just have to trust something else will come when I’ve got this one down properly.

How do you choose which story to write next, if you’ve got more than one percolating?

I tend to get grasped by a single story idea and then I get obsessed with it—I don’t think about others—not with YA fiction, anyway. I used to write essays and I always had a bunch of ideas that would fight for my attention, and I would work on a couple or more at once. Maybe that’s why I never went far in that genre? Perhaps the split focus wasn’t good for my writing.

I have 5 cats (seriously, check my Instagram) and I usually have at least one or two snuggling with me when I write. Do you have a writing buddy, or do you find it distracting?

Your cats are adorable, and my daughter would be very jealous! She’s always pushing for more cats… but ours is cranky, and does not play well with others—so she will remain a solo feline. She shows up on my Insta feed quite a bit, too.

I prefer writing alone. Sometimes my cat gets between me and the keyboard, which I interpret as a cue to take a break. Sometimes my dog naps nearby, and that’s lovely.

I do have a critique partner who is also a colleague at my day job! So Leanne and I go for coffee and talk about our stories. Through some happy quirk of fate, we’re both debuting our first YA novels this fall.