Never underestimate the power of a scarlet stiletto: Cate Kennedy

I notice that in the promotional material for this glittering, pearly occasion a photo of me was used from 2018, a night that represented 25 years of the Scarlet Stiletto Award. Tonight, I am wearing the same shoes – not Scarlet Stilettos, because … just NO. I’ve never been a girl to wear stilettos. Firstly, because I have size 11 feet, and as I mentioned back in 2018 most stilettos made in my size are designed for drag queens and feature a lot of patent leather. I’m happy in my orthopedic Homy Peds, thanks.

I won a pair of shoes in the first days of the Scarlet Stiletto Awards in 1994 and 1995, and was a bit freaked out having the stiletto blade glinting on the bookshelf, so I gave the shoes away to a friend who put them on display in her very whimsical sculpture garden, and kept the bases as bookends.

They now hold up a whole bookcase, and keep everything else in place, which is nicely symbolic when I read the bios of the other writers who have won Scarlet Stiletto Awards over the years, in the anthology we are launching tonight.  

You will see in these bios that these authors have gone on to credit their win, and the Sisters in Crime themselves, as being absolutely foundational to their notion of themselves as writers, allowing them the confidence and inspiration to go on to write more and more – the published books already produced by women crime writers on this list of winners over the 30 years of the award is phenomenal.

The Scarlet Stiletto committee, of course, saw from the beginning the stiletto as a feminist play on the traditions of the genre, saying “the stiletto is both a weapon and a shoe worn by women. And of course, the colour scarlet has a special association for women.”

True. And I think that despite always managing to wear the wrong thing to public events, I think I might have nailed the brief for the outfit tonight.

Thanks to two august institutions – Savers and Spotlight – I have created the Scarlet Stiletto frock, upon which 30 scarlet stilettos march. March forward, sisters!  I’ll be stationing myself after this speech by the purchasing table where the writers present who appear in this anthology can come and rip a stiletto off me for a handy bookmark. I’d like all thirty to be gone by the end of the evening. Because they’re really itchy.

I’m also officially launching the e-book of this year’s best stories, but being an e-book – and invisible – that’s slightly harder to create a bookmark for, but my admiration for you is no less.

It’s serious work, this, subverting the dominant patriarchal paradigm one sentence at a time, and I’m glad we’re all here to celebrate doing it, at whatever speed or age we can manage it, in whatever genre or archetype we choose.

Never underestimate the power of a scarlet stiletto.

I went to the Physics Factbook to check on just how much pressure a stiletto heel can put on a floor. A bare foot puts 30 pounds per square inch onto a floor, a woman wearing a stiletto ramps up the pressure to 240 pounds per square inch.

So that’s as much as 1600 pound force per square inch (PSI) while a man exerts only 20 psi. Which is why people with wooden floors don’t like you walking on them in stilettos, and why if you wear stilettos to a garden party you will need to be assisted out of the ground you will sink into with your heels. This immensity of pressure is applied to a minute area – the 1/16th of an inch spike of a stiletto – which means that given the choice between having your hand pummelled by a herd of elephants or a group of angry women in stilettos, you’d be wise to choose the elephants, whose feet are about 40 inches across.

Personally, I’m still waiting for a crime story in which someone is stabbed with something that’s only 1/16th of an inch wide after complaining about the divots in their new wooden floor, but the Sisters in Crime book club has already left so the murder weapon is never actually found.   

And I’m happy to say that the research from this science came from a scholarly article entitled “Have Pantsuit, Will Travel” by Patricia Williams of the Madlawprofessors blog.

I know we are here tonight also celebrating the winners in a competition, but nice as it is to be recognised in a competition, writing is not really a competitive sport. Especially not for women writers, the best athletes in the bunch, in my opinion – the ones who are good at the relay, the high jump, the juggling of other work, the marathon.

After the cheering crowds have gone home, there we’ll still be in the stadium, writing away. Or stacking the chairs. Or burning the midnight oil in spite of nobody ‘getting’ what you’re doing.

That’s still the much bigger question for me now, after three decades, thanks to the sisters, still writing. It’s not the how to do it, it’s the why. Why are we doing this? 

Story gurus tell us there are really only two stories in the world – “Someone goes on a journey” and “A stranger comes to town”. I’ve thought a lot about this, because as far as I can see it, they’re actually the same story, just told about different times. We go on a journey ourselves when we set out to write something, and often it is us who returns home a bit more of a stranger to ourselves than before.  A protagonist leaves one way, and then returns later, changed.

The crime story gives us a perfect structure. Someone wants something, and can’t get it. They go out and try to get it. That thing, often, is a longing – for order, for setting things straight, for solving a puzzle or problem. For bringing justice to an unjust world. To go into a dark place to try and bring some illumination and coherence to an incoherent, arbitrary, chaotic mess that often looks very like reality. I don’t want reality. I want the symmetry of a well-told story, a bit of cause and effect in a sprawling, random universe.

I would like crystallising narrative consequence.  

I would like insights into fallible flawed heroes and their unreliable, complex inner motivations.

I would like to be sitting in a comfy chair by the fire with a pot of tea and some bickies and still get to experience the dopamine rush of peril and salvation and the vicarious thrill of pitting my wits against those of imaginary characters who are so intriguing and yet so unsettlingly like me.

I want baffling mysteries made clear.

I want to have a laugh occasionally, even if it’s a wry, ironic laugh at how nothing quite turns out the way I thought.

I want a book full of short sharp shocks that bring all these intriguing scenarios to life for me.

Someone goes on a journey, and then later, returns home transformed.

I wouldn’t have started on this particular journey, I don’t think, without the invitation and encouragement, and enthusiasm of Sisters in Crime. Sometimes someone’s there in the right place at the right time to push the right lever, the one you can’t see for looking, and it’s very often a woman, in my experience.

This is invisible work, really, but in my experience all the best work is. It’s not the work that’s performative or public, because really you’re not in competition with anyone except that new blank page, but it’s what you make that matters. That’s what changes things.

Moving from being a reader to a writer AND a reader has shown me the whys as well as the hows. Why do I write now? For very similar reasons that I read – because it gives me pleasure. Because it is invigorating. Because it takes me out of my comfort zone and somewhere that stretches my preconceptions, energizing me in a new way.

And, really importantly, it lets me find my tribe. I’m thrilled to be here tonight as part of that tradition to celebrate a network of such support and alliance, and to launch – via hundreds of determined walking feet in red shoes, taking us somewhere new, showing us the way we’ve come – the 30 year anniversary Scarlet Stiletto anthology.

Now in exactly one month, we’re going to be sitting at, probably, some kind of family celebration that requires gift-giving. Maybe a Kris Kringle. It’s very close, this day which we ‘celebrate’ is often quite a lot of invisible work and perhaps not as much fun as it should be.

But this year, even if you can’t be joyful, you can be triumphant. You can be smugly gloating at having, at last, the perfect Christmas gift for everyone in your life you can never buy things for. Find one of the authors in this anthology here or grab one of the convenors, and get them to sign it for you. As if anyone’s going to know! 

And just to help you through the so-called festive season, after years of running the gauntlet of it myself being asked about whether I’ve finally had anything published… I promised Cheryl, one of tonight’s shortlisted authors, that if she won her category I would sing you this short heartening carol. So here it is

God rest ye women crime writers, let nothing you dismay

For you must visit family, at least on Christmas Day

“So where’s this big bestseller then?” is what they’re going to say

Oh, tidings of comfort and joy, comfort and joy –

If you need to shut them up, then here’s a ploy.

When they say “Is it finished yet?” just smile and answer “no”.

When they say “Got a publisher?” just tell them you don’t know

When your Aunty Lorna tells you that it’s something you’ll outgrow,

Just ask a few pointed questions of your own, of your own

About what they do when they get time alone.

“So, Uncle Frank, sill playing golf? Aren’t you finished yet? Why play?

If you don’t get any better, why not give the game away?

And Gran, are you still going to choir? Why sing if there’s no pay?

And no contract to reward you at the end, at the end –

Why waste your time if there’s no dividend?

And Mum, still obsessed with that TV show about the vet?

Are you still doing pottery?  Haven’t you outgrown it yet?

Why persist in going out for lunch with your old friend Jeanette?

I don’t judge you for how you spend your free time, your free time,

Well, I’m a writer, and that’s what I do with mine.”

God rest you merry writers, if they mock you don’t dismay

As you run the gauntlet of another Christmas Day

They don’t realise you’ll be taking notes on everything they say

And everything they wear and do and cook, and every look –

And one day…. it’s all going in the book.

Both crime anthologies are available from Clan Destine Press.