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Four women to be reckoned with: Theresa May, Arlene Foster, Nicola Sturgeon and Ruth Davidson (© ANDY BUCHANAN/AFP/Getty Images)

I’ve lost count of the number of times I’ve shown up for an interview, only to be informed that the journalist is apprehensive about this encounter, because I have a reputation for being “scary”. It’s always the same word.

What’s peculiar about this adjective having attached itself to me is that I don’t cut an especially fearsome figure. I am slight and five-feet-two, with an unusually small head; my Orioles baseball cap is labelled “for ages 4-7”, and it fits. What’s more, I’ve no history whatsoever of jumping down journalists’ throats. I try to be personable, if only to redeem what can otherwise be a tediously repetitive exercise during the protracted promotion of the same book. I make jokes. I don’t get angry when asked, again, why I changed my name to Lionel at the age of 15, although any interviewer’s preparatory research might easily have netted dozens if not hundreds of similarly patient explanations in previous profiles. Despite my best-known novel dating back to 2003, I continue to be polite and responsive with reporters convinced that We Still Need to Talk About Kevin. Indeed, my husband claims that what strangers fail to understand about his wife is that she’s “actually very nice”. (Which is nice of him to say. My husband is even nicer.)

Now, plenty of minor public figures are misunderstood. Attaining any appreciable profile in the media entails being reduced to a cartoon. But this scary stamp is so signally inapt in my case that it’s ripe for parsing.

Let’s start with what scary does not mean. It does not mean impressive, intimidating, or imposing. It does not mean august or accomplished. Neither does it even hint at respected, revered, or well-regarded.

By custom, what women are scary? Witches are scary. Schoolteachers who deliver indecently harsh punishments for talking in class. Crazed, elderly harridans in tumbledown houses who don’t return little boys’ footballs and who screech at neighbourhood cats. Scary conveys an anxiety-producing unknown quantity who may have a potential for cruelty, abuse of power, unkindness, rudeness, and unreasoning severity. You can be scary without having achieved anything; the word alludes only to affect and disposition. There’s certainly a suggestion in scary of not suffering fools gladly, but when a woman has a reputation for not suffering fools you’re always a little worried that she treats people badly who aren’t even fools. In other words, bingo: bitches are scary.

I’ll tell you what else scary is not: a compliment. (Which is one reason it’s intriguing that so many journalists have thrown this label in my face before we’ve even ordered our cups of tea. Maybe it’s a challenge or enticement: I want you to be approachable and confiding with me, so take this interview as an opportunity to prove you’re not a shrew after all.) By contrast, a few years ago the man who organised one of my events approached me afterwards to announce emphatically, “You are formidable.” Hear the difference? That is a compliment. Possibly because the accolade might readily apply to a male author, I’ve cherished it ever since.

Does anyone call Philip Roth scary? Ian McEwan, Jonathan Franzen — are they scary? I don’t think so.

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