A conversation with best-selling transgender author and GLAAD cochair Jennifer Finney Boylan about her new Shebook I’ll Give You Something to Cry About.
What prompted you to write I’ll Give You Something to Cry About?
My sons had both gone on what they call the “Heritage Tour” in Maine, a rite of passage for middle schoolers, who travel around the East Coast seeing things like the Gettysburg Battlefield and the Statue of Liberty. I thought a road trip of a troubled but loving family, bound together by stops at those “sites of American Freedom,” as they’re called, would be interesting. And of course lead to complete bedlam.
Are there any themes that you find recurring in your writing? What are they and what is their origin?
I’m known for writing about gender—men and women, and the choices of transgender people in particular. There’s a trans teenage girl in this family, formerly their son, whose journey I think provides a good measure of where we are, as a country, on acceptance of gender-variant young people.
That said, Alex is not me—she is much more courageous, sarcastic, and adventurous than I was, or would have been, had I been in her shoes when I was 16. Which gives me the opportunity to paraphrase Atticus Finch: “You never really know a man until you walk around in his heels.”
How do you think your transgender identity has influenced your writing?
Well, gender informs all of my writing. When I was a man, I wrote fiction. As a woman, I write mostly nonfiction. I am hopeful that some grad student is already at work analyzing the mind-numbing profundity of that.
Have you ever experienced sexism as a trans woman writer? How so?
I’ve certainly faced lots of struggle as a trans writer. There’s a particular skepticism some critics bring to trans writers’ lives and work; we have to defend and explain our gender a lot of the time. I think this is changing, but it’s been hard. I wonder sometimes if people will ever read my work for the story, rather than for the fact that a trans woman wrote it. But then, if I wanted that, I could try to keep my mouth shut for once. Like that’s going to happen.
When did you first decide you were a writer?
It was a very early dream. As early as fifth grade I remember amazing and disgusting my peers with the story of a car race through my teacher’s body; these were really tiny, almost microscopic cars, of course. The race began in my teacher’s mouth. You can imagine where we came out. Her name was Mrs. Fineli. She was not an early fan of my oeuvre.
Do you have an imaginary reader you write for? Who is it?
Like a lot of writers, I write for an alternate version of myself. A woman just like me, only thinner.
What’s the greatest risk you’ve taken in your writing?
Well, writing about changing genders was almost as scary as doing it. I can say, however, that nothing taught me so much about a woman’s life as writing. It’s through telling our stories that our lives begin to make sense.
What advice do you have for an aspiring writer who is just starting out?
Write every day, including Christmas and New Year’s. When you’re just starting, quantity is a lot more important than quality. Then go back and revise. What’s that Hemingway advice—“Fail. Then fail better.”
Have you ever written anything personal that upset people who were close to you? Have you ever shied away from writing something because someone you know might read it?
As a memoirist, upsetting people is what Tiggers do best. I don’t like to upset people, of course, but I’m pretty fearless in terms of what I write about—as a trans woman I have to be. I think it was Annie Lamott who said something like, “I’m sorry if you didn’t like what I wrote, but maybe you should have been nicer to me.” I’ll write about anything, if there’s a good story in it. I think writers have to be fearless. The story is what matters.
How did you dream up the setting for this story? Is it based on a real place? A composite of real places?
These are all real places—the Liberty Bell Pavilion; the Gettysburg Battlefield; Ford’s Theatre. If you live on the East Coast and have middle-school-age children or teenagers, you’ve probably been there. And wished you were elsewhere.
Do you worry about not having the authority to write about situations that you don’t know firsthand?
If you know your characters, you have to follow them where they take you. And if they take you to a place you don’t know, you do the research—you go there and take notes. When you get home, you throw the notes away and just make the whole thing up.
Do you currently have a job other than writing? What’s the most interesting day job you’ve had?
Starting this summer, I leave my job as professor of English at Colby College, where I’ve been for 25 years, and take up a new position as Anna Quindlen writer in residence at Barnard College of Columbia University in Manhattan.
When I was young, I worked in a bookstore in New York City. I sat at a desk beneath a sign that said, ASK ME ANYTHING. People would ask me all sorts of things. Usually I didn’t know the answer, so I’d make something up. Good training for a fiction writer. One time someone walked up to me and just asked, apropos of nothing, “Excuse me, where are all the Santa Claus suits?”
What’s an odd fact about you that not many people know?
I play the autoharp, Appalachian style. I’m pretty damned great at it. I also know a whole lot about the Gemini Project, which was the one before the Apollo program.
What is your favorite word right now?
Muslin. Just saying it gives me shivers. Flibbertigibbet is a very useful word also. I use it to describe my three most defining characteristics as a writer: a flibbertigibbet, a will-o’-the-wisp, a clown.
What or who inspires you most?
I always loved the work of James Thurber. If you want to go back further, I’m haunted by the poems of John Keats. Whose heart ached, and a drowsy numbness pained his sense.
Do you have an e-reader? What book are you reading on it now? When do you like to read on a device?
Yes, I have an iPad, on which I use both the iBooks function as well as the Kindle app. I just finished Charles Baxter’s The Soul Thief. I read on my device after dinner each night, for several hours before bed. It’s the best time to read, when you are already halfway into the realm of the unconscious.
What writing projects are you working on now?
I’ve started a new novel, I have a new nonfiction book about the differences between men and women, and for young adults I’m working on Falcon Quinn three.
Aside from writing, do you have any other secret talents?
I play piano in a crappy rock ’n’ roll band. We are called the Stragglers, and the name is accurate. All of us have been thrown out of other bands. The fundamental rule about the Stragglers is that you can’t be thrown out of it. This should give you some sense of our talent.
Do you have a quote, mantra, or thought that you’d like to end with?
From Huck Finn: “Blamed if she wasn’t the horriblest looking outrage I ever see. Then the duke took and wrote out on a shingle so: ‘Sick Arab. But harmless when not out of her head.’”