Powell’s Books is one of my favorite independent bookstores in the country. They did this deranged Q&A with me a little while ago in the run-up to my reading in one of their stores. You can, and should, visit their blog here.
Jennifer Finney Boylan is Professor of English at Colby College and the author of the bestseller She’s Not There, as well as the acclaimed novels The Planets and Getting In. A three-time guest of The Oprah Winfrey Show, she has also appeared on Larry King Live, Today, and 48 Hours, and has played herself on ABC’s All My Children. She lives in Belgrade Lakes, Maine.
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Describe your latest project.
I’m Looking through You is a memoir about growing up in a haunted house — and an examination of what it means to be “haunted.” In addition to the traditional ghosts — a woman who appeared in a mirror; a mysterious “conductor” who walked the halls; clouds of moving mist and footsteps in the attic — the house had other spirits beneath its roof. My diffident, wry father and my complex, unpredictable sister became ghosts, in time, as well. In the end the book is about making peace with all our ghosts — between the people we have been and the people we become; with our loved ones; and with the uncanny boundaries between men and women.
What’s the strangest or most interesting job you’ve ever had?
As a journalist for Condé Nast Traveller magazine, I got to go to Easter Island and see all those mysterious big heads. On the way down from the volcano, my Rapa Nui native guide began to flirt with me. He asked a question which sounded like, “Juliqee Tombettee?” Which turned out to be, “Do you like Tom Petty?” Then he saw the ring on my finger and asked, “Ju married?” Thinking quickly — and not really wanting to go into the whole sex-change thing — I said, “I kept the ring. Got rid of the man.” My guide, whose name was Senga, thought this over, then smiled broadly and gave me the double thumbs-up sign.
Offer a favorite sentence or passage from another writer.
I like the story of James Thurber, who met a woman at a party in Paris. She told him how much funnier his work was in French, and he said, “Yes, I know. It does tend to lose something in the original.” Somehow, this strikes me as the perfect metaphor for thinking about transgendered people.
I’m a member of a not-so-terrible rock-and-roll band in central Maine, Strangebrew. I play the keyboards — organ and piano. This puts me in lots of crappy bars in rural Maine, where guys often like to buy me drinks like the Warsaw Waffle (Maine maple syrup with a shot of vodka) or the Fart in the Ocean (tequila and 7UP, served with a prune). On the whole, men generally like that I’m “one of the guys,” that I am a woman who likes to tell jokes and play loud music. At least they like it until someone tells them I used to be a man myself, at which point they look kind of like a boy who realizes that the thing he’s just purchased as “sea monkeys” have really turned out to be brine shrimp.
Have you ever made a literary pilgrimage?
I have found myself at a number of writers’ graves — Thurber‘s, Keats‘s, Shelley‘s, Poe‘s. But my most interesting pilgrimage might be to Jan Morris‘s old house in Venice, which you can see just off the Accademia Bridge. Morris — then James — used to stand on the balcony of the Palazzo by the Grand Canal and wave to “his” children as they crossed the bridge. I stood there and looked at Morris’s old house and then I waved. I guess my feeling was that, in a way, I am one of her children, too.
Dogs, cats, budgies, or turtles?
Dogs. I have two black Labs. I am sorry to tell you they sleep in the bed with me and my partner. Recently we realized that there wasn’t enough room in the bed for two adults and two grown Labs. So we did the logical thing. We got a bigger bed. Edward Albee, who at one point owned seven Irish wolfhounds, claims that he once got six wolfhounds into a king-size bed with himself and his partner. I would like to have seen that.
In the For-All-Eternity category, what will be your final thought?
Everyone on this earth deserves to be treated with love, and the things we all have in common are more important than the things that make us different.
Q: Jennifer Boylan, is there anything you miss about being a man?
A: Yeah. Pockets. Women’s clothes never have pockets. I miss pockets. Other than that, not much.
Recommend five or more books on a single subject of personal interest or expertise.
Five or six memoirs about gender and gender variance:
Whipping Girl by Julia Serano
Running with Scissors by Augusten Burroughs
Cherry by Mary Karr
Queen of the Black Black by Megan Kelso (graphic novel/memoir)