So I have a new story out, now available exclusively from Shebooks, the new e-book service promoting work for women, by women.
The novella is called I’LL GIVE YOU SOMETHING TO CRY ABOUT.
It’s about a family from Maine–the Rileys– taking a road trip to Ford’s Theatre, in Washington, DC, where they hope to see their young son play the violin on stage, as part of a “Young Prodigies” series. Also in the car– and possibly of more interest to my longtime readers– the Riley’s trans daughter, who is on the verge of stepping out into the world as a woman.
It’s the first time I’ve written a work of fiction for adults with a trans character, and with a trans theme. But my readers will recognize this family, and the work’s central themes– family, gender, and the quest for authenticity. I hope you’ll download the book, which you can do by clicking this link. You’ll have to subscribe to Shebooks, which is a really minimal cost, less than the cost of a hardcover book, and which will give you access to SHEBOOKS’ whole corral of amazing women writers.
Here’s an interview I did in May about the book:
What prompted you to write this piece?
I actually wrote this specifically for Shebooks. 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, characters or imagery that you find recurring in your writing? What are they and what is their origin?
Well, I’m know for writing about gender—men and women, and the choices of transgender people in particular. There’s a trans teenager 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, I had been in her shoes when I was sixteen.
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 gender/racial/ethnic/religious 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 non-fiction. I am hopeful that some grad student is already at work analyzing the mind-numbing profundity of that.
Is there such a thing as “women’s writing?” Do you hate the term “chicklit” or think we should embrace it, like the term “gay”?
I think there is such a thing as feminine writing, and by this I mean less a particular style than a focus on women’s lives in narrative. But women aren’t the only ones writing it.
Have you ever experienced sexism as a 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 writer’s 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 Years. When you’re just staring, 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.”
Is there anything that you consider *too* personal to write about? How do you find that edge?
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 do you define “truth” in memoir?
I believe that the “hybrid” form of memoir is its strength, not its weakness. I say this with the caveat that the writer has to include an author’s note explaining her method. You can’t just make up any damned thing you like; but you have to shape the narrative, and that can mean compressing the timeline, disguising people to avoid hurting them as well as to prevent yourself form getting sued; shaping the narrative so it works as “story.” And you admit to your reader exactly what you’ve done so no one feels bamboozled. Memoirists ought to get out of the habit of apologizing for all this—it’s what we’re supposed to do. As Frank McCourt said, “If you want realism, read the phone book.”
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; Fords 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.
What motivated you personally to do the reporting for this piece?
I have worked as a journalist, but recently the only reporting I do is for the op/eds of mine that appear in the New York Times. When I was young, I used to just make up quotes for magainze stories and attribute them “according to someone that would know.” Needless to say, my stories were always very entertaining.
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.
Are you or have you ever been a member of a book club? What does/did that experience offer you?
I was a member of a club, but it quickly became a once a week drunk fest for the local moms that I knew. As I understand, this is not an unusual failure mode for book clubs. There was a whole lot of tequila, and not much Oprah.
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 Baxters 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.
Who are some of your favorite authors?
My two current favorites are also fairly predictable:, the stories of George Saunders, and the novels of Jennifer Egan. I’m also influenced by some of the 20th century metafictionists—Borges, Calvino, Barth, Vonnegut.
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.’”