JB to perform at Richard Hugo House in Seattle on March 20 & 21st; here’s an interview Hugo House did with me in advance of the performance, which will be at Seattle Town Hall, and which is on the subject, “My Avatar.”
Hugo House: In a couple of months you will debut a brand-new piece at Hugo House; have you started working on it yet?
Jennifer Finney Boylan: Yes, I’m right in the thick of it. I have lots of ideas for this, and the hard part is keeping the whole thing short, and making the parts fit together. I’m not going to write about “avatars” as computer-world images; and I don’t know anything about the sense of the word as Hindu “incarnation.” What interests me is the difference between the face we show to the world and the face we have in our private hearts. For transgender people the division between public and private selves can be profound, although I’ll also say that you don’t have to be trans to feel a conflict between your secret self and the face, as Eliot wrote, that you prepare “to meet the faces that you meet.” It’s that conflict between inner and outer selves that interests me, so that’s what I’m working on.
A long time ago, when I was a boy, I went as a journalist to do a story on the National Ventriloquists’ Convention, which was in Kentucky, of all places. At first I thought this was the most ridiculous story I’d ever tried to do—the place was literally overflowing with dorky guys and their dummies. But as time went by it was hard not to find something touching—and occasionally heartbreaking—about the ventriloquists and their figures. Some of these guys, maybe it goes without saying, had dummies that looked almost exactly like themselves.
And then, amazingly, I went back to the ventriloquists’ convention as a woman, 25 years later. The ventriloquists all seemed the same to me, but I had sure changed. And it occurred to me that back in the day, when I was walking around as a guy, and no one knew my secret heart, that I’d kind of been my own dummy.
Again, maybe this seems too idiotic or bizarre for most people to connect to, but I guess that’s what I’m thinking about as I write “My Avatar.” All of us are our own dummies.
HH: What were your first thoughts on receiving an invitation to write on an assigned theme? Any regrets on having said yes?
JFB: I have to admit that the theme of My Avatar gave me trouble, since (as I said above), I don’t really have any interest in the online world and I don’t know much about the Hindu religion. So I’ve had to find a corner of this avatar business—the negotiation between public and private selves—that I can feel comfortable talking about.
HH: Could you tell us a little bit about your process—how you approach writing something new?
JFB: In this case, I have about a dozen different stories; I’m not sure if I’m going to be able to weave them all together. I guess it’s sort of like making a stew with a slow cooker. I’m just going to throw everything in there and leave it on low for a couple months, and see what it turns into.
HH: If you could create an avatar for your work as a writer, what would it look like?
I’d look just like me, only younger and more beautiful.
HH: In “Snow Crash,” Neal Stephenson writes of the “metaverse,” a user-defined world that was the inspiration for “Second Life.” Describe your metaverse for us.
JFB: It’s not the metaverse I have trouble imagining, it’s reality. My friend Richard Russo once read something I’d written and he said it was “wonderfully strange”; I just looked at him blankly and said, but this is the world I live in. He just laughed and said, “Boylan, the thing is, you write in this surreal, fantastical mode. You only think it’s realism.” Whether this is my great failing as a writer, or my great strength, I guess I’ll leave it up to readers to decide.