Jennifer Finney Boylan started her writing career as James Boylan, and then became the first bestselling transgender author. She talks to her former student Noah Charney. Plus, more ‘How I Write’ interviews with Lev Grossman and Jodi Picoult.
James Finney Boylan was my creative-writing professor at Colby College just before undergoing an operation in 2002 (what she called “the switcheroo”) to become Jennifer Finney Boylan. She’s the author of the novels The Constellations (1994), The Planets (1991), and Getting In (1998), but she is perhaps best known for being the first transgender bestselling author after her memoir She’s Not There: A Life in Two Genders came out in 2003.
What’s your most recent book?
2013 will see the publication of two books of mine: Stuck in the Middle With You: Parenting in Three Genders, as well as the 10th-anniversary edition of my memoir, She’s Not There. Stuck in the Middle With You is a memoir of parenting, and specifically explores the differences between motherhood and fatherhood. As one of the few people I know who has been both a mother and a father, I find that there are plenty of tales to tell. I guess I also feel that having a father who became a woman has helped my sons become better men.
The 10th-anniversary edition of She’s Not There will have a new introduction and a new final chapter by me, bringing the story up to date. It will also have a new epilogue written by my spouse, Deirdre, who is the one person readers are most curious about. I think some people think I’ve been holding her hostage. I haven’t.
You say you grew up in a haunted house?
I grew up in the area around Philadelphia, what was originally farm country and eventually turned into dense suburbia. When I was 13, my family moved to a house on the Main Line that was supposedly haunted. And while I do not believe in ghosts—at least not the kind that walk around moaning—I do have a fascination for the way people can become haunted, especially by the specters of their former selves. I think haunting is a pretty effective metaphor for what happens to transgender people.
Where and what did you study?
I headed off to Wesleyan University in 1976 to study English, although a lot of what I learned at college took place outside of the classroom. Like, in the spring there’d be these parties in the tunnels with tanks of nitrous oxide, and the young scholars would break into the zoology storage room and steal the stuffed walruses and leave them in places likely to raise questions.
Where do you live and why?
For the last 25 years I’ve lived in rural Maine, in a little town called Belgrade Lakes.
When do you get up?
I get up before 6 a.m. and make breakfast for the family. We make a big deal about breakfast. Monday is scrambled eggs and bacon. Tuesday is fresh bread. Wednesday is waffle day. Thursdays I make pancakes. Fridays is eggs again. On Sundays I make popovers. Saturdays I’m off. Sometimes I think that’s my favorite moment of the day—Deedie (my spouse) and me and the boys all around the breakfast table, talking about the day ahead. Who’s got French horn lesson? When is the fencing match? Is my band practicing that night? When’s the dog’s colonoscopy? We make a lot of plans when we’re barely awake.
Do you have a writer friend who helps and inspires you?
I don’t think it’s any secret that the writer Richard Russo and I have a long and warm friendship; we tend to read others’ work at the late draft stage, although usually by that point we’re both pretty familiar with the problems, and our readings tend to confirm the other’s worst suspicions. The Russos and the Boylans have been close for almost 20 years now. Rick and Barb are the legal guardians of my children, a fact that I think Rick forgot about until I reminded him of it upon the occasion of my older son’s birthday. I think he’s keeping his fingers crossed until my younger son hits 18 too, and he and his wife, Barbara, are finally off the hook in case an asteroid hits Deedie and me.
My first roommate in New York City was Charlie Kaufman, the director of Adaptation and writer of Being Jon Malkovich and Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind. We were two young goofballs, each of us in our little Spanish Harlem bedrooms, spending the day typing on our Smith Coronas. In the evening we’d go and close down bars. “To be young then was very heaven.”
What do you keep on your desk?
I keep on my desk a giant tube stolen out of a physics laboratory in 1979. It looks very scientific and Frankenstein-like. For a long time, I thought of it as my muse, a source of inspiration. But recently it occurs to me that it’s burned out. Maybe that explains it.
At least two of your former creative-writing students have made careers in publishing (me, and my agent, Eleanor Jackson, who sat next to me in your class). Have others become professional writers?
The person that I’m most proud of—after you and Eleanor—is probably Mike Daisey. He was a capricious and mercurial student, hugely talented but hugely undisciplined. I would like to hope that I had some influence on him, although it’s kind of hard to claim credit for a talent that unique. I tried to impose some discipline on him, as an artist. He’ll have to tell you whether I succeeded.
You have written memoirs, humorous essays, fiction, and now young-adult fiction. Do you have a preferred genre?
I think my writing is the same no matter what genre I am working in. It hovers between fiction and nonfiction, comedy and tragedy. I think of myself as a fiction writer, first and foremost, although I haven’t actually published a novel in over a dozen years now. You know in publishing these days they like for writers to be consistent with their “platform,” so to some degree I’ve become the literary scribe of the transgender movement. I will admit that there are some times when I wish that my platform was a little larger—it may be that sooner rather than later I will have said everything I feel like saying about gender. And yet, five years ago, I said I wasn’t writing any more books about gender, and then I went out to dinner with Augusten Burroughs, who said, “You know what you need to do? You need to write a memoir about parenthood.” At the time I told him, “No way, I’m not going there again. Don’t make me do it.” Then I woke up the next morning and thought, “Oh, my God, he’s right. Brilliant.”
About a decade ago you underwent what you refer to as “the switcheroo.” Has that affected your writing?
That’s probably not for me to say. I’ll leave it for others to decide whether my voice has changed or not. In any case, the difference between being a male writer and a female writer for me is also the difference between being a young writer and a middle-aged one, not to mention the difference between being a single person writing stories and a married one with a family. All of those things change the way we experience the world, and it may be that the difference between maleness and femaleness is less important than we think.
The main thing is that, when I was a man, all my clothes had pockets. Now that I’m female, a lot of my clothes don’t have any pockets. It’s a raw deal.
If you could bring back to life one deceased person, who would it be and why?
How about Tyler Clementi, the Rutgers freshman who jumped off the George Washington Bridge after being outed by his roommate. It would have been nice if he could have a second chance in a world less distinguished by its hate than by its love.
How did you publish your first book?
I titled it False Alarms, a collection of short stories. Editor said, no one’s heard of you, and no one’s going to buy a book called False Alarms. I said, what should we call it instead, and he suggested, Remind Me to Murder You Later, which is something Moe says in a story called “Fugue for Violin and Three Stooges,” which was my first published short story, in the Florida Review. The editor said, what do you think of that title? I said, “I hate it.” So we had a standoff for a while. I said, “Hey, what do you think about, say, False Alarms?” In the end we compromised, and called it Remind Me to Murder You Later.
Just getting my first collection of short stories published was kind of amazing. Since then, I’ve had plenty of celebrity moments as an author—like, having Will Forte imitate me in a Saturday Night Live skit was kind of amazing. Or being on Oprah all those times. There was some lunch that my agent and editor took me to in 2003, some amazing Thai place in Manhattan that had a giant Buddha in it, and I remember thinking at the time, This is it, this is the beginning of a new life for me. I knew that from here on out there would be a celebrity aspect to everything I did, and that this was going to be both incredibly fun as well as potentially a deadly distraction for me as a writer.
I remember meeting David McCullough in an airport during a recent book tour–we were both on tour and somehow we both wound up in a bookstore. He wasn’t familiar with my work, and he asked, “So what’s your memoir about?” This is a situation that I’m frequently in. Innocent questions can rapidly lead to answers that demand a whole lot more intimacy than I’m comfortable giving—or, to be quite honest about it, the person asking the question probably wants in the first place. So there I was, wondering, What can I tell David McCullough about my work without having to explain the whole sex-change thing? In the end I just told him that my work was about “life with a difficult man.” That seemed to satisfy him.
Still, none of that stuff outranks the moment in October 1988 when the doorbell rang at the little farmhouse I was renting in Maine, and there at the front door was the UPS man, holding a box containing the first copies of my first collection of stories, Remind Me to Murder You Later. I almost hugged the guy. If I’d been a woman then, I would have. But then, if I’d been a woman then, I’d have written a whole different book. And I’d have titled it False Alarms.
What would you like carved onto your tombstone?
“I thought it would be funny.”
What advice would you give to an aspiring author?
Understand that everyone has 1,000 pages of bad fiction in him or her, and before you can do anything, you probably have to just write your thousand pages of crap.