I feel like Jamie’s resilience, an individual who is “different” from socio-cultural expectations/definitions, is beautifully portrayed here, in a layered, meaningful way. There’s this raw authenticity throughout the story. What helps you create moments and emotions that feel real?
I’m so pleased that Jamie came through this way for you! Jamie felt very real to me—not just Jamie, but Alicia, too. These are the first characters I’ve written where I thought afterward, I’m not done with these two. I want to write about them again.
Beyond that, though, I wanted to write about somebody who was very much not taking any shit from the world around them. There are people who judge Jamie and don’t accept them, but I wanted this story to not be about those people, so they’re on the periphery. Jamie has people who love them and have their back. I wanted to show that, and I wanted to show a character living their life without fear.
There’s also a sense of darker possibilities at various turns in the plot. But Jamie’s decisions bring us around to hopeful/positive/empowered results, without being escapist (in other words, there are still things about life that suck—problems don’t magically vanish; and those problems take their toll. But Jamie makes the most of it). Was the choice to not go too dark deliberate? Did you play with other possibilities?
Well, I definitely didn’t want to write anything tragic. I think in our world we always know that tragedy is right around the corner and always a possibility, and so it looms over Jamie like it looms over us all. But there are enough tragedies about transgender kids and adults, both in fiction and in reality. This didn’t need to be another one.
I also didn’t want to focus too much on Jamie getting vengeance for their own sake, because that felt very linear to me. Jamie discovers their murderer living the good life nearby and goes after him and . . . does what? That story could have turned dark, but my main problem with it was it felt obvious. Jamie finding Larry Dearborn too close to death to be worth getting even with—that felt both surprising and inevitable, given that it’s been decades since Janie’s murder.
You hear a lot about endings that surprise you but feel inevitable in hindsight. For me, I’ve found that an effective way to lead the reader to this place is to focus on a tangible character need but have a more emotionally resonant one hiding right underneath that. So when Jamie wants some sort of justice for themself but realizes they can’t really get what they crave, I at least found it satisfying for Jamie to get some measure of justice for Benjamin.
You mentioned (in another conversation) that this is a very personal story for you. Can you talk a bit about what makes this personal—as much as you are comfortable sharing, in any case?
Yes. This story is personal for me because I am nonbinary. I don’t queer gender in the way that Jamie does, but maybe if I’d grown up with the confidence that being myself was an option, who knows? So maybe Jamie is some alternate universe braver version of me.
I’ve long had a fascination with gender and what was “allowed” and not for certain people, and how utterly arbitrary these rules always felt to me. Anybody who’s known me long enough should be able to see that in my writings and interactions.
I’ve wanted to explore this in fiction for a long time, but it’s so hard to work past the same tropes you see done over and over again—shapeshifting or aliens as a way to explore being transgender, or stories that are all about being closeted and coming out, or all about being a victim. I had to grow a lot as a writer to be able to tell this story, to avoid the obvious directions. Even once I wrote it, it was hard to trust myself to have gotten it right—even when writing about things I have personally felt!
What excited you and what challenged you most about writing this piece? What are the pitfalls of writing something that is deeply personal? Or is personal where your writing usually happens?
I think knowing that telling this story right was going to require an honest touch, and that was going to require me to make myself vulnerable. Personal absolutely is where my writing usually happens, but there are pitfalls. I’ve written stories about experiences that I was too close to to be able to fictionalize well. When you bare yourself in your writing, there is always the possibility that people will recoil from what they see, and when they do, it’s hard not to feel as though they’re recoiling from you.
With this story, I’m extra afraid. I’m afraid because art is self-revelatory, and I worry about having to explain or justify my truths. I’m also afraid that the community I see myself in solidarity with will not see me as one of their own.
Identity and representation are big discussions in the publishing industry. Do you feel like the industry is changing? Or are we only seeing change in specific pockets and circles? Moreover, where do we need to go next, as writers, publishers, and readers?
¿Porqué no los dos? I feel like the industry is changing slowly, but certain pockets are leading the change—maybe because they have less to lose. I see more diversity in short fiction and in young adult fiction. I see a lot of agents and editors saying they seek diversity, but then you look at the statistics about publishing, especially novel publishing, and wonder where the disconnect is.
On the other hand, I see five or six specific voices thrown out there as the go-to voices when somebody wants to show that they’ve heard of a Black writer, a Latino writer, a queer writer. And they’re good voices, don’t get me wrong, but it’s not really diversity yet.
Who are the writers that inspire you (or which stories/books)?
Young adult novelist A. S. King is the writer that inspires me most. She writes terrifically honest portrayals of teenagers who are smart and who are going through genuine moral and emotional challenges—basically, she shows teenagers as real people. My favorites of hers are Ask the Passengers and Please Ignore Vera Dietz.
Among short story writers, Sam J. Miller (check out “57 Reasons for the Slate Quarry Suicide”), Sarah Pinsker (I think my favorite is “The Transdimensional Horsemaster Rabbis of Mpumalanga Province”), Caroline Yoachim (give “Five Stages of Grief After the Alien Invasion” a read), Sandra McDonald (“The Ghost Girls of Rumney Mill” is my favorite), Ken Liu (“The Paper Menagerie,” of course), and Elizabeth Bear (check out “Tideline”) are the people I can always count on to move me. That’s what I want more than anything else—stories that will give me a profound emotional experience.
On your website (labyrinthrat.com) you mention novel-length fiction . . .! There’s so much to appreciate and admire about this piece. Your new fans are wondering: What are you working on that they will get to sink their teeth into?
Right now I’m working on a novel about a Cuban-American teenager who begins having blackouts during which she flashes out of her own life and into her long-deceased abuela’s body, forty years ago in Havana. She knows that her grandmother died giving birth to her mother very shortly after immigrating to this country; now she’s got to learn how to navigate life as a pregnant teenager in a communist country decades ago. In order to keep her own timeline intact, she’ll have to get her pregnant grandmother to the United States during the Mariel exodus, while also working to bring to justice a serial murderer from both timelines.
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