Haunted Hearts

 

Jennifer Finney Boylan (English) on her new novel I'm Looking Through You, and what it's like to open doors for transgendered people through the power of writing.

By Gerry Boyle '78
Photography by James Bowdoin
 

When you sat down to write after She’s Not There, was I’m Looking Through You the book you envisioned?
I tend to be working on several projects at once. I wait to see which one has the loudest voice. Originally I wanted to go back to fiction after She’s Not There. I thought, well, that’s that. But there were a lot of stray stories from my life that I wanted to find a way of telling. There are two stories that are not told in She’s Not There. The story of my father and the story of my sister. They are largely left out of that narrative because they are separate stories and they’re complicated stories.

Also, somebody pointed out that everything I’ve written has this big, lurking one-kind-or-another haunted house in it. Both in fiction and the short stories. I started doing some research on the house and I thought it would be interesting to do a story on what happens in a house, particularly a house with ghosts in it.

In the end, those two things combined and I was talking about growing up in a haunted house and I was also talking about what it means to be haunted. I soon realized that the idea of the psychological haunting is much more interesting to me than the idea of the Scooby Doo-type ghosts. Frankly, I don’t know if I believe in ghosts. I don’t know what to do when somebody starts talking about the ghosts they’ve seen. My eyes kind of glaze over. So in a way, telling the story of this house enabled me to tell the story of my father and my sister, it enabled me to have this more important conversation with my other ghost, which is my younger self. What does it mean for a woman to have had a boyhood? How do you make peace with the person you’ve been? I’ll also point out that that’s a dilemma that everybody faces. If you live long enough, it’s not something that’s unique to trans people. We’re all haunted by these children we used to be.

So now you’re taking I'm Looking Through You on the road?
I'm going to Barnes & Noble-Tribeca, in New York, and then next week it’s the Margaret Mitchell House in Atlanta.

Are you going to read?
Yeah, and it’s funny. This book doesn’t have a simple stand alone piece. She's Not There did. I found a couple of places where I could read just a chapter or two. This book makes more sense to read a few paragraphs from here, then a scene from there and just string it all together. So it took a while for me to figure out what gets read but I’ll start out with the first night in the house, the first time when the door creaks open. And then I cut to the scene where my father is downstairs playing the piano. A father-and-son moment. And then I cut ahead, that short scene where I'm looking in the mirror and I see that ghost for the first time in the mirror, and then at the end, the reunion, the scene where I look into the mirror and I see that ghost and I realize it's only me. There’s that line I’m very proud of where I say, “From what I can see, far more hearts are haunted than houses.”

Do you think it’s helpful to have read She’s Not There first?
No, not particularly. People who know my work will recognize that same authorial voice. But this is not a book about gender transition. This is a book where a trans person’s experience is part of the narrative but there’s more to the narrative than that.

What about your film life? Has She's Not There been optioned?
Yeah, generally my work ends up being, like, you know how they pay farmers money for not growing tomatoes? I tend to get some income, which starts out as a lot of money and over time turns into a smaller amount of money for movies that are never made. Actually, it’s not a bad deal. It's a better situation than being paid money for bad movies. But on the other hand it would be nice if someone would make a good movie. I think She’s Not There would make a really cool movie. I'd like to see I'm looking through you as a TV show, actually. An ongoing show. I'm imagining me as a grown woman performing the role that Rod Serling used to perform on The Twilight Zone.

Are you writing now? When do you write?
When I was young, I wrote all the time. My first year at Colby I taught Monday, Tuesday, Wednesday. Thursday I would write. Friday morning I had a comp class so I’d come in and teach and I'd go home and Friday afternoons, I’d write. And weekends. After one year, I’d finished The Planets. It’s the kind of thing you can do if you’re a young teacher and you don’t have any children. One of the things that having children taught me to do is to be able to write a paragraph when someone is taking a nap. It’s not a good way to work but it’s better than not working at all.

Now, the school bus leaves at seven. By seven-thirty I’m at my desk working. I’ll write until eleven or twelve.

You’re on sabbatical.
Yes. I thought this year of being away from school I'd get a tremendous amount of work done. I did get some done. I have two projects in the works: a kids’ book and a mystery. But mostly it’s been about [Growing Up Haunted]. And also I’m running this enormous website, which just gets bigger and bigger. There's a community message center.

What's your role in that?
I’m the primary draw. They’re interested in my work. I’m also chief moderator. In order to have to keep a community message board function, you really have to moderate it, you have to organize the threads, you get rid of the junk. It's a relatively difficult site to crack because you have to register for it and you have to wait. We generally don’t have stalkers and creeps on there, but you have to make sure it’s a safe place. For trans people, going online is something that is particularly powerful because a lot of them can’t be out in the world, so to be talking to people like themselves on the Internet is no small thing.

How many people are in this community now?
I don’t know. Probably a hundred people who write every day. It’s big in England, Scotland, and Australia for some reason. South Africa.

Did the book do well in the UK?

Not all that well because there wasn’t a British edition of it, strangely. I think they felt they had Conundrum, Jan Morris's book, back in 1972. They really didn't need another one.

Do you come to know the people through the Website?
Absolutely. I must say it’s interesting. Compared to people Colby students’ age, I’m much less interested in the online world than the real world. But I’m kind of realizing that this is what you’re in for these days if you're going to publish a commercial book. It’s not just a website. There’s video of me reading from the book. It’s on my site but it’s also hosted on YouTube. People Google on YouTube the way people used to Google on Google. That's how a lot of people found out this new book was being published.

Do you do this daily?
I do. That’s the drawback. It takes away the time that should be spent writing. All the stuff that we do online now, it feels like work, it feels like writing, but in fact you’re not really doing any work, you’re not really writing at all. I can spend an hour and a half administering my website. I can spend another hour and a half answering e-mail each morning. If I’m at work at seven-thirty, that’s ten o’clock. And my brain, my creative work, stops being fresh by midday. And my arms have had it. So I’ve lost that time. So it comes at a cost.

Are your Colby students reading the new book?
It’s only been out a week so I doubt it. It’s funny, though. She's Not There has become a textbook in colleges and some high schools.

And you're speaking at colleges?
Yeah, this year I’ve backed off but in general I’ll do one gig every month. That's always very exciting, although it is true that when I do these events, often people expect me to be more radical. There are a lot of trans people who are on the lecture circuit as sort of radical firebrands. But my message tends to be, I guess you could say, almost conservative. It's about telling stories. I ask people to be compassionate. But the main thing is people should tell their stories. Yesterday was Martin Luther King Day. Within my lifetime, I’ve seen the country go from a place with some segregation and some terrible division between the races, to wherever we are now, though that job is not done. That job is not done but surely we're in a better place than when I was born.

If you talk about transgendered people, if you say the word transsexual or cross dressers, people laugh. They think it’s funny, they think it’s bizarre, they think it’s insane. The disdain that some people have for transgendered people is no small thing. But I don’t think the hatred they have is any more than the hatred they had for other races when I was a child. So I think it's possible that things are going to keep changing and keep getting better.

Do you think She's Not There contributed to that change?

I’d like to think so but there are a lot of things that contributed to it. What’s interesting is that it’s the young people in the country who are most supportive of GLBT rights. It may simply be that as time goes on and more of those people grow up, I think She’s Not There, if it helped things, it was not because it was heavy on theory but because it was heavy on story and there are all sorts of people whose eyes would glaze over if I started talking about rejecting the gender binary and giving them lectures on gender theory. But if you tell them a story and your present someone’s life as real, suddenly they understand. Someone like me seems real and these issues seem important.

Telling a story is, at its core, a radical act, not because you’re trying to overthrow the universe, but because you are trying to show the humanity of people who are in the story, who may well be different from the reader. And if a reader sees the person in the story as a human being like themselves, you’ve changed the world in some small way. It’s different from being out on the street and burning down buildings but it is a fundamentally radical act, and I mean that in the best possible way. You don’t have to burn down buildings if you tell a story. You can simply, by the power of that tale, change somebody’s heart. That’s a pretty cool thing.

The first time I was on The Oprah Winfrey Show, I got an e-mail from a woman, she was in the Midwest somewhere. She said, “The funny thing about you Jenny is that you seem like somebody someone could know.” I laughed at that but I know what she meant. She meant that in her experience you wouldn’t know any transgendered people and if you did, you’d think of them as strange and demented. But through the power of telling a story, suddenly you’re a human being. Imagine that!

 
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Comments

  • On April 1, 2008, Lily B. McBeth wrote:
    Jenny:Every interview you give is a story in it's self.Keep the ball rolling It gives momentum to all of us out there.Slowly but surely I am getting to the story I want to tell.Paragraph by paragraph.I'll be thinking of you while I have lunch with a friend in Surf City this week. Lily