This week, I sat down with lesbian author and trans ally Jennie Wood to discuss her new YA novel, A Boy Like Me. The book is about a teenaged trans boy finding himself and love in a small Southern town.
Mitch: Hi, Jennie! Thanks for talking with me about A Boy Like Me.
Talking to you, I could tell immediately, from the twang in your voice, that you’re not from Boston. Are you from the same Southern area Peyton lives in?
Jennie Wood: Yes, but I created a fictional town because I think...it’s fiction. You get to create a world and make it come alive. I think if I had picked my own home town, that’s almost easier. But the imaginary town of Wiley is very close to where I grew up in central North Carolina.
The use of music stood out in this book; it gave the story a textured background. Everyone likes music -- Peyton, Tara, his uncle and his uncle’s girlfriend. And I know you’re a musician in real life, so you probably drew from your own experience. I think music worked well with the book’s theme of silence -- the way it allows Peyton and the girl he loves, Tara, to speak this language that isn’t words.
What were you aiming for with including all of the music in this book?
Music -- like romance and LGBTQ characters -- is in everything I write. I think I wanted -- because Peyton struggles so much with language, vocabulary, and finding the right words -- for music to be something he and Tara shared. Something he could express himself with, like when he plays the drums on her songs. He can show her how much he cares about her through finding the right drum part. And in the recording studio, you can shut out the whole world. He can own that world, control it.
Music is also a way that Peyton can feel accepted. For instance, Tara loves David Bowie, and David Bowie is all about androgyny and gender-bending; this showed that music is a place where Peyton could live. Where he could feel at home and find a place to be comfortable: in his uncle’s music shop, in the recording studio, in making music with Tara. Music becomes Tara’s way of communicating with Peyton too.
All the songs that are referenced in the novel, are actual songs that I wrote from Tara’s point of view. I recorded them, and while I was working on revising the novel, I had the dream that the book would come out with a CD in the back. But, 215 Ink is a small publisher and didn’t have the resources for that, so I just put all the songs on my website.
I was struck by the role of male caregivers in the book -- Peyton’s uncle and Tara’s father. You didn’t make it so that all the adults in Peyton’s life didn’t support him. And Peyton moves towards becoming a male caregiver in the end. You made the moms the antagonists. What was your thinking behind this?
Well, I wanted Peyton’s struggle to be about him: his inner struggle to accept himself. I felt like it was more realistic if not everyone in his life accepts him, but not the other extreme: not everyone is against it. I wanted people to struggle to see him; Tara gets him, Tara sees him, but other people in his life, like his uncle and his uncle’s girlfriend, love him unconditionally but are confused about what he’s going through. But they’ve traveled, they’ve lived in other places; the uncle’s girlfriend is from Chicago. They definitely get the sense that he’s struggling with something, and they get that he loves Tara.
The struggle that everyone sees him as a lesbian was what I felt like would happen in a small town like that. But I didn’t wanted this to be a story where Peyton just met external obstacle after external obstacle, and no one supported him. I think it’s more interesting, and also more realistic, in the world of that small Southern town, that there is some unconditional support, especially since its set close to the present day. And that there’s some physical obstacles and danger. Because that’s realistic too. I wanted the story to be bittersweet -- and the biggest obstacle to be internal, especially as told in the first-person. Even if he has a hard time communicating with himself.
Peyton does face a lot of external obstacles, though I could sense that you were trying to balance them out. You don’t want to write a story where his life is total crap because he’s trans…
...right, I didn’t want to write that story. But I also didn’t want to make it too easy for him and have it be unrealistic. You know, I had some people say to me as I was writing, “ Well, I hope it doesn’t have a happy ending.” Or, “I hope it’s not easy for him, because it shouldn’t be.” And I was like...balance.
Peyton does go through a lot of those common trans youth struggles that teens face who aren’t accepted by their parents or their schools. It’s hard to see trans kids going through this hard stuff that happens afterwards, even though it’s realistic. Did you struggle with the thought that he goes through too much hardship?
Right, right. I struggled with both. That’s why I tried to stay as true-to-life in that small town, in that small, conservative world, and I tried to make it bittersweet. This also goes back to the fact that you can’t please everybody [as a writer]. Your book isn’t going to resonate with everybody...and it shouldn’t. That’s okay. I did struggle, though.
In revision, actually, I did pare down the two fight scenes. It’s a young adult novel. And I didn’t want it to be a “miserable trans boy” story. We don’t need that. Even though you don’t want to think about the audience too much -- you want to be true to the characters -- I did go back on the last revision and took away some of the violence. I don’t want anyone to be depressed [after reading the book]. There’s so much work to do; I wanted people to walk away understanding some of the struggle -- even though everyone has their own individual struggle -- but to be uplifted.
We’re at this really unique time, I think, in trans representation in popular culture where homelessness, depression, mental health issues, instability-in-general are still so very real and need to be talked about, but we’re aware that they’ve dominated “trans” stories for years and years.
And we’re now finally at a place where we’re seeing some really positive representations of trans folks in pop culture, and there’s this new pressure -- at least, I feel it, within trans and trans-ally communities -- to only focus on the positive. Because we’re trying, in some sense, to overcompensate for the years and years of too much negativity. As a writer, you might feel a pressure to push the negative stuff away. But there are consequences for that too. Anyone who’s working with trans characters right now is going to have to reconcile that tension.
This was an important conversation to have. Thanks for talking with me today!
You're welcome. Thank you.