What if Jonathan Franzen was Trans?
An Interview with Jeanne Thornton, author of SUMMER FUN
A few weeks ago, Jeanne Thornton and I met on what appears, in hindsight, like a mild Brooklyn summer day at the Ample Hills in Prospect Heights. It was a Saturday afternoon. Vanderbilt Ave was cordoned off to allow for median picnics. Jeanne and I met out front, and after a short wait in line, we each ordered waffle cones, briefly discussing the risks of choosing a cone—I see no risks in choosing a cone; I always choose cone when I can. I ordered something cinnamon-heavy with chunks of baklava in it; Jeanne added a sour cherry topping to hers, the weird texture of which, she recently told me, still remains in her soul.
We settled on a bench beside the line waiting to enter. Over the next hour, families and couples and friends would snake into the building. One unlucky child, for reasons that remain unknown to us both, would be carried away by his father before they entered the store. Half a block away, a band performed a show in front of a dive bar, punctuating our words with crashing symbols and riffs.
It seems fitting that our conversation would feature a rock band in the background. Jeanne’s second novel, Summer Fun, is delivered by Gala, a trans woman living in small town New Mexico writing to B----, the former lead of the band The Get Happies, a 60s California pop band reminiscent of The Beach Boys. Summer Fun is a novel of blurred identities and discovered selves. Gala not only writes to B----, she imagines herself into the consciousness of her idol, drawing parallels between their lives as the book’s epistolary form takes on a new shape. Summer Fun is my favorite type of novel: the kind that reinvents itself over the course of its pages.
I was also thrilled to talk to Jeanne for more personal reasons. I moved to Brooklyn last summer hoping to find a community of trans writers. Talking to Jeanne wasn’t merely a literary masterclass on form and craft and commitment—though it was very much that—it was also a crash course on the trans literary scene in New York, a world I know so little about. Jeanne is a smart, funny, and fearless writer, qualities that all come through in our conversation. Even better than talking to her was listening back on our recording, reminding myself of her generosity and brilliance. I hope you’ll enjoy our talk as much as I did.
Alex McElroy: How are you feeling a couple weeks out [from publication]?
Jeanne Thornton: I compare it to moving. I used to move every year or two—I don’t know why. There’s this process you go through in moving like, Oh my god do I really want to do this? There’s all this fear about it, but at a certain point you just put all your shit into boxes. I’m just moving stuff and I’m gonna think about it again when it’s over. For the last couple weeks I’ve been in the “I have to put everything in boxes phase,” and now I’m in the “I’m gonna think about it again when it’s over” phase and trying to just enjoy it.
AM: At a certain point there’s nothing you can do to change things. The lease has been signed.
JT: I had a really good moment. I managed to record the audiobook. My first book, the company we sold rights to hired a cis woman to read it in kind of like a teen girl voice. She did a good job, but it’s hard for me to think about that being out there. And [reading the audiobook of Summer Fun] was like, something I wanted to do for a while. To extend this moving metaphor, I feel like in recording it, I had to pick up and carry every word in the book via my lungs over a threshold. I think before that, I had this idea that “Oh my god there’s all these terrible things I’ve said in this book all these awful implications. I can’t possibly be responsible for any of this.” But now it’s like, no, that was fine. There’s stuff I’d do differently now, but that was okay.
AM: Returning to the book, all the fear of seems [excessive].
JT: I’ve been working on this book for a long time, so it got really built up.
AM: I read the interview with you in The Rumpus in 2012.
JT: Oh shit.
AM: So you were working on this book then, weren’t you?
JT: Yes, I was.
AM: What has it been like to release this book after working on it so long? I don’t want to say “What took you so long?” Because a book takes as long as it takes. But were there difficult starts and stops? Did you just want to get it right? Outside impositions?
JT: I finished the book in 2015. The actual writing of it didn’t take the whole time. I started it in 2009, 26 years old, and it’s now coming out and I’m 38, right? Some of it was just like, I’d finished a very long draft of it in 2015 and gave it to my agent. She started trying to sell it at that point but it just was not right. The first draft was double the length.
“I picked out my outfit for the dance when I was 26 and I have to wear it to the dance when I’m 38. All I can do is wear it and give as few fucks as possible.”
AM: And it’s still a pretty long book.
JT: It had to get shorter by a lot of degrees. Usually I would revise by radically cutting and compressing. There’s still a few things I cut—a couple things that are going to nag me forever that are not in there, but I just needed to be done with this. It was a very frustrating process. We went out on submission in 2015 and finally sold it in 2019. Some of that has to do with this weird quality I feel like this book has. It’s in the reviews that have come out already. There are people who really really really like this book and people who just don’t, who have antipathy toward it. I don’t know what causes that. But that’s just how it’s gonna be.
AM: Do you think that was true of your earlier books?
JT: No. I don’t think so, anyway. Both of them were out from smaller places, so maybe I just didn’t know about it. Sometimes I don’t like this book. It’s a complicated thing where I started writing it before transitioning. I knew that I was going to, and writing the book was part of the way of putting myself on a path where I had to. But also some really poor decisions about it were made before I had any practical experience of being an out trans person in a way that is baked into the book at a really deep level.
The way I thought of it is, I picked out my outfit for the dance when I was 26 and I have to wear it to the dance when I’m 38. All I can do is wear it and give as few fucks as possible. An attempt to do honor both to the original but to also recontextualize it to whatever extent that’s possible. The thing I tell my writing students is, “If you’re gonna write a novel about something, it should be something you’re willing to look at for a really long time.”
AM: I’m teaching a novel writing class now and I’ve told them, “Get ready.”
JT: Totally. You’re gonna have to see it until the point where you don’t like it anymore, and you’re like, Why did I do this? [Eventually], enough time has passed where it’s not even a matter of skill, it’s a matter of, I’ve chosen to live with this novel, and I will change as I live with it until I get to a state of acceptance of it.
Things I find harder to accept now: there’s an oppositionalness to the main character that strikes me as some of the oldest writing in the book that was consciously left in. It had a very different energy. Before coming out—do you know this weird thing from Thus Spake Zarathustra, the three metamorphoses of the spirit? It’s one of my go-to things.
AM: I don’t.
JT: So there’s an image Nietzsche has called the Three Metamorphoses of the Spirit: The Camel, The Lion, and the Child. The camel is like, Whatever it takes to do this thing, I’m going to do all of it. The lion is like, No actually fuck this I’m not gonna do this, I’m not gonna do that. I’m gonna define my own terms. And the child is like, at a certain point, you get over needing to do that and just kind of exist. I think I got to the point of existence with regards to trans stuff after doing the primary part of the writing by writing subsequent things. This book cannot really partake of that spirit, except insofar as I am indulging my younger self with grace as much as I can—you know what I mean?
AM: That’s so interesting. How do you give space to that zone of pure speculation?
JT: Say more about that zone of speculation.
AM: Before you have that experience, but you’re living with what you think that experience will be and you write into that. It could be incorrect, but that experience is really interesting to me. That space where you’re living only in desire.
JT: Exactly. It’s like a fantasy.
AM: A fantasy of either freedom or fear. It’s really interesting that you’re leaving those feelings in the book. It’s not the same thing as revision. Experience isn’t revision. It’s not like you were reading and thought, Oh this is actually what it’s like, so I need to change it. Because that experience is something that was real.
JT: Honoring the idea of incomplete knowledge is what you’re saying.
AM: That’s a much better way of putting it.
JT: I don’t know if this is something specific with transness, also, and like the way we inhabit it experientially. I didn’t actually start on hormones until a lot of this book was written. There’s only a couple passages in this book about hormones that I added after the fact. But the fundamentalness of those changes [from going on hormones]—those changes are fundamental and really really really strongly resist language but nonetheless are undeniable. Do you know Casey Plett?
AM: I’ve read her work.
(the author, Jeanne Thornton)
JT: We were talking about this at one point and talking about this philosophy experiment called Mary’s Room. Do you know about Mary’s Room?”
JT: It’s one of those weird philosophy thought experiments. Mary is a researcher who is a theorist of color. She’s a specialist of red. She lives in a completely black and white world. Checkerboard. The lamp is black, the table is white, the walls are black, the floor is white. But she is a theorist of red. So she could tell you so many things about red. She could quote every poem that’s ever referenced red, she could tell you the harmonic frequency of red. Every fact about red that is communicable, she could give to you. One day the door of Mary’s room opens and there’s a red wall outside and she’s seeing red for the first time in her entire life. Does she have new knowledge or not? Because she knows every fact but she hasn’t had the experience.
There are various arguments either way, but that’s the closest analogy I can think of for taking estrogen for the first time. I don’t know how to explain anything that’s immediately different, but everything is different. And I think there’s something about taking the risk of stepping out and being trans in the first place, the experience of relationships as trans, all these different things, that feel like there’s a story you can tell about them, there are facts you can tell about them, but there’s a real intense perspective shift that’s happening in each of these points down to the level of the body and how you relate to it. I feel like I went through all of that in different stages of writing this book, but not in any coordinated way that’s going to lead to like, a good design for a book. Not chronologically. It’s sort of useless for a reader except that there’s a Whitman sampler of different trans states of time that you don’t have a map to.
AM: I imagine even if there were a chronological map it also would not get it right. Even for me—I’m not on hormones, but everything has been so fits and starts. And I’ll always feel like I’m behind language. The experience thing hits so deep. It’s something that was inexplicable to partners, when it became clear to me and it was a fundamental shift that was so freeing but hard to even begin to explain to other people.
JT: And it sucks because we picked the job where you sort of have to.
JT: If we were fishers, we could just [exist]. I could just tell you how to catch a red snapper.
“And that’s how I feel about transness. If someone were inclined to make a map, I’m not sure there would be value in having a map.”
AM: Do you think painters would be able to get at it better? Or music?
JT: I don’t even know.
AM: When I came out to my best friend, the first thing he did was send me an Octo Octa album.
JT: I’ve heard that name but I haven’t listened.
AM: It’s like house music. And I vibed with that immediately. And I wonder if there are other arts outside of language that are able to capture it. We’re just stuck with stupid words.
JT: I think it’s like. Do you know the comic Love and Rockets?
JT: It’s by Jaime and Gilbert Hernandez. It was big in like the early 80s. Contemporaries of Dan Clowes. There’s a series called Locas about these women Maggie and Hopey who have this lifelong lesbian friendship slash romance. There’s one moment where they’re at a coffee shop and trying to talk about punk to somebody who’s not getting it. And they’re saying, “Punk is in everything we do. It’s in the way you stir your coffee in the morning.” And the person’s like, “What, with a switchblade?” And that’s how I feel about transness. If someone were inclined to make a map, I’m not sure there would be value in having a map, the exhaustive Mary-like account of the color red.
Casey Plett did it really well in her book Little Fish. There’s this moment where she’s hooked up with some guy and she’s staying at his place in the morning and Wendy looks in the mirror and says something like, “In the mirror I saw myself how I looked as a little kid.” That feels so trans in ways I don’t know how—I don’t know why that feels so trans.
AM: A friend a few months was telling me that a lot of trans women she knew, before they transitioned, when they were teenagers, they were really big into Fight Club and it made perfect sense.
AM: It’s men destroying everything about themselves in the most male way possible. [Masculinity] is taken to its most violent extreme to realize, Oh, it’s really awful. Can we just destroy it?
JT: This is something I really vibe with in your work. As soon as I got to the list of men, I was like, Oh shit this is fucking trans.
AM: What’s interesting to me is that I didn’t know. I mean I knew, obviously, but I wasn’t writing towards it in the way Torrey Peters or you’re writing about it. I was cis and married and was very much like shaken to my core about the ways I was presenting and my assumed identity and much of the book was a subconscious grappling with something I no longer wanted to grapple with.
I want to return to this question of experience. I don’t want to give too much away for our panel [Editor’s note: Jeanne and I will be on a panel together for the Brooklyn Book Fest], but how do you think the experience [of transness] is going to be conveyed for a larger audience? Do you think that it can be?
JT: Are you asking how the portrayal is going to change as the Big Fives take a long position on transness?
AM: The way you’re describing this languageless experience. How will that be expressed through the Big Fivization of trans writers? Is this an experience more suited for small presses? As Peters said, she was writing for other trans people. What happens when this experience is presented for a larger market and audience.
JT: There’s two ways to look at it. There’s a question of what the larger presses want to buy, which is more a function of who’s editing. There’s a writer I know who had two pretty successful YA books come out before she transitioned. And then she went on submission trying to sell her trans woman novel and suddenly found her a lot of doors that would have been opened to her were closed. Not by any conscious We don’t want your kind kind of thing. She was getting the same rejection letters that I was getting for years, which were kind of like, I really love this you’re a really great writer, there’s just something about this I don’t connect with. Which is an experience I think is really common. It made me not feel isolated. She would send me these letters and they were pretty much verbatim. And so I felt validated.
I think that is changing. Torrey’s success with Detransition, Baby changes the whole calculus. This is something I want to talk about in our panel: To what extent? It’s not going to be like a tipping point, in 2014, or it if it is it will be like a tipping point like in 2014.
I’m the daughter of two white lawyers and I have doors that are open to me as the result of that. That needs to be unpacked and said. A thing that I miss about small press trans world—it’s not different in there. But the community is small enough where the erasures were more evident. I have no answers or solutions. But as the hand of Penguin Random House is reaching down to us all, we have to be yelling at the hand about where it’s going and what it’s doing. You have to continue being dissatisfied about what it’s doing.
“There’s a world in which Jonathan Franzen is saying, By the way everyone, I’m trans. And what would that mean for trans literature? Who the fuck knows?”
AM: And that dissatisfaction seems louder or more effective now. I hope it’s more effective. S&S will cancel a deal with someone but who knows if they’ll continue in a year or whether cancelling that deal will anger the higher ups and prevent them from publishing books [from marginalized writers].
JT: It’s not even a question of “What voices are being missed?” Earlier I was hanging out with Anton Solomonik, who for years did this open mic called Genre Reassignment with the writer Juno Tempest. It started during the high Topside Press period in 2016. There were narratives that came through that couldn’t be assimilated by large places, but are still vital.
I actually did not know who you were before I saw The Atmospherians coming out. A bunch of people I knew were like, Oh my god all of our books are coming out in 2021. Casey Plett’s got a new book coming out. Megan Milks has like four books coming out. And then, who’s this new person? And your book is fucking phenomenal [editor’s note: it’s alright], and I hadn’t heard of it at all. That turned up to 11 is what I want the future of trans publishing to be. Where there are other currents of experience, other currents of transness coming in. And I think what’s really exciting with transness is that—I want to use the word sleeper cell. There’s a world in which Jonathan Franzen is saying, By the way everyone, I’m trans. And what would that mean for trans literature? Who the fuck knows?
AM: This is our first scoop: Jonathan Franzen is trans.
JT: You heard it here first. Purity no more. The Corrections, indeed.
AM: [laughs] People coming out of nowhere—is that what you’re saying?
JT: The lived experience of transness can be really complicated. We’ve talked about different ephemeral things. Suppose Franzen were to come out, what would that mean to recontextualize so many years of your life, so many years of your writing life? I don’t think I wrote any books where I didn’t know—other than unpublished juvenilia. I definitely wrote books where I wasn’t out and didn’t plan to be, and that changes things radically.
There is this tradition in queer literature which is really valuable: writing things that are forbidden. Finding these names for experiences that are legally unpublishable at certain points. Things about the body. Obscene words and sexual practices, depravities, that inculcated this deep sense of suspicion and resistance to any sort of rule about what could be said and what can’t. I definitely remember trans women saying to me as recently as a few years ago, I wouldn’t want to be published by a major press. It’s more important to build this power, build this sphere.
Do you know Jamie Berrout? She did this book, Otros valles, about being a very isolated trans woman on the Texas-Mexico border dealing with things like border politics, immigration policy, deep isolation, and paranoia. She’s the writer of a series of very intense manifestos about the destruction of the academy and all publishing. She’s also created a very radical mutual aid publishing concept. Her ideas are not wrong, and her fiction is brilliant. Any major press would be elated to have it. But she doesn’t want to do that. What she’s doing is not wrong. I want more people to know about her work and give her money for it. But that level of resistance is absolutely something I don’t want to see leave trans writing.
I [also] don’t want to exist in a state of bunker peril about the corruptibility of what we’re doing. I’ve been on a small press, I’ve done the hustle. And it’s nice not to do that. I try to teach my students: Don’t wait for publishing to spread your work. Don’t wait for the brass ring. Find ways to circulate your work. Multiply by 100 for trans writing. There’s so much that’s going to be valuable. The stuff that’s the most valuable is going to be the hardest to assimilate. It’s going to happen generationally as editors come up through the ranks, or come out.
AM: What has been different about this experience versus coming out on small presses?
JT: I had this experience early on at the first publicity meeting where they told me the book was a big hit at Winter Institute. I didn’t even realize they were taking it to Winter Institute. This is a feeling I didn’t have with my first book, which got a lot of reviews. At any level of publishing you’re giving up control, things are happening, people are taking a journey through this world of yours without you being involved. And that can be weird and alienating. It’s like if I were to go to a church and light a candle for a saint and then hear the saint say, Don’t worry, we’ve got you as far as Winter Institute goes. There’s a feeling of comfort with that.
It not being my first rodeo is a good feeling. My first book came out nine years ago, and I remember flipping out a lot about it, and I’m just not this time. I’m glad it’s finally out there. I don’t know if you felt this when you finished this book where you had this prophetic urge where you have said something with this book and need to tell everyone about it. I feel like that went away for me some years ago when I was trying to sell it and it was replaced by fears of what it means to publish this book. And then we had the synthesis, where both of those feelings are in there to some degree.
There’s something so weird about the attenuated process of trying to sell it that’s so far from the kind of way it’s connected to the main line of my life. I feel like the executor of the will for myself from 2015. Not quite that far back. I definitely feel more distant to it but I’m proud of it. I’m glad it’s out there. But it doesn’t feel like I’m proud of a thing that feels like myself. It’s that I’m proud of my plucky daughter. She’s doing great.
AM: What do you want for your plucky daughter?
JT: For her to find readers who are into her weird vibe. People who’ve read it have talked to me about it in ways that are exactly as I would have hoped. I feel like it is very important to provide some kind of feeling of reassurance, some kind of feeling of not aloneness in the world. You don’t want people to come away from it with this sense of: The end; no moral.
It’s a pretty brutal book. It’s really unambiguous about some of the self-loathing aspects of transness, some fairly brutal family dynamic stuff, some fairly brutal self-harm stuff. There’s a scene where this woman has just had a very intense family confrontation and she’s looking at herself—and she has a history of self-harming—and she’s trying to decompress from this thing where all the pain has had to go inside to avoid harming someone outside. And her brother is watching her and talking to her. The thing is ratcheting up. Her brother has to intervene. And there’s a moment where they’re decompressing after she’s literally beaten herself up in a bathroom, and then a moment of, What do we talk about now? How do we get back to normal, having gone through this fucked up thing?
It’s weird to say, but there’s this funny part of it. Like, Oh my gosh I’ve gone and spoiled the party! How does the dinner get back on track? I’ve been very grateful every time I’ve seen something with that vibe. I’ve seen people read it who get a sense of like, Okay, I’ve been on that bathroom floor too. Thank you for showing me a way to find the fun in that.
AM: I feel like the difference between people is that some take themselves seriously and some just don’t. And I very much don’t. Even in those moments of extreme self-loathing I see the comedy of it, of how melodramatic it is. It’s funny because you’re both denouncing yourself while also centering yourself. You’re like, I am nothing, but also the center of the universe.
“You learn most not from trying to capture the obvious sublimity, but from these weird little moments where something breaks through.”
JT: You remember the moment in Real Life at the dinner party after Wallace has fucked everything up, and now he’s really enjoying the food. There are so many moments like that in the book and that’s the one that really stands out.
AM: It’s not even taking pleasure in the destruction. There’s something there—I don’t want to say beautiful. But it’s a unique experience so outside our mundane experience.
JT: It’s hard to assimilate all the contours of it. And it’s difficult to speak of experiences. If you take a trip to a mysterious land, do you come back and talk about how the mountains were exquisite and the desert sublime and the light on the ocean perfect. Or are you just, Oh man we had the weirdest meal at this one restaurant? That’s what rises out of that experience. You learn most not from trying to capture the obvious sublimity, but from these weird little moments where something breaks through.
AM: You go there for the sublime and the sublime has a World’s Most Photographed Barn vibe to it. But who knew that one of the chips you were gonna eat would be shaped like Gerald Ford?
JT: With most dark experiences, you don’t consciously go there usually. Transness is one of those dark experiences that we do consciously steer toward. There’s something about the unquestionable desire that’s like, I guess I’m gonna do this fucked up thing. It could be the worst thing in the world but I’m gonna go there. Maybe that’s something sui generis about transness—the fun opt-in trauma.
AM: I used to joke when a friend asked how did I know, I would say that I saw all those The Future is Female signs and I figured I better get on board.
JT: You wanted to get in before the rush. Seemed like where the action is. You’ve read Nevada, right?
AM: [embarrassed] I haven’t read Nevada.
JT: There’s this moment where the main character talks about the experience of being called Ma’am after being out for ten years and having this weird moment of vertigo. She hears someone say “Are you next in line, ma’am?” and she’s like, Yeah I guess I transitioned once. It’s that feeling where you’re never not aware of it, but that feeling of, Oh, that’s weird never really goes away.
Another thing about trauma stories. Have you ever hung out with former military people?
AM: Not that much. Just some family.
JT: When I first moved back to Texas, I went to this coffee shop and ended up hanging out with a lot of people who had done tours in Afghanistan or Iraq. And every once in a while you would ask what it was like or they would start telling stories. And the stories also had the same zany quality to them, but they’re describing horrible things.
AM: I feel like that’s the only way to survive through it. You need to find a way to make it not as awful as it truly is.
JT: But you’re also creating waypoints for people who have traveled the same territory. You have this flash of what it was like to go through this dark season, and you send up a signal flare and you see a rock formation that looks like a mushroom, and you put that in a narrative. And someone else is like, Oh I too have seen that mushroom rock formation, but didn’t know that I needed to see it.