SBBT Interview: The Incomparable Jennifer Finney Boylan
I don’t often host folks who’ve appeared on Oprah, Larry King, The Today Show, and a Barbara Walters Special (just to name a few). Few of the authors I speak to in my interviews have been portrayed on Saturday Night Live by Will Forte. And fewer still are on the judging committee of the Fulbright Scholars. But that’s the thing about Jenny Boylan, you see. She keeps you guessing. You don’t know what she’s gonna do next. Like, say, for example, write a middle grade novel about a boy who, at the onset of adolescence, discovers that he’s turning into a monster. That’s the premise of Falcon Quinn and the Black Mirror on one level. On another level you have a story within a story that I think a lot of kids are going to be able to identify with. Ladies and gentlemen, it is my supreme honor to introduce to you the newest voice in the children’s literary sphere. One, I assure you, that you have not encountered before.
Fuse #8: You are, to the best of my knowledge, the only transwoman to successfully publish a work of children’s fiction with a major publisher in the United States under her own name. To say that you are groundbreaking is to put it mildly, and this is but one of your many accomplishments. You’ve written for numerous periodicals, appeared on multiple television shows, taught creative writing as a professor, and on and on it goes. Care to give us the full background and lowdown on who exactly Jenny Boylan is?
Jennifer Finney Boylan: Well, that makes me sound quite fabulous, I must say. But I guess I just see myself as a storyteller. I know I’m seen as some sort of spokeswoman for civil rights but the only thing I really know how to do is tell stories. Still, that’s a good day’s work, isn’t it?
It’s true that being trans has given me the opportunity to tell a particular kind of story that hasn’t generally been told, at least not by someone trained as a writer, and I’m grateful for that. It seems to me that we can break through to people with stories in a way that we can’t in any other way. My mother has a saying, "It is impossible to hate anyone whose story you know." And so I have tried to tell stories of people who are different in the culture–and not just trans people, I mean misfits and outcasts of every variety–and tell their tales with dignity and humor.
Fuse #8: Though you’ve written young adult novels under an assumed name this is your first work for the younger set. How have you found Falcon to be different from your previous books? Particularly when it comes to writing for kids rather than teens?
JFB: Falcon came about as a the result of an ongoing conversation with my middle-school aged sons. They used to joke about cliques of monsters on the school bus, and where everyone would sit– the zombies would think they were better than the Frankensteins, and the Sasquatches were lower down the social ladder than the vampires. So I wrote Falcon Quinn for my sons. In our house we never quite gave up the whole "story at the end of the day" thing, even as our boys entered high school. So I was familiar with the series my boys loved, and didn’t really struggle with the genre very much. It was a delight, also to write in a form in which having a sense of humor was seen as an asset, not a handicap.
I will say that writing Falcon Quinn was the most enjoyable experience I’ve ever had as a writer. Every day, my sons came home asking, "Did you do any work on the Monster Book today?" They were pretty tough critics, too. I had to change the ending of Falcon Quinn 2, because they were so upset by my first draft."
Fuse #8: Oh, see now that’s not fair. I won’t be seeing #2 for a while, I know. Now, would you ever consider writing teen fare again? Have you toyed with the idea? Have some thoughts you’d like to bring to fruition, perhaps?
JFB: Well, I’m hoping Falcon Quinn keeps me busy into the future. Book 2 comes out in summer of 2011, and with any luck, this franchise will keep growing for a while–probably until my boys are no longer interested in monsters. Still, I don’t see their interest in monsters fading anytime soon. They’ll probably be fifty years old and still talking about Banshees and wind elementals, and pushing me around in a wheelchair. Hope so!
I have to say my earlier experience writing teen fare wasn’t all that pleasant. I wrote a series for 17th Street Productions– now part of Alloy– based on characters that their team invented, based on a plot that they sketched out. I made the best of it, but I guess I’m not really cut out for following directions.
The good thing about working with 17th Street/Alloy, though, was working with Cecily von Ziegesar, author of Gossip Girl, again. She had been my prize student at Colby College, back in the early 1990s. And so having her as my editor was really delightful. She’s a great writer, and I’m a huge fan of hers. And proud I worked with her when she was younger.
Fuse #8: All right. I suspect that after reading Falcon Quinn there’s going to be a fair amount of debate about if the book has a central metaphor. Here we have a boy who hits thirteen and finds that he, like his fellows, is due to become a monster of some sort. I think we can all relate. What are you conveying with this book?
JFB: Well, we DO turn into monsters of a sort when we hit 13, don’t we? I remember that scene in BRIDE OF FRANKENSTEIN when Karloff sees himself in a mirror for the first time, and the Frankenstein monster is scared of himself. And slowly he comes to realize that–oh my god, it’s HIM. And he’s so sad to see himself the way other people must see him. He makes such a great growling sound at that moment. I can’t get that out of my mind.
In a larger sense, I think we see monsters as those who are "different" in the culture. It may well be that, since I’m the author, people will see ‘monster’ as a metaphor for being trans, but it’s not that. You can substitute any identity you like for ‘monster’– gay, lesbian, African-American, Jewish, Catholic, Latino/a, Irish– and I think it works just fine. I mean, here’s the thing– the young monsters in Falcon are taken to a school where they’re taught how NOT to be monsters, how to imitate human beings. So they can fit in, and so humans won’t come after them with torches and pitchforks.
And that’s the central question- of Falcon Quinn, and for lots of life. What’s better: to imitate something you’re not, if it really means being able to survive? Or to embrace your true self, if your true self is–say, a zombie? How do we find the courage to become ourselves?
All that said, FALCON QUINN IS NOT A METAPHOR. It’s a goofy adventure story, with a serious heart, about monsters. If people want to see monsters as allegorical, that’s fine with me. But kid readers won’t be thinking about that, I don’t think, and that’s fine with me too.
Fuse #8: Did you happen to get the idea for the title anywhere in general?
JFB: Since I lived in Cork, I’ve been in the habit of giving my characters Irish names. At one point, Falcon’s last name was O’Brien. But then I decided I wanted to call his father Orion. Which mean, uh-oh, that made him Orion O’Brien. So I had to change the last name, and Quinn came out of somewhere. I have a friend whose son is named Quinn, actually, so I stole that name from her family. Falcon, on the other hand, I can’t explain. It’s a name I’ve always loved, and it felt like a good name for a hero.
Fuse #8: And, of course, the dreaded question…. what are you working on right now? And not just in the children’s realm either. Anything.
JFB: Well, the final draft of Falcon Quinn 2 is off to Harpers by mid-may, so I’m doing the line edit on that right now. Next up after that is a new adult novel for Random House, due to them by December. So it’ll be Falcon 1, then Falcon 2, then the adult novel, and then, if my fingers can still move, on to Falcon 3.
Other than that, I continue to write an op/ed piece for the New York Times every couple of months, (next one, I think is in December, about WINNIE THE POOH) and scrape up short stories for magazines (most recent one is "Six Graves for Seven Writers" in the current SENECA REVIEW). I’m doing the introduction for Trans Bodies/Trans Selves from the Feminist Press. And I’m on the judging committee for the Fulbright Scholarships run by the U.S. Department of State.
Oh yes, and shepherding two fine young men through high school. I have to say, none of this would be possible without my family, those boys as well as my spouse Deedie. It’s because of their love that I am here to tell stories in the first place. As Max the Sasquatch says in Falcon Quinn, "Our lives are unbelievably, amazingly great!"
Also, before I strike the tent here, can I just say the cover of Falcon Quinn, by Brandon Dorman*, is absolutely amazing, and I feel so lucky to have his great work on the front of that book.
Last plug: I hope readers and librarians will join me at falconquinn.com, which is a pretty cool site. There’s all sorts of stuff there, including a bonus chapter. MONSTER UP!
Fuse #8: Thanks, Jenny! Thanks for stopping by and thanks for talking about your latest. There may be a whole host of monster books out there. Yours stands alone.
[*Note: Brandon Dorman is kind of amazingly amazing. But I’m not a disinterested party in saying that.]
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About Betsy Bird
Betsy Bird is currently the Collection Development Manager of the Evanston Public Library system and a former Materials Specialist for New York Public Library. She has served on Newbery, written for Horn Book, and has done other lovely little things that she'd love to tell you about but that she's sure you'd find more interesting to hear of in person. Her opinions are her own and do not reflect those of EPL, SLJ, or any of the other acronyms you might be able to name. Follow her on Twitter: @fuseeight.
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