Alex DiFrancesco’s collection Transmutation abounds with moments of intimate revelation and transforming bodies. Jeanne Thornton’s novel Summer Fun draws inspiration from a legendary rock band and takes it to a wholly unexpected place. Both books are among the best I’ve read this year, and I chatted with both authors over Zoom one summer evening. The conversation covered a wide range of subjects — from pandemic coping mechanisms to the music of Tom Waits — and an edited version follows.
Both of your books are deal, in their own way, with mythology — whether it’s actual mythology and folklore or Summer Fun’s mythology of pop music and Americana and everything else. How do you, as writers, turn this mythology into something that’s your own?
Alex DiFrancesco: I have a pretty big obsession with folklore and mythology, in particular in relation to queerness and transness. And you asked about making it my own, which I would say goes both ways. I’m both using existing mythology and the queerness inherent to it, and also taking it out of the realm it’s moved into by putting the queerness back into it. So for me, the idea of queer mythology is really important because I have this silly belief that there’s a direct relationship to transness and magic embedded in the mythology of multiple worldwide cultures. So that’s not something that I’ve made up or anything, but it’s how I’m trying to re-insert queerness into existing stories.
Jeanne Thornton: I can see that, particularly in the sea hag story early in your collection. I vibe with the idea of there being some kind of inherent queerness or inherent transness specifically to magic as well. I think there’s a lot of things about unification of binaries, unification of opposites, and crossing those things that’s very deep in the mix of any of those tropes.
So that was definitely something that I was vibing with when writing mine. The idea that I had behind Summer Fun was less trying to draw out some queerness that was inherent to the material. It was almost the opposite method, is how I want to schematize it right now. I took the Beach Boys is a starting point. The book didn’t actually start with them, but it arrived very quickly at like, “Oh, this is the place where we’re going to go with it.”
Once I moved on from the idea of wanting to draw the feelings that I was having relative to this band and think, “What is the meaning behind the reaction I’m having listening to Pet Sounds in the dark with a candle burning? I’m having some queer and trans feelings about this. I think there’s something latent in the music that’s vibing with those.” The myth is not specific to that. In fact, it’s this myth that’s almost too straight in some ways. It’s a band whose big hit is literally about how they are lusting after all the girls everywhere. This is how we know this band. So it’s like, “What is the meaning of that? What is the meaning forwarding? is there queerness beneath that? And what does it mean to be inscribing queerness into that myth?” In some ways I think trying to get at both of those things, if that makes sense.
DiFrancesco: But so much of Summer Fun to me was the idea of conjuring queerness out of something you love, whether it’s there or not. Because we never really know if this is B—’s real story. We know that this is Gala’s story of B—, and Gala really needs to have these big things queer things superimposed over this story. The summoning of Caroline and the magic that Gala is doing around this, that was where I was reading the inherent magic of queerness into it, where it’s like you have to make something in a world that it may not fit or be ready to take on. So I’m just curious about your thoughts on that.
Thornton: You’re saying, basically, that you read the book as being Gala when she talks about, “I’m going to perform this sorcery on this material.” And then it’s almost this incantatory voice with the whole book is directed at “you” in this almost frightening second person. She sells us the idea of imposing queerness on this story. “I’m going to cast queerness into this narrative in some ways.” That’s what I was doing in writing it, for one.
Are you familiar with the idea of steam engine time? So there’s this period in history where, I think, James Watt gets the credit for inventing this, but it was sort of independently invented in six or seven different places within a fairly short period of time. It’s this idea that, “Okay, it’s steam engine time in the world.” It’s time for that invention to appear and you can have any number of explanations for that. I think that within the trans women’s writing community that I was part of, there was a thing we were all doing very much around the same time in the early 2010s, which is when this book was initially drafted. We got to a point where we were thinking, “Okay, there’s a way to write about transness. There’s a way to write about the current situation that rises above the Perils of Pauline story of sorrows that are inflicted upon us.”
I say “rises above,” and I don’t want to imply that there’s this myth of perpetual progress of trans literature or something, which I think is a false schema. But there was an idea that we had done enough of figuring out how we write about transness in the present tense with books like [Imogen Binnie’s] Nevada that were written around the same time. There’s this movement that we made towards understanding ancestry within literature and within tropes and things like that? Hearing that Imogen Binnie was writing a book about looking back at Nirvana and Kurt Cobain was very eerie, because we were writing the same book without knowing it.
DiFrancesco: I remember hearing about these two books at the exact same time and just wanting both of them in my life very much.
Thornton: I still want to read that very much. I think Casey Plett, with Little Fish, cracked it in saying she’s projecting her grandfather back, in some ways.
Thornton: I’m interested in asking you the same question in some ways. The thing that I really love about this book is the way it’s not only pulling tropes, but it’s pulling these archetypes, it’s pulling musicians, it’s pulling inspirations in some ways. Knowing you, I got an extremely strong Nick Cave vibe from all of it, which I love. Jeff Mangum is in here; Leonard Cohen, I believe is in here at the end. Rosemary Kennedy is in here. There’s a thing of re-narrating these stories really powerfully, but also pulling vibes in from some of these things and creating this astonishing brew of different queer narratives and remixes.
DiFrancesco: My best way of talking about that is by saying that, those are all part of mythology for me. So this Rosemary Kennedy story, it’s a horrible story. The story of the real Rosemary Kennedy, which I’m sure everybody here is familiar with, is that because of some complications with her birth, she had developmental disabilities and then she was lobotomized for not fitting into the Kennedy Plan. And hearing that story, the Kennedys are a big piece of modern American mythology. She can never have a happy ending, but I want to give her some agency back in this story. I want her to get her revenge. And if I had ever heard a story that deserved revenge, it’s that one. So that’s part of American mythology.
Jeff Mangum and Leonard Cohen are part of my own personal mythology. I am very much of the belief that our art ends up being descended from the things that we very much love. So Jeff Mangum and Leonard Cohen are two huge ones for me. Nick Cave, too. I am working on cross stitches of all my heroes to put on my wall in my office. There’s this thing with Orishas in Santeria where Orishas continue to exist because of the people who put their energy into them. So I feel like that is a common thing with our mythologies and the energies we’re putting into them come out and honoring them is a big part of it for me.
I feel like the Beach Boys exist in that same mythology that Rosemary Kennedy does, where it’s part of America. This exists as part of the mythology that America made post-horrible colonialist overtake. And I’m curious because I remember, I don’t know if this is fair game, but I remember you posting something a long time ago when you were working on this book. I remember you posting something about having a mini-crisis at some point where you asked, “Can I take these liberties?” I don’t remember the exact wording, but you were like, “Is this something I can do with something that I love and have as a part of your own personal mythology and part of this wider mythology?”
Because you did it so well. This book is so queer and so beautiful, and I’m curious at what point you gave yourself the permission you needed as a writer to take the things you love and make the stories you needed out of them?
Thornton: I appreciate that a lot. I have to say you make an assumption that I have given myself that permission rather than just existing in a state of sin presently.
DiFrancesco: But I made that assumption because you did it so well. And I’m sorry about making the assumption. It’s just, you killed it.
Thornton: I really vibe with what you said about the Orishas and the idea that these things happen when we worship these figures, when we re-instantiate worship. The thing I talked to my writing students about is the notion in Zora Neale Hurston’s Tell My Horse about being ridden by the loas in Voodoo. The idea that writing characters is the same way you worship the loas, where you figure out what’s their favorite food, what do they like, what kinds of jokes do they tell? What’s the love language of these beings? And then you are trained in that way as initiates, such that you can become those beings in ceremony. I think that’s pretty much what we do as writers, only they’re with beings that are, at least as far as we know, not loas or Orishas.
I think that the idea of the telling of the myths — re-inscribing it and re-instantiating or re-enlivening it — is part of the reason that I felt his responsibility for it. For writing some things and preparing for interviews and things around the book coming out, I ended up rereading some of the Beach Boys biographies that I’ve cast away from myself when I finished a certain phase of drafting the book. Just being like, “I don’t want to think about that anymore.” I realized that there’s one that’s Dennis’s story. One is a very Brian-sympathetic story. There are Mike Love-sympathetic stories that exist out there right now.
Another thing I like to teach my students is that if you’re doing your job right, you will come around to finding, centering the story on each of the characters in it, regardless of how you personally feel about them. You’re assembling these different voices at the party and trying to play all the roles yourselves and inhabit all of the roles with as much charity and grace as you possibly can. I feel like there’s no way to do that with living people, especially when it’s a family story where a lot of it is disputed over time in very complicated ways.
Which story do you go with for that? If you’re seeing the band from Mike Love’s point of view, it’s being driven by these economic pressures in some ways. In the ’70s, where the Wilson brothers are all fucked up and like the mortgages are due, and we just have to get a group of people on the road who are completely dysfunctional. I have some sympathy for that, like this is a man who had a brief moment of inspiration that was dated to 1958 and did not grow from that, but is still put in the hot seat to carry the band forward. I think I finally resolved it.
I punted by including that author’s note and saying, “Look, I understand that this is a myth, I understand that I know that I’m not seeing the truth of being in your musical family that’s before the eyes of the world.” It’s like doing any kind of story on that scale that I felt a certain responsibility toward. And honestly, I think the thing that allows me to justify it is just that the band is surely used to it by now. The only new element that I think I added to this is transsexuality. And I don’t think that is a bad element. Although, old men who like the Beach Boys may disagree.
Thornton: Your characters have this kind of glorious agency and solidarity in this space, but they’re put in these situations that are crucibles, like they’re made into monsters in some ways, and they embrace their monstrousness as a gift rather than as a curse in other ways. And they use that power to reestablish an order of justice that includes monsters. I’m intrigued by that, and by what you have to say about how you think of queer justice, queer revenge, and the relationship between these things.
DiFrancesco: I will say that I was listening to Nick Cave’s Murder Ballads on repeat when I wrote a lot of this. And my favorite song in that is about a woman who is assaulted by several men and just goes in, fits herself out with a bunch of guns, and kills the whole town.
And I don’t know, I am a lot more of a cream puff than I let on. I can write and talk a big game about revenge, but it’s not part of my personal belief system. If you get into a conflict with me, I will pretty much try to work it out until long past the time when it’s clear it’s not going to.
That said, I believe that there’s a lot of injustice in the world. And sometimes rage is a healthy thing. I just don’t think that rage is necessarily a viable outcome. I wanted to give Rosemary Kennedy her revenge, but that is not my story to tell in some ways. I don’t know what it’s like to be a woman who was lobotomized for being not the right kind of woman in the ’50s or ’60s. Sometimes it’s easier for me to feel rage on behalf of others than on behalf of myself. So the characters that I most identify with in this book are like the vampire who decides, “I could probably kill you, but I’m not going to.”
And the Jack Tran character who constantly wonders, “How can I, in some way, create a world where I can’t change these horrible things, but I can bring some sort of comfort to it?” This book, in some ways, was like me trying to do the same thing that that character was doing when he sits in the basement at the very end of the story. He’s like, “I can’t fix this. I can’t do anything. I can sing you a couple of songs that you all really liked. And I know they mean something to you. And I will just continue carrying around this idea that there is nothing I can do to change it. Even if these things mean more to other people than they do to me.” I don’t know if that answers your question, but that is the best answer I have.
Thornton: My mind wants to go to the Tom Waits’ song about why wasn’t God watching. [“Georgia Lee” -ed.]
DiFrancesco: That is the Tom Waits song that reduces me to tears every time I listen to it, because it’s like, okay, I’m not just indicting the people in the world who created this horror. I’m going to God with this. To me, that is one of two Tom Waits protest songs. But yeah, that song reduces me to tears every time I listen to it.
Thornton: There was a period of time over a lot of the early pandemic where I was in a state of pretty extreme crisis about whether anything I was doing was actually just unleashing harm in the world. Right. I’m better now regarding that. But one of the things that got me better with that was thinking that there are times when I have been an absolute wreck and I just needed to know that someone else was an absolute wreck at the same moment. There are times where I’ve been absolutely low and just like, I’ve needed to see that somebody is there. The only things I can think of that are similar, are support groups for AA or things like that, where you go and you’re with people who can say, yeah, I’ve been to the bottom in these complicated ways. I think art gives us a way of doing that. It can be a vector toward finding that community in the world and that’s one value of it. But one value of it is just feeling less alone now in this moment.
There are these moments of injustice that you can articulate so perfectly. I’m thinking about just even the subtle moments. It’s weird how those microaggressions feel. You see them and you feel this recognition. It’s like, okay, someone else mapped this territory, I see their initials on the walls.
DiFrancesco: I fully agree with the concept of art mapping the territory. And I got so many trans moments out of Summer Fun that, excuse me, that I was just like, “Oh God.” I am not a trans woman. So obviously it’s not like an exact replication of my personal experience as a trans person.
But there was this moment where Caroline and Gala are talking for the first time and Caroline makes or Gala makes Caroline laugh and has this mini little crisis that maybe lasts like half a paragraph of like, was I funny or is this that moment when a cis person is like, “Oh, I can relate to a trans person.”
There were so many moments like that in Summer Fun where I was just like, “Thank God somebody is chronicling these.” Yeah. So, all right. I stand corrected on my self pitying commentary about what are we doing? Because I really do firmly believe that. And like so many of the things that mean a lot to me in art mean a lot to me because I found them at the exact right moment. And I was young and without community. And I was like, “Hey, I may not be able to relate to this songwriter in any capacity in the world. But there is a feeling in here that I get, that I didn’t know was a human feeling. I thought it was just something that occurred to me.” So yeah. I fully believe that that is true. I think that is an excellent point.
Thornton: I want to stay on the notion of justice and vengeance for you. I feel like there’s a sense of looking at acts of solidarity in trans writing in particular; moments of solidarity and connection among trans people when I read them. Seeing that there are these kinds of useful social instances that you defined, like with these moments of aid that are performed, right? The one I love is the renaming of the boat, where the dad is like, “I spent six months negotiating with the gods and then I realized, fuck the gods.”
This is the thing that is of great value for me in your work. There’s a strong “we take care of our own” feeling in these, the feeling I got in one of Casey Plett’s stories, about someone who has thought her mom is also trans and they roll out to save the friend who’s in crisis together.
It was the same moment of reaching beyond the self to define a community where we have the power to do that. I’m trying to reassure you in part that your work is doing these good things, because I feel like it makes more than just a cartography of moments of darkness, moments of there. I think seeing what you’re doing is in a tradition of activist literature with All City, too. How do we build communities that function? How do we actually reach out and behave in these sort of new social ways?
DiFrancesco: I appreciate that. I feel like I often have very simplistic views of that sort of thing. One of the things that I appreciated about Summer Fun so much was there are two trans characters, Rhonda and Gala, two trans women characters that are in the actual story. There is also Diane, who is outside of the story in a lot of ways. But the characters who interact with each other, they love each other and they don’t always like each other. And I feel like that is such a more advanced kind of view of humanity and community that I admired so much about your work, because it’s like, we are each other’s people.
We understand each other, and sometimes we still piss each other the fuck off. And that’s okay because when it kind of wraps up at the end for Gala, the person who she wants to be with is not the tangentially related person to her hero. It is the other trans person who is in her life.
To me, that is so beautiful that it’s like, no, we can mess up. We can fuck with each other. We can do things that aren’t always the right thing because we’re human beings and we’re still each other’s people. And that is something I respect and admire so, so much about this book.
One of the main takeaways I got from the narrative is that it’s not necessarily our idols. It’s not the people who can bring us closer to them. It’s the people that we fight with, the people that don’t always treat us the way we want to be treated. And the people who understand us more than anybody else in the world. And that blew my mind. And I was wondering if you could talk about that in your writing and in broader trans narratives.
Thornton: Until you said, just this moment, that Gala and Rhonda love each other, I don’t think I even realized that.
DiFrancesco: I said it because at the very end when, I don’t want to give away spoilers, but there’s that line about, I hope Rhonda will be there if she wants to be. I got so much love out of that, so much love, and complicated love, not simple or pure. Real love, messy love.
Thornton: Putting that kind of open ending on the book was something I wanted very consciously to do. As our sympathies migrate around different characters, I usually find that it is hard for them to fully come back to whatever character they were closest to at the start of the book. In some ways, for example, it’s hard for me to like Gala. It’s hard for me for different reasons to like Diane in the book, just because they were the moral point that I entered the book and they were the ones who were sympathetic to when I entered the book.
It was a revelation to me when I couldn’t figure out how to go through a scene and I ended up writing it from Mona’s point of view. I realized just how infuriating it would be to be married to Diane. It transformed the whole book, was revised backward and forward from that point, which came pretty late in the book. I don’t think that community among us is automatic in some ways. And this is kind of the segue to the other point. So I wanted to leave it open for the reader. And this is something I believe in, it’s sort of like a general practice, to use the kind of “The Lady and the Tiger” element of the ending. Do you believe that community can form from these two angry ladies in the desert? Flip to page 576 if yes. Flip to page 528 if no, except there’s no flipping.
One of the things I did to get through the early pandemic phase, and I’ve done throughout the years, is a specific book of Buddhist compassion meditations. A lot of the meditations are the same way any building meditative practice goes: “Can you feel compassion for someone important in your life? Can you expand that compassion out to somebody who’s less important?” There’s this idea that there are five people who are closest to us that to anybody else, maybe you start out from there, maybe you extend it. “Okay. Who’s someone else who could feel compassion to?” Later exercises are sort of like, “Remember the person who was worst to you. Think of them and think of every bad thing they did to you. And now imagine what it would feel like to think of them the same way you did as people who were close to you.”
I feel very complicated about these exercises in some ways, for all sorts of reasons. But I think that the thing that I really like about them is the notion of expanding who is in your community over time. I think when I was writing this book, the first draft was finished long enough ago that it feels allegorical almost, to me. That it’s sort of like the story is, “We turn away from the cis and we turn toward the trans, and here’s where we will find this thing.” And I still think this is a very, very powerful sigil, but thinking about it’s two trans women at some point. What elements of their identity are we not staying? They’re both white trans women.
There are things with, is my community primarily composed of white trans women? How do trans women, trans men, non-binary people caucus together? Because they’re just sometimes extremely different takes on things. Homogeneity cannot be our only criteria for who’s got my back. And then trying to do that work of expanding further and further over time. This is something that I thought was really beautiful about [Torrey Peters’s] Detransition, Baby. Did you read the book Darryl by Jackie Ess? It’s glorious, right?
DiFrancesco: I have not yet finished it, but I can’t comment on it, but I am super excited about it.
Thornton: It’s about this cis cuckold in the Pacific Northwest and one of the subplots — Jackie said it’s really important that it’s a subplot — is about his abiding love and affection for this trans woman. It’s a complicated love and affection, and he’s infuriated by her, fantasizes, “Oh my God, I want to clean her horrible collective house for her.”
Things that in breathing out as a trans woman, in some ways, I’m going to be making less space for people around me. There’s no way around that. There’s no way around that intention. There’s no magic world where everybody can have everything that they want. So how do we start to negotiate that if we’re all jammed together? How do we start to negotiate, “Okay, if I move this way, you can move that way, and then your arm will feel a little bit better. And if I kind of unlocked my wrist like this, then you can un-cramp your foot for the first time. And then maybe we can both look at this person over here, and then try to do this. And then they can do this other thing for us.” This way of looking at the world, I think it’s sort of moving outward.
I think this is a long way from the original point, maybe. Finding our way through these points of extreme variance with other people, to the extent that Gala wants to do that, or Rhonda wants to do that, in the course of the book, hence the open ending is, I don’t know, just foundational.
DiFrancesco: You had mentioned a couple of times during crises in the pandemic, and I just kind of wanted to tangent a little to be like, you gave me a tarot reading at the beginning of the pandemic, online. It was right before I went into my own pandemic crises, and literally the kindness and the wonderfulness of the act of you giving me this beautiful reading, which I pulled ‘Judgment’ as my near future card. And since then,I have done a bunch of my own readings where I pulled ‘Judgment’ as my present card, every time. The act of you giving me this beautiful and kind gift of this reading that was so wonderful, was actually a lot of what got me through my own pandemic crises. So while I had you here, I just wanted to mention that and say thank you. And also the kindness you’re talking about in these meditations, and the fact that you regularly practice them is so apparent in not only your writing, but your tarot readings and just who you are.
Thornton: Thank you so much for saying that, I’m going to turn into a human blush. Oh my goodness. I don’t know what to say. I don’t know what to say.
DiFrancesco: Sorry to derail book conversations for a minute and just be like, “You’re fucking awesome”, but there we are.
Thornton: You’re awesome too. I think that you’re charging the literary world right now. Charging at it with these variety of intense projects, and these banners. You have this multiplicity of approaches, you have this social vision. It’s like making space in the way that this book does. I was thinking about the fact that this book is kind of rocketing up there in some ways, and knowing that we got the Times that covered you and all these different things. Thinking that there are these cis people who are going to be vectored into this are seeing these sort of glorious visions of abjection in some cases transfiguring itself.
I think about this moment where June in the first story, is literally injecting her leg with sea water in an attempt to become like a sea hag. And I just remember when I was first reading the book — I have an injection horror, I don’t do injections for this reason. I think that’s interesting also, that we all have these ritual practices as trans people. I think they’re fascinating because I think we will talk about them among ourselves, in private groups in some ways.
I’m in a group for trans women that just talks about freaking out about levels and stuff like that. My partner is definitely in some too in a reciprocal way, with freaking out about symptoms, and injection sites, and I’m like “Oh, my God, there a mass, what do I do?” or these different things. It’s like we talk about them in these spaces, but the fact that we all have this quiet ritual space, I think is actually really interesting. I’m glad that the question of how we do these things came up in this space. So it was just such a raw moment, that was such an incredible raw moment.
And there’s so much body stuff in general. Thinking about the story about the professor who’s canceled, and so he’s disappearing. And then there’s the question of Cameron in “Disappearance,” who leaves this invisibility behind them as they’re stepping up. The one about the character’s first wife who’s slowly shedding her skin and becomes something completely different. These moments of physicality in your writing, I think were really something I would love to hear you talk about.
DiFrancesco: Thank you. Since I’ve gotten more open about writing about transness in general, it just follows for me that these moments that we are talking about, that some manifestation of the body is really important to all my stories. I’ve been trying to get towards a point where I don’t shy away from talking about the transformations to my own body, because they are really a part of it. I remember I read a nonfiction piece at an open mic once, where I was talking about fucking a chaser, and how this person had essentially fetishized the trans masculine clitoris in such a way, that was described in detail in this nonfiction piece.
Reading that in public and having everybody just kind of be, “Oh, we’re talking about very big clits right now, in a very public space, at a bar with a bunch of people.” And someone is in front of all of those people, many of whom may know and don’t know, talking about parts of the body that we don’t normally put out there, you know? So that kind of broke open for me a sort of ability to write about the body in general, in ways that I hadn’t been able to before. So thank you for noticing that.
Thornton: I was thinking about the ways that our bodies resist language in these key ways. It’s so important, the work that’s done to find ways that our bodies fit into language at all. It’s difficult to even talk about in the course of an interview about this stuff, but the process of getting physical with another trans person for the first time, and how predicated it often is on acts of naming. Just saying what works —”How do you want me to talk about your body?” — the feeling when somebody doesn’t do that, or somebody fucks up, or is unconcerned with that, or intensely alienating.
DiFrancesco: Yeah. And I think that that sensitivity and kindness towards each other, and a sense of, this is your body and you should be able to name it is something that everyone should have for each other. In many ways it’s like, yes, it is absolutely a trans-specific topic and conversation. But I just wish when I’ve experienced moments of kindness around that with intimate partners, I have just wished for that kindness for everybody in the world.
Thornton: If we think about building community, one of the love languages of our community is that we all bring a dish to the potluck of society in some ways. This is something I really appreciated about the way Torrey Peters framed this, in the way she’s talked about Detransition, Baby. And sort of like this move of dedicating it to divorced cis women in this way. And sort of saying, “Here is what I think that I, as a trans woman of a certain position, have to teach divorced cis women.” There’s something so quietly radical about that, and even more radical I think about what you just said. You’re saying the way that we talk about our bodies is something that you wish everyone could have.
DiFrancesco: Well, I wouldn’t take it upon myself to teach everyone that, but what you were saying about when you had an intimate experience with another trans partner, and that is so much a part of it, it’s just like as trans people, ideally, we have this kindness towards each other in these moments. If everybody in the world was out there not just trying to meet their own personal needs in these situations, not that everybody is, but if everybody wasn’t, and the people who were, aren’t, it would just be. “How do I touch your body? What do you like your body to be experienced in what way?” That is just a kindness that we often have for each other that a lot of the world doesn’t get.
Thornton: Absolutely. Even if it’s just like a monster body in some cases, right?
DiFrancesco: Sure. You need to know what kind of blood the vampire drinks, right?
Do you think that being English-speaking people has some bearing on that too? Specifically, English compared to French, where most things have a gender, whether it be masculine or feminine. I’m thinking of Anne Garréta’s novel Sphinx, where one of the big deals was that she wrote it in a way where it’s ambiguous, the two main characters’ genders are ambiguous throughout it, which is incredibly challenging when writing in French.
DiFrancesco: I am personally not much of a linguist. English is my only language, and I am not always good at it. I failed grammar classes until ninth grade in high school, so I don’t know. I think English has a lot of flexibility. There’s pushback and resistance to things, often like neo- pronouns and even using they/them, which has been in existence in the English language for a long-ass time. But I think the language itself does have a lot of flexibility in it.
Thornton: My day job is in education, and there was a memo that passed around specifically about how we would handle non-binary pronoun use in Spanish, and this sort of evolving discourse around that, because it’s sort of ubiquitous in the same way. For a number of years, I dated a Russian-American trans man, where his family, we would go to his house and everyone would speak in Russian. And Russian, it’s almost every word is gendered in complicated ways. I think particularly because it was a family situation, the opportunities for just accidental or purposeful mis-gendering, are greater in some ways.
There was a moment where he said that they were using the right name for him, but possibly the wrong words. From my understanding of Japanese, there’s different words in some cases, even not just endings, but a whole different vocabulary sometimes. I can’t speak to any of that other than these really glancing experiences, but I know that it’s a whole different social world would be involved, and potentially a whole different social set of things to navigate. My mind goes to the ways it could be used for cruelty or something, I guess
DiFrancesco: One of my neighbors who I love greatly wanted an honorific to use for me. Personally, I don’t use like Mx. I know a lot of non-binary people do, but he just started calling me Admiral, which, I mean — I just love that.
Thornton: One of the things I liked about the second-person pronoun is that it’s non-gendered. In writing Summer Fun, there’s not a lot of opportunity for me as the writer to misgender Diane. I wasn’t conscious of doing that when I was writing it, but it allowed there to be this strategy where the character can switch halfway through, and with her affiliations in this way, it’s sort of not as intrusive as it might be. I’ve seen different writers navigate that in different, complex ways.
DiFrancesco: Can I ask you a question about the Diane narrative? I found myself wondering, is this the story of this person, or is this the story that Gala needs it to be? Does Gala need to put Diane into this story? And I guess maybe you don’t want to give away too many of your secrets of writing the book, but because Gala controlled the narrative, I was like, “Is this an act of empathy and an act of love? Is this an act of needing something where the signs pointed to it, but was never codified in this legend for other people?” There’s this moment where Gala says of herself, “I didn’t realize I had the capacity to hurt her.” And then, when Diane is still being narrated as B— by Gala, she has the same realization about Mona. And to me, that was another very high-trans moment where it’s like, “This world has been pretty difficult for me. Oh wait, I have the capacity to hurt, too.” And that was the point where I started wondering, whose story is this? Because Gala’s the one telling it, and is this what Gala needs, or is this something that Gala has drawn from the mythology?
Thornton: That’s a good question. It’s not one that I know if I can answer. In one very early draft of the book, Gala had a chapter of backstory about before she came to the hostel. It’s one of the first things I wrote in the book, back in 2009. And it was one of the first things I cut, just thinking it didn’t work for her to have a history, that the act of narration doesn’t work if there’s a way to draw an inference back and forth from that. That became more and more important.
And first I thought, “Oh, well that’s an easy thing to do. I just won’t give her a history, right?” Every time I revised it, I started adding more and more characters asking about that. Wondering about her, realizing there is this sort of lack in her that she’s filling with this band in some ways. In ways that truth be told, I probably was when I was writing the story, and that first draft up to 2015.
The thing is, can you feel a thing except through this story that’s outside? Or do you feel it inside your body in some ways? And then the process of revision of the book, the process of curating the book and then writing subsequent books is probably moving more and more inside in a way that I think it never quite gets to in this book. But then owning that capacity to hurt is certainly a big part of it, right?
This is, I think, a general trauma thing in a point at which transness interacts with any other equally complex trauma, but the moment of realizing the magnitude of what the system of gender has done to you, I think is really… It’s almost so mundane for all of us that we don’t talk about it as much. There’s so many years that were lost, there were so many things that we didn’t… What would it have been like if I had known earlier? I didn’t know that trans people existed until I was in grad school and I was 22. I didn’t seriously have any idea that this was a thing you could go out and do.
I think that reckoning with that, as we reckon with any trauma, and we articulate the fact that, “Wait, no, it wasn’t all right all the time.” There was this massive amount of wrong that is done in some ways. If we’re viewing the world as this place of soft parts and hard parts. I think early transition a lot of times is like, “We’re going to be all hard parts right now. We need space. I need space. I’ve been denied space for a long time.” And recognizing I’m not just making space for myself is something that came to me, I think for late and probably came to Gala and Diane in ways. That’s probably the honest answer.
DiFrancesco: I love that return to that analogy, because it just seems like a really important thing for a writer to keep in mind. And I’m going to definitely hold onto that as I move forward with my own writing. I hope you teach that in your classes. It seems like something you might.
Thornton:Tell me where your writing is moving now.
DiFrancesco: Right now, I’m working at a full-time job, which means my writing is going slow, and a lot of it is actually a writing job. So that is definitely taking away some of my writing time and energy. But during the pandemic, I finished a book that I think kind of vibes with Summer Fun, where it is essentially a story about a group of fine dining servers who work in Soho, Manhattan in the year 2000, down the corner from where David Bowie and Iman live. It’s a collection of short stories where each of the servers is fantasizing about a different Bowie persona leading them to their actual things they want out of life, and that manifests in a bunch of different ways. So I think that vibes with Summer Fun in a lot of ways, so I was really amped to read this and see this coming out into the world and I’m like, “Yes, fandom time. Let’s get into it.”
Thornton: It’s the Trickster God, or the old cursed magic shop, but it’s the Thin White Duke, or…
DiFrancesco: So yeah, there’s the Thin White Duke, and then there’s this guy who is convinced that the song “Heroes” was written about him and his lover from different sides of the Berlin Wall.
Thornton: Oh my god.
DiFrancesco: And he falls into the world of Diamond Dogs, where the fog kind of smells like whatever your fondest memory is, so he thinks he can find his lover, who disappeared, back in the world of the Diamond Dogs, and Bowie make appearances and such things, like he’s Halloween Jack in that section.
Thornton: He lives on top of Manhattan Chase, that’s hilarious.
DiFrancesco: Yeah, and he slides down a roof. So what is next for you?
Thornton: There’s another book done, but I don’t know how long it’s going to be until it’s out. It’s about these three trans women who are all members of the video game-making community in their teenage years, based on the ZZT community online, which is — horrifyingly, to me, now that ZZT is emulatable in a browser — having a resurgence. Some people are reblogging games from people I know are appearing on Twitter and I’m like, “Oh my God, I don’t want anybody to play old ZZT games that I may or may not have made.”
But anyway, it’s these three women who are just teenagers in the nineties who are various degrees of out. One of them is pretending to be a girl on IRC. One of them is openly queer in the late nineties, and one of them is deeply closeted. We flash forward to 2016. All of them are out now, but are living in these completely disparate lives. The only thing in common being their point of origin in this game-making community. And there’s this fun finished game that they’ve all been working on. One of them returns to the subject, a very complicated way that pulls the three of them back.
DiFrancesco: I love that. And it makes me want to ask you one more question, which is about writerly obsession and how that kind of links both Summer Fun and this upcoming project, because it sounds like you’re drawing on a lot of old gaming experience and game building experience, which seems like it might also be a big part of your life at some point. I guess I want to ask about how you foster in your writing, the things that you’re going along. And then I want to ask you how you translate that from an interest to a novel. It’s kind of a big question, but.
Thornton: My practice has changed, I think, since then. For whatever reason, I have this idea that I want to be writing in a different way in the last couple of years. But the way that it historically has been is, I’ll find something that I know that I will want to think about for a certain period or space in time. For my first book, it was the Church of Scientology. This one, it’s a combination of New Mexico and the Beach Boys. For this new one, I thought, I can think about this old specific video game scene for a certain amount of time. If who you are is really going to be the subject of it, who you are and what you need to think about anyway, it might as well be transformed by your field of interest.
In this period of time, this was the thinking. If I’m going to write whatever I’m going to write, it can at least be loosely organized by the topic of the Beach Boys in the space of revisions over the years and really get to the bottom of this in some ways. And then you’re done with it.
There was a time when I was writing my first book that I could have told you what all of the OT levels are in the Church of Scientology secret scriptures. I can’t tell you that anymore, because I just put it out of my mind when I was done with that phase of obsession. I just don’t want to do that. I want to not write like that.
Talk to me about your own obsessions in this way or your own fixations. I am grateful to talk to you about this, because I think we have similar attitudes towards music in particular.
DiFrancesco: I definitely fixate. And one of the things that I’ve learned over life is that a lot of people don’t do that. So, for me, writing is kind of like a release valve for a lot of the stuff that I get really, really into, because I have learned not to talk about it at parties. It’s like, nobody needs to know about the intricate trivia of The Boatman’s Call, but other people who are similarly fixated on that album, so…
I do that thing where, if somebody brings up a topic that I’m very excited about, I lose all my cool and that is definitely a time that I will go off about it. But I have found over life that a very fruitful place to use my obsessions is in my writing. Like the Bowie book, I have always really adored Bowie and the Bowie book was both using my encyclopedic knowledge of his stage characters and then also adding research to it and giving myself a project to get through quarantine with that was something that I probably would have been reading about anyway.
I think that’s the real writing work, where you figure out where your personal spins come on the thing that you would be reading and watching movies and all of that about anyway. So in that particular case, it happened to be, I used to work down the block from where Bowie lived in Manhattan in, not 2000, but right around that time. So then it becomes a thing where I’m combining all the interesting characters I’ve worked with in the service industry over the years with these stories, or combining personal history or the Elvis impersonator I dated is one of the characters in this.
Thornton: What was that like?
DiFrancesco: It was real uncomfortable. He had a sugar daddy who, he made him call him the Colonel because he met him when he was doing his Elvis impersonation. So most of our relationship was coming up with good lies to tell the Colonel about why he was out of town for the week.
Thornton: Oh my god.
DiFrancesco: So anyway, you take those things and then you mix them with the things you’re obsessed with, and then all of a sudden you have a new thing and that’s writing to me.
Thornton: I like this. I like this equation. You’re saying you’re going to go live in a place anyway for a while, so you’re sending dispatches from the place. At a party, you can’t talk about your trip that much, because people haven’t gone on it. You can’t break out the slide carousel or anything like that. During the process of writing this book, whenever anybody brought up the Beach Boys in a social setting, I would try to develop the practice of eliciting consent. Saying, please know that you can stop me from talking about the Beach Boys at any moment. Because I will talk about them forever, so please just know that you can say no to the Beach Boys.
In writing, it’s a safe place to unload all the slides and really get to the bottom of what that trip meant, in some ways. I love this model.
DiFrancesco: I agree, and I get so into these periods of research, this is probably a weird thing to admit, but when I was researching the Thin White Duke, for a week and a half, I just ate olives and drank whiskey. I’m a character actor with these things. It’s like when I ended up blonde, I don’t know how to explain the last year and a half of my life without it.
Thornton: You were possessed.
DiFrancesco: I was getting into character.
Thornton: I want to hear you talk about The Boatman’s Call for a long time, also, so if I could make a fan request for some things at some point, I would really love to read that.
DiFrancesco: There may be a PJ Harvey and Nick Cave and Nick Cave’s ex-wife story in there somewhere, so I will try. I’ll do my best.
Record player image: Jace & Afsoon/Unsplash
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