Birmingham Lit Fest Presents….

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In this week’s episode Festival Director Shantel Edwards talks to debut novelist Torrey Peters about her Women’s Prize longlisted novel Detransition, Baby. Described as ‘a uniquely trans take on love, motherhood and those exes who you just can’t quit’, Detransition, Baby follows three characters as they navigate creating a new version of family for themselves. Join us as we talk about the politics of motherhood, misconceptions about transitioning and writing complex female characters.

Show Notes

In this week’s episode Festival Director Shantel Edwards talks to debut novelist Torrey Peters about her Women’s Prize longlisted novel Detransition, Baby. Described as ‘a uniquely trans take on love, motherhood and those exes who you just can’t quit’, Detransition, Baby follows three characters as they navigate creating a new version of family for themselves. Join us as we talk about the politics of motherhood, misconceptions about transitioning and writing complex female characters.

You can download our podcast episodes from all the places you would normally get your podcasts every Thursday and follow us on Instagram, Twitter and Facebook @bhamlitfest. All of our festival events can be found on our website www.birminghamliteraturefestival.org

For more information on Writing West Midlands, visit https://writingwestmidlands.org/

Follow the festival on Twitter, Instagram and Facebook @BhamLitFest

Credits

Curator: Shantel Edwards (Festival director)
Production: 11C/ Birmingham Podcast Studios for Writing West Midlands

TRANSCRIPT

BLF Series 2, Episode 5: Torrey Peters 

Intro

Welcome to the second series of the Birmingham Lit Fest Presents…podcast. We are really excited to be back for a second season and to continue to connect readers and writers in the Midlands, and far beyond. 

You can download our podcast episodes from all the places you would normally get your podcasts every Thursday and follow us on Instagram, Twitter and Facebook @bhamlitfest. All of our festival events can be found on our website www.birminghamliteraturefestival.org

In this week’s episode Festival Director Shantel Edwards talks to debut novelist Torrey Peters about her Women’s Prize longlisted novel Detransition, Baby. Described as ‘a uniquely trans take on love, motherhood and those exes who you just can’t quit’, Detransition, Baby follows three characters as they navigate creating a new version of family for themselves. Join us as we talk about the politics of motherhood, misconceptions about transitioning and writing complex female characters. 

Shantel Edwards
Welcome to the Birmingham Lit Fest Presents…podcast. I'm Shantel Edwards, the Festival Director and I'm really excited to be in conversation today with Torrey Peters, talking about her debut novel Detransition, Baby. Described as ‘a uniquely trans take on love motherhood, and those exes who just can't quit’, Detransition, Baby is a top 10 bestseller and was long listed for the Women's Prize for Fiction in 2021. Torrey lives in Brooklyn, and holds an MFA from the University of Iowa and a Master's in Comparative Literature from Dartmouth. She is the author of two novellas, Infect Your Friends and Loved Ones and The Masker. Torrey, welcome to the podcast, thank you for being here.

Torrey Peters
I'm thrilled to be here. Thank you for having me.

Shantel Edwards
I just wanted to start by asking how this last year has been for you really, I mean, there's been a pandemic, you've released a book in a pandemic, how has it been this past year?

Torrey Peters
I mean, I think that a lot of people who released books had a pretty difficult time. And I sort of feel bad being an outlier to that, where I, in some ways enjoyed releasing a book in the pandemic, in that most of my writing career has been hyper local, like, it's been part of like a scene of trans writers in Brooklyn. And so, where we read was like, at the local bar, and I saw the same people and there was a way in which I expected this book release to be, you know, have like a two mile radius of interest, maybe around it. And instead, partly because of the pandemic, you know, I would do an event and people from the UK, from Europe, sometimes from South America, Australia, there are people coming to these events from all over the world. As a result, I think, this experience, this book launch ended up being international for me in a way that it couldn't have possibly been, if it wasn't for the pandemic. And I expect that my next book will sort of return to kind of local, you know, a local way of doing it. The book is very Brooklyn. And so in some ways, I find myself lucky. I mean, it seems horrible to say I'm lucky there's a pandemic, a global pandemic, but the timing in terms of finding readers who I otherwise wouldn't have ever come into contact with, I think it was just sort of a fluke of all these things. And there's obviously a lot of dark sides to the pandemic, but for me, it ended up having these unexpected bright sides.

Shantel Edwards 
And I guess you've gotten to see the different, was there a different reaction in different parts of the world to the novel?

Torrey Peters
Yeah, I mean, you know, the United States, like, sort of even the conversations about gender in different countries and around trans issues, they're really different. And they're different in different places, like, you know, in New York, for like, kind of trans women in New York, where things are oftentimes more radical and things like that, my book was almost like assimilationist in that it was like, you know, involved with children and family and motherhood which are considered conservative in some places, you know, some scenes. Whereas, you know, if I was talking to like a book group in Indiana, it was radical, it was this wild idea that a trans woman could be part of a nuclear family, or that the nuclear family might not be working. That was like a radical idea. And then, you know, in the UK, it was much more - it wasn't particularly politically polarizing in the US, that wasn't sort of the valence along which readers approached it. But in the UK, I think it had, just in the way that the conversation is there, it was a book that was interpreted politically. And, you know, the pushback was a lot stronger, there was more kind of stereotypically bigoted responses to it. But also, there was a more, I would say, vehement degree of support, you know, the book really was important to people, because there was, I think they felt that there was something very deeply at stake politically, in letting trans women tell their stories in unvarnished ways, and that really mattered. So, the book was, the book got on bestseller lists in both countries, but it got higher in the UK than it did in the US, simply because I think people felt like they had a lot riding on it.

Shantel Edwards 
I was reading about your earlier work and I think a lot of your earlier work was very much about writing within the trans community and I wondered what that shift had been like to go from, you know, writing for a particular audience who you know, is going to understand and receive the work in the way it's intended, and then shift into being, I guess, published by a really big publisher, and what that shift was like, and if you felt like there was a, I guess, almost like a lack of control about how the novel might be received.

Torrey Peters
I was lucky while I was writing it, because I didn't know that is was going to be published by a big publisher. And so, I didn't have a lot of those voices in my head where I would write a line and I would think, like, ‘oh, my God, this is gonna be read in like 11 countries’, like that wasn't a thought in my head as I was writing. And I think that that thought would have stifled me, it's something I'm worried about in my next writing is to basically write as though nobody's listening or that, so only my friends are listening. But when I wrote it, I really didn't know. So, I was like, maybe like, 11, people will hear this joke, you know, and the repercussions of 11 people hearing, you know, if two people don't like my jokes, but you know, if 10,000 don't like my joke, it's a little different. And the first two books really were kind of about, they were novellas, they really were addressing, like, sort of inter-trans stuff, stuff that was things that trans women argued with each other about. And then slowly, as I was writing Detransition, Baby, I began to think that I was writing less for a community, and more for people that I had affinity with, like, and I was writing along lines of affinity. And I realized that there's some trans people I don't have affinity with. But also, there's a whole lot of sis women that I do have affinity with. The book is dedicated to divorced cis women because as I was writing it, I was reading all these books about divorced cis women and the trajectory of divorce looked a lot to me, like the trajectory of transition where you live your life a certain way, assuming it's going to be a certain thing. And then there's this event that's like a break, your transition or your divorce. And then you have to move forward without getting bitter about having, you know, how you spent your past. And you also can't reinvest in old illusions. And so, when I began to think like, oh, actually, all these divorced women, their books have been so important to me, and how I move forward. Maybe I have something to say back to them. Maybe there's a conversation here between trans and cis women along lines of affinity, rather than identity. It sort of changed how I wrote but that as a plan is different from that being likely to have happened like, you know, when I said I wanted affinity, I still thought it was going to be a small book, in maybe Brooklyn, and then it came to fruition like far beyond my expectations. Like, you know, the fact that I found myself in book groups, with moms and in all these different states. And I was like, wow, I didn't know anyone who would take me up on it.

Shantel Edwards 
I think that's such a nice way of thinking of it, though, and, affinity is something that I think we'll come back to but before we get into the book, I wondered if I could just ask you, for those people out there who haven't read it yet, if you might just quickly synopsize the book.

Torrey Peters
Sure. It starts with Reese who I like to say is sort of like Fleabag but trans and in Brooklyn, and the action kicks off when her ex, who is a de-transitioned trans woman named Ames and used to be Amy, gets his boss Katrina pregnant and then comes to Reese and asks Reese if she would like to kind of get together the three of them and see if they can raise a child in an unconventional family. That's actually just the premise, it’s just the first chapter and then actually, like learning what it takes to make a family outside of a typical nuclear family structure is kind of the drama, the ups and downs, it's also the comedy. Honestly, it's very funny to try and make a family and gender is kind of hilarious, in some ways. So, you know, all those things come together to tell the story.

Shantel Edwards
It is very funny. I've read it twice now and I liked even more on second reading, I'm going to throw that in there. So just taking the premise, you've got these three interconnected narratives, you've got, you know, Reese, and Katrina and Ames. But I've got to say, for me, Reese really felt like the heart of the of the novel. And I wondered if you’d ever thought, if that was always the plan to have these three narratives that intersect, or whether you thought about just perhaps following Reese?

Torrey Peters
Yeah, I mean, I tried it a couple of different ways. It's funny, like who people think are the heart of the heart of the novel, I've definitely had people also think that Ames is at the heart of the novel. Fewer people think that Katrina's at the heart of the novel which is fair, because I think there's a big technical difference in how I approached Katrina's voice. But initially, I was going to have all three be equal, that they were all going to have equal voice in the novel, that was my initial way of doing it. And then in the case of Katrina, who was a cis woman and she's half Jewish, half Chinese, Chinese American, I realized that there are other stories out there that told the story of a pregnant cis woman, and that in a lot of ways, that's not something I've ever experienced and I was really recreating other people's stories and so all the characters were free, indirect initially, like free indirect style, where you're inside their heads, and then I decided to actually really just focus on the two trans women because I thought that was a story that we hadn't heard. And I think there's any number of cis women who've told the story of their pregnancy really well, any number of Chinese Americans who've told that story really well and that I just would really go deeper into Ames and Reese and I think that one of the differences, I think that they get equal time but I think that Reese is just, she's a cattier, funnier, more direct person than Ames who's really more trying to figure out his gender, figure out what's going on with himself so he's a more subdued voice and just the vibrancy of Reese ends up you know, she's kind of a ham, she wants a spotlight and even though I tried to give them equal share in the book, you know, Reese sort of elbowed Ames out of the way whenever she could.

Shantel Edwards 
Yeah, I really liked her. She's like, messy and complicated, and sometimes awful, and sometimes charming and yeah, I thought of all the characters in the book, she was the one that felt like she had the sort of clearest desire to be a mother, the sort of clearest idea of wanting to be a parent, but also this really complicated relationship to motherhood. And I guess I wondered, especially near the beginning, I think much less so towards the end, but more so towards the beginning, I guess I found myself wondering how important motherhood was to her gender affirmation, to her sense of herself as a woman?

Torrey Peters
Well, I think that one of the arcs that she goes through is the difference between wanting a child or to be a mother and wanting like a specific child and to be in a specific relationship. And I think that early on, motherhood was important to her in a sort gendered way. It was like, this is what womanhood should look like, this is what it means to be a valid woman is to be a mother. And it was really about, in some ways, motherhood was about her, what motherhood would give to her. And I think one of the things that she goes through, and something that I thought about is the fact that oftentimes motherhood isn't about you. It's about giving to other people. And she learns in a number of ways, like not just in terms of the biological idea of motherhood that you raise a baby but you know, the fact that the trans community itself has a number of different types of motherhood, you're often kind of mothering younger trans women, showing them how to live, where to get you know, where to get what they need, how to deal with, like, the emotional travails of being a trans woman in the world. And it really is a motherly process, you deal with these young people who are – and young, I didn't mean that in terms of age like young in sort of how recently they've approached womanhood and sort of the ways that womanhood can abrade you and can hurt. And people who haven’t necessarily developed armour and coping mechanisms and so they need help, they need mother figures and trans women are often that to each other. And so, the ways in which Reese is a mother already, and whether or not those mothering skills that she already has transfer into a kind of more framework that we think about in terms of a nuclear family, you know, how much does the mothering of the trans world bleed into biological mothering. And how much, you know, vice versa was a lot of the things that Reese had to figure out. And in the end, I think, not to give spoilers, but I think a lot of mothering is not just about the concept, but about a mother and a daughter, or a mother and most of its daughters in this book, and a mother and a child figuring it out.

Shantel Edwards 
And I think you see that with Reece, definitely towards the end, that shift away from it being about her, to it being about the child, I think you can definitely see that towards the end. And she has that sort of dynamic, I guess also with Ames, which I find really interesting, you know, she's both Amy's lover, but also there's a real sort of maternal aspect to that relationship as well, right?

Torrey Peters
Yeah. And I think that a lot of us, you know, my first relationship, my first long relationship I got into when I was 19, or 20. And so I you know, pretty much left my parents’ house then moved in with this other person. And there's a way in which when we suddenly didn't have parents, we parented each other and we like taught each other how to be adults. And I think about that first relationship in my life partly is like a sort of romantic relationship, but partly, when it was over, it felt scary in the way that leaving my family felt scary, because this is the person who I learned how to be with in the world, how to take care of each other in the world. And I think that that's not just like, sort of trans relationships. I think a lot of people I know, their first relationship as an adult, they're parenting each other, they're like, okay, we'll get an apartment together, we'll give each other shelter, we'll teach each other how to cook food, you know, like these basic kind of adult things we do for each other. And so, there is a parental dynamic, I think, in a lot of, you know, by the time you're 40, maybe you like, don't really want a parent as your lover, but when you're really young, there's a kind of hidden parent, I think, in relationships.

Shantel Edwards 
I feel really conflicted about Ames, because when I first read the novel, I felt really sympathetic towards him, you know, Katrina outs him awfully at that dinner, you know, Reese's ex beats him up, I felt like he was sort of lost in this dilemma of parenthood, and that he was pretty much having a terrible time with it all. But then I read it a second time. And I did feel like there was almost something manipulative about him and the way he approaches Reese. I mean, he doesn't speak to Katrina before he approaches Reese, and then just offers her the thing that she wants the most without actually knowing if he can follow through on the thing he's offering. And I just wondered what your take on Ames was?

Torrey Peters 
Yeah, I think that's true. I mean, I think that Ames, there's a lot that is tragic about Ames. But Ames has more agency than he's willing to admit, you know, Ames has more ability to say stuff, a lot of what is going on with Ames is that Ames is unwilling to look at himself, because if he looks at himself, he might realize, well, maybe I'm a woman, and I really need to do something about that, or will realize that I've lost some things, and I need to work really hard to get them back or that I'm lying to myself. And so, there's a way in which his manipulation isn't necessarily conniving, but it's a way to protect himself from what he really knows. So like, even, let's say, the part where he gets beat up, and there are people who were like, you know, Ames is the victim of a transphobic attack on the street, and it's like, sure he is, but he threw the first punch, you know, and I think that part of that is playing with a little bit the narratives that we have about, you know, if you hear about a trans woman getting beaten up on the street, you think, oh, well, you know, she must have no agency and lots of times that's the case, you know, certainly there are a lot of attacks in which trans women are just victims. But in the case of Ames, I think that there's a way in which, you know, Ames is willing to know those stories and know these thoughts and deploy them a little bit, not necessarily to manipulate other people, but to effectively lie to himself.

Shantel Edwards 
I was thinking about the title, and I guess the sort of hot topic of de-transitioning and how that might get used in the world, but I think you describe his journey so well, because I think you say that he doesn't stop being trans, he stops doing trans, and I thought that was such an interesting way of thinking about the rationale behind his reason to detransition. And I just wondered if you could expand on that a little bit, just talk about that.

Torrey Peters
Sure. I mean, you know, I think that there's a big difference between being trans and doing trans and that, you know, and not just in terms of, in some ways detransition is an interesting way to defamiliarize just transition itself, you know, and so I think about being trans and doing trans, not just in terms of people who detransition, and maybe they detransition because it was simply too hard to live as a trans woman, which doesn't mean that they're not a trans woman, it just means that it was too hard. And that tends to be why most every person I've ever met detransitioned, not because they're wrong about their gender, or were tricked, but because it was hard. And I can say more about that. But the other piece about it is that I think a lot about the time that I spent before I transitioned, which was, you know, I think I was trans before I transitioned, but I wasn't doing trans, you know, and it's hard to describe this, like, what is transness? Is it's something innate or is it something that you do, and just sort of naming the difference between being trans and doing trans, you know, helps people think about, you know, the differences between trans people, like you can do trans in a lot of different ways. And whatever that thing that you are that, you know, is being trans can manifest or express itself in all sorts of different ways. There's not one way of being, not one way of doing trans. So, I think that, for me, Ames, his journey was a way of talking about that distinction. And then also, sort of, I wanted to talk about detransition because I want to make it casual. I mean, the title is very casual, right? Detransition, Baby. And I think that detransition has been weaponized, you know, largely by what I would call bigots. And that actually, it's not that big a deal. Like, so a lot of people say oh, you know, detransition doesn't happen. Nobody regrets it, blah, blah. And you can say that, but to me, the more interesting question is a little bit like, alright, let's take that at face value, let's take the idea that you make a decision and you regret it. I think people should be able to do that. And I think that like, lots of us make decisions all the time that have the potential for regret, that can be life changing decisions, like, you can take a job on the other side of the country, you can sell everything, move across the country, go to a job and maybe it doesn't work out, you know, maybe that job, you really wanted the job, but it didn't work out. And then you have to like, kind of return home with your tail between your legs. I don't think that should be outlawed. I think that people should be able to move across the country and take risks, and they should be able to have regrets without having those regrets shamed. And what happened when it got weaponized is that like, sort of shame attached to the idea of detransition, that if you weren't a success the first time you transition, if it wasn't easy, and you didn't just, like, go along swimmingly, that you should be ashamed, and that the community to which you joined should be like, oh, you failed, you're no longer one of us. You know, I think that it makes everything incredibly painful. It makes it painful, not just for trans people who can’t admit when things are hard, but it makes it really painful for people who have de-transitioned to feel like they're being shunned and cast out. And that really, the danger around detransition doesn't come from within the trans community, like I don't care if you detransition, go ahead detransition, whatever you want. Do what's right for you. And I have friends who de-transitioned and you know what, they're happy, it didn't ruin their life to transition and detransition. And in fact, I just did an event with this woman, Karen Quinn, who transitioned and de-transitioned and she'll tell you, it's the most boring thing about me, you know, it's not a big deal. It didn't affect your life. And to basically just, let's take the pressure off of transition and detransition, you can try things, it can work out, it can not work out, no big deal. So, if you do that, and you make it casual, and you talk about it, I mean, even things that are painful, can be casual in certain ways. I was like let's talk about it that way. Let's actually talk about it. Let's not pretend it never happens but neither let's pretend that it's like, you know, a life altering wound or something like that, you know, it's just, you make a choice in life and then you have to make more choices. And that's what life is choices that beget more choices that beget more choices.

Shantel Edwards
I think that's such a nice note that you leave Ames on in the novel because in the last paragraph, I think, you refer to three women, there’s three women sitting on a roof somewhere in Brooklyn. And, you know, Ames has that moment of sort of saying to Katrina, we can do this, but I can't promise you I'll spend the rest of my life as a man and I think there's that really nice space for him at the end of the novel. While we're on the end of the novel, I've got a couple of questions about Katrina, but it ends really ambiguously. And I wondered, why end the novel ambiguously?

Torrey Peters 
Well, I think that the journey of the novel isn't necessarily to figure out how to make a new family, I think it's to pose a question. And the thing that I was really concerned with, as I was writing it, were a lot of the ways that I had coping mechanisms and lies that I told myself, you know, like, here's how I'm going to get ahead you know, in terms of my dating life, the things that I told myself about men, which Reese, you know, Reese tells herself things about men that she has to learn sort of aren't true. Or, you know, the ways in which she sabotages herself and sabotages other people, the ways that Ames you know, is disassociated, and sort of refuses to make an honest declaration of what he wants, the ways that Katrina is looking for, like something from the outside to save her and give her meaning, you know, whether it be queerness or whether it be love or any of these things that she's dabbling in. The journey in the novel for me is to strip away all that stuff, strip away all the things that we tell ourselves, all the coping mechanisms, and then, when all that stuff is stripped away, to sit around with the people that you love and care about, and say, what are we going to do? How are we going to make a life? And I think that's a question for these characters. But I think it's a generational question as well that I'm interested in, like, trans women and cis women solving this question together, like, how are we going to find meaning that works for us, how are we going to find family structures that work for us? How are we going to have relationships that are meaningful, and that don't make us feel terrible? And I don't want to be prescriptive in that, like, you know, if I ended it, and I was like, well, the way to do it is to get a house, you know, make the first floor for this person, the second floor for this person, the kids can go up into, like, it's not a design solution, you know, and there's many possible solutions. So, I think what I was trying to do in that ending was to basically be like, I don't know how they're gonna solve that. This is for all of us to solve. I've stripped away all the things, all the veils over this question. Now as a generation, let's work together to solve that. And I hoped a little bit that I was handing it to the reader to be like, well, what would you do? 

Shantel Edwards
I mean, I had written down a question that basically handed it back to you. I had originally written down a question that was like, okay, well, is there a happy ending? Does everyone get what they want? But then I stopped and I thought, well, what would a happy ending look like for these characters? So that's the question I'm going to hand back to you if that's okay. What does that happy ending, if they were to have a happy ending, what does it look like for them.

Torrey Peters 
I had to solve it because I'm adapting it into a television show. And it's with Amazon, Amazon's making it a show. I mean, it's not greenlit, but it's in development. But when you sell the show, they want to know, well, what happens in season two? And, you know, generally, it's a comedy and so comedies have happy endings. You know, I would say the television shows answers aren't canonical for the book. But the answer is that they worked it out. They figured out how to raise a baby together. Because if I want to season two, they can't just all be like, this is too hard, you know, screw it. Let's all go home. You know, that doesn't make for a season two. You know, sometimes I thought, like, I need a real gut punch of ending, like just a real tragic gut punch. I think more and more as time goes on, I'm like, you know what, we're gonna figure it out. And maybe if the first one was asking the question, maybe the second season is offering a hypothetical as to how that question might be solved. And it does involve not everybody going home and giving up.

Shantel Edwards
Good, I was really hoping that was the answer that you were going to give because I really wanted Reese to get what she wanted at the end of the novel. Thinking about Reese and Katrina, you know, going back to the idea of affinity, I think you did such a good job within the novel of drawing parallels between their experiences. I mean, they both have experience of being fetishized by men in different ways and that experience of starting over after transitioning for Reese and divorce for Katrina. And there's a great line, I think you write that they're both almost cis white ladies and Katrina feels something's lost in that, whereas Reese feels like that passing is success. And I wondered about their dynamic, and I think there's a definite undercurrent in the novel about race, and I wondered what you thought the role of race played within the dynamic in their relationship?

Torrey Peters
Yeah, I mean, I think that you really, you described it very well, just now and that, for me that they both have a similar relationship to like the centre or to like, you know, what is centred in our society, sort of cis white womanhood, and like kind of middle class womanhood. And by having them in conversation, where they're sort of a similar distance from that centre, but in opposite kind of trajectories, that it brings into relief the various ways in which the stories that they tell themselves might be partial, or might only be from their vantage, you know. There's the ways that towards the end, Reese tries to weaponize trans identity and to say, like, well, you're just like a gentrifying cis lady. And I think if Katrina had been a white character, like a white cis character, that Reese might have been able to, like, sort of weaponize identity and bully Katrina into thinking certain things. And Katrina's position was basically like, no, you know, like, you're bullying me. And, you know, here's all the ways that your version of motherhood is in fact, a very white version of mother and the idea that like, you know, the right to not have a baby is like the ultimate right when so many women of colour, at least in the US, you know, it's not a given that women of colour get to be mothers, you know, we have the way that motherhood can be shamed for like, you know, anchor babies with immigrants, or, you know, campaigns of sterilization in the past, or like, you know, welfare queens is this idea that you're an illegitimate kind of mother. And so Reese's version of motherhood, in some ways, in the ways that she tries to get what she wants using identity, I think that Katrina is well equipped to push back against that stuff. And one thing that I'm interested in, you know, for me, as a trans woman, is when people call me out for being self-pitying. You know, like, when I'm like, well, it's so hard for me. And then to be given a little bit of perspective on the ways that both it is hard, to have it acknowledged with those words that it's hard, but that also, it's hard along only one vector, and that there's a lot of different relationships beyond just trans to cis that ultimately, then I think, fall away and what you had was you had two women who were individuals, each with a whole matrix of things, trying to be like, how do we be in relationship with each other. And that's really what oftentimes, I meet somebody, and there's a lot of things about identity and something that we're trying to figure out with each other. And then as we get to know each other, well, it's just sort of like, alright, how are we going to do this, like we've all got our ways that we can push and say, this is why we're this, this is why we're that, but you know, ultimately, we're gonna have to, if we want to be in relationship with each other, which I like to be in relationships with people, it takes a level of compromise and empathy and sometimes just not getting what I want, not having the power.

Shantel Edwards
Yeah. And I think there are some really nice moments like that between Reese and Katrina, the one that sticks with me is when they go to the store and the baby registry, and they have that disagreement about the crib. And then when she goes home and Reese looks, you know, Katrina has taken it off the list is the one that always sticks with me, where it feels like there's really space for that to work. And I guess I felt like the novel was quite hopeful about that. The end was quite hopeful about that.

Torrey Peters
And I also, you know, I think when I was writing, it's funny, I've become more hopeful about the novel than when I was writing it. When I was writing it, I think, I wasn't so sure there's a way in which - there's a quote by Alexander Chee, which I really love, which is ‘be careful what you write in fiction, it has a tendency to come true.’ And you know, after I finished this book about an unconventional family, I met a woman who is in a sort of unconventional family and I joined that unconventional family. And you know, now I have a 12-year-old stepson who's essentially being raised by like four adults. It's a totally different situation than in the book but for me, it was like I had worked out all of these different ways that I thought a family could compromise. And then I had to actually do it in life, I had to compromise in all these different ways and figure out different homes and who gets what when, and I realize it's doable, it is very doable, it's not actually that hard to compromise. Once you're actually dealing with a child, the difference between the idea of being a parent or raising a child, and the reality is, there's so much distance between sort of like the ideological, like, the platonic ideal of how to be a parent, and what it actually means to be a parent. And I think this is, you know, outside of even transness or cis-ness, I think there's a whole lot of books about motherhood now that talk about the difference between the expectations that mothers are put under. And when I face the reality, you know, it's like, oh, it's actually great to compromise. It's great to get more help. And, that all happened to me after finishing the novel. So now I look at the problems Reese, Katrina and Ames have, and I'm like, come on, you guys can solve this. It's really easy. It's gonna be better to have like, extra help, anyway, no problem. But it would have been a different novel if I’d had that perspective now.

Shantel Edwards
Yeah, a different novel. I still think it's quite a hopeful one. What felt slightly less hopeful to me was there are some truly terrible men in this book and some really, really toxic men. And I guess I wanted to ask about that, about the ways in which, I guess Reese in particular, engages with men, you know, the dynamics in her in her relationships with men, and whether that was a deliberate, I'm guessing it was a deliberate provocation.

Torrey Peters 
Yeah, I mean, part of it for me had to do especially with transness, that there's an idea that like, trans women have to have this like perfect feminist take on relationships with men. And that it's like this undue burden that trans women labour under that, like if you have a toxic relationship with men, or if you desire things that are bad for you like that you're somehow you know, not really a woman or things like that. And you know, there's a whole lot of literature by cis women in which cis women feel validated by relationships with toxic men starting with like Sylvia Plath. I mean, it was funny, I quoted Sylvia Plath, like ‘every woman adores a fascist’, and people were like, look, Torrey thinks that every woman adores a fascist, she's clearly not really a woman because no real woman would say this and I'm quoting Sylvia Plath. This is the thing and like so many women over decades have related to this poem Daddy, and you know, but the second that a trans woman quotes it it's like this is anti-feminist. And you can read even something now, one of the most popular books of the last couple of years Normal People is about you know, is a woman who desires bad treatment from men. So, the question for me was why can't trans women also want this, even problematically. Why do trans women not get to work through their sometimes negative desires or desires that are bad for them? And to me, I was like, well, I think actually we get to because that's, like, you know, that's how people are living you know, I had to learn through my relationships with men who didn't treat me very well that the difference between being validated and treated well, there's a vast gulf between those things and the ways that messages, you know, of what womanhood is that I imbibe, I imbibe the same ones that cis women imbibe and so sometimes I come to Sylvia Plath esque conclusions, and I have to work my way past them. To expect trans women to not get to do that is to consign trans women to making the same mistakes that cis women have been making for decades and decades and decades. So, for me, I wanted to say that and I didn't want to shy away from it. So, I had Reese say the things that are supposed to be unsayable about relationships with toxic men, that sometimes a relationship with a toxic man in which your gender roles are very clearly defined, often in toxic ways, can nonetheless be affirming in certain manners. And that that's something you have to work through. And I think that Reese's journey, you know, I didn’t want to add caveats to that because Reese, when she's saying that stuff, she believes that and Reese's journey is to complicate those sorts of things in the same way that I think Normal People complicates those desires or, or any number of books complicate those. Ferrante does it, you know, and I want to be talking with Sally Rooney and Elena Ferrante, amazing writers who use sort of a full palette of experiences, I wasn't going to limit myself to things that they could do, but I somehow couldn't because it would be offensive for a trans woman to talk about. 

Shantel Edwards
And also, I mean, these are some of the darkest, like very dark, but also the funniest moments of the books, I think, Reese’s interaction, or like Reese describing her interactions with men, I think are probably some of my favourite descriptions in the book. A slightly off topic question, I guess, but related to Reese, Reese refers to herself a lot in the novel as transexual rather than transgender. And I wondered why, I guess that's my question.

Torrey Peters
It's so funny, you know, this is a question that I never anticipated. Like I didn't know that people thought that transsexual was a bad word, until I published this. And it's like, you know, the New York Times called me and they're like, ‘how come you use the word transsexual?’ And the surface answer, which is a true answer, is that transsexual is just a much more fun word than transgender. It has the word sex in it. It's just a more fun word. So, if, as a writer, if you're given two words, a fun word and a non-fun word, you use the fun word. That's my writing tip of the day. But, you know, also, I think that there's a lot of political stuff where what the right word is, is always changing. I use the word transexual with my friends, all my friends use the word transsexual because we like it, it's pulpy, it's got a kind of, you know, 70s exploitation vibe to it. That's like, cool. Trans, the word transgender is not a cool word. The word transgender is a clinical word. It's a word that was taken up by the CDC, during the HIV crisis to name a category of people who were testing positive for HIV. It's a word that corporations use, it's a word that you know, sort of sanitized and an umbrella term, and that's all fine. There's a purpose for the word transgender. Is that the word that I use with my friends? No. If I told my friends like, I Torrey Peters, am a transgender woman, they'd like look around and be like, who are you talking to? Who are you addressing? And so part of my technique with this book was to talk to all sorts of readers the way that I talked to my friends, you know, not sanitize the experience, not sanitize the words that I use. And amongst my friends, I'm going to choose the most fun word. And, you know, to my readers here, you get the most fun word too. 

Shantel Edwards
I love that, I mean, that's just a great life philosophy, I think, use the more fun word. I guess, and I'll make this my final question, I guess, thinking about labels and how we label things, I, you know, read quite a few reviews and interviews that you've done for the novel and noticed that it gets categorized a lot as, you know, the big transgender novel or, you know, the sort of big stalwart of trans literature, and I wondered how you felt about labels like that, whether they're useful, whether we should just scrap them. What are your thoughts on having written the big transgender novel?

Torrey Peters
I mean, it's funny because before my book, I was gunning for what I thought was the big transgender novel, you know, like there's always gonna be the next one that knocks whoever people are talking about now off the pedestal. Like when I was writing, the book that I thought was like the big book, you know, that I was competing with in my mind was Imogen Binnie’s Nevada. That was the book that like, to me set the terms of trans literature and that I was in conversation with Nevada. And sure my book did well, but I'm sure that someday there's gonna be a trans woman who publishes like Stephen King numbers and people are going to be like Detransition, What? Detransition, Who? So a lot of its perspective. You know, if you've never heard of any trans books, sure, Detransition, Baby is the biggest book but you know, I came out of a scene where there were other trans women writers who to me were sort of like household gods. They were the people you imagine that one day this writer will hear me speaking to them about the things that they cared about, you know, it was sort of unimaginable that, you know, Kate Bornstein or Imogen Binnie or that Casey Platt or you know, Janet Mock, any of these people would hear my voice. And so, you know, if I become a sort of household God to other people, that's great. But the thing about household gods is that they're, in some ways very personal and very replaceable. So, the last thing I'll say about that is that I didn't come here to be alone. I didn't come here to be on a pedestal, you know, I came here with my friends in some ways. And I'm excited, because it's a burden, also, to be the only one, you don't want to be the only one in places, then you have to represent all these other people, you have to speak for them, like I don't want to speak for my friends, I want my friends to speak for themselves. And I'm a better artist when I don't have that burden of talking on behalf of other people. I say oftentimes, if I'm making a joke on behalf of all trans women, it's often a bad joke. If it's so universal and so broad that I have to represent all trans women in that joke, there's going to be people who are like well, that's not my situation. How dare you. Whereas if I can make a joke that's really tight, really specific, it's a good joke, and it ends up, the specific oftentimes opens up into the universal. So, I often say like, I want a cacophony of voices up here, so that whatever I'm muttering under my breath in that cacophony, I can say whatever I want.

Shantel Edwards
Amen to that. Okay, so we know the TV shows come up, but what's next writing wise, have you got something else on the go?

Torrey Peters
I've got two projects. One is going to be announced next week. So, by the time this comes out, it'll be announced. I had written these novellas before I published Detransition, Baby, and they were a really, really small circulation. So, they are getting republished, the two novellas are getting republished by Random House and Serpent’s Tail, revised and republished or reissued, I guess, is the publishing term. And then there's two brand new novellas. So, it's going to be like a quartet of novellas published in a single volume, that sort of explore, it's across four different genres, spec-fic, horror, teen romance, and historical fiction, there’s one in each genre, and they're all exploring sort of the far edges of the trans experience. And so that's a collection that's gonna be out in probably a year or two, probably two years, I think. But it's Serpent's Tail in the UK. And then I'm writing what I'm calling a queer financial thriller, that's like the next novel, which queer financial thriller, those aren't words that often go together. But I'm interested in what, as trans women ascend, and trans women start having access to power, how are we going to behave? Are we just going to betray each other? Are we going to just, you know, become all out capitalists? Is there still going to be a sense of community and affinity? So, I'm writing and sort of using like, Breaking Bad, mix of Hustlers and a little Great Gatsby to talk about that question.

Shantel Edwards
I'm sold. Thank you. Thank you so much for being here today and for talking to me. It's been an absolute pleasure to have you.

Torrey Peters 
I agree. This is really great. Thank you for inviting me. And I'm sad I don't get to actually go to the Birmingham Festival, but maybe one day.

Shantel Edwards
Let's hope next year. Thank you so much. 

Outro

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What is Birmingham Lit Fest Presents….?

The Birmingham Literature Festival Podcast - Welcome to the very first Birmingham Literature Festival podcast, bringing writers and readers together to discuss some of 2020’s best books. Each Thursday we’ll be releasing new episodes of the podcast, including wonderful discussions about writing, poetry, big ideas and social issues. Join us each week for exciting and inspiring conversations with new, and familiar, writers from the Midlands and beyond.