Jennifer Finney Boylan is a prolific author of several books, including the literary mystery Long Black Veil. She works at Columbia University and is a constant advocate for trans-rights, as well as many other causes she holds close to her heart. Last year, with the publication of Long Black Veil, Ms. Boylan was interviewed by Matthew’s Canon.
Matthew Turbeville: Hello, Jennifer! I am so excited to interview you on behalf of Mathew’s Canon. I’ve talked to so many people about your thriller, Long Black Veil, and everyone seems to be as obsessed as I am. Can you tell me where the idea for this story came from?
Jennifer Finney Boylan: Several years ago, I visited Eastern State Peniteniary, the ruined prison in Philadelphia. There it sits, not far from downtown—the oldest prison in the country, originally designed by Benjamin Franklin. It stayed open until 1971. It’s a truly creepy place, and of course I immediately thought, well this would be one great place to set a mystery.
I made that trip with an old friend from high school. And so I also thought, as we walked through the remains of Eastern State—about how people change over time. And the prisons that we build for ourselves. And the lengths to which people will go to find their freedom.
MT: I find it so hard to write about queer men—I’m gay myself, and I often find that when I write from a perspective including my own, especially a people that’s historically been marginalized, I can’t seem to separate myself from my characters. I want to defend myself. How difficult was it for you to write from a perspective similar to your own? Did you have a method of distancing yourself from the novel?
JFB: I don’t try to distance myself, not really. I’m sure there are echoes of my own experience in the six or seven core characters in Long Black Veil. There’s a trans character whom I’m sure people will recognize certain parts of myself. I don’t worry about characters seeming too much like me—probably because what I hope that closeness brings is a sense of realism and urgency.
MT: I am so happy to be promoting and sharing your book with our fans at Matthew’s Canon. When you first came out as being trans, did you ever think, “There’s going to be a day where I can write about people like me, with real experiences and real problems, and people are going to love it?” I know that, what with the “It Gets Better” campaign and so on, young people often feel lost and without hope. It’s amazing what you’ve accomplished.
JFB: People react to transness in different ways, depending on where they live, and what they know. Some people find any discussion of trans identity curious and strange, like all of us just landed here from Venus. Others—especially younger people—kind of roll their eyes, like they can’t believe we have to go through Trans 101 all over again. The trick, I guess, is to bring the first group of readers along, without boring the second.
Yeah, I always hoped that I could write about trans identity in a way that treated our experience as quotidian and normal. I’m not sure that’s exactly what I do in Long Black Veil, but it’s getting closer.
MT: Speaking of young people and hope, what message do you send to young trans youth? There was one part of your novel, Long Black Veil, that refers to—and sorry if I botch your wording—telling the truth about who you really are from the beginning. Do you think this is a piece of advice you’d give trans children across the nation?
JFB: Well, it’s a thing I yearn for. I don’t know that we’re there yet. Of course I encourage everyone to live their truth, and to be brave. But there are dark pockets in this country, and around the world, and I know that for many people, coming out still means risking everything—losing family, losing jobs, being exposed to violence and homelessness. So while I want all that to change, in the meantime I encourage people to manage their transitions, to come out with a strategy for their lives and their future.
MT: What is your writing process like, and how long does it take you to put out or write out one of your novels? You seem to be quite prolific.
JFB: I have been doing this for a long time now, since I got out of Wesleyan in 1980. It takes about 5 years to write a book, and to re-write it, and to re-write it again, and to go through the whole production process of publication. Is that prolific? I’m pretty much working all the time. There are a lot of stories I want to tell.
MT: I made the mistake of reading the comments on your book—most of which are extremely positive, but there seems to be a lot of heterosexual cis white men spewing whatever they want. One comment asked why you continue to write about trans women—and yet there seems to be no one commenting on why the late John Updike wrote primarily about heterosexual cis white men. What do you think of this reviewer’s comments?
JFB: I try not to read reviews, except the good ones.
MT: Are there any queer writers you especially love? What about women writers of crime fiction? I saw that you’ve received great reviews comparing your work to the crime/literary greats like Megan Abbott.
JFB: I think my favorite trans writer is Joy Ladin, who writes about gender identity within the context of faith. And yes: Megan Abbott is spectacular.
MT: Why did you choose the Philadelphia Eastern State Penitentiary as a major setting for this novel? Was there any significance behind the setting that the reader cannot gather from reading the book alone?
JFB: (see above)
MT: What made you decide to make this a work of “crime fiction”? I ask this because it seems like every book about queer people must be a work of crime fiction, given the fact that we as a whole are not treated like human being, and the murders of trans people (especially those of color) are unfortunately high in this day and age.
JFB: I admit that I struggle with this a little bit. Because yeah, stories of trans people are often stories of crime, and I chafe against the cliché of us always being on the receiving end of violence. At the same time, that’s often the reality of our lives.
MT: What books inspired Long Black Veil? What about music, movies, television shows, or real people?
JFB: I’m not sure there was a direct influence—although I can tell you that my two favorite writers are Jennifer Egan, of A Visit From the Goon Squad, and George Saunders, of Lincoln in the Bardo. I love their inventiveness and their weird optimism, even within this terrible world.
MT: Long Black Veil has been both a critical and, in some ways, commercial success. Do you think there’s more of a market for books featuring queer characters? And how do you think this book can help people—anyone, really—in this strongly negative and sometimes extremely dangerous political climate?
JFB: Well, each of the characters in Long Black Veil is searching for something—many of them have arrived in middle age never quite having become themselves. By the end, some of them find what they’re looking for, and some do not. I am hoping that readers will find in these characters models for different kinds of lives to live—and the ones who find their joy are generally the ones who take the risk to live their lives with authenticity and love—even though those risks often come at great cost. This is true for everybody, but it’s especially true for queer readers now. What can any of us do except try to live our lives with courage and love, in the face of the darkness we now all face? If you want to refute the forces of evil, what else can you do but refute them with the truth of your life, by getting up every day and walking through the world with your head held high? They hate it when you’re not afraid. It drives them nuts.
MT: What was your favorite thing about writing this book? What was your least favorite thing? What is your writing process like, beginning to end? Are you a morning person or night writer for example? How many drafts did Long Black Veil go through on its way to becoming the book it is now?
JFB: I write in the morning, when the residue of the dream world is still clinging to me. And as the coffee kicks in. I try to write every day when I have a project going on—from about 9:30 AM to noon is “magic hour.” I think LBV went through a dozen drafts or so. It started to cohere around the fourth or fifth draft. But the detective trying to solve the case didn’t join the book until late—although he’s not much of a detective. In the end, the reader’s found the solution long before he does. What the detective finds out is not the solution to the crime, but a solution to his own life.
My favorite moment in the book is toward the end, when the cast has re-assembled at Eastern State during a time when they’re having a costume party event there, and people can’t tell the people who are only pretending to be in danger from the ones who actually are. There’s also a scene with a fake electric chair I’m rather fond of.
MT: What advice would you begin with in helping beginning writers? Is there anything you’d encourage them to do, or something you advise against?
JFB: Work all the time, and lower your standards. The first draft is supposed to suck. The trick is not learning how to write—if you just keep typing, you always come up with something. The trick is learning how to re-write. How do you read your work critically? How do you keep what you like in the subsequent drafts while fixing the problems? I think you need to write all the time, preferably at the same time every day, with no exceptions. Set a quota for yourself—whether that’s 1000 words a day or three hours at the desk, or whatever works for you. But always work. Just because you don’t strike oil one day doesn’t mean you’re not a good writer. That just means it wasn’t your day. Next day, get back to work. Refuse to die.
MT: What book is up for you next? What book is your dream book to write? Will you continue with crime fiction, or move on to something else?
JFB: I have a couple things in the works right now, one of which is kind of a memoir of masculinity. I want to write about the disappeared country of manhood the way you’d write about a place where you were born and then left, in hopes of a better life. I’ve been living here in Girl-land for twenty years now, about a third of my life, but who I am was still shaped by my years in Boyland. I’m like an emigrant of gender. I have my green card as a woman, and I love the land in which I now live as a naturalized citizen. But I will always speak with something of an accent, and now and again, I will remember the green hills of the place where I began. I’m so glad I’m not there any more—in Ireland, they call those years of deprivation The Great Hunger—which is how I think of my days pre-transition. And yet, I did live there. I would like to write about this, probably in memoir form.
MT: Thank you so much, Ms. Boylan, for agreeing to be interviewed by me. Your work is astounding, and I believe it will continue to make great changes for the people who need it, just like your previous work has done. You are a phenomenal writer, and I believe it would be utterly heartbreaking for anyone to miss reading your work. I am looking forward to reading whatever you write next, and am so thankful to get to know you.
JFB: You’re very kind, and I thank you. Get yer Veil on!