A Conversation With Imogen Binnie

Imogen Binnie's debut novel, Nevada, is a smart, poignant, funny story about a young lady who is very good at getting herself into trouble and not quite so good at getting herself out of it. I loved the hell out of it when I stumbled across it earlier this year. Imogen Binnie--who is herself, unsurprisingly, very smart and funny--was nice enough to answer a few questions about the book, writing groundbreaking fiction, and whether or not there's hope for fuckups.

So it is a really common thing for female fiction writers to be asked if their work is autobiographical, as I am sure you've noticed, and I would imagine this gets even more complicated when you've written a book like Nevada. How do you feel about the autobiography question? Are you sick of it? Do you think it can be productive?

I'm actually not that sick of the autobiography question! I think it's definitely a complicated one, though. Like, the kind of books about trans people that have tended to be published--especially about trans women--have tended to be memoir. And I think the dynamic at play is that trans memoir is supposed to explain The Trans Experience for cis people: "this is what it's like." But what it often does is to frame the assumed cis people audience as "us" and the trans person explaining transsexuality as "them" in a way that maintains the cultural othering of trans people; so while trans memoir is intended to make trans people understandable to cis people, it doesn't really make us... equal? Or something? I dunno like I only ever felt like Jennifer Finney Boylan's writing was relevant to my life before I transitioned.

And so one of the questions I was trying to answer with Nevada was, what would a story about trans women that was intended for an audience of trans women--what would that look like? It wouldn't just be like, "this is what it's like to transition." There would have to be some kind of, like, plot? Which I'll admit, right, I wasn't reading Robert McKee and putting together a five-act plot arc with a denouement while I was writing Nevada; I was trying to do something a little more blunt and mean with the plot. Which hasn't worked for everyone who's read it!

As an aside, I just read a collection of Joanna Russ's essays about women's writing and science fiction and all the things Joanna Russ writes about and she has an essay called "What Can A Heroine Do" where she writes about the question of whether the western patriarchal plot can actually serve a female character in the same way that it does a male character. She turns it over in a few other essays, too, but what she concludes is that the three-act sort of classic narrative arc doesn't, actually, work for telling women's stories. I wish I could remember the specifics better but the end of the story is that she talks about sort of elliptical plots which don't resolve in an Ending as a possibility in women's writing and I was like, whoa, I think that is a thing I sensed without putting into words and did in Nevada?

Or else I heard Joanna Russ's ideas, internalized them and then forgot I'd heard them.

Alternately I was just trying to be Kathy Acker.

Whichever is the case, part of the project for the next novel I'm writing (codename: "Keep The Piss Christ In Piss Christmas") is to write a normal goddam plot. I *am* reading Robert McKee this time.

Anyway, to get back to your question, the thing that *is* frustrating for me is when people assume that I called Nevada a novel but actually it's just memoir or slightly fictionalized memoir. I grew up reading Stephen King and I always assume the parts of Stephen King characters that are dudes who listen to classic rock and like to talk in folksy aphorisms are more or less fictionalized memoir, but the parts about monsters and stuff are not. Nevada's like that; I've worked in bookstores and eaten bagels. Sure! And I've been a hopeless and depressed barely-post-teenager in a relationship that didn't have a future. But... never in Nevada? Y'know. The stuff I wrote about in my novel was not entirely removed from my life. But neither was the shit Hemingway wrote about removed entirely from his life, either. So I am like Ernest Hemingway in that way.

Maria is very good at theorizing her experience but not so great at actually making Healthy Choices In Her Life, and a lot of that is specific to her being a working-class queer punk trans woman in a world that is not a particularly hospitable or welcoming place for any one of those things, let alone all of them--but I also feel like that more general experience of being able to articulate and theorize why exactly you're fucking up even as you're continuing to fuck up is a really, really relatable one. For me, anyway. That's not a question, I always do this when I interview people. But I guess I'm interested in that process of learning to love yourself, and take better care of yourself, as an act of survival and of resistance--do you think Maria will get there? (Will any of us? SAY YES)

Yes! I would love to see Maria learn from it and figure out that, like, she wasn't able to help this kid. Being a mentor didn't solve her problems, right? So what will? She's looking for an answer and while she's not great at it, she sure hasn't given up. So she'll try something else, and try something else, and then try something else, and then eventually if she gets old she'll look back and realized that she learned some stuff from every thing she tried and has actually grown a lot, just not in the sort of fireball explosion of solutions that all of us wish we could stumble into. If that makes sense?

So I guess in other words yeah she'll get there, as much as any of us get there. And I think a lot of us get there.

And to respond to another thing in your question (which *was* a question!), I don't think Maria's problem is only that she lives in a world that's not hospitable or welcoming. I think a big part of her problem is that she's got the theory but she doesn't have the practice? James and Maria both talk about being really involved in the internet without being involved with other people that much. Maria even talks about not liking other trans women. But how fucking good would it be for Maria and Piranha to start... I don't know, an angry punk trans women-only foosball league or something? An important thing she's gonna need to learn if she's gonna Get There is to exist in the real world. How do we learn that? I mean... I don't know how to learn that, exactly, but busting through her apprehension and approaching a kid in a Wal-Mart who she thinks might be trans, that is a serious and legitimate step toward existing in the word. Which I think is a good reason for Nevada to be a story about this specific period of her life.

Nevada is a groundbreaking book--in addition to its being an awesome, fantastic novel, there is not exactly a broad canon of punk trans lady literature. Did you feel that pressure while you were working on it? Or was it freeing?

Y'know... sure. Yes. It wasn't that strong but sometimes I'd get stressed about it. But the thing about writing a first novel is that who even knows if it'll get published? I did set out with the explicit project of writing a novel that was true to the experience of a certain demographic of trans women, and I did set out with the project of getting it published somehow. But I mean. I dunno. I've got all the same conflicting punk rock ethics that Maria does, so it felt important to tell the truth about this stuff in the best way that I could. Not in a "this is gonna change the world" way necessarily, but at the very least in a "this might help" way. And I couldn't imagine another "this is what it's like to start hormones, this is what it's like to come out at work" story really helping. So it was freeing and there was some pressure.

I guess also there was a component of feeling so frustrated and jaded and sick of reading trans stuff--even when I started writing Nevada, in 2008--that just didn't feel like it was for me. Right? Having a specific audience in mind--trans women--was probably the main thing that kept me on track with this stuff. And I feel really lucky that it resonated so much with people who aren't trans women too; I mean, I think everybody who blurbed it is either a cis woman or a female-assigned genderqueer person. (I'm not certain about everybody's identities!) So... I dunno. One piece of wisdom that I guess I know is that if you try to make a thing for everyone you're gonna make a thing nobody's gonna like (unless the groaning, planet-destroying machinery of capitalism coerces them into it, but I don't have the keys to those machines) so I at least had a lot of faith that I could do a good job making a thing for trans women.

Maria's story is in part a hilarious subversion of the Great Dude Road Novel--are there any classic road novels you particularly love, or loathe, or were thinking about when you were writing?

Haha, no actually. I didn't conceive of it as a road novel at all! I mean, in retrospect, that is a trope that seems to have been subverted, but I don't think I've ever even paid attention to that genre enough to be able to play with it. I'm like... I think I read On The Road in high school? And one time I got this book Chick Flick Road Kill that looked pretty good, but I haven't read it yet.

But structurally, I was like, this is a novel about trans women where the transition happens off stage. It's a novel with a sock full of drugs at the center of it, which--spoiler, seriously, spoiler--nobody actually takes, at least not on stage. And it's a novel about a road trip where all the traveling takes place offstage? The idea that it was a novel about trans women where nobody transitions over the course of it was, like, where I started with it. Then I was like, okay, so I'll have someone who hasn't transitioned yet, and somebody who transitioned a while ago. And then from there that theme just sort of stuck around and popped up in other ways too. So... Uh, I don't know anything about road novels. Haha.

What are you working on next?

The elevator pitch is that it's a novel about ghosts, the apocalypse and tumblr! More trans women. I don't want to say too much, because who knows what'll happen over the course of writing and editing. But those things will probably be in it.

What are some great books you've read lately?

NOS4A2 by Joe Hill was SUCH a good horror novel! And there was only, like, one sentence that I was like "aw c'mon dude really you just HAD to put that in there?" I love horror stuff but I feel like I can never recommend it because so often it's got so much misogyny or straight white cis dude bullshit or whatever. Cross out that one sentence though--you'll know it when you get to it--and NOS4A2 was maybe the best book I've read this year. I've also been reading Gillian Flynn, who writes these brutal novels about women and violence and memory and stuff. There might be too much triggery stuff for me to be like "I recommend this," but she definitely knows how to get a story off the ground. What are some great books YOU have read lately? [THE GOLDFINCH, also The Bridge of Beyond, also actually I am working on a post about this, so more at length shortly. --ed]