Hi, Jennie! Your novel was touching to read.
JW: Thank you so much!
What was it that made you want to tell Peyton’s story?
JW: When I began working on A Boy Like Me, I was taking a break from writing Flutter, which is a graphic novel series about a girl who shape-shifts into a boy to get the girl. Minus the sci-fi shape-shifting element, Flutter is a story very close to my own. Growing up in a small, conservative town, I spent a lot of time imagining what my life would be like as a boy. I’d watch my guy friends and male cousins take girls on dates to the movie theater. A girl taking a girl to the movies just didn’t happen in my town and I wasn’t even out yet, not even to myself. At that point, my mind just didn’t allow itself to go there so I just imagined my life as a boy and that became the basis for Flutter.
While taking a break from Flutter, I wanted to spend some time with a story that was different from my own experience. Instead of a girl imagining life as a boy, I wanted to write from the point of view of a guy who had been assigned the wrong gender at birth. I wanted to spend some time with a guy who saw the world in very black and white terms because that’s the view, the world he’s raised in, but his own personal situation forces him beyond that mindset.
What sort of research went into writing the book?
JW: The subject matter is something that’s extremely important to me so I did a ton of research before I began the first draft. I spent a lot of time reading nonfiction, especially first hand accounts, interviews, and anthologies. One major source was Aaron Devor’s FTM: Female-to-Male Transsexuals in Society, which I reference directly in the novel. I also talked to transgender individuals directly. What I realized pretty quickly was that while some situations, feelings, and experiences were similar, everyone had their own individual way of accepting, embracing, and becoming who they were. It was very important to me to not write an issue book, to not write a character attempting to represent one definitive experience.
While writing the novel, I focused on giving Peyton his own individual experience. His behavior and his inability to express himself reflected the world he was raised in. His confusion comes from a lack of language and communication skills.
When working on final revisions, I asked Tate Fox to be the novel’s content consultant. Tate was just a little older than Peyton is in the novel and had some similar experiences. Tate gave me feedback on language, situations, reactions, and dialogue for the entire book.
What was it that made you write for a YA audience?
JW: A Boy Like Me being a YA novel was a happy accident. I didn’t set out to write it as YA. The first draft spanned 30 years of Peyton’s life. But the more drafts I did, I realized the most important part of Peyton’s story was around the moment when he embraces who he is and the events leading up to that moment.
For example, whatever medical interventions he decides to do - or not do - later on is less important. Because Peyton’s a teenager when he begins to realize and accept who he is, that makes it a YA novel. I’m happy that A Boy Like Me turned out to be YA. Some of my all-time favorite books are. The journey I had writing this book is an example of what happens when writers get out of the way and let the story go where it wants to go.
Did you relate to any of your characters at all?
JW: Great question! Both Peyton and Tara find solace and a way to communicate through music, which I can relate to a lot. Writing songs, playing guitar, and music in general definitely helped me get through high school and beyond. Being in bands and working in recording studios – there have been times when a recording studio has been a refuge for me.
I didn’t think about that at the time I was writing the recording studio scenes with Peyton and Tara. But afterwards, looking back, I realized they were able to express themselves there because they felt safe, which was a feeling I’ve always had in a recording studio.
Also, the way Peyton sees the world - things are all black or all white, things are either masculine or feminine, for girls or for boys - that way of looking at things is something I grew up with, too. It took me a while to see beyond it and embrace all the wonderful grey areas in life, the areas that Tara so clearly sees at a young age. Tara sees those grey areas because she’s had more exposure and experiences than Peyton.
Did you learn anything new about yourself throughout the writing
JW: Another great question! I learned that I could write a novel. I learned that I am capable of patience and perseverance. I learned that I could be patience not only with the process of writing a novel and with myself during that process, but also with the people I worked with, especially the two amazing editors of A Boy Like Me, Kelly Ford and Mike Perkins.
Whenever I thought to myself – I can’t look at this book one more time, I can’t do one more revision, I can’t revise one more scene – I did. At one point, in final revisions, Kelly suggested I add some new scenes with Peyton and his mother. I wanted to scream “No! No more!”
Because with new scenes comes more revisions, more edits, more back and forth. But I added those scenes and the book is better for it. I may have wanted to scream no, but I never said no to more work, to more revision on this book.
What do you hope readers will take away from this story?
JW: Peyton’s story is bittersweet. It’s not all rosy. Not everyone accepts him. Not everyone gets it. And that felt true to me. But I hope that readers come away from Peyton’s story with the feeling that the struggle, hard work, and courage it takes to truly know each other and ourselves is worth it. That there is some happiness on the other side of that intense struggle to know and embrace who we are.
There will be a lot of young people who can relate to Peyton’s story; do you have any advice for readers going through similar situations?
JW: Advice is tricky because while some aspects of a situation can be similar, other aspects can be different. In most cases, what a person needs in these situations is not someone to give advice, but someone who will listen.
In the book, Peyton has Uncle RB and Tara and later on Dr. Wainwright (his therapist). Peyton’s struggle is that he has a hard time talking to them, but for many, the struggle is finding someone who will just listen, especially in these noisy, busy, distracting times. Many of us don’t always have an Uncle RB or therapist or significant other. And even when we do have someone, that person isn’t always available. So the best advice I can offer is in those moments when there’s no one to listen and you feel terribly alone, do what you need to do to endure the moment. Write in a journal or bang on some drums or guitar, reach for a favorite book or CD, whatever thing gets you through that moment.
There are moments – still – where I can’t dig myself out of a hole on my own so I reach for the music of Florence + The Machine or Amy Winehouse. And that music is enough to get me through a bad afternoon or night until I can talk to someone about whatever the problem is. If you can find a way, an outlet to get you through those moments of extreme loneliness, you’ll be okay because beyond that moment, just around the corner, it does get better, you will find someone to listen.
Finally, any tips for aspiring writers who have a story to tell?
JW: While writing, let the story speak to you by getting out of the way of it. It might take a draft or two or six (ha) before you realize oh, this is a novel, or a YA novel, or a graphic novel or a short story. Let your stories and writing go where it wants to go.
Don’t worry about where or when it’s going to be published, especially while writing it. There are so many options out there – traditional, indie, self-publishing, crowdfunding. When the work is ready for an audience, the right path to that audience will become clear. When it’s ready, your work will find its home.
A huge thank you to Jennie for her wonderful and insightful answers! You can read my review of A Boy Like Me here.