Author Interview: Cris Beam

A few months ago, I had the pleasure of reading an advance copy of Cris Beam’s debut novel, I Am J, which came out this month out from Little, Brown. I was thrilled to give the book a blurb, since I truly thought the book was something special. I am not alone in that thought. The book has received rave reviews. In a starred review in Booklist, a reviewer nicely sums up what makes I Am J so great: “Beam has written easily the best book to date about the complicated condition of being a transsexual teen, not only sharing important information that is artfully woven into the plot but also creating, in J, a multilayered, absolutely believable character whose pain readers will share. Perhaps most importantly, the author brings clarity and charity to a state of being that has too long been misunderstood, ignored, and deplored.”

Cris Beam was kind enough to respond to some questions I sent her. I hope you enjoy the following interview. And, please, go pick up a copy of I Am J very soon! You can find more information about Cris and her book here.

Your first book, Transparent, was a nonfiction book for adults about transgender teenagers. Is it safe to say that I AM J grew out of this book?

Yes, in a way. When I was first working on Transparent, I interviewed a lot of transboys, thinking that they would be a part of the book too. But as Transparent took shape, I realized I wanted to go deep rather than broad, and focus on a core group of friends over a prolonged period of time. My main subjects happened to be all girls. The boys, and their stories, stayed in my mind though, and I wanted to return to them. I also wanted to write a book for teenagers, rather than just about them.

This may overlap with the prior question, but did you have to do any research before you wrote I AM J?

I guess I’m always doing informal research into current transgender politics and literature and ideas because the two people in my immediate family—my partner and my foster daughter—are trans. That’s the wonderful part of my life and work. The ugly part is more experiential in that, through them, I see the ways transphobia operates at so many levels in our culture, and I often feel pretty impotent. All of the scenework in I Am J is fiction, but culled from actual experience with friends and family, so I wouldn’t call that research per se. I worked for two and a half years at a school in LA for GLBT teenagers, and taught a class for a few semesters at a similar school here in New York, so I’ve spent a lot of time with kids who are queer and struggling with their families of origin. And then, at multiple stages in the manuscript’s progression, I asked both trans- and cisgender guys to read it for accuracy and resonance, so I suppose that’s a form of research too.

A lot of people don’t understand people who are “transgender.” As a gay man, I liked to think I was sympathetic to the problems that transsexuals face, and that I understood more about transgender people than the average heterosexual person. But I admit I didn’t really always “get it,” as they say. Many things baffled me—it was just so foreign. But after I read I AM J, I felt like I had just been given an invaluable glimpse into a world that I had previously never truly understood. Was it your intention in writing I AM J to clear up many misconceptions? What are the biggest misconceptions people have about people who are transgender? Did you yourself learn something while writing the book?

Wow, that’s a lot of questions in one! I didn’t write the book to clear anything up, really. I wrote it because J was a character knocking around in my head looking for a way out. If the book is clarifying, I’m glad, but that’s also a risky idea for me—because J is just one person, and he doesn’t speak to or for a generalized transgender experience. As for misconceptions, different people have different ones—depending on who they are, how they were raised, where they live, whether they’re gay or straight or trans or cisgender and on and on. I guess one misconception—and one that I struggled with writing the book—is the idea that trans or gender variant people experience themselves as one gender: an opposite gender to the one assigned to them at birth. I thought a lot about this when I was writing J, because my partner, for instance, often feels like neither gender or like both. So I considered writing J as a boy who identified as a third gender. But he just wouldn’t stay that way on the page. That’s what I learned while writing the book—that my characters surprised me. I went into it thinking I had control (and I know a lot of authors say this) but the writing worked better when I let the scenes lead themselves.

Cris Beam

J is a painfully complex character, and though he might represent all transgender teenagers, he is also a fully formed individual. How did you tackle this particular challenge?

Yeah, that tricky representation idea again! For me, J doesn’t represent all transgender teenagers. At least I hope he doesn’t, or that readers don’t think of him that way. I think that in smaller genres, like trans lit, there’s a tremendous pressure to be representative, to be a lot of things to a lot of people. I was acutely aware of this because it’s a responsibility as well as a pressure; I had the privilege of being a writer with a major publishing house backing a teen transgender story, so I wanted to get some things right. And yet, I wanted to give J room to be a kid—an individual, imperfect, courageous, terrified, talented, regular kid. He’s just one voice among many—and, while there’s some wonderful transgender writing out there already, there’s so much more room on the shelves!

I AM J is an important novel, one that a lot of people can benefit from reading. But it’s not just a novel that deals with an important topic—it’s a wonderfully written, complex, moving story. Can you talk about your writing background? Did you always want to write novels?

Thanks for the compliment! I’ve always written, but my background is really in nonfiction. bell hooks said once that all writing is creative writing, and essentially I agree with her—it takes creativity and courage to face that crazy empty page from any direction. But I was surprised to discover how similar the writing processes really are: in both, you’re looking for great characters and plot and dialogue, and while you might know where you want to get by the end of a chapter or a book, you don’t always know how you’re going to get there. The people, the characters, are at the heart of it all.

Have you heard from any transgender teenagers since the book has appeared? Have you heard from any parents of transgender kids?

Yes, I’ve heard from both. The wonderful (and often terrifying) truth about the internet is that you get feedback in real time. And the feedback has been really positive. I love hearing from teenagers especially.

What are you working on now? Are there any more YA novels in your future?

I’ve been working on a nonfiction book about the state of foster care in New York City, and how it connects to child welfare overall. I’m really excited about this book, because I’ve followed several families over several years to track the cracks in the system through really personal and powerful stories. But yes, I’d like to return to YA. If I have a pattern, I’ll probably write a YA book about foster kids sometime soon!

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