The Rumpus Book Club chats with T Cooper about Real Man Adventures, meditations on masculinity, vintage-style book design, and why writing is really fucking hard.
This is an edited transcript of the book club discussion. Every month The Rumpus Book Club hosts a discussion online with the book club members and the author and we post an edited version online as an interview. To learn how you can become a member of The Rumpus Book Club click here.
This Rumpus Book Club interview was edited by Rebecca Rubenstein.
Brian S: Well, the hour is here. Who has a question for T?
Janeen: I loved this book. I think I especially loved the parts about your relationship with your family.
Kristy: How did you decide on the unique structure/format of the book? I loved that it wasn’t a traditional chronological memoir.
T Cooper: As for the structure, well, I just sort of wrote it how it occurred to me, how it came to me. Never occurred to me to write it with a conventional structure—or to impose anything like that on it. It’s more of a scrapbook, a meditation, so while a narrative emerges and I definitely thought about it in terms of movement, I didn’t really think about a start at A, end at B type of story.
David B.: I have an MTF friend. Your book really helped me understand her more via your experience—thanks for that insight.
T Cooper: David, good to hear.
Lisa R: I really appreciated how you handled the sex chapter, and how you refused to give in to the sort of “titillated observer” kind of reader.
Brian S: Seconded Lisa’s comment.
T Cooper: Yeah, I don’t think that I should be held to any different standard than “normal” people—that is, a white straight dude writing a memoir isn’t expected to tell us what’s in his pants, how he has sex, etc. So why should I—or a little person, or a person of color, and so on? (Though I know it’s on people’s minds, so I felt like I needed to make a nod to that.)
Lisa R: Yeah, it is not dissimilar to why being gay is always about (or used to be before it was more mainstream), “How do you have sex?” Such bad manners!
Lisa K: Lisa K here, wine in hand. I’m interested in your experience parenting your kids: how, as they mature, they understand your experience. How they relate to you. Maybe a universal question for us parents.
T Cooper: It’s not something that we discuss in the household all the time—really much at all. I mean, if stuff comes up, we’ll discuss with the kids, but day to day everything is quite normal, and as they get older and more capable of understanding things on deeper levels, I/we [Cooper and his wife] will share with them what it makes sense for them to know…
Melissa: That chapter about it not being anyone’s business what your history is—the violence chapter—just opened my eyes about so much stuff. It’s so important and I just just wish everyone—EVERYONE—would read that. You said it so well. Also, your wife is a rock star.
T Cooper: Melissa, I agree about my wife. I think that at least once a day.
Kristy: The violence chapter was just terrible to read. I’m so glad you shared that with us, but it is so upsetting that you, or anyone, has to feel that way in his own community.
David B.: I was surprised by that fear, but it’s a sad reality.
T Cooper: People of difference are always held to different standards. Like, You’re in this club, so you better spill everything and tell us why. Not to sound chippy—I mean, I’m not—but that’s the reality. I unfortunately saw some comments of a bad review (on a blog) of the book (a trans friend sent it to me because he was shocked), and it was expressing an expectation that I need to spill all this stuff that I’m not comfortable sharing—and to be honest, I don’t really know what to say to that. It’s not the book I was interested in writing. It’s not Chaz Bono on Oprah.
Lisa R: That review pissed me off.
Kristy: People are just too nosy. It is absolutely none of their business what happens behind closed doors in any relationship.
Brian S: Is it possible that people wanting to ask the question about sex is a good step? I mean as compared to living in a world where any sex outside the hetero-normative would be considered salacious? It’s not where we may want to be as a society, but it’s a step in the right direction. (I’m a little nervous about this question.)
Lisa R: I think curiosity about non-hetero-normative sex is natural, but it is disrespectful to ask people that are different how they have sex unless you know them really well.
Lisa K: Brian S, I do agree with you, though, that wanting to understand all forms of human experience, not in a salacious way, but respectfully, is okay, and people can share as they wish to.
Barbie: I agree with Kristy…about the sex. It’s nobody’s business…that is not why you wrote the book, one would think.
Brian S: It’s absolutely a rude question. I just wonder if it’s one of those crappy things we have to move through in order to get to the point where society-at-large recognizes it as a rude question.
Lisa R: I think as we learn to acknowledge more and more difference, what might be most enlightening is how boring we all are in the same ways. And thats an awesome point, Brian.
T Cooper: I get the question, and I agree about non-normative sex of all kinds. But there are some folks who are happy to share about that (and I mean everything), and there are others who are not—for a million reasons, on both sides. I just happen to be one who feels like there are some things I want to keep for myself—and I personally don’t believe I did a disservice to the story by only touching upon it.
Brian S: You didn’t, T. I thought it was awesome the way you dealt with it. That’s part of the reason I chose this book for a class I’m teaching in the spring.
Janeen: Oh, no disservice to the story at all. I didn’t even think about the sex until that chapter showed up.
Kristy: Yes, handled well. I was surprised it was brought up, given the fact that your story is personal, but not personal, and then had to laugh at what the chapter really told me. It was perfect.
T Cooper: There are films, books, blogs, public speakers who are sort of inclined that way, to share on that level—especially about our bodies, etc. And I think it’s important, because curiosity isn’t bad in itself (as long as it’s not freak show in nature), but that was sort of the intro to trans people in society stage of things—and I think we’re past that and it’s time to do some more stuff with the narrative, break it open and tell some different stories that don’t follow the same trajectory every time (Boys Don’t Cry, TransAmerica, Chaz Bono, the lady who did the film about being a football player then transitioning into female, [who] went on Oprah, etc.). That’s why we didn’t call it a memoir. Because it’s not delivering memoir really, and it would be false advertising to slug it as such.
Brian S: What are you and McSweeney’s calling it? Just nonfiction? It seems to defy genre in a lot of ways.
T Cooper: I guess we’re not calling it anything. But they make you, as you know—bookselling, etc. So we’ll say nonfiction/memoir. But not on the book or in any of our materials. I think it’s a Barnes & Noble thing—where it’ll get shelved. I think of it as a meditation on masculinity, using all those different styles to have the discussion. That’s not quite eloquent, but something like that.
Janeen: Oooh, I like that: a meditation on masculinity.
T Cooper: And the meditation on masculinity—I feel like that’s why I wanted to do the CD with the book and have others join me on tour, because I’m not the end-all be-all authority on that. It’s really a living breathing discussion that goes on pretty much every second of every day in every part of this planet.
Brian S: Ah, we didn’t get a CD. I’ll have to get on McSweeney’s for that.
T Cooper: Regarding the CD: I think we’ll be releasing eight of the songs from the CD on The Rumpus site in December (for free). And if anybody’s at my events coming up, I’ll be giving out some CDs at them.
Brian S: I’ll make sure to announce that on the Google groups and the Facebook page when [the songs are] available. Who came up with that amazing cover?
T Cooper: My editor and I had a convo about the book on the McSweeney’s website, and here’s what I said about the book cover selection: my wife bought me this glossy collection of men’s pulp magazine covers from the ’40s and ’50s, and when we all started talking about the cover concept for this book, I floated the idea of using some way-over-the-top MASCULINE imagery in the style of this era. So I sent Brian [McMullen, McSweeney’s Senior Art Director] a bunch of the covers from the book (men wrestling killer weasels, bloodthirsty polar bears, a giant vulture—and a great white shark). I also have this beware-of-VD-and-loose-women pamphlet hanging on my wall (put out by the U.S. Public Health Service in 1919), with a tough lumberjack guy standing over the words MAN POWER, so we considered using that image for a while (it ended up opening one of the chapters in the book instead). But when everybody saw the shark on the cover of the issue of American Manhood magazine from 1953, I think it was pretty clear that was the direction to go: the blonde beefcake in a skimpy purple man-kini, bravely battling the giant man-eater underwater, with nothing but a tiny knife to protect himself. The by-product of course being that we’ve ended up with one of the gayest book covers of all time—and it’s scarcely a “gay” book at all! I love that.
Janeen: I was struck by the sense of fear evoked in various places throughout the book. Do you feel more vulnerable now that the book has come out?
T Cooper: I definitely feel more vulnerable, yeah. Hell yeah. And the book just started shipping really this week, so I’m sure that will only get worse. I’m hoping it’ll get worse, and then eventually tip into a place where I just can’t care anymore.
Brian S: Is there any anonymity to being a writer in the sense that people don’t necessarily attach faces to names the way they do performing arts people?
T Cooper: I hope so!
David B.: Do you feel better, having written this book, that people may know you better and what you have been through?
T Cooper: I don’t think people “know” me better… And I guess I don’t really worry much about their knowing what I’ve been through. I think I just felt like it was a story I knew I needed to write, but I didn’t know how, and so I took a stab, and this is how it came out. It feels good that it’s out, yeah, because I feel like I did the best I could with the subject, and did it in a different way at least I hadn’t seen before, so that’s something I feel good about, you know, doing something to the best of your ability. I want to do that with every book.
Janeen: Did you approach writing this the way you have approached writing your novels, or was it a completely different process?
T Cooper: I think I approach all of my writing in the same way. I mean, it’s my job, and I’m committed to it. I don’t just float around and wait for some muse to call. I work at it, I set days to it, weeks, months sometimes. It did go way quicker than my novels (mostly because I didn’t have to do any research, really). And of course I wasn’t linking together all this narrative and characters and stuff. I feel like I learned a lot from writing it…
Janeen: Learned a lot about yourself, or the writing process or what, in particular?
T Cooper: Learned about writing. Figured a little more out. Got a little better, which is something I consider with each book. I want to see improvement from project to project, and I think I can say I saw it here.
Ana: Were any of the chapters particularly difficult to write? Or that you spent a significant amount of time editing or deciding to include? On that note, I have to say I loved the short memoir chapters that punctuated the book.
Janeen: Yes, the six-word memoirs were wonderful.
Melissa: The footnotes, too. So good.
T Cooper: Thank you, regarding the six-word memoirs. Those were added in during editing—when it felt like we needed a sort of stitching together of the main sections or movements of the book. Ana, I debated a lot about the letters, just because they felt so personal—even the one that I technically wrote to appear in a men’s magazine as an essay… I think those felt a little overexposing of my folks. Like, bringing their shortcomings into it, when I don’t think I need to bring that in to tell the story of my coming up.
Brian S: I’m glad you decided to keep the letters in. They were an important part of the book for me.
Lisa R: I thought you were very gentle and respectful of your family. I felt like this book had so many seeds of understanding and common ground in it.
Ana: I agree. Also, speaking about others’ “shortcomings,” the part where you revised the triangle on gender pronouns was another favorite.
T Cooper: I was really lucky that I had a publisher/editor who was willing to let me just go and write (and draw), and let the story unfold how my brain was telling me to write it. In some cases that was with imagery, which to me is as important as the text to the book. Again, there are just so many ways to talk about masculinity, it feels like one medium can’t do it alone.
Barbie: T, do you have a particular ritual when you are writing?
T Cooper: No ritual. Nothing more than, you know, making a deadline or schedule, and sticking to it. I’m not ever like, I don’t feel like writing. If something’s due, or I want to see it finished, I finish it. Not that life doesn’t intervene—boy, does it— but just that I treat it like my job.
David B.: I enjoyed your Rumpus letter, by the way.
T Cooper: I enjoyed doing the Rumpus letter. I’ve been getting some really thoughtful letters in return, and it’s heartening.
David B.: Do you ever see a follow up to your book down the road? Maybe an update in a few years?
T Cooper: I don’t know about that. Maybe in another twenty-five years! I’m not sure I need to say any more than I’ve already said.
Janeen: I must say one of my favorite chapters was “Sitzpinkler.” It was funny and enlightening, as well as poignant.
David B.: “Sitzpinkler.” What a word.
Lisa R: That was an awesome chapter.
Brian S: Were you surprised by some of the answers you received to your “Sitzpinkler” questions? Or rather, which responses surprised you the most?
T Cooper: The “Sitzpinkler” chapter was just fun to do—to make some buddies think about something they probably never think about. I guess I was surprised by the amount of sitting overall—but of course I realized I’m only really concerned about public restroom sitting. I care less and less about it as time goes on—but I suppose it took up a lot of my mind space when I was more in a transitioning stage (as opposed to transitioned, so to speak), so I thought it was important to have that chapter, have a little fun with it.
Janeen: I was totally surprised by the amount of sitting.
Brian S: If you’re looking for more data points, I’m a sitter most of the time.
Janeen: Ha! Thanks for the additional data, Brian.
T Cooper: Why stand when you can sit?! It’s America, after all.
Kristy: I have admit, that chapter prompted me to inquire as to my husband’s stand-versus-sit perspective. He was so confused as to why I wanted to know!
David B.: I’m glad so many guys care about having bad aim at the toilet.
T Cooper: Nobody should have to clean up what goes on around the base of most toilets, you know?
Brian S: I end up doing most of that cleaning anyway, so I’m just saving myself work.
Melissa: I told a co-worker about your book, and she brought up Middlesex. I couldn’t help but laugh, because of your note about it. That comparison happens all the time. What is your ideal suggested response for me the next time it happens?
T Cooper: That’s a hard one, because what I really want to say isn’t nice or appropriate or kind to Jeff Eugenides… Alas, I’ll be wise and say you should tell folks to maybe read a different book.
Melissa: Haha, fair enough.
T Cooper: Or you could tell them that intersex folks don’t like being compared to trannies, either!
Brian S: I was just rewatching Eddie Izzard’s Dress to Kill the other night, and he had a long bit in it about executive transvestites versus weird transvestites. Seems apt, given the Eugenides comment.
T Cooper: Yeah, I didn’t see Dress to Kill, but I know a little about it.
Janeen: Is it hard or helpful (or both) to have a wife who is also a writer?
T Cooper: I would say helpful overall, because she understands how work gets done sometimes, how I have to travel, or sometimes stay up, or sometimes I’m totally out of it—because she’s doing the exact same thing, maybe even more traveling. Also, we are collaborating on some projects, which is really good, because it turns out we work well together and of course have similar senses of humor and approaches to our work.
Janeen: Oh, that’s wonderful.
Brian S: How did you wind up in Friday Night Lights country?
T Cooper: We still have a place in New York City and are there all the time, but we came down South for community, cost, and it’s nice not to have six feet of snow outside our door for much of the year (we were upstate in New York for a couple years before).
Melissa: Are you coming to Austin?
T Cooper: Melissa, no, not this time. I love BookPeople, though. I’ve read there a few times.
Ana: I was going to ask actually about geographic location/identity. You talk about New York in the book enough to feel the city’s presence. Do you think living in any certain place had an influence on how your gender identity/expression evolved?
T Cooper: Good question. I think N.Y.C. definitely had something to do with my figuring out my life path. Had I been living in, well, a lot of other places, things might’ve gone differently. Not saying I wouldn’t end up here, but that New York was/is a huge part of my world, and probably key to my growth as a person (including gender, but not exclusively).
David B.: Are you reading anything good right now?
T Cooper: I just read this amazing graphic novel about Jeffrey Dahmer—by a high school friend of his. Just finished it last night—got it when I was at the Miami Book Fair last weekend. I love anything to do with serial killers.
David B.: Derf Barckderf! Great book.
T Cooper: Yeah, I guess I’d never heard of that book before. Glad I found it. I’m also reading the new book by John Brandon, but now I’m spacing on the name [A Million Heavens] and his last one, Citrus County, is in my head.
Kristy: Citrus County was the Rumpus Book Club’s first selection!
David B.: He’s good. Are you catching your breath, or do you have new project in mind?
T Cooper: I have a YA project my wife and I are collaborating on—four-part series. Also, some TV stuff, though you never know what’s up with that and it is not to be counted on. I like working on short stories in between projects, so there’s a list of about five I want to write. I should have one coming out soon in Bomb. I don’t know…mostly catching my breath and going to be touring. I wish I had more hypergraphia like some of my colleagues, but it’s nice to take a breath now and again.
Brian S: How did this book come together? I know you repurposed some stuff, but how much of it was, I don’t know, determined? Clumsy question, I know.
T Cooper: This book just came together as my brain spewed it out. I mean, a few chapters appeared in The Believer as an essay, but those came out the same way. I guess I just jotted down in notebooks areas/incidents/stories etc. that felt like they should be in the story, and then tried them out. And if they worked, they stayed in, and if they didn’t, bye.
Melissa: Were you intentional about where you placed the humor in this book (RiDICKulous, for example)? Did you think methodically about where, perhaps, your reader might need a break from the heaviness? I asked because it all just worked together so brilliantly.
T Cooper: I did think about the narrative arc. I think that’s my job if I’m going to write a book like this. Like, say, not to end on a note that doesn’t capture the overall feeling of the project. My editor was really helpful toward that end. Like, once it was all down and in a draft, helping me step back and see what I wanted the reader to get and when. I did think of it in terms of the standard Aristotelian dramatic structure.
Brian S: How has McSweeney’s been to work with? They strike me as one of the few big presses willing to take on a book like this (one without an easy niche to fit it into, I mean).
T Cooper: McSweeney’s is an incredible publisher, and I don’t think I would’ve wanted to do this book with anybody else. They actually care about the author in a way many other publishers (especially the big ones, but even some smaller ones) are afraid to. Like, giving the author too much power… McSweeney’s was/is great, and I’m really lucky it landed with them.
Kristy: McSweeney’s rarely steers me wrong. I intentionally avoid reading anything about this month’s selection before I get the book (I like the surprise), and when I opened this one (after I got past the way rad cover) and saw it was a McSweeney’s-published book, I was sold. Truly an enjoyable read. Thank you for sharing your story with us.
Barbie: You seem so modest…is that really the case? It is ultimately a true gift to write, as you say, “As my brain is spewing out.” Does writing come so very natural to you?
T Cooper: No, writing is hard as shit. When people are all like, “Oh, I just sit and look at the birds and write beautiful sentences as they come to me…,” it makes me crazy. Because while it’s an amazing profession and I’m lucky as hell to get to do it and wouldn’t want to do anything else (okay, except maybe be an ER doc or vet), it’s really fucking hard to do. I had to work at it to get better and better, and that’s why I say I want to improve with every book, because I don’t think I’ll ever be a master of it.
Brian S: I’ve never believed a single person who said writing was easy for them.
Melissa: I’m an editor, and something we look for in children’s books is gender sensitivity in the images (not every female is in the kitchen cooking with her apron, not every doctor is male, etc.). It’s so funny to do that, actually. It can feel contrived controlling these stereotypes, but I do understand the importance. Is this something you noticed as a child, or something you notice when reading to your kids?
T Cooper: Melissa, I don’t know whether I notice that… I mean, I’m probably more inclined to, but you know what, it’s probably not even conscious. Probably more as a feminist and progressive, I notice stuff like that about gender, race, economic status, etc.
David B.: Your book had courage, thanks T!
Lisa R: There was a lot of fun in this book. Hard stuff, and laughter. It was a brilliant mix.
Ana: I have already promised the book to three friends. From me and from those (future) readers—thank you!
Janeen: I am looking forward to reading some of your other work. It’s interesting to me that all of my favorite book club selections have been memoirs (or memoir-like). It was really a pleasure to read. I just finished earlier today, so it’s still resonating with me.
T Cooper: I think for some reason people are drawn to stories of all kinds, for some reason they land harder when they are “true.” And yet in fiction, I think there is a lot of deeper truth, too, if you know what I mean.
Janeen: I also think I am one of those nosy people who just wants to get the scoop on someone’s life in their own words.
T Cooper: Thank you very much everybody, for doing this, but also for spending time with the book.
Melissa: This book was just really effing (can I cuss here?) amazing. So yes, thank you.
Brian S: If you’re going to cuss, then fucking do it, okay?
Melissa: FUCK YES. I LOVE BOOK CLUB.
T Cooper: Nobody dropping a C-bomb before we go?
David B.: Cuntastic!
Brian S: Chlamydia?
T Cooper: Cool—you coming to a reading?
Janeen: Are you coming to Seattle?
Brian S: Or Des Moines?
Melissa: Nope, Austin, remember? Come back here!
Brian S: I mean, I’m guessing we could look on a website or something, but since we have you here…
David B.: Come to Ohio—we got Obama in.
T Cooper: Unfortch, not this time. Have read at Elliot Bay a lot. That is one of my top bookstores in the country, for sure. No Des Moines, either. Oddly. Or, I’ll come to your classroom. (I love that everybody’s not from New York. I mean, I love New York, but you know.)
Brian S: If you want to Skype in, I’ll do it. Project you on a big screen and turn the computer around so you can see the kids.
T Cooper: Yeah, hit me up. I love Skype unnaturally.
Janeen: You have to invite us to your class that day, Brian!
Brian S: Thanks for dropping in tonight, T. It’s been great talking to you. And thanks to all the members who dropped by tonight as well. You all rock.
T Cooper: Really appreciate it—all you.