About four years ago, I was giving instructions to a house sitter I’d lined up for the weekend when the sitter asked, “Where are you going?” I explained that I was going to be doing a reading with Sister Spit, a queer multimedia and literary performance group, at UC Santa Barbara. I also mentioned I’d be giving another writer a lift.
“Who?” chirped the sitter.
The sitter lost it. “Ariel Schrag from the Le Tigre song ‘Hot Topic’?” she demanded.
“Yes,” I responded, slightly worried that I’d have to check my luggage for a stowaway.
That weekend, I asked Schrag if she wouldn’t mind writing a small note to my house sitter. She obliged and autographed the note. When I gave the note to the house sitter, she held it and stared at it in silent awe, mesmerized by Schrag’s signature.
Once somebody name checks you in a pop song, and your autograph inspires awe, you have arrived. You are culture. Schrag is queer culture. She made her name as a cartoonist and TV writer, and this year, she debuts her first novel, Adam. Adam is definitely a queer bildungsroman, although its protagonist is painfully straight. Mistaken gender identity propels the novel’s plot, which whisks its eponymous protagonist from Oakland to Brooklyn and from boyhood to the threshold of manhood. I spoke with Schrag about Adam, identity politics, and the algebra of gender. It was super fun, and enlightening.
The Rumpus: So, the protagonist of Adam is a straight, seventeen-year-old, cisgender dude looking for love in queer New York.
Ariel Schrag: Yes.
Rumpus: I read that originally, you started exploring his character from an older perspective, but then you decided you hated him. It sounds like you wanted to kill him.
Schrag: I did not like that person.
Rumpus: Why did Adam as a grown man repulse you? How did you find your way towards a younger Adam?
Schrag: The reason I originally imagined Adam as older is because my original inception for the book was, like the spark of inspiration for it, was when I was writing on The L Word, and Adam Rapp, who is a man, he was in his mid-thirties, a playwright, was one of the writers. He is a straight, cisgender dude—very much a dude. Like, he’s into basketball and stuff. A very sweet guy, a very talented writer, but I was just kind of baffled by his role in the writers’ room. Other than him, it was all lesbians telling stories about our lives, and he—it was just kind of like, what is he contributing here? I think he was often wondering the same thing. Adam Rapp was writing on season three, and this was the season that we were doing the Max story line, and I started to have this fantasy that Adam Rapp would go out to clubs and pretend to be a trans man in order to gather fodder for this lesbian TV show, and the more I thought about it I thought that’s hilarious and weird and fascinating. I became fascinated by this idea of a cisgender man passing as a trans man, especially because we were working on this story about a trans man trying to pass as a cis man. And so I was like, Oh, I should write a novel about this, but the more I thought about it I was like, this guy is disgusting. He should know better. He’s gross, and it just didn’t seem, the motivation to get fodder for your lesbian TV show just seemed ridiculous. It was too bizarre. The more I thought about it I was like, No, it should obviously be a teenager because a teenager is clueless and their motivation should be love—because it did occur to me that all these lesbians I knew were fawning over trans men who looked like teenage boys, and I thought a teenage boy could clean up if he got in there. And so that was how the actual novel evolved, and I was really interested in trying to write this in a way that you could be sympathetic to the character. That was sort of the goal.
Rumpus: Yes! He was an extremely sympathetic character. Like, on the first page, I rolled my eyes a little bit. I was like, Oh god, when he’s climbing a tree to get to a chick’s bedroom, and he’s all, “Oh my god, I look so gay with this flower in my mouth.” I was like, okay, but then about five pages in I realized, Oh, he’s kind of loser. There’s something a little bit loser-ish about him.
Schrag: He’s totally a loser, but you can’t hate him. He already hates himself so much that there’s not room for any more hate.
Rumpus: That made him okay for me. I was onboard. Do you consider Adam young adult fiction, or do you find that question offensive?
Schrag: I don’t find it offensive; I find it weird. People will write reviews and say this is really YA, and I’m like, What does that even mean? Becaause I’d definitely say it’s coming-of-age in terms of genre, but I don’t even really know what makes something YA. That’s only something that’s been around the last twenty years as this marketing category, so it feels weird to me when people have the need to call something YA or not YA. That said, people can call it whatever they want just as long as they read it. I don’t care at all. Technically, it is not YA. Technically, it’s under the category of adult fiction because there is a division in the way companies publish or imprint things. But I find the need to put it in either category weird, and I don’t really see what the point is.
Rumpus: Let’s get more into the identity politics of Adam. You write super sincerely about trans dudes going through a trans adolescence wherein they may indulge in misogyny and chauvinism because now they can. In fact, lots of moments in Adam feel like an airing of queer dirty laundry.
Schrag: [Laughs.] That’s accurate.
Rumpus: Did you have any trepidation about how the book would be received by queer people who’d be like all, “Hey, why didn’t you portray us nicely? Why did you tell them that we can be shitty people too?”
Schrag: [Laughs.] I think I was a little nervous. I wasn’t really nervous while I was writing it. While I was writing I was like, I’m going to write whatever I want. Who knows if I’ll publish it? Who knows if this’ll work out? So I really tried not to think about it too much during the creating process. But once it was actually going to come out I was like, Ugh, What are people going to say?
Obviously, I’m not out to offend anybody, and this is my life and my world. I don’t see any point in not portraying it accurately. I think that that’s more refreshing, and that’s ultimately been the response that I’ve gotten. I think also that there’s a big difference between portraying characters in a certain way and channeling an experience you haven’t had yourself. I guess what I mean is, at no point, even though I’m describing trans men behaving badly—all people behaving badly, really—at no point am I writing from the perspective of a trans man, claiming to know what that feels like. If anything, the only identity I’m appropriating is this straight, cisgender teen boy’s. If straight, cisgender teen boys want to come at me and say how dare you, that would be another thing. This isn’t a book like Middlesex, where Jeffrey Eugenides is writing from the perspective of an intersex person, and I understand why some people had negative reactions to that. I think people should be able to write from whatever perspective they want. That’s the point of writing. Empathy and getting to know people that are not yourself, but I understand the criticism of writing from a marginalized experience that you haven’t had yourself. I think that that is difficult, but that is not actually what Adam is doing.
Rumpus: Piggybacking off the previous question, we are currently in the midst of the tranny wars. To tranny or not to tranny, that’s the question. You do use the word in Adam. What do you think about the current shitstorm regarding this word? Have you read Jack Halberstam’s piece that partially addresses the tranny wars?
Schrag: I think Adam only uses [the word] once, when Casey [Adam’s sister] is thrilled to be identified as a tranny chaser. I think that’s the only time it shows up, which I think is really funny, too. It used to be this word that referred to cisgender straight men who were into trans women who had not had bottom surgery. That was what the term originally meant, and then all of a sudden there were these cis, lesbian-identified, femme women who were basically tranny chasers for trans men. I wrote this book between 2007 and 2010, and the whole tranny war thing hadn’t happened yet.
I read Halberstam’s thing on trigger warnings. Is that thing you’re referring to?
Schrag: There’s a lot in there that I appreciated. I agreed with much of what was said in terms of the preciousness and this desire to be offended. So many people just really want to be offended and obviously there is some good to sensitivity and being aware of language, but I don’t think that’s what’s at the core of people’s outrage. I think outrage is at the core of their outrage.
Schrag: There are those good feelings that outrage gives somebody. Wait, did you ask if we should use the word tranny or not?
Rumpus: I want to know what your take is on the current debate.
Schrag: Well, I don’t use the word tranny, but if I’m around somebody who does use it I usually do say that’s not a great word to use. But I wouldn’t say that to a trans woman using it. If she wants to use it, I’m certainly not going to call her out, but if my mom’s boyfriend uses it, I’m gonna be like, “Hey, trans woman is fine.” It depends on the context. Context and intent are really important.
Rumpus: I’ve witnessed some really interesting arguments surrounding the word in my classroom. I’m a high school teacher, and I’m out, so a lot of kids with queer opinions will come hang out in my room, and I’ve heard some very intense back-and-forth debate about the word.
Schrag: Wow, that’s awesome that high school kids are participating in that conversation.
Rumpus: Totally! It’s really fun to watch them form very strong opinions about the politics of a word when they haven’t even graduated.
Schrag: That is really cool. I love that.
Rumpus: I kind of feel like you answered my next question in an earlier part of the interview, but I’m going to go ahead and put it out there again. It’s about appropriation. I feel like in every queerish or people-of-color or activist space I tiptoe into, somebody is lecturing somebody about appropriation, and it’s starting to get on my nerves. What would you say to those that might argue that writing a book that largely relates to transgender identity is a form of appropriating transgender identity?
Schrag: I think part of the reason people would have that reaction is because being trans has been such an invisibility for so long. It is not something that you see on TV, in film, in books, or hear talked about. It’s something that’s really just staring to break the surface of mainstream awareness. So I understand protectiveness over that because this is an identity that has caused many people pain and struggle, and I [understand the] tenseness [as] a person not coming from that experience using it and getting attention for it—I get why that would make people tense—but I don’t think that the answer is that people should not be writing about it or that the only people who should be allowed to write about it are people with that experience. Again, Adam is not from the perspective of a trans person, so I don’t think it can accurately be called appropriation, but it is about that world, and I think that ideally we could have a lot of people talking about these things, a lot of people sharing their stories. The more closed off a story is, when you say only these specific people can tell it, that’s never going to be good, but it has been a really marginalized phenomenon that nobody understands, and when you do see it on TV, it’s really shittily done.
Rumpus: I love the scene where Adam goes to a gay marriage rally and pro-gay marriage queers are arguing with anti-marriage queers, and then they start arguing about race, and Adam notices that everyone involved in the fighting and theorizing is white. White shame pulses through the characters’ interactions. It’s a white shame that kind of turns people into self-righteous or disingenuous assholes. As a white queer, how do you navigate white shame?
Schrag: I thought white shame was a really important thing to have present in the book. This is something that I’ve observed hanging out in queer circles that are predominantly white. There’s a self-righteousness that comes with being queer and being marginalized but then often a simultaneous obliviousness about race, which will then suddenly mutate into an obsession with one’s own race, a need for people to assert, “I’m aware of my race, I’m aware of my privilege,” but still only existing in these very white spaces. So I wanted to show that these young people up on their soapboxes are often not really aware of the greater context that they’re in. I thought that Adam’s general shelteredness was important in the fact that when he comes to New York it’s not that he’s suddenly learning about gender. It’s that he’s having his own consciousness about people different from him in various ways and that that was important.
Rumpus: It was really amazing for me, as a queer Chicana reader, that you as an author got me to empathize really deeply with a little, white, straight dude.
Schrag: I’m glad. It’s so easy to see him as the enemy. So much of the way we view things is that you’ve oppressed me, so I’m going to hate you back. I just don’t think that that’s the answer. I think that we can find empathy in anyone, and it’s Adam’s goal—and hopefully, the resolution at the end of the novel—that he’s begun to empathize all sorts of other people that he wasn’t aware of before he comes to New York. I think we should be empathizing with him.
Rumpus: Adam is so much about identity and so much about honesty, and one of the most moving parts of the book is when Adam is obsessing whether or not confess to his love interest that he’s cis. He’s living in this inverse universe where the dilemma is not coming out as trans but as not trans, and Adam rationalizes that if trans men are men, then it should be no big deal that he’s a man because a woman attracted to a trans man is attracted to a man. This is really interesting gender algebra.
Schrag: Yeah, the, what’s it called? There’s a specific property.
Rumpus: Yeah, this reminded me of the math class where you learn the transitive property and distributive property. I was like, This is one of those things but with gender. What kind of process did you engage in while developing the book’s gender algebra? Did you find yourself obsessing about these things, or did they enter the narrative more organically?
Schrag: It really came out of personal experiences I’ve had being in my early twenties and seeing friends of mine who’d said that they would never be interested in men suddenly dating men and being very interested in men, and this question of, well, at what point does this translate to being interested in cisgendered men? And why wouldn’t it? Also, in my experience, in my early twenties, I was dating a trans woman who in some ways still had a male body. I was very attracted to her, and she was absolutely a woman, but part of me was like if I’m attracted to this anatomically male body, does that mean that I could be interested in men? I don’t want this to be interpreted as I dated a trans woman so I could be into men, but I feel that there’s a blurriness that happens with trans people. For some people that blur opens things up and calls things into questions, things that could otherwise be rigid identities.
Rumpus: You are a creator on a lot of levels, a novelist, a comic book artist, a writer for TV. Which of these is your ultimate form? Which do you most identify as?
Schrag: Comics are the thing that I’ve done since I was the youngest and for the longest, so if I had to pick one, I’d probably say comics. The thing about TV writing is that it’s never really something you’re doing on your own. I love screenwriting, but I don’t see it as comics or a novel, where it’s entirely my own creation. I wouldn’t say necessarily that I’m super aligned to any of them. I’m inclined to mix it up.
Rumpus: What are you currently reading? What do you really want to read but haven’t?
Schrag: I just read this crazy intense book, Elisa Albert’s Afterbirth, which is coming out in February. I got an advance copy because the editor of Adam is also the editor of Afterbirth, and it’s about the psychological experience of a woman in the year after she’s given birth to her first child. It’s very dark and twisted and honest and blunt, and I really tore through it. I loved it.
Rumpus: Is it fiction?
Schrag: Mm-hmm. When that comes out, I would definitely recommend it to everybody. I’m about to start reading this book called Life Animated. Some people might be familiar with the New York Times article that came out a couple of months ago about a boy who became severely autistic around age three and was nonverbal, uncommunicative, and then slowly started to be able to communicate with his parents through old Disney animated films—nothing past Beauty and the Beast, maybe some stuff but mainly not the crappy stuff they’re making now. This is Disney in its resurgence, with The Little Mermaid and Aladdin. These are the films that this kid related to, and he would watch them over and over, and he wound up speaking to his parents and brother using dialogue from the films that expressed his emotional state. It’s unbelievable, so I’m super-excited to read the book.
Rumpus: If you were casting Adam as a movie, whom would you pick to play the lead characters?
Schrag: We made this little trailer and the actors we got for that were really phenomenal. We got this kid, Bartak—he has a very long Polish name; I have to look it up—he was great. and this woman, Haley Rawson, she played Calypso. They were both fantastic. I think they’d both be great in the movie. But in terms of more well-known stars, I really like the actor Miles Heizer, he’s on Parenthood. I think he very much has the look and feel and attitude. The rest of the characters, I haven’t really thought too much about.
One thing I think is important about Gillian is that sometimes I’ll read reviews that describe her as a great beauty, and that was never really how I imagined her in my mind. You imagine somebody, and then you describe them in a certain way, and of course readers run with it, which is what’s great about novels, but it always weirds me out when people interpret the Gillian character as this flawless beauty. People have described her as this manic pixie dream girl, which I just think is—well, I just think people wanted to be able to use that term. At no point is she like, “Let’s go run around and go to a rooftop!” She’s not manic and crazy and filled with the spirit of life. In my mind she has a tomboy edge to her. I imagine her dressing more butch in high school, and I think now in her early twenties, she’s becoming a bit more feminine, and she wears shorts and tank tops, and she wears her hair just past her ear, and it goes into a blunt ponytail. She has a tomboy edge, so somebody who could pull that off, that would appeal to me.
Author photograph © Chloe Aftel.