“I think I might be trans. I mean, I know I am. I think.” These are the first lines narrated by Dean Foster, the protagonist of Ray Stoeve’s debut YA novel Between Perfect & Real. Dean knows he’s a trans guy, but everyone at his high school thinks he’s a lesbian, including his friends and his girlfriend Zoe. He wonders whether it might be easier to wait until college to come out. But as senior year begins, he’s cast as a “nontraditional” Romeo in the school play and realizes he wants everyone to see him as he really is—both on the stage and everywhere in his life.
Stoeve writes Dean’s coming out story with heart, humor, and a bit of melodrama (this is a book about a theater kid, after all). And, without spoiling too much, suffice to say that Dean’s journey lives up to the novel’s title. He thinks he has his post-graduation life and his relationship with Zoe perfectly planned out. Reality ends up being much messier and more nuanced.
In addition to being the author of Between Perfect & Real, Ray Stoeve contributed to Take the Mic: Fictional Stories of Everyday Resistance. Their second standalone novel is forthcoming, and they attended the inaugural Tin House YA Workshop in 2019 and the 2020 Tin House Summer Workshop for adult fiction (the former being where we met).
I caught up with Stoeve on Zoom and we talked about how they crafted their debut novel, the relationship between writing and performing, and the many feelings on book release day.
The Rumpus: I love starting with a book’s origin story. Where did the idea for Between Perfect & Real come from?
Ray Stoeve: I got the idea for it in spring 2009. I had been questioning my gender and looking back on my teenage experiences and trying to figure out signs. One of the things I thought a lot about was how in high school I really wanted to play male roles in theater. There had been a production of Romeo & Juliet senior year in which I wanted to play Mercutio. And I don’t remember now if I had auditioned for that role or not, but I did not get to play Mercutio.
So, I was thinking and wondering what it would have been like for me if I had gotten to play gender-affirming roles in high school. If that would have helped me figure things out a little sooner, or feel more secure, or just know more about who I was, because I didn’t have access to any language about trans people or gender variants at all. It didn’t even really cross my mind that I could be trans or nonbinary.
That’s where the kernel of the idea came from. I’d always been a writer and I’d loved to write. I would write an idea and some vignettes, and then I would abandon them. That’s what I did with this one, too, where I thought of Dean as a character, thought of all the other characters and the basic premise, wrote some vignettes, and then I abandoned it—because I was in my early twenties and just kind of a mess, living my chaotic early-twenties life. Then, in 2015, I knew more about who I was and what I wanted to do. I had realized by that time that I could actually do writing as a job and it didn’t have to just be a hobby. The first thing that I picked up when I decided to go for writing was that manuscript because it had really stuck with me. I had continued to question my gender over the years, and in 2015, I knew a lot more trans and nonbinary people and decided to actually come out myself and start using they/them pronouns.
Rumpus: Can you share a summary of how you wrote the book and edited it to the place it’s at now?
Stoeve: The following year I got the Made at Hugo House Fellowship and I used that fellowship to finish the first draft, which was a very different and very messy first draft, and then do a series of revisions that were good but still pretty surface level. That fellowship helped me develop as a writer and have a sense of craft. I started to think of what it means to revise and how to even write a book. Like, I really learned how to write a book with this book.
And then I did #DVpit, which is a Twitter pitch event for marginalized writers, and found my agent through it, but before she signed me, she wanted me to revise. I did a complete rewrite of the book into a different tense. Originally, it was in first-person and past-tense, and I rewrote it into present-tense, which changed the voice completely and just made it a much better book.
Rumpus: Dean has this awesome queer friend group. I feel like in the YA books you and I read growing up, the set-up was: there’s one token gay friend who just happens to be friends with all these straight people. And it’s like, lol, no, that’s not how it is. I loved how in Between Perfect & Real, Dean has Ronnie, Alison, his girlfriend Zoe, and then, later, Nina and Jade. Can you talk a little about the craft of creating those friend characters and how they walked into your head?
Stoeve: I knew who all of them were in the beginning, even in 2009, when they were just cardboard cutouts of people. And, in a couple cases, particularly with Ronnie, that involved really unlearning a lot of stereotypes, because Ronnie was a complete stereotype when I first wrote him as a twenty-something-year-old.
Over time, I’ve done a lot of self-work and thinking about why I do the things that I do, and why I am the way that I am. I tend to observe people a lot; everyone does. Once I started really digging into writing as work and as a craft, it was kind of a natural process of going back to the characters and thinking like, okay, these are cardboard cutouts, and some of them are racist stereotypes; how do I actually make them real people? And a lot of that was just thinking: why are they the way that they are? What’s their family like? What’s their wounding? What do they want? What are their fears? I made this whole spreadsheet (because I love spreadsheets) each character’s three biggest traits and their secret fears and what they want. All those more classic character design things.
I’ve always felt frustrated by books that have a lot of secondary characters but gloss over them so they become interchangeable. Even though Dean is the main character, I wanted to create the sense that each of these characters is also the main character in their own story. They each have their own life that they’re living, and they each have their own goals. Even if it’s never a big part of the story or I’m the only one who knows their goals, that will still inform the way that they’re moving through the world.
Rumpus: Dean’s a full-on theater kid. And even if I didn’t know you, I would know that this book was written by a theater kid—all the games and stuff.
Stoeve: You can’t fake knowledge of zip zap zup.
Rumpus: Yup, I was just going to mention zip zap zup or the throwing the imaginary ball game. It was very embarrassing for me personally to read as someone who was also a theater kid. There’s definitely a theater kid-to-writer pipeline. The question I want to ask, though: is there a relationship between performing and writing for you?
Stoeve: That’s a good question. Yeah, I think so. This might be the first I’ve ever really thought about it. Before the pandemic I was doing drag and burlesque, and I’d been a spoken word poet before that. When I would perform I really cared about creating an atmosphere and a feeling for the audience and whatever I was trying to evoke—making them laugh or doing something super sexy or calling forth a certain commentary on gender or politics.
I’ve always been interested in what makes people feel immersed in something and what it leaves them with. I think writing is the same for me, where I want everything about this book to feel real. From the way that kids talk to each other (I wanted it to feel like real teens talking to each other), to the place, to the emotions. Because I’ve had experiences with books that have really affected me, where I’ve read them and then you close them and I feel—I feel different, I feel like I’m in that world still. I feel like I could pick up the phone and call the character, or something like that. And so, with writing, I also want to make people be in the experience and feel immersed in the world.
Of course, on a more surface level, theater, especially drag and burlesque, can be about the show, the drama, the emotions, the roller coaster. I also really just wanted to make people have a lot of feelings with my book. And by the number of people who have tweeted that they’re currently crying as they read it, I think it’s succeeded. [Laughs]
Rumpus: I saw today that someone tweeted at you and said, “I’m crying and have so many feelings,” and you were just like, ”Wait until you read my next book.” You mentioned how other books affected you, so what books do you consider Between Perfect & Real in conversation with? Either books that have come out recently or ones further in the past.
Stoeve: Two books I think of for this question are Forever by Judy Blume, which was one of my comps originally, and Keeping You a Secret by Julie Anne Peters. Keeping You a Secret was the first queer book that I remember reading. I found it in the library, and it had a picture of two girls on the cover and my fifteen-year-old self was like, these two girls look like they’re in a relationship… I want to read this book. This book is gay. [Laughs] And I was right.
In writing Dean’s narrative, I was talking to that book and other books I read as a kid—coming out narratives that absolutely were important and needed and radical for their time. And now, I want other narratives too, because a lot of early coming out narratives focused on the pain and the tragedy that can be involved in coming out and certainly was involved in earlier generations. In Between Perfect & Real, yes, there’s struggle and Dean goes through a lot, but there’s a lot of joy, too, because I love being queer and trans and I want that to be communicated in this book as well.
And then with Forever, obviously I read a lot of Judy Blume, but I didn’t read Forever until my early twenties. That book really affected me because it doesn’t have a high-concept, high-stakes plot. It’s about people and their relationships with each other, and particularly this girl and her first romantic relationship and having sex for the first time and finding out what love means. It doesn’t end the way you think it would end. They don’t end up together, and the girl realizes she wants something more and something else. That really influenced the arc of Dean’s story, too, and the content of my own writing, because I much prefer writing character-driven and relationship-driven stories to anything else.
Rumpus: Obviously there’s been an adjustment of expectations for anyone releasing a book during any the pandemic, so my last question is, what nice things did you do for yourself to celebrate your book?
Stoeve: I kind of just gave myself permission to feel whatever I was going to feel. On release day, I had this idea of how I wanted to spend it, doing self-care and reflecting and nice things like that, and what I really needed to do was cry and feel anxious, so I just let myself cry and feel anxious.
Rumpus: That’s real. I think there are going to be a lot of people who will be so relieved to hear that. Like, anyone who has a book coming out, or anyone who did the same thing on their release day.
Stoeve: It’s so funny because we all talk about this on like, author Slacks and texts with each other behind closed doors. And while people do talk about it sometimes, for the most part we don’t talk publicly about how there are so many more feelings going into writing and releasing a book. But yeah, just letting myself have my feelings and giving myself time away from social media. On launch day, my partner and I took a long walk. We were in the park and I didn’t look at Instagram or anything like that, because while I have now adjusted to the pace and the flow of text notifications and love them, it can be overwhelming when you do a big announcement. It’s both wonderful and overwhelming. So, giving myself time away from social media was really good, too.
Photograph of Ray Stoeve by JP Martin.