All Storytelling is Nonbinary: An interview with Jennifer Savran Kelly
It’s 2003, and bookbinder Dawn Levit is confronting the visual artist’s version of writer’s block and coming to terms with her gender identity. One day Dawn discovers a love letter on the cover of a mid-century lesbian pulp novel. This propels Dawn to discover more of the story of the two women and Dawn’s own identity as a genderqueer Jewish artist. On this quest, Dawn meets Gertrude, an aging queer Jewish woman who inspires Dawn personally and in her artwork, in particular, a collaborative artpiece she tentatively refers to as The Project, which she struggles to work on throughout the novel.
Jennifer Savran Kelly’s Endpapers reads like a Russian nesting doll in the best way: people hidden inside stories hidden inside books. Dotted with artistic references that made me crave learning more, Endpapers is almost a coming-of-age story for our times. Kelly is herself a bookbinder, and works as a production editor at Cornell University Press. Endpapers is her debut, and won a grant from the Barbara Deming Memorial Foundation and was selected as a finalist for the SFWP Literary Awards Program and the James Jones First Novel Fellowship.
I emailed with the author to learn more.
The Rumpus: In 2003 people weren’t talking about using different pronouns. It’s now 2023 and your character Dawn is filling out one of those “Hello My Name is & My Pronouns are” stickers. What does Dawn write?
Jennifer Savran Kelly: Because [Endpapers is set in] 2003, Dawn is still figuring out how she identifies, and because she hasn’t been part of a queer community for at least a few years, I chose to make her pronouns “she/her.” Since I also wrote the book in first person, I was almost able to skirt the issue altogether! This is not why I made the choice of first person, however, but it was a bit of relief—until it was time to work on the jacket copy with my editor, Abby Muller. I was really grateful to work with someone who gave as much thought to the issue as I did; we had multiple conversations about Dawn’s pronouns before we committed to “she/her.”
If the novel took place in 2023, I think by the end Dawn would identify as I do—genderqueer, using she/they pronouns. Although while I tend to favor “she,” at least right now (it’s always evolving!) I think Dawn would favor “they,” because they lean into their masculinity more than I’ve been comfortable doing.
Rumpus: One of the things I love in reading and in writing are items. Literary tchotchkes. Things to represent something other than their utilitarian use. In Endpapers, after books, we come across dolls, something we often pigeonhole as a thing a girl should like. How intentional are these tchotchkes for you?
Savran Kelly: Dawn notices things typically coded female because she compares herself against them, like dolls, lipstick, and a charm bracelet. From some of my favorite writing teachers, I’ve learned that the things characters notice reveal as much about them as the things they wear or say or do. I was careful to show where Dawn’s attention was in any given space, whether she was focused on these female-coded items or on particular pieces of street art or a headline in a magazine or the petrified gum on the sidewalks of NYC.
Rumpus: Tell me what it’s like to write about art. Was it difficult to depict and create Dawn’s penultimate artwork in the book, The Project, within the confines of words?
Savran Kelly: Growing up, I dabbled in visual art, especially drawing. But I never studied it in any formal way. Once I became interested in book arts and began making books, I often didn’t know how to find the resources I needed—tools, materials, instruction—to bring my visions to life. As a result, I spent a lot of time imagining projects that I never made or completed. I think in some way this helped me write about art, because I’m so used to daydreaming about it in great detail! So, it was actually very exciting to share Dawn’s artwork in this way. At the outset, I did have dreams of creating an actual, real-life version of the book that Dawn creates in Endpapers. But I’m also a parent with a full-time job and a house that needs near-constant attention, so I’m having to learn to accept that I can’t do it all. I’m truly grateful that this artwork gets to live in the novel.
Rumpus: There is a manspreading scene on the subway within the first few pages of the book. If ever there was a visual a way a man comports himself, this is it: taking up more space, infringing on the space of others. It’s so unlike the way women typically feel and are treated. It is a wonderful scene. Dawn is uncomfortable with it but “manspreads” anyway, testing the waters. Much later, Dawn opens her art, The Project, like an accordion. Twice we see that it barely fits on the table. By the end, she and her ideas literally take up more space. Talk to me about taking up space currently closed off to anyone nonconforming.
Savran Kelly: You’ve expressed this so beautifully. Growing up in a female body, I internalized the ways that girls and women are rewarded for taking up as little physical space as possible. As a teenager and young adult, I had a distorted view of my body. I know I was far from alone. Indeed, obesity is still considered to be some kind of human failing, no matter what your gender. In a recent opinion piece in the New York Times, Roxane Gay speaks out against the portrayal of fatness in Darren Aronofsky’s new film The Whale: “It was crystal clear that Mr. Hunter and Mr. Aronofsky considered fatness to be the ultimate human failure…”
As a person who’s queer and presents as female, I’ve spent my life trying to get comfortable taking up space. Art has been the arena in which I’ve been able to do it most successfully. People who feel safe and able or who have privilege should use the space they create for themselves to make more space for people from marginalized communities. We all need to hold space for one another.
Rumpus: I loved reading about bookbinding. We don’t often think of the physical book, because we are focused primarily on its contents, the narrative inside. How did you become interested in this artform? What is the relationship between story and the physical book it inhabits?
Savran Kelly: I’ve always loved books as physical objects as much as I’ve loved to read them. Their mysterious mechanics hidden from view behind the spine—their sounds and smells. There’s a unique intimacy to books because we bring them into our quietest and most private places, like our beds.
I’d always experimented with visual art. When I discovered book art, it felt like a natural marriage. One day I was shopping in Kate’s Paperie in Manhattan when a cashier asked if I’d heard of the Center for Book Arts and handed me their course catalog. After my first workshop there, I was hooked. I took more classes, found two internships, and like Dawn, worked in the book conservation lab in the Thomas J. Watson Library in the Metropolitan Museum of Art.
One of the things that draws me to book art is that it often brings art off the walls and into viewers’ hands. Unlike most forms of visual art, books are meant to be interacted with, to form a more personal relationship with.
I always hoped Dawn would be a character that readers could see themselves in. I’m not necessarily talking about gender, but the human struggle to be seen and accepted, because we all have things about us that we fear are unlovable or sides of ourselves that we fear are irreconcilable. For me, the book as an object operates as a sort of invitation to place yourself within its world.
Also, books tend to be associated with authority, and I wanted to Dawn to feel a sense of authority in creating The Project.
Rumpus: How was it writing a character whose gender is fluid? Is there such thing as nonbinary storytelling?
Savran Kelly: Throughout my life, I’ve had both a complicated and an experimental relationship to gender—at times ashamed of all things masculine about myself and at other times striving for androgyny. When I started Endpapers, the negative news about transgender people was exploding. They were either being targeted by violence or by politicians, and I wanted to do something. At that point, I’d never heard the words “nonbinary” or “genderqueer,” but I’d been collecting all these feelings about gender that I didn’t know how to express, even to myself, so I decided to try to write a book about a character who was not trans, but genderfluid. During the years of writing the novel, the words “nonbinary” and “genderqueer” and “they/them” pronouns flooded into the mainstream, and it was very exciting. As I wrote and my understanding of the meanings of these words grew, I began to understand I was writing about myself.
I think all storytelling is nonbinary, in the sense that stories are the only artform that gives us so much access to the inside of someone’s head. Thoughts and feelings can never truly be black or white; they’re too messy and complicated, and boundaries blur. When we enter someone’s mind, we’re forced to deal with the shades of gray that reside there.
Even though we didn’t have the mainstream language for them, characters who defy gender norms have enjoyed a prominent place in the literary canon throughout history. A few that come to mind immediately are Virginia Woolf’s Orlando and Scout from To Kill a Mockingbird. I also recently read Gertrude Stein’s Ida, and it struck me that the novel could be read partly as a metaphor for genderqueerness with its references to Ida becoming twins, her first name changing when she marries, her rejection of motherhood.
Then of course there are more and more novels and memoirs that deal outright with nonbinary or fluid gender, such as Stone Butch Blues by Leslie Feinberg; Middlesex by Jeffrey Eugenides; Paul Takes the Form of a Mortal Girl by Andrea Lawlor; Girl, Woman, Other by Bernardine Evaristo; Fairest by Meredith Talusan; and more I’m not thinking of at the moment. It’s an exciting time in children’s literature too because more and more nonbinary authors are writing books for middle-grade readers and young adults.
Rumpus: Related-ish, do you think a story, once it’s printed on the page, can be fluid?
Savran Kelly: Absolutely. Once a story leaves the author’s hands, readers bring their own meaning and experience to it. Conversations happen, new meanings are made. If you’re lucky, it will inspire other writers or artists to make new work, which will spark new conversations. These days it might get adapted into a film or TV show according to someone else’s vision or interpretation. To me, this is one of the most beautiful things about making art—how its meaning evolves over time.
Rumpus: You use chapter titles in Endpapers. Single words: “Art,” “Impression,” “Hands,” “Liebe,” “Hinge.” Why this instead of chapter numbers? What does this add to your story and what went into your decision to use these titles?
Savran Kelly: From the moment I began crafting Endpapers, each chapter started as a single word, usually a noun. I wasn’t thinking too much about why, but I wanted to keep that going throughout. It was pretty late in the process when I realized why I’d been so drawn to these words. One of the first handouts I got in a bookbinding workshop was titled “The Anatomy of the Book.” It was a drawing of a book with all the parts labeled: head, tail, spine, etc. Because Endpapers deals so much with the human body and Dawn’s sensual and emotional connection with books as objects, I’d been unconsciously drawn to using words about books, bookbinding, papermaking, and printing for the chapter titles, connecting Dawn’s physical body, experiences, and emotions to books and book arts. For example, “impression” is the word for the indentation made by the type in letterpress printing and “hinge” refers to the flexible area where the cover meets the spine. Some other, perhaps less obvious, examples are “charge,” which is to add or stir up the pulp in a papermaking vat, and “foil,” which refers to the gold foil used for stamping gold letters onto book covers and spines. Also, most of the words I chose have a wonderful double or triple meaning that I love for the chapters they title.
Rumpus: You could tell a story of outsider-ness with a genderqueer character. Why also make Dawn Jewish?
Savran Kelly: I’m Jewish, and I began writing Endpapers when Trump was elected president. I was scared of what was coming—for all minority groups. It’s all too easy, and hurtful, to make casual comparisons to the Holocaust. But also, the reason we learn about historical tragedies is to stop them from repeating. Holocaust survivors have been visiting temples and Hebrew school classes for generations to tell their stories so that we don’t forget the horror—so we never let anything like it happen again.
According to the Anti-Defamation League, incidences of antisemitism reached an all-time high in 2021. It was important to me to have Dawn and Gertrude both be Jewish, and to have Gertrude’s family having escaped the Holocaust because it serves as a reminder of a horrific time in history, and hopefully, if I’ve done my job, Gertrude and her story will feel real and personal. With so few survivors still living, I fear their stories risk becoming more abstract over time.
Rumpus: I loved the beautiful scene, near the end, where Dawn’s carefully fixing the torn page of George Grosz’s, The Saleroom, a sketch of a woman’s body. It’s like a meditation the way you wrote it, the way the eraser crumbs, the horsehair brush, the paste—all of the supplies—coax the fibers back together. It is, all at once, fixing a book, a piece of art, a woman’s body, and Dawn’s own heart. How do you balance writing the specifics of bookbinding and narrative flow?
Savran Kelly: It’s not always the case that I’m aware of any metaphor or deeper meaning as I draft. It tends to be unconscious, and I’ll find it later during revision and draw it out then. But I was very much aware of it in this case, so I leaned in. In terms of balancing, I think I’ve gotten it from a lifetime of reading. Even though I started writing later than a lot of folks and don’t have much in the way of formal training, I’ve been inhaling novels forever, and that gives me a sense of what a satisfying balance feels like in a scene. Too much about bookbinding and it starts to feel like a how-to manual. Not enough, and you lose the connection. I wanted to keep the character in the moment so that I didn’t end up with emotions that felt inauthentic.
Rumpus: I found so much figurative beauty in your words. In literary fiction, do you find the balance between literal and figurative language challenging?
Savran Kelly: Thank you! This is one of my biggest challenges as a writer. I’ve only taken a few writing classes, but in one early workshop, my professor told me I didn’t have to try so hard to make my writing “elegant.” What he was really trying to say was that my attempts at sounding literary weren’t working; I was overdoing it. I had to let go of trying and just write. Over time I’ve also learned to get better at spotting when I’m showing off versus when I’m tapping into a voice or into language that’s serving the story. I try never to censor myself as I write (otherwise I would never finish anything), so usually that part happens in revision.
Rumpus: The name Dawn is so filled with hope, possibility, and a whole new day and yet, it will come again and you’ll have another chance if you mess it up today. What went into naming your character?
Savran Kelly: At first, the name Dawn came from its association with someone I knew briefly in the 1990s. She identified as female then, but I believe she would identify as nonbinary or transgender now. But as I thought more and more about it, I also liked the hopeful connotation you noted. Then I looked up the name in Hebrew, which is Shahar, and learned that it’s a name for both males and females. So that cemented it.
Rumpus: Who was Endpapers written for?
Savran Kelly: I had the kernel of the idea for Endpapers for a long time, but no story. When I finally decided to lean into writing a queer book, it came together, but I was intimidated. I wrote one sentence and then let it fade into the depths of my hard drive for at least a year. I loved the idea so much that I didn’t think I could do it justice.
Then Trump got elected. I wanted to show my support for the LGBTQ+ community. I’m not a marcher, so I used my voice. I’d been in the closet for many years because I married a cisgender heterosexual man and didn’t think anyone would care or appreciate that I’m bisexual—or more accurately pansexual—or take kindly to me claiming to speak for the LGBTQ+ community. But being quiet was feeling more and more like a cop-out too. So, I decided to go for it. I had no idea if it would ever be published, but I wanted to let people know that they probably have queer folks in their families and workplaces who they care about very much, even though they don’t know it.
As I wrote the book, it also became a story for me, one that I needed, to understand and accept myself. You could say that Endpapers has done for me what Dawn’s project does for her, allowing me to celebrate a core part of myself and feel seen, along with the contributions of a community—fellow writers, agents, editors. And Endpapers is also like Gertrude’s letter in that I hope it’s a message of solidarity and hope for anyone who needs to find it.
Author photograph by Darcy Rose