Navigating life as an intersex character
Abigail Tarttelin is one of those fierce young up-and-coming authors who make anyone *coughcough* who has ever aspired to make a living as a writer of fiction fall into a pit of despondency so deep and so dark that not even Dr Seuss can pull you out. British-born Tarttelin is only 25, and is already being hailed for her writing, especially with her latest novel, Golden Boy.
While I won't give too much away, suffice it to say that Golden Boy is about the keeping of secrets, and that her prose is mature, her writing style nuanced and her characters like layers of an onion - as befits a book that turns gender itself into a question mark. She kindly answered a few questions about the book and writing in general.
I did make the comparison between Golden Boy, which has an intersex character, and Jeffrey Euginides' brilliant book, Middlesex, and she replied in a way which suggests a seasoned and humble interviewee.
Are you a fan of Jeffrey Euginides' Middlesex? If so, how much do you think this has influenced and/or informed your writing of the character of Max in Golden Boy?
I absolutely adored Middlesex. I think it's a beautifully written book and such an intriguing story. I did, however, read it a year after I started Golden Boy, and shortly after the final big edit of the manuscript with my editors Arzu Tahsin and Sarah Branham. This was intentional, so that the reading did not inform the writing of Golden Boy, but I do think the books are different and the stories complement each other. Middlesex is an almost myth-like story about the many strange coincidences and accidents that lead to the creation of an extraordinary outsider; Golden Boy is perhaps a quieter story, set in an "average" community, where a seemingly ordinary high school student must hide a secret to remain an insider in their quaint little town.
Probably the most obvious question of all - but what inspired you to write about an intersex person?
I was thinking more than ever about how living as one gender or another defines us, and I began to believe that the differences between us are less biological and more to do with how we are treated by each other, and what treatment we accept. Having seen XXY in 2009, an Argentinian film featuring an intersex protagonist, I began to wonder how someone who was brought up as a male might feel to suddenly find their body insisting on its womanhood, and if approaching questions about gender from this perspective could indeed highlight the realisation many women have upon reaching adolescence - that their gender does make a huge difference in how they live, particularly in terms of their physical vulnerability.
You have managed to get published at what would be considered in any literary circle as a young age for an author. It's definitely a huge accomplishment. How did you get started?
Although I had always hoped to write a book, I imagined it was something a person did when they had lived a little and could write about something they were knowledgeable about. Now I live in London and see so many young writers and performers at readings, but I grew up in a very rural area and had no idea you could write at any age. I had always written, but as a compulsion with no real aim. I wrote a lot of songs and short prose, and occasionally stuck together a zine! I think I sold photocopies of one once for the World Wildlife Fund. I wrote the first half of my first novel, Flick, when I was 19, and in doing so I realised I was knowledgeable about something - being a teenager. With that purpose, I finally felt like I had a right to write.
The novel is very heavily themed around the idea of secrets, especially family secrets. It is said that there is no such thing as a normal family. How do you think secrets destroy families and/or close bonds and relationships between people?
I set Golden Boy within a close, loving family, because that's a setting I know really well, and in a family like that, I'd like to think that secrets can't ever really break you apart. It's strange to say, but it seems to me also that it depends on how secrets are kept. Hiding negative thoughts or resentment can be destructive, but sometimes remaining closed-lipped can be a sign of strength. With the people that you love, you should always be able to be honest with them, but at the same time, honesty isn't necessarily about revealing every truth. Sometimes it's about presenting the person you would hope to be in a perfect world.
What is the most fascinating skeleton you've uncovered from your own family's closet?
My family is largely Irish so there is a plethora of strange tales to choose from, but I think I'd get told off if I shared them outside the sacred circle of blood ties!
Golden Boy is being dubbed a "coming-of-age" story. Can you see this story as being a powerful narrative for young adults? Especially those who are a bit more marginalised, such as young LGBT communities?
I do think sometimes that we underestimate how much young adult readers can deal with in terms of theme and philosophy in novels, and I would love to see Golden Boy being read by this age group. Definitely, it would be fantastic if the novel got out to LGBTQIA young people but I'd like to see it reach other teenagers too, because in order for LGBTQIA teens to feel happy about their orientation or gender, all young people have to be educated and understand about the various genders and sexualities.
Do you think gender is a social construct? Or do you lean more towards biological determinism?
I do strongly believe in genetic determinism, which is to say that the genes of an individual, along with environmental factors, determine the physical and behavioural development of an individual. I think more of our behaviour than we know can be attributed to our instinctive need to contribute to the evolution of our species, whether that behaviour be our urge to create art, or argue, or fall in love. When it comes to gender, aspects of our genetics, particularly our sex chromosomes, are significant factors in our development, but "gender" itself is a word we use to define the difficult, the in flux, the strange and unknowable. Like "gay", "straight" or "bi", "woman", "man" and "intersex" are finite terms human beings use to describe things that are not truly finite.
What's currently on your to-read list?
Children of the Jacaranda Tree by Sahar Delijani, because we have the same publishers and we met for coffee and she is absolutely lovely!
I have a copy of Golden Boy to give away. To be in to win, leave a comment below about why you'd like to read this novel.