Hey everyone! Today we have Kirstin Cronn-Mills, author of BEAUTIFUL MUSIC FOR UGLY CHILDREN (our June 2014 Book of the Month) talking about music, research, her book, and of course ice cream. Tune in!
Victoria: Beautiful Music for Ugly Children is about a guy named Gabe, who is navigating his way through life, romance, family and friendship, the same as any other teen. The only difference is that he was born in a girl’s body, as Elizabeth. BMUC tells the story of him coming into himself and leaving Elizabeth behind. How did this story come to you?
Kirstin: This story was a bit of a surprise. I wanted to write about a guy who loved music and radio, and who wanted to be a radio DJ because he could hide behind his show and be a cool, funky, interesting version of himself. At the same time I was beginning the book, I was picking books for a diversity literature class at my college, and I came across a book called The Phallus Palace, by Dean Kotula, about trans* men and their transitions. It included short autobiographical stories from these men, and I was struck by how clearly they stood up for themselves, against some serious odds. They didn’t abandon themselves, and I admired that. Then BAM. Gabe became a trans* man—because I could see a trans* kid using a radio show to try out her or his authentic self. Then I had to figure out if I could really write a book about a trans* guy.
V: Is there anything specific you wanted to achieve or avoid while writing Beautiful Music for Ugly Children?
K: I don’t think I had anything specific I wanted to achieve, really, except telling an engaging, funny, interesting story. I wanted to get to the emotional truth of what it means to have an ally, and what it means to step into who you really are. I wanted to convey some of the joy of being a music and radio nerd, too. : ) I didn’t set out to write an issue book, or to do anything specific for trans* rights and equality, though I think the book does some of that. But if you try to write a book with an agenda, you end up sounding preachy, and that’s rarely positive. I set out to tell a good story about a music nerd who happens to be trans*.
It took me a long time to realize what I was getting myself into, in terms of privilege and information and exploitation and everything like that, and by the time I understood how much of a mistake I might be making, I was too in love with Gabe, and couldn’t give him up. So I did an enormous amount of research to get the trans * part of his life into the realm of possibility. The emotional journey of the story—finding ourselves, finding friends, feeling like you’re not alone—is the stuff that people can identify with no matter what gender they are, so I figured I was OK there. But making sure the trans* part was respectful and correct (within the realm of correct) was the part I sweated the most.
There are DEFINITELY things I wanted to avoid while I was writing: first, stereotypes/ negativity about individuals who are trans*, and second, cisgender privilege. I hope I’ve done that. I’ve been questioned about why I included violence in the book, when it seems sort of stereotypical, but I’d counter with the fact that the threat of violence is an undercurrent of many trans* individuals’ lives, so it’s realistic to include it. And, if you want to write about positive things like friends who love you unconditionally, showing the negative allows us to value the goodness even more.
V: How did you conduct your research for this book?
K: Oh wow—I did all sorts of things. I read my ass off (both with books and on the Internet), I did a lot of lurking and listening, and the thing I liked best was spending time with youth in a gender exploration group in the Cities. The group moved several
different places over the course of writing the book (they’re currently housed at RECLAIM, in Minneapolis, a phenomenal organization) and they were instrumental in helping me understand how Gabe’s mind might work. They were very generous to me, letting me listen to their stories and ask them questions. I owe them so much.
V: In the book, you use the term ‘bio guy.’ Why did you decide to use that instead of cis?
K: You have to remember how much the conversation around trans* life has changed in the last two years since the book was published. Using the word “cis” to describe someone who’s not trans* is a relatively new thing! Nine years ago, when I started the book, nobody was using the word “cis.” I think I picked the term “bio guy” because I’m a poet at my core—that’s how I started my creative writing life—and I liked how the words sounded together. Plus it was short and sweet and it got the point across.
V: In BMUC, Gabe listens to a lot of music– do you share his music taste?
K: Some of it. We get joy from some of the same songs, but I’m not a huge fan of current pop music, nor of the “bitches and hos” variety of hip hop and rap. When it comes to music, I tend to be pretty flexible, and I’ll give anything a listen (if it’s not misogynistic and rude). In that way, Gabe and I are alike.
V: What was the hardest part of the book to write?
K: The hardest part was making sure I wasn’t screwing up the trans* stuff, and watching out for stereotypes and privilege and all of that. Emotionally, the hardest part was writing the violence, because I am extremely protective of Gabe, John, and Paige, especially Gabe. I didn’t want anyone to get hurt. In general, I don’t feel like it’s wise to get attached to my characters, but I can’t seem to break that habit with Gabe.
V: Is there anything you can tells us about what’s next on your writing horizon?
K: I have an illustrated YA novel coming out in the spring of 2016, called Original Fake. It’s about sibling rivalry and street art (think Banksy), and there’s a lot of gender flexibility in it. I’m also working on a new novel that’s about bodies versus brains, and also porn (!). We’ll see if I can pull that off.
V: And most importantly, do you have a favorite ice cream flavor?
K: Oh wow—I like lots of ice cream flavors, but since I don’t eat chocolate, most people will not be impressed. My favorite flavor is peanut butter, closely followed by lemon gelato. But I’m pretty flexible!