Wednesday, December 12, 2012

When Write What You Know is Who You Are: Confessions of a Hermaphrodite

Writing Who You Are

So much more than “writing what you know,” author Lianne Simon has taken that little piece of advice and turned it on its ear. Welcome, Lianne Simon, author of Confessions of a Teenaged Hermaphrodite, to Author Culture.

Thank you, Lisa. My pleasure.

Share what you can about yourself and your journey to publication.

I was born in a small town in the Midwest, outside of Chicago. My father was a dairy farmer turned engineer, my mother a nurse. “You’re going to college,” were the first words they spoke to me. Whenever I asked my parents a question, they handed me another book. My mother grounded me in the love of reading before sending me off to kindergarten.

Although I didn’t like Language Arts in school, and didn’t take English Composition or Creative Writing classes in college, my love for reading continued to grow.

Much, much later the writing muse blindsided me. For a number of years my husband and I had visited Phoenix every summer. One year we decided to spend our last day there driving out the Apache Trail to Tortilla Flat. My father and brother had both died earlier that year, and I was caught up in a period of melancholy. I hardly knew my older brother—that’s how I felt anyway. And, as much a I had longed for it, Dad and I hadn’t been close. I could never quite meet his expectations.

The Apache Trail is beautiful, but deadly in its heat. It’s the sort of tour that’s lovely from the inside of an air conditioned vehicle. Anyway, we had lunch at Tortilla Flat, turned around, and drove back to the hotel. Depression enfolded me as I went to sleep.

I woke with a desperate need to write. The love of software design that had propelled me through a long career fled during the night and never returned. My heart was set on telling people about the kids I loved—those faie children born outside the ordinary boundaries of male and female.

The Atlanta Writers’ Club online critique group remained positive through endless revisions of a manuscript that I eventually scrapped. One hundred thousand words taught me who my characters were, but also told me the plot didn’t work. Manuscript on the shelf for a time, I read books like Hooked, and Story, hoping to learn something more of the craft.

My second draft was much improved, but still lacking in emotional depth. Almost as an afterthought, certainly as a creative writing exercise, I wrote a prologue—Jamie’s fifth birthday party—her life still full of innocence and imagination. The scene flowed out in about ten minutes—the first time writing had seemed natural for me. And based on it, my editor suggested I rewrite the entire story in first person and share more from the heart. Make the story my own. That’s what it would take to capture the emotional depth required. That advice, and some excellent critique partners, carried me through drafts three, four, and five.

Meanwhile, query letters seemed pointless. Agents didn’t quite laugh in my face, but they did tell me no Christian publisher would touch my novel no matter how well written it was. Several face-to-face meetings with agents convinced me that finding any agent open to the subject material would be problematic. So I concentrated on sending queries directly to small publishers. Of the three offers I received, I accepted the one from MuseItUp Publishing. They’re a small Canadian press with an excellent reputation and a progressive attitude. They’ve surpassed my expectations.


You call yourself a homemaker turned writer. I suspect there’s much, much more to the story. Tell us what you want to about how Confessions of a Teenaged Hermaphrodite came to be, and what you hope to gain from telling Jamie’s (your protagonist) story.
One of the agents I met with suggested rewriting Confessions as memoir. I pointed out that it was fiction, but that didn’t seem to matter. An author who read part of the manuscript asked me if I was prepared for people to think the story was about me. I’m still unsure how I should feel about that. I can understand why Jamie would go into denial about her condition. It’s too alien for our culture. And given the difficulties in finding a publisher, I’m not sure how well a query letter would have gone over had I opened it “Good morning. I’m a hermaphrodite.” It’s too outré, even for me, though I have friends who are faie.

Homemaker, wife, pilot, scrum master, volleyball player, Christian—those are handles I know. And yes, to write this story I had to own faie as well. I’m hoping that one day, because of books like mine, kids like Jamie won’t be considered freaks—just a bit enchanted.


You did research and interviews. How did you approach prospective interviewees on such a sensitive subject?

Fortunately, I already had a number of acquaintances who had grown up with a difference of sex development, including a few who had changed their gender on their legal documents. When I decided to write a novel with an intersex main character, I approached several to see what they thought important to include in such a tale. Peggy, a friend with Partial Androgen Insensitivity Syndrome, who had changed her legal status to female as a young adult, emphasized the fact that as a child no one had explained her options to her—that she could switch to living as a girl—that she should have been raised as a one in the first place—that it wasn’t too late.


Introduce us to Jamie, your heroine, and her world.

Jameson Isaiah Kirkpatrick—golden hair in wild disarray, emerald eyes alive with imagination, cute little mouth, ten thousand freckles playing tag across a pretty elfin face—the child was tiny for his age, and often mistaken for the twin of his younger sister Alicia. He nine, she six—their laughter echoed through the small bungalow where they shared a bedroom. Their cousin Kaylah—a sixteen-year-old and nanny to them—treated them both like little princesses. Only Mom and Dad thought Jamie a boy’s name.

At sixteen, the four-foot-eleven soprano left home school for a boys’ dorm at college. To become the man his parents expected, Jameson had to leave behind the hopes and dreams of a little girl. He could be a boy after minor surgery and a few years on testosterone. At least that’s what his parents always said. But then a medical student told Jamie he should have been raised female. Childhood memories stirred and Jamie began a perilous journey to adulthood.


What parts of Jamie’s story trouble you, the author, the most?

What troubled me the most was how much of the emotional pain was based on the real experiences of children like Jamie. So much of what she suffered could have been avoided had she and her parents and the doctors talked to each other in complete honesty. At the center of standard treatment protocols for intersex children was the commandment that all doubts about gender be removed as soon as possible. The genitals must be made to conform to male or female norms. The parents and caregivers were allowed no doubt regarding the choice of gender. Changing gender-of-rearing was viewed as more and more problematic as the child aged. Jamie’s parents loved her, but their options were limited by their situation. And Jamie bore the cost of it all, without understanding her own body, her options, or the reason she had to be a boy.


What was the hardest thing for Jamie to handle?

That her parents’ lies had stolen her childhood. Had she known more about her body—had she known her options, she might have insisted on being a girl sooner, instead of trying to please her parents.


How about the difficulties of the different people who lived in Jamie’s world, from her family who supported her, her family who wanted what they considered best, to those who truly loved her?

Jamie’s father never understood how to relate to his faie child. The games he had played with his oldest son only injured the young Jamie. The child didn’t seem capable of something as simple as catching a ball. Jamie was a gentle child, feminine and a bit timid, but the doctors had insisted that treating Jamie like a daughter would result in lifelong gender identity issues. The sadness in his eyes—the sorrow that hurt Jamie so, flowed out of his failure to help his child learn to be a boy.

Jamie’s mother watched, helpless, as Jamie was forced to return to living as a boy. She knew the smiles were for her benefit, that her daughter wore a boy mask. But she could only bide her time until there was an opportunity to set things right. And she had to scheme and deceive to do so.

Jamie’s cousin Kaylah was the first to realize Jameson’s true gender. She nurtured the child as though she were her own, encouraging Jamie’s fantasy of being an elfin princess. But her heart was torn out when the Kirkpatrick’s moved away and Jameson returned to living as a boy. When the girl Jamie reappeared years later, having survived being confined to a mental dungeon, the mother within her awoke again, and the memory of pain with it.


Did you have a goal in mind when you set out to write Confessions of a Teenaged Hermaphrodite?

Yes. I hoped to raise awareness, especially among Christians, of kids like Jamie.


You’re a Christian. Can you share some of the struggles you’ve encountered as a person of faith living this story? One of the most heartless parts of Jamie’s story was her encounter with the pastor who demanded she follow her father’s will. How can readers relate to this tragedy?

One of the things that troubled me when I took Biblical counseling classes was how easy some of the answers seemed—use the appropriate Bible verses and confront a person’s sin. While correct in theory, life’s not that simple. The problem isn’t the Bible, though. It’s the counselors who incorrectly apply it. This is especially problematic in cases involving gender. God created male and female and pronounced that good. That’s true. But if you run with that, you’re denying the biological consequences of sin. A counselor, refusing the reality of Jamie’s condition, cannot come to a proper Biblical understanding—cannot help the child.


I think, rather, of the story of the man born blind. The disciples asked Jesus who sinned—the parents or the blind man. Jesus replied that neither was at the heart of the issue. The man’s blindness existed so that God might be glorified. Then Jesus healed the man. Why cannot we use a similar approach?

Jamie’s behavior, when taken in the context of her body and spirit, wasn’t sin at all. Her sin was that she was focused on her gender to the exclusion of all else. What she needed was to be away from everyone else’s expectations long enough to find out how to glorify God with the body and gender He had given her.


You mention that you worked with a support group. How would joining a support group help someone like Jamie?
Yes. And I still belong to one.

Having a rare condition can make one feel like a freak and very much alone in the world. Especially when it results in sex differences. I have seen girls break down in tears after meeting someone else with the same condition. “They’re not a freak. Maybe I’m not either,” is not an uncommon reaction.

Doctors don’t become experts on disorders they never see in their practices. A support group gives a patient the opportunity to talk over treatment options with other patients and with doctors who are experts on these rare conditions.

There is also something about wandering through a large hotel and knowing that most of the women have medical conditions that, in the 1970s, would have been called hermaphroditism. These women, total strangers, can share intimate details of their lives that they’d never consider telling their friends or the people in their churches. They know they’ll be accepted because they share something so deep.


If we know someone we suspect is like Jamie, do you suggest approaching the person to offer support or friendship? How should we handle this?

Just be there for them. Jamie’s true friends accepted her without asking a lot of questions. Jamie opened up when she was ready. And they supported her. The other thing to consider is that most of the people you meet who are struggling with gender issues aren’t intersex.


What do you want readers to know and do when they’ve read your story?
First of all, I hope they enjoyed my novel well enough to want to re-read it someday, or perhaps loan it to a friend. I hope they were blessed by it. And perhaps someday they’ll help a faie child who crosses their path.


Can you share what’s next for you in the publishing world?
Every few weeks you may notice a wistful look in my eyes. There’s a fantasy novel—partly on paper—waiting to be finished. It’s set on an island in the southwest of Scotland, after germ warfare has wiped out the population, leaving only a few newborn survivors—The Fair Folk.
For more information, visit:
AndrogenInsensitivity Syndrome (AIS) society for more information. AIS is one of a number of biological intersex conditions. Intersex results from a variation in the embryological development of the reproductive tract, often determined by a known genetic mutation.
Connect with Lianne
Lianne and her husband live in the suburbs outside Atlanta, where she writes, tutors, and performs volunteer work.
About the Book:
Confessions of a Teenaged Hermaphrodite 
By Lianne Simon
c. 2012
MuseItUp Publishing
ISBN 978-1-77127-157-8
eBook 5.95
pBook 9.95
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