Tuesday, May 17, 2011

INTERVIEW: Alice Novic (Alice in Genderland)

For those of you who followed along with our Spring Celebration last month, you'll know that we featured the first part of a delightful interview with Alice Novic, author of the classic transgender memoir Alice in Genderland: A Crossdresser Comes of Age. In case you missed it (and, if you did, you missed a lot!), you can catch-up here.

Alice has graciously agreed to come back this month and finish our chat. Before we get into that, though, let's take another look at Alice in Genderland:

Alice in Genderland: A Crossdresser Comes of AgeAlice in Genderland is the first ever memoir by a crossdresser who is not content to live behind closed doors. In describing his rich, complex life, Harvard-educated psychiatrist Richard Novic speaks eloquently for his straighter, more secretive peers. Most of the time, Rick is a man at the office or a husband and father at home. But one night a week, Alice is a woman about town, shopping, dining, dancing, and dating a man for nearly a decade. And it’s all above board.
In contrast to the life he leads today, Rick Novic suffered since his sporty, nerdy boyhood with a secret, a desire he was in no way equipped to handle, but one that eventually burst through his denial, a few months before his wedding day. Just once, he felt, while he still could, he had to know how it felt to be a woman.
Like Alice in Wonderland, his curiosity led him to fall headlong down a rabbit hole, through desperate straits, mind-opening surprises, heart-rending changes, and boundless love. By the time he was back on his feet, he was a different person, living a lifestyle he hadn’t known existed. Anyone who has struggled to figure out who they are and how they want to live will surely treasure this informative and engaging life story.

If you haven't had the pleasure of reading it, Alice released an updated edition last year, buffing up the text, and adding a few scenes. She was gracious enough to send me an up-to-date copy to replace my own, so I'll be sharing my thoughts on it later this month. In the meantime, let's get on to the reason we're all gathered here today . . . the lovely, charming, and beautiful Alice (in Genderland):

♥ What can you say about the feedback you’ve received about Alice in Genderland?

Well, the good news is that Alice in Genderland has become a well-known title in the trans community, with about half of us reading it and loving it, a quarter of us loathing it, and a quarter of us vaguely aware of it. Having feared at release that the fruit of my labors might vanish quickly into obscurity, I’m very pleased with the how it has caught on.

The most striking thing I’ve discovered about a person’s response to my book is that it’s largely determined by who he or she is in the trans community. Maybe because there are so few books about crossdressing, people gravitate to each new one hoping it will provide them with exactly what they need.

Many crossdressing peers were thrilled with my story as a way to live out their dreams or their druthers. Many appreciated how I could help them feel okay about the ways in which their lives too might get a little messy. Early/questioning TSs appreciated the steps I’d laid out for them and the ways I tested the limits of what a crossdressing lifestyle might offer.

I was writing for people like this, and it worked. I heard things like: “Oh my god, that’s exactly what happened to me!” and “Books bore me, but I read yours in two days.” As crossdressers we never see characters we can fully relate to in books or movies, and finally here we had a transvestite in full, laid bare for all to revel in—or spit at.

A number of others in the greater trans community got curious about my story and found it at cross purposes to their agenda—or just got pissed off, if they didn’t know they had an agenda. For example, a transsexual in the throes of transition looking to distance herself from crossdressers and anything sexual might, and in fact many did, hate this book. A number of anxious wives wanting reassurance that the clothes are the only thing that can get complicated with a crossdresser were terrified and harshly critical.

Fervent college-kid feminists wanting me to help them challenge traditional gender roles were bitterly disappointed. Though I believe in equal rights for women, I’m not actively trying to undermine the “patriarchy,” and I suffered personally from a lot of early feminist propaganda.

Other more pleasant trends I’ve noticed are bi people who want to see how another bi has made it work and hippies curious about someone else’s alternative lifestyle. Because of such patterned responses, though, I truly appreciate everyone who has thought through my story rather than just reacted to the buttons it pressed.

♥ I think the fact that there's so much in it to elicit such a wide range of reactions is precisely what has excited me - it’s so refreshing to come across a transgender story that doesn’t shy away from the sexual side of our lives. I know you already touched on it, but how have people handled that aspect specifically?

Well, I sure paid for it, but I felt strongly that my narrative not trail off behind the bedroom door. I didn’t care if it wasn’t very demure; I wasn’t trying to sound like a genetic woman. I didn’t want to be like prior memoirists who presented themselves as long-suffering saints who never masturbated and blushed to admit they’d ever had any kind of sex. Whether CD or TS, it seemed there were two different kinds of people: those with jobs and families and those who engaged in erotica. I felt like a degenerate version of the former for years until I realized the hypocrisy. I didn’t want others to go through it.

The grief I got came in many forms, and it showed me why no major trans writer had bared their backside before. One acquaintance asked innocently enough, “Why did you have to put so much sex in your story? Is that what it’s about for you?” Someone else emailed to say, “It cheapens everything. I’d have thought you knew better.” And one hapless soul let me know, “My wife bought your book, and I’ve had to spend the last few days reassuring her I’m nothing like you.”

This all hurt and cut in two directions. Professionally it made me wonder if I had just screwed up the project I’d invested my most productive years into. And personally, it put me face to face with people who could be highly critical of how I saw myself and had chosen to live my life.

Yet, thankfully, there were others, like the t-gal at Southern Comfort who trumpeted, “Has anyone ever called you the Great Negotiator? I can’t even imagine asking my wife for the allowances you’ve got. She’d just plain shoot me.” In the TGSF newsletter, Becky Benton declared, “Books like Alice in Genderland are why we protect freedom of speech in this country.” And, perhaps more meaningful still, were the great many folks who contacted me to say, “It was like reading my own story. Thank you for making me feel better about who I am.”

Am I too sexual? Did I put too much of it in my memoir? Read my book for yourself and decide.

♥ I'm not sure you can put too much of yourself into a memoir, but I completely get what you're saying. With such a diverse audience, and so many different reactions, I have to ask - what has been the most memorable reaction to your work from a non-trans reader?

At about the time I was coming to grips with all the intense, personal reactions people were having to my book, a retired psychologist in her 70s wrote to tell me how much she enjoyed the way I welcomed people into my life and walked them through it step by step. It was just what I needed. “Thank you,” I replied, “Thank you,” and happily explained some of the hard work involved, like how my editor had sent me back to the drawing board for a year with, “Great story. Now pick the key parts of it and bring them to life for us, line by line, moment by moment.”

♥ That definitely has to bring a smile to your face. To look at an audience with a more intimate stake in the read, what has been the most memorable reaction from a trans reader?

Tragically, the most memorable reaction was when my now deceased friend Christine Daniels approached me at the Abbey here in L. A. to announce, “Alice Novic, you broke up my marriage,” before telling me how her wife and fellow sportswriter had found my book in her night table and confronted her with “Is this what you want?”

“Yes,” Christine - or Mike at that time - replied, “but really oh so much more,” before explaining how desperately she needed to transition and setting off a very sad spiral of events.

Though nothing sticks with me the way that that does, two other people touched me in curious ways. An otherwise helpful transsexual woman at IFGE 2006 insisted, “Don’t think your story is over. I’m pretty sure you’ll be joining us in a few years.” And a fellow doctor offered, “Whatever happens, you’ll always have a job with me if you need one.” Even though it would mean moving to Alabama, I’ve never forgotten the security she offered me—especially if I might be joining “them” in a few years.

♥ One of the aspects of Alice in Genderland that I find particularly interesting is the exploration of your relationship with your wife. Do you ever get feedback or questions directed at her?

Many readers admire her and have asked me pass their regards on to her—which, of course, I have. Others, alas, have seen her as some kind of pushover or enabler. I believe that when push comes to shove, though, many of these people are either envious of our open marriage or extremely worried that they may be asked for the same. Melissa has been surprisingly flexible about many things over the years but, believe me, plenty forceful in pursuit of what matters most to her.

“If she’s not into your crossdressing, then why does she stay with you?” I heard often from people who only knew me from my book. Yikes, I thought, that’s too big thing to leave in doubt, so I added three scenes to show what’s in it for her, like the way I work hard, stick to my word, help her find the right mix of career and motherhood, and play an active role in our kids’ lives.

♥ She sounds like an amazing woman, and it sounds like you've found a way to make your relationship work. That kind of commitment, and that strong a partnership, is definitely inspiring. Thinking back a bit, is there a particular author who influenced or inspired you, either as a writer or as a member of the transgender community?

Atlas ShruggedFor starters, Ayn Rand, and especially Atlas Shrugged, has confirmed and enriched much of my thinking. I especially appreciate the way she sticks her neck out to defend the kind of innovator I strive to be.

Additionally, while reading trans memoirs in preparation for my book, I was especially impressed by Renee Richards and her book Second Serve. Her story was far the most forthcoming and her bravery made me feel bashful in comparison. I’m a similar person from a similar background, but I could not have done what she did.

And finally, when challenged to turn life events into full scenes, I found my way to Anne Tyler, for she seemed best at finding the dramatic in the domestic. Books like The Accidental Tourist and Breathing Lessons taught me how to write dialogue.

♥ I haven't read either of Renee's memoirs yet, but they're both on my watch-list. If we can get back to Alice in Genderland one last time, is there a particular quote or passage that you are especially fond of? Something that just seems to sum up either your experience or your message for others?

Yes, there is one quote, I believe, that sums up my youth and, I trust, offers inspiration to anyone who has to deal with an unwanted difference:

“How could a traditional man, like me, face the fact he wanted nothing more than to indulge in the pleasures of womanhood? All the pleasures of womanhood. What a humiliating fate. It tore me up like nothing before and nothing since. I’ve had to grow in astonishing ways to turn this indelible curse into an invaluable blessing, to go from my worst nightmare to my wildest dreams. Although my lifestyle is no doubt controversial, I feel good about who I am and how I live.” 

♥ Perfect choice - that passage literally lept off the page at me. Now, I always like to ask people about their hobbies and passions outside the literary realm, but I’m curious as to whether they are different for Alice than Richard, or whether the same activities bring you satisfaction regardless?

For a number of years, I’ve passionately coached my kids’ teams in soccer and baseball and didn’t have any choice but to show up in conventional male form. Now that I can no longer keep pace with them, I’m treating myself to private handgun, poker, and dancing lessons. I’m having a ball, and whether I show up as cowboy or saloon girl doesn’t really matter to me or my instructors. Seriously, I’ll arrive either way—though it’s really more a matter of a wig and a different kind of jeans than anything else.

♥ Hmm, a cross-dressing cowboy who moonlights as a saloon girl - you just may have the beginning of your first novel there! Finally, before I let you go, have you said everything you felt needed to be said with Alice in Genderland, or do you think there might be another book in you?

No, between telling my story in Alice in Genderland and sharing the rest of what I’ve learned in articles like Seven Great Myths Among Us MTFs (on aliceingenderland.com), I no longer feel like I’m on a mission, no longer bursting at the seams with things to say. It’s a good feeling. I’m going to enjoy it for a while.


Once again, a huge "thank you" to Alice Novic for stopping by. You can check her out on the web at http://www.aliceingenderland.com/.


  1. What a great interview - thanks for linking us Friday hoppers to it :)
    All the best to Alice, I loved reading this interview!

  2. WOW!!!--What an AMAZING interview!!! Thanks for sharing your story!!!--It seems like a subject that everyone want to talk about and know more about, but are afraid to talk about and ask about. It's great that not only do you have a wonderful story to tell, but that your book also sounds like it's opening up doors for others to tell their stories as well.