A special treat for our readers this morning, as our very own Samuel sits down for a chat with the lovely S.A.A. Calvert, author of the Sussex Border Stories. If you haven't had a chance to give her a read yet, you can check out Samuel's reviews of Cold Feet and Something to Declare.
♥ How long have you been working on the Sussex Border Stories and how did they originate?
I was going through a bad patch in life, which is a commonplace for most transgendered people. I found some writings by a woman who I now count as a friend I have never met (telephone and e-mail) and decided to have a go at some writing of my own. Like Topsy, it grew, and while I had a clear story arc for 'Something to Declare' it left a large loose end that needed tying up, hence Melanie's story in 'Uniforms'. I started writing the stories in 2009, and am now working on another one, 'Sisters'.
♥ Do all the Sussex books have a common transgender theme?
Yes. They are all ways of looking at differing aspects of the whole process of transition and acceptance, as well as what is termed 'repudiation'.
♥ Of the three books that I've read so far, some of the characters are people I've already come across earlier in your novels and it's nice to see them and hear from them again. Is this pattern of recurring characters continued across the entire series?
Perhaps it is self-indulgence, but yes, they keep cropping up. What is a joy for me is the challenge of writing them from differing perspectives, as almost all of my work is in the first person. I had a little giggle at portraying Sarah as a hot rock chick (her own self-image) as well as a hard-faced blonde (Annie's view)
♥ I believe there are seven Sussex books and I've read three of them so far. How does the reader determine the order of the novels?
There are eight at the moment, with one more on the way. The books should be read in the following order, so as to make sense of the events:
Something to Declare
Riding Home (after the short Cold Feet at Christmas)
Cider Without Roses
Too Little Too Late
And, when I finish it, 'Sisters'. 'Viewpoints' is unrelated.
♥ It's obvious from your writings that you believe in the power of relationships, particularly as they can assist people through the difficult times that gender transition brings. Does this concept come from your own life experience?
Yes. There have been many, many times when the spectre of Captain Paranoia on my shoulder has been driven away by the simple fact of a friend, or an understanding family member, simply being there. I really believe that the nasty folk of this world are in a tiny minority, compared to those we can rely on, but they are far more memorable.
♥ The character of “Auntie” Alice is one of my favorites. She is an older person who changed gender roles rather late in life, something I still think about myself. I note that your main protagonists transitioned at different life stages and you seem to have a knack for describing the problems associated with transition that are inherent at various ages. Where did your expertise originate?
Alice is someone I feel for deeply. I claim no expertise in these things apart from my own experiences, but what I try and do is get inside the character. These are the issues; how would I feel? Transition for me is a later-life issue compared to others. I have friends who transitioned in their late teens and twenties, as well as others who waited until their families, their children, were grown and settled. What I have tried hard to address is as many differing experiences as I could. I don't want to write about androgynous teens who simply have to put on a skirt to become the most beautiful girl in school, and then turn out to be intersexed. It's a nice fantasy, a warm and fluffy dream, but I want to do my best to get under the skin of what happens with most of us. We have to do it, no matter what we look like, and so the best has to be made of what we have available. Alice is lucky: she has a Great Dark Man beside her.
♥ In "Ride On," the book that I am currently reading, the gender therapist appears to be rather astute and insightful. Have you had personal experiences, possibly both good and bad, with therapists during your own personal journey?
Good and bad, and by bad I mean abysmal. I have stuck with three therapists for the Sussex books, Sally, Raj and Alec, and they are all as human as I can write them. Sally Flint, the one I think you mean, is simply a woman who cares too much. The world is full of pain, and she does what she can to eliminate it. Sometimes, it breaks her.
♥ Please say a few words about the common themes that run throughout your books: music, cycling, rugby, and, of course, beer?
I am a big fan of rugby, a keen supporter of the Welsh team, of course, and what I like about Rugby Union is that it is a game for all shapes and sizes as long as basic fitness is there. It also served as a good metaphor for the 'flight into hypermasculinity' that many transwomen experience.
Cycling is something that a lot of my trans friends also indulge in, because it is a solitary pursuit in many ways. On a long climb, or on a flat road with no slope change, it is very easy to enter a zen state, where the mind examines life's worries and takes them apart, component by component. That can really help. Climbing, on the other hand, concentrates the mind on closer things, such as hitting the ground from a considerable height, and helps to keep other problems in proportion.
Beer is god's way of showing he loves us, to quote Benjamin Franklin (I think). There is evidence that beer was invented before bread, which shows that humanity sometimes gets its priorities right.
Music, though, is a higher thing. and I wonder of someone is either completely human or completely sane if they do not, even in a small way, respond to some form of it. It takes a person out of themselves and gives them a wider vision, even if only for the length of a pop song, and it crosses boundaries of culture, gender and language.
♥ You touch on the interaction of gender and sexuality. In your own life did you discover any surprises about the nature of the relationship between these two areas?
No great surprises for me, though there is a lot written about 'changing sexuality' with transition. There are in many cultures strong prejudices against homosexuality, and someone presenting as one sex would be considered gay if they admitted to an attraction. This is the obverse of the tragedy of Iran, where gay men are given surgery to 'make them women'
Transmen and transwomen are simply men and women, but their birth sex will continue to influence others' perception of their sexuality. Not a simple area.
♥ I'm told you conduct seminars on transgender issues. Please tell us about this.
Very simply, I am a member of a group that gives advice to many large bodies about trans issues, offers half-day or longer educational session, and gives support to trans people. The educational sessions include information about UK law (such as the Equality and Gender Recognition Acts) as well as advice on management issues. Above all, we deliver personal stories about our own history and allow people to meet transpersons who identify openly as such. Many say "You're the first I've ever met", to which we offer the rider "knowingly"
Some people don't engage, and some are openly hostile, but the bulk are open and understanding. We look to break down conscious and unconscious barriers.
♥ Is there anything else you wish I had asked you?
Not really. I will offer one thing: GID is clearly a very personal thing, and while it follows a number of broad and alternative paths, it is different for each sufferer. I stressed to a group yesterday that the term so often used, "lifestyle choice", is drivel. Nobody in sound mind would go this way by choice. We are, however, in a situation not of our creation, so please: just a little bit of tolerance.
Great interview! A huge thanks to S.A.A. Calvert for taking the time to stop by and answer our questions. Like I said, if you haven't had the chance to give her a read, check our Samuel's reviews above, or just dive in and get started on any of her novels - you won't regret it!