15 years in the making, Paul Takes the Form of a Mortal Girl is a revelatory book on queerness, love, and sex
Imagine if you could shift shape, morph anatomy, become who you want to be and back again in just a night. Imagine the freedom of your thinking, the lives you could live, the spaces you could enter. The possibilities could be endless, but also confusing.
This is the premise of American writer Andrea Lawlor’s debut novel, Paul Takes The Form Of A Mortal Girl, described by Maggie Nelson as “hot”, Michelle Tea as “deeply cool”, and the New Yorker as “smut”. It follows 23-year-old Paul Polydoris through sexual and romantic encounters as he cruises city to city in 90s America, slipping in and out of darkrooms in Chicago’s Boystown as a gay man, visiting the Michigan Womyns’ Music Festival as a lesbian, and strutting down the streets of San Francisco in androgynous punk rock glory.
As a nonbinary writer, Lawlor claims Paul is, in part, autobiographical, and the book is littered with references to the queer theory that shaped their thinking and the niche homocore bands that they grew up on. But it’s also an experiment in looking back to look forward, asking: what can recent queer history tell us about our perceptions around gender and sexuality today?
Below, we talked to Lawlor about the influences for the book, the idea of “women only” spaces, and what it takes to write the queerest book of all time.
I heard that you first started Paul 15 years ago, how did you start and what took you so long to write it?
Andrea Lawlor: I didn’t start writing until I was about 30. It took me a while to get through undergrad – I had some crushingly boring jobs. I didn’t think I could be a writer, there was class stuff there and probably gender stuff. I grew up in Connecticut in a factory town, my mom was a school nurse and my dad a school social worker. My parents were like, ‘you should go to college and be a lawyer’. The idea of being a writer was frivolous and unacceptable. The 70s and 80s were very different to how it is now; I was out to kids in high school but there was only one other gay kid. I didn’t have a sense that I could write about my life and anyone would publish it.
When I did start a draft of Paul, it was around 2002, I had gotten into a writing workshop with Dodie Bellamy in San Francisco. I began by rewriting these Greek myths as a way to try to write a story without having to come up with a plot, which seemed impossible to me. I was working on a Tiresias retelling. I later went to a creative writing graduate programme, studying with Samuel Delaney. He read it and said ‘I think you’re not done with Paul’, so I picked it back up. It did take 15 years to complete, but I wasn’t working straight through! I had other jobs. My partner had a baby.
You say Tiresias was an influence? What about Virginia Woolf’s Orlando?
Andrea Lawlor: Orlando is a huge influence that got in early and just stuck. I read Orlando in high school, way before I could really understand it. Maybe the same weekend I read Rubyfruit Jungle and The Well of Loneliness… you could find the books at this women’s bookstore in New Haven close to where I grew up and I would buy the books and hide them. My friend and I, the only other out gay in my school, we’d swap them in dorky surreptitious ways like we were doing a drug deal. I read Orlando at 14 or 15 and it was a counterbalance to the Well of Loneliness which was the first book where I was like ‘oh there it is – that’s me’. I thought: I’m The Well of Loneliness! That’s a downer!’
But Orlando was so fun. Later, rereading it as an adult, after a late draft of Paul, I realised how racist it is. I don’t love it as uncomplicatedly as I did before I was able to think consciously about racism. Still, Woolf did this amazing thing of letting the story be without explaining or needing to explain, I owe that lesson to her. But I also love the fact it was a present to her lover… that’s so hot!
Paul is set in 1993 – why that year?
Andrea Lawlor: I was writing things that were loosely autobiographical (from) not too long before I started writing, and then as the project was taking longer and turning into a whole novel, I realised that I needed to keep a certain constraint on time. It just made sense; it was a time before things were documented as much as they are now with the internet, it speaks to a moment with gender and sexuality that young people might not know about as much, and it allowed me to say: some of these conversations we’re having today, we were having much earlier…
What would you say those conversations are?
Andrea Lawlor: I remember in the 90s I couldn’t connect with a lot of lesbian people, or LGB people. I was connecting with people who were queer and it felt like this huge distinction, that now has been broken open by this gender revolution. Coming up through ACT UP and other coalitional organising, there was a feeling of ‘people can work together even if we don’t share experience’. That’s how I came into activism and queer identity, the two were intertwined for me, that was what queerness was.
I was really confused when I later moved to Iowa City, and came across things like lesbian separatist spaces, or heard about the Michigan Wymen’s Music Festival, or lesbian potlucks. I understand people wanting certain kinds of spaces, but I don’t understand excluding people from that space if they want to be in it and they identify as such. I don’t understand excluding trans women from women’s spaces. I think these conversations around who can use what spaces have been there for a long time. Questions about intersectionality and solidarity have been there. These conversations get flattened out a bit, like ‘past bad, present good, future better’. I hope the future is better, but there were a lot of things going on in ‘the olden days’ that were complicated!
“Being queer is the best thing that ever happened to me, it led me to this amazing life and partner and friends and community” – Andrea Lawlor
One thing that feels distinctly different is that Paul doesn’t really use the language of transness to talk about what he’s going through…
Andrea Lawlor: Well the language was really different back then. I remember when Stone Butch Blues came out the word ‘trans’ wasn’t used as much of a word as ‘butch’. Butch meant what ‘trans masculine’ means now. That doesn’t scan now, because there are a lot of butch people who are transphobic or trans exclusionary… I used to identify really clearly as butch for a long period, and it’s changed because a lot of that territory has been claimed by people with whom I do not share values. And there came a point where ‘she/her’ no longer meant what I needed it to mean or have comfortable space in for me and so I moved to using ‘them’ and I’m grateful for the people who made that possibility.
I suppose I gave Paul much of my experience and consciousness – he’s not me entirely, but a lot of his subjectivity is close to mine at the time. I did a lot of fact checking – ‘what would Paul say when thinking about a sex worker he passed on the street, would he say ‘sex worker’, ‘hooker’, ‘prostitute’, ‘whore’? What would he have been reading? There’s language in the book I wouldn’t use today. I tried to keep everything historically possible and accurate. I think what I had to do is remember and believe that representation is not endorsement, as long as the authorial worldview is clear. For instance, a question I certainly thought about in those years was, ‘Am I going to have a sex change’? Which is not the language you would use now, but your life options have to do with what is possible to think at the time, based on what you have access to. I’m interested in epistemology: how do you know what you are?
One thing I really love about the book is the amount of cultural references – you have to be in the know, whether it’s punk music, strap on politics or queer sublabels like ‘bear’, it’s very gratifying as a queer reader…
Andrea Lawlor: I have had people say, ‘there’s too many references! I don’t get them!’ I have learned to be like, ‘good, because for me, centring queerness is my game’. I wasn’t necessarily trying to load the book with cultural references, it’s just one of the ways I write that probably comes from things I’ve read, like New Narrative writers, queer writers of the 90s, or even Frank O’Hara. It was important to me too, to be showing the ways in which the culture we consume is also constructing us, and that is something that I’ve really felt and struggled with in my life; why do I have all these ideas about romance? Or how to be a man?
I love what you said about queer centring, and how the book is not straight-washed so that straight people will understand it. It’s unapologetic. Why is that important to you?
Andrea Lawlor: I didn’t think there was any point in not writing all the things I know. I live in a pretty queer centred universe, that’s the world I’m writing in and about and I’m from and I think partly I was not trying to write a big book. I was not trying to write the Great American Novel. But there was a period where I was like, I’m going to try to write the most queer thing ever written, and it’s a schticky thing to say, but I’m happy to have a book in which I’m not sure if there are even any straight people… except maybe Paul’s mom.
You might have written the Great Queer American Novel.
Andrea Lawlor: I don’t even want to! I want it to be one conversation among many other books, you want endless shelves of queer books...
I like that in a time with a lot of talking about queer or identity politics this book really puts queerness in action. I want to talk about all the sex in the book!
Andrea Lawlor: I had people counting the sex scenes and saying that there’s something like 17 or 18. But hey, I guess it depends what counts! For me, it’s like sex is an obvious subject for literary investigation because it’s a big part of life. Being queer is the best thing that ever happened to me, it led me to this amazing life and partner and friends and community. It’s like being queer is a gift to me and I came to that through wanting to have particular kinds of sex with particular kinds of people. We shouldn’t forget all that.
This is a book about someone who can change their body on the outside, and gain access to different spaces and interactions. My final question is, what’s the message?
Andrea Lawlor: I think usually the writer is the last person to know what their book is doing, but I’ve received some really nice emails from guys who have considered themselves straight and cis, writing to me about their flexity, and I’m like ‘neat!’ I think what I’m always looking for is liberation… for all of us, and I hope that would mean liberation from being afraid you’re not ‘whatever enough’… straight enough or cis enough. There’s not some stable core of identity to Paul. He is many things. So I guess it’s about being large, containing multitudes.
Paul Takes the Form of a Mortal Girl by Andrea Lawlor is published by Picador, out now