Eliot Duncan talks to Sam Moore about trans-masculinity, loneliness and writing one of the most difficult, compelling characters in contemporary literature
Ponyboy, the eponymous narrator of Eliot Duncan’s incendiary debut novel, is a hot mess express. His relationship with Baby, a lesbian artist, is complicated by the question of his transition, and his continued attempts to find himself draw him into cycles of addiction, escape, and – possibly – rebirth.
As the novel moves breathlessly through space and time – from the American Midwest to Paris and Berlin – Duncan creates a fascinating central figure; as compelling to behold as they are frustrating to spend time with. Railing against everything that he feels limits how to define themselves, Ponyboy is desperate to be seen as he is, with no caveats or asterisks.
But Ponyboy is much more playful than its thorny, contradictory central character might make it seem. Through a deft command of language, Duncan is able to create a uniquely trans story that fights for the right to be seen. Ahead of the US launch of Ponyboy in New York this month, the author talked to Dazed about nightclubs, Kathy Acker, and if gender has become blasé.
One of the things that really jumps out of this novel is Ponyboy himself. Did the character come first in your process?
Eliot Duncan: I think for me the voice always comes first, and Ponyboy’s voice was the primary thing. I didn’t start with character sketches or plot details, I’m not that kind of writer; I just write to get it out. I worked really hard on getting the voice correct and everything else comes from that.
I’m struck by the author’s note, and your willingness to say that some of this is based on real life. What is it that made you want to lead with that admission of autobiography?
Eliot Duncan: It felt quite natural because as a reader I have an inclination to make connections between first-person narratives and the writer. And because Ponyboy and I have some similarities, it felt like a way to protect myself and to honour the fact that it’s a novel, and it’s important that it’s read that way, so there are stories of trans life that aren’t all autobiographical or autofictional, that we can also exist in fictional worlds too.
Thinking about this novel and where it fits in a boom in trans lit, being able to tell our own stories, there’s often a burden of ‘good representation’, but one of the things I love about this book is its willingness to get messy. Did the question of good or bad representation come into your mind while you were writing?
Eliot Duncan: Honestly, while I was writing, I wasn’t really thinking about anyone reading it! I wasn’t anticipating any sort of reader in mind and that way I was kind of free, and retrospectively I think that was a good thing.
I think that there’s a pressure when you’re part of a marginalised group to put your best foot forward and represent that marginalised group. Especially when you’re part of a group that’s widely disliked, there’s this pressure. And I feel this in my personal life, this pressure to be a ‘good transsexual’, so I think it’s understandable that people have that reaction. But those aren’t the characters in books or movies that I love; like, I love someone who’s in a dire state of grappling with the world on their own terms. I find those stories really compelling so it felt natural for me to write characters who are flawed and messy, and kind of a jerk. Ponyboy’s a jerk, honestly!
I read this in a few long sittings, and he’s definitely difficult to spend a lot of time with!
Eliot Duncan: I know, he is! But like, being trans is a human experience and books to me are a reflection of human experience, and I think we need all kinds of human experiences reflected to us. Like, we just need a transmasc jerk! It was important that I didn’t change his circumstances or narrative to represent trans people in a good light, because again, we’re just people.
“In my personal life, [there’s a] pressure to be a ‘good transsexual’... but those aren’t the characters in books or movies that I love; like, I love someone who’s in a dire state of grappling with the world on their own terms... characters who are flawed and messy” – Eliot Duncan
It’s interesting how much Ponyboy has different aspects of queer life butting heads with each other in the relationships between the main characters. Were differences in ways of being queer always gonna be a big theme and conflict in the book?
Eliot Duncan: I think so, and I think it’s just reflective of being a queer person for me. It’s messy, for me, and there’s not one way to do it. And there’s something to be said for this really therapised way of dealing with relationships, that’s very studied, tempered and mature. But it was important that the relationships that Ponyboy has are reflections of his own chaos. Like, he wasn’t in this position to have tenderqueer or mature relationships.
Writing the book, my opinion as the author was that there’s nothing wrong with Baby not wanting to be with a trans man – Baby’s a lesbian. But because Ponyboy has such an attachment to Baby, and he’s becoming himself, it feels like a total rejection. I was interested in how we stumble through relationships: they can be really fraught and messy, but you can go through that and still be OK, and still show love to that person.
Chaos is something I wanted to pick up on, as well as character and narrative, the book’s form seems to make itself as it goes on. The moments of poetry, the conversation with Kathy Acker: do you feel like the chaos of the form is a continuation of Ponyboy’s voice?
Eliot Duncan: I think so. I think it could only be written that way. My process was that I had a lot of these fragments; I didn’t know I was writing a novel, but had the voice. So I just started piecing them together and filling in the narrative between the gaps – the poems, and the interviews, and the fragmentary nature was how it had to be. Retrospectively, I can see that’s reflective of the emotional thrust of the book.
I didn’t know how else to talk to Kathy Acker. I knew that Ponyboy had to talk to Kathy Acker but didn’t know how to do it so I just thought oh, Ponyboy is going to imagine an interview with Kathy Acker.
Do you think writing a book is a tonic for loneliness?
Eliot Duncan: I think it can be. It’s nice to have a parallel world running. I think of writing as a place to put all the things that are running through your mind, so it can be helpful for loneliness. But for me, and I think for a lot of other people, it can require a lot of solitude, which can generate more loneliness.
There are some mentions of queer and trans cultural figures like Paul Preciado and Jack Halberstam in the text. Was there a conscious decision to think about the lineage of trans writing and where Ponyboy might be in it?
Eliot Duncan: I was writing the book when I was entirely alone, philosophically and emotionally. So adding these trans and queer voices was a way to bring companionship, and give myself permission. Like, there’s a line in the book where Ponyboy says, ‘I didn’t know where I was, but I knew about Jack Halberstam, so there I existed in theory.’ It helped build the world of the novel; you know, we’re not taught trans history in school, if you want to find it you have to go looking. So finding a version of myself in history, whether that’s Acker or Halberstam, was a way for me to keep writing. I hope that’s transferred into Ponyboy’s will to live.
A lot of the language in this book feels like it runs into and tries to transcend the limits of how we’re seen or perceived. As someone who has language as their medium, do you think it’s good or bad at talking about gender?
Eliot Duncan: I think language is great for gender! The main framework I used in writing it was Monique Witting, a French theorist with this whole thing of slashing the [I] in half, and I thought it was cool that we could change typography to make room for our experiences in the history of literature. But maybe now I’m less concerned with changing typography and more interested in how boring gender can be.
“Writing [is] a place to put all the things that are running through your mind, so it can be helpful for loneliness. But it can require a lot of solitude, which can generate more loneliness”
To experience or to write about?
Eliot Duncan: Both! Gender’s a very hot thing to me, I’m very interested in other people’s gender. But for me it was such a dire white-knuckling, figuring out who I was and now I’m just a boring, trans-masculine gay guy. I dunno, maybe there are just wholesome, sweet ways to talk about people’s gender, and it’s such an upheaval to do so. And I think I needed to write it but now my gender feels ubiquitous.
Has it changed your relationship with the book?
Eliot Duncan: Absolutely! I wrote the book a while ago; I started in 2013. I’ve written many things since then and I’m a different person now. But I have a writing mentor who said you have to honour the person you were when you wrote it, and I’m trying to live in that.
We touched earlier on this ‘big moment’ for trans lit. Do you think it’s a thing, or that it’s overhyped?
Eliot Duncan: I don’t know. I’ve definitely seen more trans books. I mean, we’ve always been writing books, we’ve always been making art. But I think that we maybe have a slither more representation in publishing now. I think I’m more interested in the fact that we’ve always been doing it.
The idea of everything that came before the boom, or the idea that it isn’t something we need?
Eliot Duncan: Oh I definitely think it’s something we need. I just think a lot about all the trans writers whose books never got published. It makes me feel good to think that this boom might be happening, but I’m in a lineage of trans people who have always been making things.