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Interview

An Interview with Danny M. Lavery, by A. E. Osworth

I read Something That May Shock and Discredit You with a pen in hand, underlining passages and wondering how Daniel Mallory Ortberg (who is socially going by Daniel Lavery after taking his wife’s last name) got so close to my own experiences as to be squatting in my own, personal brain. And that was before I knew I’d be speaking to him. I just didn’t want to forget anything. In particular: “My most desperate desire was not that I would be assisted in my transition but that someone would either force or forbid me to do it, because I could not take responsibility for annihilating my own life.” It’s a feeling I remember well, the longing to be pushed out of the closet or else barricaded in it, the understanding that nothing and everything would change once I spoke out loud the reasons for my sudden onset panic attacks, a problem I had never before had until all at once I realized why I was always uncomfortable. An annihilation, to be sure.

The book is a collection of essays and interludes, many of which have been previously published on Lavery’s popular email newsletter, The Shatner Chatner. It oscillates between deep thoughts about the nature of gender and transition, closely-read parody of the Bible and Greek myth, and Eldritch re-envisioning of House Hunters. Lavery’s writing stands on the theoretical shoulders of many a gender theorist before him, but that’s not what makes this book special. It is the lightness of prose that doesn’t at all interfere with the intellectual rigor of content, but rather enhances it. It is the inclusion and distortion of the pop culture landscape around us, situating the modern (post-modern? contemporary?) transsexual in a landscape of hot internet takes and e-dada-esque humor. It is the speaking directly to and for a trans community with blessedly little hedging toward a cis audience.

This interview with Daniel Mallory Ortberg has been edited for length, clarity and flow.

A.E. Osworth

At the end of every interview, I usually ask if there’s a question you wish people would ask you. Given the content of Something That May Shock and Discredit You, I am making an educated guess that you wind up talking more about transition and transness than is enjoyable. So I would like to instead start with this question: what do you never get asked that you’re dying to talk about? What could you do with never talking about again?

Danny M. Lavery

One thing I have noticed so far on this tour is that I’ve gotten to speak a lot more with trans, non-binary and genderqueer interviewers than I have in the past, which has felt very exciting, and means I get to answer a lot of more thoughtful and complicated questions. But I suppose I got asked a bit more about my close reading of Dante and Virgil! I was really proud of actually doing some careful reading in this book.

AEO

You also carefully read House Hunters, which is a damn delight. With the same intellectual rigor as Dante and Virgil!

DML

Thank you! Although I think most of the Internet has offered a close reading of House Hunters. It’s a very crowded field at this point.

AEO

But most on the internet have not offered quite so eldritch a reading of House Hunters. In many of the interludes, there is an almost eldritch twisting of popular culture touchstones. What makes House Hunters a gate for Cthulhu? How did Mean Girls get into their Sleep-No-More-esque time loop? Why is engaging with the frequently replicated, re-watched and re-told so weird and strange?

DML

I know “eldritch” is a very of-the-moment term (or maybe of-two-years ago, I’m not as poised on the pulse as I was), but I don’t think it’s just, “What if House Hunters were scary,” so much as just—it’s such a jarring show, and such a dishonest show, and I think that’s immediately recognizable to almost anyone who watches it, even people who quite like it. From the fact that you have to already be in escrow in order to try out for the show, so everyone’s pretending to agonize over decisions they’ve already made, to the obvious masochism of much of the show’s audience being locked out of the housing market, to the dulling, constant jokes about women and closets, or men needing to be closer to their Jobs Downtown. And I think especially with the Mean Girls loop— there are so many ways that transition reorients your relationship to time: ways that you attempt to relive the past in order to legitimate the present, or feel caught up in an endless negotiation with something fixed and remote. I’ve spent a lot of time, especially in the early days of my transition, wanting to be like, thrown in front of a Girl Council so I could exorcize my guilt.

AEO

You often resist a standard trans narrative—this is, in fact, the most specific and nuanced discussion of trans identity narratives I have yet read. I found myself straddling the sensation that you were camped out in my own personal brain and the delighted shock of “oh, we can say that in front of cis people now?” How do you balance writing for a trans audience with the knowledge that those outside the community will also read the book?

DML

I want to start with “resist a standard trans narrative,” because I think that’s really been the rule of almost every trans writer I’ve ever read or even most trans people I’ve ever met.

I really think we all do that, all the time. So it’s only if you’re comparing this book to, say, a New York Times article that’s like, “you heard about this binding? Sounds dangerous, but some claim it helps their dysphoria!”

AEO

Oy, that article.

DML

I think that almost all trans memoirs I’ve come across (and this isn’t exactly a memoir in the sense that it follows the arc of my whole life) feel equally complicated. So I don’t see myself as doing something especially unique in terms of genre or approach, although I do think my own unique experiences are interesting and worth recording and reflecting on. I see myself as part of a really exciting tradition that’s already flourishing and has a lot of thoughtful writers involved.

AEO

Can you list some of those writers?

DML

Susan Stryker’s “Words to Victor Frankenstein,” Kai Cheng Thom’s “A Trans Girls’ Notes from the End of the World,” Morgan M. Page’s historical work, Kay Gabriel’s criticism, Julian K. Jarboe’s upcoming collection Everyone on the Moon is Essential Personnel, Torrey Peters’ Infect Your Friends and Loved Ones. I’ve also really appreciated Cáel M Keegan’s movie criticism; Kate Bornstein, obviously, because I feel like I just cited, aside from Susan Stryker, mostly writers of the last five to ten years, to counteract the urge to assume that transition was invented whenever I transitioned. It’s lovely to read writers from the last ten, the last twenty, the last thirty and fifty and eighty years, and to find convergences and dissonance, shared desires and experiences, as well as jarring difference.

AEO

That brings me back to the idea of time— do you ever find jarring difference even in your own narrative? I ask because it’s something I’ve struggled with: the idea that I shouldn’t put any of this down, because what will be different tomorrow, next week, or ten years from now, and will it not be true if it changes?

DML

Yes, absolutely! And I’ve thought about this in context of this book too, because I’m very aware that my transition is a mere three years old, so this book will, necessarily, be a reflection of how I thought and felt about my body and my identity and my place in my communities during a very intense time, and one that is unlikely to be consistent and permanent. I wanted to balance two things: One, not writing solely out of impulse and reflex, trying to suggest I am being perfectly and permanently reborn in a way no one else has ever done and will carry on perfectly in the future; and two, not worrying over-much about “What if someday I no longer believe this or see X in this way?” That’s kind of also just the problem of writing a book.

AEO

I want to talk about your prose style for a second.

DML

Let’s!

AEO

Aside from the influence of the trans authors we talked about, I also see a distinctly dandy influence on your words: specifically, Oscar Wilde, P.G. Wodehouse and Frank O’Hara. The tack-sharp wit, unflinching analysis and joyous wordplay can only be described as dandy prose. You also include Gomez Addams in some of your T4T analysis, or as I prefer to call him, Goth Dandy. Do you consider yourself a dandy of today? How important or influential is dandy prose to a queer poetic (a trans poetic? Is there even such a thing?) and why?

DML

Oh that’s lovely. So while I don’t think I have much of the dandy in my wardrobe or personal style, I do think that’s an influence in some of my writing, and there’s a relationship to stylishness and queerness in it that I quite like. The dandy style combines suavity, vanity, resistance to heterosexual pressure, courtliness, interest in a dozen delicate little social rules but less interested in Big Rules and avoids violence.

AEO

I seem to remember from your Twitter that this book felt like it was done several times, and it wasn’t. What decided you on the end of the book, and what did it feel like to find it?

DML

Oh it was 100% my agent and editor said, “there are not enough words. Write 5k more.” And then it happened again. And then they said I could stop. I will say that the last-minute rewrites meant the book, which had originally closed with a vision of what I hoped was successful re-integration into the nuclear family ends with something very different, something a bit slapdash, with less wishful thinking or attempts at control, something much more in keeping, I think, with the idea of being shocked and discredited rather than trying a way to reintegrate “discrediting” into a larger narrative of safety and credibility. I think wishful thinking is something I will never completely rid myself of, but the sort of wishful thinking that tries to get heterosexuality to welcome you back into the fold, at least, I have been able to disavow.

  • – – – – –
Danny M. Lavery is the author of Texts From Jane Eyre, The Merry Spinster, and the forthcoming Something That May Shock and Discredit You, as well as the cofounder of The Toast and the current Dear Prudence at Slate.

A.E. Osworth’s first novel, We Are Watching Eliza Bright, which is forthcoming from Grand Central Publishing in April 2021, is narrated collectively and unreliably by a fictional subreddit. You can catch their writing on Quartz, Mashable, Autostraddle, Electric Literature and Paper Darts, among others. You can also follow them on social media (@AEOsworth) and check out their website (aeosworth.com).

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