Meredith Russo: An Exclusive Interview on If I Was Your Girl

Meredith Russo: An Exclusive Interview on If I Was Your Girl

Hi Meredith, thanks for talking to us. Where did the idea for Amanda’s story originate? Did you know how things would play out before you started writing?

I knew from the start that I was ready to write a trans character, so her story definitely began there. But it evolved a lot over time. The original setup was very soap-operatic: Amanda was friends with Grant when they were little, and then returned to town as a teenager, but Grant didn’t know she was the same Andrew he’d played with; it was all very dramatic and goofy. I’m glad I didn’t end up going with that. And no, I didn’t really know where it would all end up. I do outlines, but I leave a lot of blank space to flex within them, so there were still some surprises.

It’s still rare to see a transgender protagonist in young adult fiction. Why did you decide to take this approach? Was it daunting?

I wanted to write a trans character because I’m a trans woman, and I spent my whole life very conscious that the only time I ever heard stories about people like me they were being told by cis people, to cis people. I really can’t emphasise enough how damaging that lack of decent representation is when you’re a kid and you’re trying to suss out how you fit in the world around you, and I wanted my book to be part of the solution. I grew up on sci-fi and fantasy, and I’ve got a lot of ideas for very high concept stories about magic and transhumanism involving trans characters, but it also sort of felt like we’re not there yet. Huge numbers of people are only barely aware of what a trans person is, and even then their knowledge is probably 90% hurtful, inaccurate stereotypes – to these people all trans stories are effectively sci-fi, you know?

What qualities do you love about Amanda as a character?

My favourite thing about Amanda is her open-mindedness. She’s got plenty of flaws – she’s a little clueless about other people’s feelings, she has severe trust issues that get in the way of her relationships, she’s not good at shutting down situations when it’s easy and instead lets them spiral out of control – but I’m happy that I didn’t add “judgemental” to them.

Aside from Amanda, who was your favourite character to write and why?

Bee! Absolutely Bee. People ask me, “How much of Amanda is based on you”, and I’m sad to say the answer is almost none! We’re both trans, and we’re both nerds, but that’s where the resemblance stops. Bee is who I was when I was an angry little dork in art school. She’s a homage to all my art school friends at the time.

In your author note you say you have ‘taken liberties with what I know reality to be’. How did you decide what real experiences to use in your story and which ones to fictionalise for the sake of the story?

The two big, big things I decided to fictionalise were Amanda’s surgery and how well she’s able to pass and integrate at her new school. It’s technically possible to have what trans people call “bottom surgery” at 18 like Amanda does, and some of us do manage to do it, but they’re in the vast, vast minority. The economic and social realities of most trans women make getting bottom surgery that early (if at all) absolutely impossible. I decided to have her go ahead and have the surgery because, frankly, I don’t think most cis people are ready to understand that a straight man who is attracted to a non-op or pre-op trans woman is still straight, and I didn’t want that tarnishing Grant and Amanda’s romance in their minds.

Now, as far as passing and school: Amanda’s from the state of Tennessee, and in Tennessee no matter what you do, no matter what forms you fill out, they will never, ever change the gender marker on your birth certificate, so in the real world at least one school administrator would have known Amanda’s secret, probably more.

And then there’s passing: Amanda is something like 15 years old when she starts hormones, meaning she’s anywhere from two to five years into the wrong puberty, meaning she should have at least some “masculine” (ugh) features besides just being tall that hormones won’t do anything about. Let me just put this out there, though: the idea of “passing” as a woman when trans women are already women is asinine, and we can be beautiful without “passing”. I changed these because I didn’t want boring bureaucratic details to get in the way of a good story, and because, again, if Amanda didn’t pass perfectly, if there was anything masculine about her, I was afraid some readers would reject the romance as “gay” and miss the point.

Do you find writing fiction helps you to discuss things you couldn’t talk about otherwise in a more biographical account?

Ah, yes, absolutely, but that’s a hard question to answer! I mean, let’s say that hypothetically I was a tremendous stoner in high school, but I’ve got a kid now and moms aren’t generally supposed to run around admitting to their high school shenanigans. In that situation wouldn’t it be easier to take those experiences and slap them on a fictional character so you can still use them? So in cases like that, yes, fiction makes things way easier.

What was the biggest challenge when writing?

Doing it at all! I’m not a very motivated or organized person, and taking initiative on things like this is so hard. For most of my life it was a chore just to finish school assignments and make it to work on time, and then I had to make myself do extra work on top of that? Yikes.

Do you have a favourite quote or scene from the book?

“Just because you have a past don’t mean you can’t have a future.” I was so embarrassingly proud of myself when I wrote that.

What has been the most rewarding thing about writing this book?

When trans teens write to me saying it helped them. I could be having the worst day of my life and one of those messages still cheers me up.

Did you set out to write a book for young readers or did it naturally appeal to them once written?

I very specifically wanted to write something that young trans people could read and feel less alone.

How have readers responded to your book? What has it been like to meet readers who have connected with Amanda’s story?

Very well, which is so refreshing! I get emails from librarians saying they can’t keep it on the shelf, from teachers saying they’re using it in class, from parents saying it helped them understand their trans kid, from cis teens saying it opened their eyes to what their friends are going through, and, like I said above, from trans people, which is so important to me. It’s honestly surreal, like I don’t even know how to process it, and it’s absolutely amazing.

What message do you hope readers will take away from your book?

To cis people: We are human beings with all the same hopes, dreams, and fears as you, not curiosities or political objects. To trans people: you are real and valid and deserve to be loved and respected.

Did you carry out much research before writing? Did you speak to other transgender people about it beforehand?

I didn’t do a lot of intentional research, no, but I mean these are things trans people talk about with each other. We discuss bullying, crappy home lives, and anxieties about romance just like everybody else does, and these things are grist for a trans writer’s mill just as much as a cis writer.

What’s the most thought-provoking thing you’ve come across whilst writing/researching/discussing the book?

When I actually sat down, looked at the population for a town like Lambertville, and did the math on demographics for trans and queer people, I found out later I got the numbers wrong in the book – that it’s actually closer to 3.8% of the population is LGBT if you go by those who’re willing to admit it, but even then the numbers are insane compared to how it actually feels to live in a little rural town like that.

Why did you choose If I Was Your Girl as the title?

Ha, well, it was sort of a joke that became serious. It’s the title of a Janet Jackson song, but it also really works. The incorrect use of the subjunctive (picture me pushing a pair of glasses up my nose) implies the backwoods, rural setting in its own way, and the phrase itself speaks of yearning for something you can’t have, which is kind of fundamental to the story and the trans experience in general. It also perfectly sums up Amanda’s relationship to Grant – their whole experience is, in a way, a question. What would happen if? What if I could be that girl, and have that life?

What do you think of the US book jacket featuring model Kira Conley? Is it how you imagined the cover to be?

Beyond the suggestion to my US publisher that they use a trans model for the cover, which I was thrilled that they took, I didn’t really have any preconceptions about the overall look – but Kira blew me away. She’s so absolutely gorgeous. Sometimes I still just stare at the cover and can’t believe it.

Why did you decide to include a note for both cisgender readers and transgender readers? Did you notice a difference in how they reacted to the book?

Oh, their reactions to the book are absolutely different! Cis readers tell me that the book opened their eyes and gave them a better understanding of what trans people go through, and trans readers say it’s just nice seeing someone even remotely like them in a story written by someone like them. I wrote separate notes because there’s this problem, right, where members of the majority consume art by the minority but fail to absorb the message correctly and go on to do more damage. Privileged people (and don’t get me wrong, I’ve got my own privilege to unpack) desperately want to believe they “get it”, but letting them think they do when they don’t is almost as destructive as if they were just a bigot outright. So, yeah, I wanted to nip that in the bud.

What do you think the importance is of offering more representation of transgender people in fiction? How could a book like yours have helped you when younger? What do you hope for the future of transgender fiction?

Representation is how humans figure out who we are and what we want. Think of 1984’s Newspeak for an example of why representation is important: the Party believes that if they remove people’s ability to articulate an idea, they’ll also remove the idea itself. It’s the same with representation. For most people, if you’re never told it’s possible for you to do something or, as is the case with subject minorities, if you’re told over and over that you can’t do something, it becomes difficult to imagine doing it. For most of my life I was only told a few, nasty things about trans women, and that informed what I believed was possible for my life for a very long, very unhappy time. A book like mine could have saved me ten years of putting off transitioning because I was scared it would ruin my life. Hopefully soon there will be more trans writers telling more kinds of trans stories. I want to see trans revolutionaries, trans astronauts, trans post-apocalyptic survivors, trans magicians, trans everything, because the more we tell young trans people they can be the more they will be.

What would you say to someone who has experienced similar situations as Amanda or who may be struggling in other ways because they are transgender?

There’s a tribe out there waiting for you. I won’t say, “It gets better”, because that always felt condescending and is frequently not true (the fact is that oppression doesn’t go away that easily), but I will tell you that there are people out there who will love you, and with whom you can create ways to mitigate the pain. There are places that are better than where you are, and it’s not as hard to get to them as you think. It might seem impossible now, and it’ll never be as easy as it would’ve been had you been cis, but you can still find ways to have children, to have a love life, to have a career. Don’t let the bastards grind you down, okay?

What would you say to a cisgender person trying to understand more about transgender experiences and/or support a transgender friend?

I would say the best thing you can do is listen, then listen again, then listen some more. Then, once you’re done listening, go out and find new trans people to listen to. Find a trans person who’s okay with answering questions and helping you understand and then do your best not to take advantage of that. And as far as helping your friend, here are some ground rules: stand up to transphobes even when your trans friend isn’t there. Never, ever out someone without their input. Offer to go to the bathroom or the changing room with them when you’re out together so they can feel safer. You might be absolutely willing to respect pronouns and names, but have an opinion like, “trans people will always be genetically the opposite sex” or “I could never be attracted to a trans person” or “I bet some trans people are just faking it for attention”– keep those opinions to yourself.

What books would you recommend to someone who enjoyed If I Was Your Girl?

I would heartily, heartily recommend the short story collection A Safe Girl to Love by Casey Plett and the novel Nevada by Imogen Binnie, with a caveat: these are not YA stories and they include sex and drugs and the like, but they’re still so important! If you want to know what it’s like to be a youngish trans woman in America or Canada right now, these are the books you read. If you’re less interested in the trans/political side of the book and more interested in a sweet trans romance, I would say check out Beast by Brie Spangler or Beautiful Music for Ugly Children by Kristin Cronn-Mills. And! If you can stomach manga, you absolutely must check out Hōrō Musuko, aka Wandering Son.

Which authors inspire you to write?

Margaret Atwood, Haruki Murakami, William Gibson, Terry Pratchett and Neil Gaiman. Not necessarily my favourite authors (with the exception of Atwood), but they do such interesting things with narrative, structure, and/or worldbuilding that it just gets me going!

What’s next for you? Do you have another book underway?

I have two books underway, one another YA romance, the other an adult project about two trans women. I should be announcing more details about the former soon, so keep an eye out on my twitter!