Jennifer Finney Boylan on Lord of the Rings, Charlotte’s Web, and Man’s Best Friend
In Conversation with Will Schwalbe on But That's Another Story
Will Schwalbe: Hi. I’m Will Schwalbe and you’re listening to But That’s Another Story. I’m here at my home in New York City as we all shelter in place for what I’m sad to say is our final episode.
So I want to start with more thanks than I can express to all of you—the listeners who have been with us since our first episode more than two years ago and those who have joined us in the meantime or who are listening for the first time today.
As for me, I’m going to keep on writing my own books and working as an editor at Macmillan and championing books from all eras and publishers. Macmillan, of course, will continue in its efforts to publish all different kinds of life-changing books.
It’s been a privilege beyond compare to talk with people I admire about books that changed their lives. I hope you’ll listen to episodes you might have missed and revisit favorites. And I also hope you will remember to ask everyone you encounter my favorite question, “What are you reading?” – and maybe even follow it with, “Tell me about a book that changed your life?”
Now, I’m going to start this last episode with a quote from the novel The Fellowship of the Ring by J.R.R. Tolkien:
“The wide world is all about you: you can fence yourselves in, but you cannot forever fence it out.”
And recently I got to talking about Tolkien, journeys, and finding your people, yourself, and your way with today’s guest.
Jennifer Finney Boylan: Hi, I’m Jennifer Finney Boylan. I’m an author, a professor, and I’m also on the board of directors of PEN America.
WS: Jennifer Finney Boylan is an accomplished memoirist, novelist, academic, and trans activist. She’s also a contributing opinion writer for the New York Times. Her works of nonfiction include
JFB: I grew up in the Philadelphia suburbs, which in the 60s where I lived was farm country. And then later I moved to a swankier suburb in the part of the Philly, suburbs called the Main Line. So I grew up there and I grew up in a wonderfully eccentric haunted old ramshackle of a house, a house that really did have ghosts in it. I was then named James, grew up with that boy name and came out as transgender at the age of 40 in fact many years later.
WS: What were you like as a kid? What was your character like?
JFB: When I was in school, I was the class clown. I was just constantly generating material. And then when I was out of school, I was very kind of withdrawn and private. I spent a lot of time walking through the woods. My father was a gentle banker who had never wanted to be a banker. He’d wanted to be a medieval history professor. But then my grandmother drank the money. So he ended up working at a bank and in Philadelphia. My mother was an immigrant to this country and had said she’d never get married, but then met my father when she was 40, and then decided to change her mind. There was my beautiful sister who was about a year older than I was, who was a talented equestrian. She was always off riding a horse somewhere. And then of course, we were surrounded by my eccentric aunts and my grandmother in particular who was fabulously entertaining and fabulously annoying.
WS: In what way was she annoying?
JFB: She was just always kind of grabbing you and hugging you. And then she — how shall I say this delicately — drink was taken. I think I’ll use the Irish passive
WS: So as a kid, were you a big reader?
JFB: Yes, constantly. I found that reading was, well, for one thing it was considered an honorable pursuit. My mother had, when she got away from her own doomed family, had gone into the book business. In the 50s she was what was called a book buyer. So my mother had kind of been in the publishing industry and my father was kind of a failed, a failed academic or a not a failed academic, but he’d always wanted to be in academia. So you couldn’t read enough books in our house. I had so many profound experiences. I still remember reading Charlotte’s Web for the first time and I didn’t even know how old I was, eight, nine years old and getting to the end of that book where—and can I spoil the ending of
WS: Yeah. Spoil away.
JFB: Okay. Where Charlotte dies! And in the kids books that I had read, there wasn’t death like that, but you know, Charlotte’s Web is full of death and people with axes and, Charlotte dies and then her children come back and then her children—no sooner do we get the gift of the Charlotte’s children—then they float away. Most of them float away. So I just remember suddenly this feeling coming from somewhere within me and I’m weeping there in my bed, and it’s such a distinct memory of being a child and being brought to tears by something I had read. I didn’t know that books could do that to you. But once I learned that books could do that to you, I was a goner. I’d spend the rest of my life reading books, trying to recapture the joy of sobbing that hard.
WS: Did you have a social circle at school? What was your friend group like?
JFB: I was pretty much a loner when I was a kid. I was just so bizarre. I had this Baroque ornate private life, which I had to keep secret. My knowledge of myself as a transgender person as a female was something that, I mean, I don’t know, in the early 60s there was just no way of expressing that in any public way that didn’t seem to me to promise marginality and possibly violence. So, I had this kind of very deep private life. And then at school, I was just constantly acting out because I am, I guess that’s how, that’s how all that came out. I was just always inventing blarney and doing imitations and it’s amazing they let me graduate from sixth grade at all. When I got to late middle school, high school, the culture shifted enough so that it was okay for me to be a hippie.
And I had friends that listened to the Grateful Dead and had long hair and smoked pot and it was, there was in the, in the 70s, in the early 70s, there was like a little window in which a boy like me could have a sense of fitting in or at least fitting in with other eccentrics in a way that eccentricity itself became cool sort of. The person that we looked up to in ninth grade was a friend of mine named Link, who was the coolest of us all: first to have sex, first to take drugs and first to read
WS: It was Link who loaned Lord of the Rings to Jenny.
JFB: Lord of the Rings made an impact on me in several different ways. It starts out as a story of four people on a journey and they get to the middle of the first book when they get to Rivendale, and the question is, okay, so they’ve gotten the ring as far as Rivendale, what are they going to do now? And in the end, Frodo says one of the bravest bravest lines in all of fiction. I will take the ring to Mordor, although I do not know the way. A phrase that haunted me many years later in a different context. The idea that you would stumble into a world that was something bigger than yourself. Something that has been there all along, something that had its own history. It was just kind of breathtaking. It wasn’t just finding a story. It was finding a whole history in a whole world. And if you were a deeply confused, secretive, transgender kid, like I was, the idea of finding another world, a world better than this one was tremendously appealing. Most profound in that world is the presence of magic. And it’s not, I mean even Gandalf is reluctant to use the so-called magical powers that he has.
But the idea that there are, there is more to this world than what we can see. And that there are forces deeper than ourselves for both good and evil was liberating to me. There’s a line in the book where, in fact Gandalf is saying to Frodo, if there are all these terrible things in the world and if there are forces kind of aligned against you, it is also true that you were meant to have it. And that there are forces of good that you cannot see also, that are, well they may be invisible, but they’re real. So if you were a trans kid like me, the idea that there was kind of a secret force for good in the world that would help you become the person you were meant to become was liberating and profound.
WS: And there is a profound sense of sadness in the story, too, that would have great resonance.
JFB: Melancholy is baked pretty deep into that book and I’m sure it comes out of Tolkien’s own experience, having lost all of his close friends in the Great War, in World War I. And the sense of kind of horror and awareness of that, not just mortality, but of the brutality of life. The sense of loss that you never quite get away from. I think it’s true that the joys of love, which Tolkien found in his own life—Tolkien had this profound love affair with his wife—and you know, all the other pleasures of life that came to him later (and of which writing was not the least) but in spite of all that, I think there’s a tremendous sense of loss.
Lord of the Rings is full of the awareness of people passing, time passing. Frodo has had this remarkable experience. But he’s really suffered and not just, I mean he suffered in so many ways. But he made this terrible journey against all odds to this terrible place and faced the fires of a volcano. He felt his soul kind of being ripped apart. He had to give up something that he was in love with the ring itself, in order to save the world, but also on route he’s been stabbed with this kind of terrible knife on top of the mountain called Weathertop. He’s been stung by the world’s largest spider and left for dead. He’s had one of his fingers bitten off by Gollum, who without whom and without which the ring would never have been destroyed in the first place. Anyway, after all that, Frodo finally goes home and he has, to some degree, found the thing he’s always looked for, which is a sense of solace and peace and he’s saved the world. But there’s a sense that the world that he’s saved is not a world that he can live in anymore.
And there’s this terribly sad scene which I would place right up there with the death of Charlotte in Charlotte’s Web in which Sam, his best friend, says to him,
WS: Jenny relates strongly to Frodo’s dilemma, because she has faced her version of it, too. When we come back from the break, Jenny explains how Lord of the Rings has helped her with her life’s journey and her work.
WS: We’re back from the break. We left off with Frodo leaving the Shire, no longer able to live in the world he’d saved. It’s a tough choice, but one Jenny understands.
JFB: I think everyone who’s fond of this book gets to that point and interprets that line according to their own mythology. And my own mythology is this: that as a transgender woman, I came out finally at age 40 and am now living the life I always wanted to live. And my life has been blessed to tell you the truth. Particularly compared to many of the other trans women that I know whose lives are much, much harder. I came out 20 years ago, which in transgender years is kind of like a century ago. Things have changed so rapidly. When I came out, it was very much like, people thought it was like something that being trans was something that I’d invented all by myself.
So over the last 20 years, I’ve really worked as both an advocate working for GLAAD and other national LGBTQ organizations, as well as just in my own writing. Forgive me for what I know, sounds like pride, but I feel like I’ve helped move the needle forward for transgender people a little bit through all this work, through telling stories and by being visible. Yet for me, there is a sense that this world has changed, and people, my daughter’s age and the ages of my students now, a new generation of people I think is going to be able to live in a world in which things are better for transgender people, but it’s not the world that I got to live in. And also the years before transition when it was secret I had to keep private. All of that I think takes, it takes a serious toll on you. I mean, look, I’m a very joyful person, and why shouldn’t I be given the fact that I’m deeply loved, I have a wonderful family and I love the work that I do. But you don’t spend 40 years of your life being unable to express your true self without it taking a toll on you and it, to some degree, it doesn’t matter how happy your ending was.
The journey was really hard and in some ways you never, you never, I mean, it’s too late to have a second childhood. So, you know, when I get to that line, we set out to save the Shire and the Shire has been saved, but not for me, sometimes I feel that way, that their work was all good, the work was all worthwhile, but the people that are going to benefit from the work are the people who will come after me.
WS: Do you remember as a confused transgender kid what you made of that line when you encountered it?
JFB: I think I was a little cross with Frodo. I was like, dude, you got everything you wanted. Be happy. It reminds me of when I was young. I mean, I used to have to fight against depression and sadness and the sense of not belonging every day. And so when I would run into people who experienced depression when I was young, I was like, you know, come on man, get back in there. I remember the first time I read William Styron’s Darkness Visible, which is a wonderful memoir of clinical depression. It starts out with him in a plane. I forget whether he’s just taken off from Paris or is about to land. But he looks out the window and thinks, I don’t know if I’ll ever come back here again. And he’s just surrounded, he’s just deeply crushed by sadness.
And I remember thinking, even in my twenties, when I first read that book, I was like, dude, you’re one of the most successful authors in the world. Why isn’t that enough? And it resounds with other things that people would tell me back in the day when, when they would say,
WS: So I’d like to talk a little bit about Good Boy. Can you first talk by just explaining what is Good Boy? What is this book?
JFB: So this new book of mine is called Good Boy. And in some ways it’s a memoir of masculinity. It is seven moments in my life, pre-transition, but those seven moments are centered around seven dogs that I owned back in the day. So there’s the dog of boyhood. There’s the dog of being a cool teenager, the dog that I had in college, and as a young hipster in New York and as a boyfriend and as a husband and as a father. It sounds actually a little bit like Tolkein doesn’t it? It’s seven dogs for writers under the sky. So the title of the book is Good Boy.
I think to some degree that the book is about love and what it means to be loved. And I say that being fully aware that even talking about love seems annoying to people because we’re so bad at talking about love. It’s embarrassing. It’s awkward. It’s cheesy. And yet we all know that if we’re here on this earth for any reason at all, it’s to love one another. Not that we’re good at it. We feel awkward, for men in particular. We don’t necessarily have, our culture doesn’t allow men to express love sometimes in a way that is not embarrassing for them, but with dogs, all bets are off with dogs. The toughest men that you’ve ever seen will get down on the floor and roll and weep and ask, who’s a good boy? Who’s a good boy? So there’s that aspect of writing about dogs—writing about what does it mean to express love?
The other thing about dogs is that they teach us about loss. That to have a dog means to love someone unconditionally. But it also means it’s a love that’s not going to last. And to have a dog means to get used to being really happy right up until the moment that you’re really sad.
But That’s Another Story is produced by Kristy Westgard. Thank you to Jennifer Finney Boylan. If you’d like to learn more about the books we’ve mentioned in this week’s episode, you can find out more in our show notes. You can also find a transcript of this episode and past ones on LitHub. All of our episodes will remain available on Apple Podcasts, Spotify, Stitcher or wherever you like to listen.
The real story is that But That’s Another Story wouldn’t have been possible without the amazing team at Macmillan. They deserve all the credit for their work on this show. I could read their names off now, but I think it’d be so much better to hear them for yourselves. So, here’s our current team, in their own voices, with a book that changed their life…of course:
KW: Kristy Westgard. Matilda by Roald Dahl.
KD: Kathy Doyle. The Nancy Drew series by Carolyn Keene.
JF: Jasmine Faustino. Number the Stars by Lois Lowry.
MR: Morgan Ratner. The Bell Jar by Sylvia Plath.
MM: Michelle Margulis. We Were Feminists Once by Andi Zeisler.
EM: Emily Miller. Half the Sky by Nicholas Kristof and Sheryl WuDunn.
LP: Liam Prophater. On Writing by Stephen King. And I’m Will Schwalbe, and if you’ve been listening carefully I think you know the book I’m going to say changed mine: