A McSweeney’s Books Q&A with T Cooper, Author of Real Man Adventures.
In February 2011, The Believer published an essay by T Cooper called “So There’s This Man,” in which Cooper wrote about his experience telling his parents he wasn’t their daughter anymore. And that was the good news. The essay discussed his female-to-male transition, and all the assumptions (by others) and fears (of Cooper’s own) that accompanied that transition. The essay was honest and widely admired, and inspired T Cooper’s book, Real Man Adventures, which is at once groundbreaking, candid, very funny, occasionally sad, beautifully written and profoundly illuminating. McSweeney’s is proud to be publishing it this month. — Vendela Vida
VV: What was the process like, growing “So There’s This Man” into a book?
TC: It varied depending on the day. Some days I felt like, What am I doing, I should just be writing fiction all the time, and others it seemed like I was doing exactly what I needed to be doing. I suppose in publishing the shorter essay I was experimenting with how it would feel to see some of this intensely personal stuff actually appear in print. After it was published, I realized that although “how it felt” wasn’t nothing, it definitely wasn’t as important to me as, say, whether or not I felt like I’d done everything I could with the subject matter. And the answer to that question was a definitive No. And I knew I could trust McSweeney’s with the material, so now we have this weird little hybrid book going out into the world.
VV: How did the mosaic-like structure of Real Man Adventures come about? Did you start conducting the interviews with other people (your wife, ReDICKulous, parents of other transgender children, and others) before you started writing the book, or while you were writing it?
TC: The structure reflects pretty much how my brain originally envisioned the book. I never thought of it as a “start at point A, end at point B” type of narrative, and I don’t think I could ever have written it as such. Okay, maybe if writing it that way would eradicate wars and violence and starvation I could do that—but it wouldn’t be a very good book.
As for the interviews, I’d conducted a handful with various people over the last couple years (my brother, his FTM [female-to-male transsexual] colleague on the Los Angeles Police Department, the FTM who was assaulted on a college campus in California), thinking, I’ll use this for a magazine piece or something, but then that didn’t happen for a variety of reasons, and I realized that those voices could be brought in to the overall conversation I wanted to have in the book (but transformed and updated, of course). Other interviews (with people like my wife, the male stripper ReDICKulous, Kate Bornstein, and my friends’ mother and father), I conducted as I worked through the draft and noticed places for them. It probably sounds a little lofty to say—and I definitely don’t mean it that way—but my aim was to sort of conduct a chorus of different voices chiming in on the over-arching subject of the book, which is essentially masculinity in our culture.
VV: Amanda Davis used to tell her students to write about something that scared them. I know from some conversations we had about the book that at times there was an element of fear involved. Can you talk about writing material that’s frightening to write?
TC: I wish Amanda were still around [Amanda Davis died in 2003, at the age of 32]. That being said, her charge to her students to write about something that scared them probably would’ve chafed my hide had I been in one of her classes at the time. Which is to say, there would’ve been a reason I was tripping, which is that I probably needed to be doing exactly what she was suggesting. I feel a little like that about this whole book. I was in some classroom of life and I had no choice but to complete the assignment—or fail.
VV: The book ends with an amazing scene describing how you and your wife were asked to come onstage at a David Copperfield show in Vegas. How long did it take for you to realize the significance of the moment—that you were passing for a “traditional,” old-fashioned couple? It’s one of my favorite chapters in the book, and, I think, a perfect ending. (In some strange way it reminds me of the wonderful last sentence of Denis Johnson’s “Jesus’s Son,” which ends on this very hopeful note—“I had never known that there might be a place for people like us.”) Did you ever think you wouldn’t write about the experience of being onstage at that Vegas show? How did you decide what would go into Real Man Adventures and what wouldn’t?
TC: That’s funny that scene is among your favorites. (And that Denis Johnson last line about a place for people like us—well, that and the one that goes, “Your husband will beat you with an extension cord and the bus will pull away leaving you standing there in tears, but you were my mother”—always gives me chill). I guess there was no one moment when I realized we were “passing” and what that represented—because we always “pass,” and nobody we meet anew has any reason to think we are anything but the “normal” husband and wife they see before them—out at dinner with the kids, or at a cocktail party, walking down the street. Hell, even on stage in Vegas! So this night (even though it was insane and otherworldly by any stretch) was no exception. Honestly, I don’t think any time during the whole experience did I think anything about my presentation except that I was going to look really short on stage. In fact, that’s the only thing I thought David Copperfield would likely make a joke about, my height. But instead he opted against having to think at all up there, and just used his standard River Dance joke after he encouraged my wife to jump around on the steel plate to show the audience that it was solid.
VV: And when did you realize that scene would be the last one in the book?
TC: I’m not exactly sure… It definitely wasn’t during or even shortly after it happened. I mean, as I try to explore in a few chapters in the book, there’s always a low hum of dissonance in my life. Or maybe not really dissonance, more just this extra layer that I’m frequently aware of—even as others around me are not. Like yesterday I was at this Appalachian music festival, and I was reclining in the grass, and this gruff redneck older dude was lying next to me and asked, “Are you a picker?” (meaning, do I play banjo or mandolin or something). When I said, “No,” he was like, “Well you sure look like the kind of guy who’d be a picker.” Then he went on and asked me about where I’m from, and while I had a local connection, he could tell I wasn’t “from around these parts,” so New York City came up, and then he was all, “Oh wait, you’re not one of them ’hoods, are you?” Sure, this is just a totally common type of thing that happens to me and most everybody else throughout the course of life: I’ve got my head resting on my wife’s thigh, and we’re just sitting there in the grass enjoying this incredible live music, and a peacock had just sauntered by. That said, there’s still, after an exchange like that—where a person is in his own way registering something exceptional or different about me—there’s often this tiny click in the back of my head wondering, “Wow, if this guy knew who I really was, how might that quaint little moment have gone differently?” It’s not just about gender, I think it’s about race and class and other forms of difference, too. So I guess what I’m saying is, that David Copperfield scene wasn’t any different from a lot of the “scenes” in my life. That is, I feel like I could write about or report on almost any of them, and then it became about choosing the ones that will best serve the narrative. I suppose it took a month or two before I realized the David Copperfield one (especially with its over-the-top magical current), was an ideal moment to conjure at the end of this book. To me, my entire life seems like magic when I really start thinking about it—and yet it’s all completely mundane at the same time.
VV: Can you talk a little bit about how the CD for Real Man Adventures came about? [The CD is available to McSweeney’s Book Club subscribers and at some events. On it you can hear songs by Rick Moody, Thunderegg, Scott Miller, Hem, Kathleen Hanna, Scott McCloud, and others—all of which were inspired by various chapters of Real Man Adventures.]
TC: Like with the book, I wanted very much not to be the end-all be-all authority on the topic of masculinity (or even transmasculinity). There are likely as many forms of masculinity as there are people out there in the world expressing or dealing with it, so in that spirit, I started assembling an actual chorus of voices chiming in on the subject matter, taking some of the themes and imagery and ideas I’m dealing with in various chapters and putting individual spins on them—and in a different medium to boot. Kind of taking the conversation off the page.
I’m lucky to know a lot of musicians, and many of the folks I asked were down with the endeavor and willing to offer an original song (all but a few of the tracks on the CD were written and/or recorded specifically for the project). The first time I heard each track as they began rolling in, I found myself choking up because it quickly became apparent that the whole project was far surpassing anything I’d envisioned for it in the first place. The songs are so uniquely beautiful, and I’m honored by each and every one of them. I learned a lot about the process of producing music through working with the engineer and all the other stuff you have to do along the way. And I got to put one of my father’s songs on there, too, which is nice and full-life-circley, if a little strange (he’s a songwriter responsible for, among other songs, a hit with which people of a certain age might be familiar: “A Little Bit Country, A Little Bit Rock ‘n’ Roll”). I don’t know, I’m one of the luckiest guys in the world to get to produce an actual soundtrack for my own book. And the icing is that a lot of these artists will be playing music live at various events we’ve got scheduled on behalf of the book, too. [We’ll also be offering some of the songs from the CD for free download over at theRumpus.net soon.]
VV: And what about the cover? When did you first see that image and how did things evolve from there?
TC: My wife bought me this glossy collection of men’s pulp magazine covers from the 40s and 50s, and when we all started talking about the cover concept for this book, I floated the idea of using some way-over-the-top MASCULINE imagery in the style of this era. So I sent Brian [McMullen, McSweeney’s Senior Art Director] a bunch of the covers from the book (men wrestling killer weasels, bloodthirsty polar bears, a giant vulture—and a great white shark). I also have this beware-of-VD-and-loose-women pamphlet hanging on my wall (put out by the U.S. Public Health Service in 1919), with a tough lumberjack guy standing over the words MAN POWER, so we considered using that image for a while (it ended up opening one of the chapters in the book instead). But when everybody saw the shark on the cover of the issue of American Manhood magazine from 1953, I think it was pretty clear that was the direction to go: the blonde beef-cake in a skimpy purple man-kini, bravely battling the giant man-eater underwater, with nothing but a tiny knife to protect himself. The by-product of course being that we’ve ended up with one of the gayest book covers of all time—and it’s scarcely a “gay” book at all! I love that.
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