I’m in Your Body, but I Still Don’t Know Who You Are
Isle McElroy's new novel "People Collide" explores what happens after a man magically wakes up in the body of his missing wife
As a kid confused about gender expression, I found the idea of trying on another body very appealing. Growing up in the eighties meant I had a few stories of people inhabiting other bodies to watch and rewatch—the original Freaky Friday, Big, and Like Father, Like Son. And whether one finds the premise of body swapping as appealing as I did, terrifying, or something in between, it undoubtedly makes for a compelling story. And Isle McElroy’s new novel, People Collide, is a body-swapping tale unlike any I’ve ever seen.
Newly married Eli is living in Bulgaria on a fellowship his wife Elizabeth received when he wakes up one day and discovers he’s in her body. But she (in his body) is nowhere to be found. As Eli searches for his missing wife in a foreign land, he not only contends with gender in ways he’d never considered, but also must appraise himself in the confines of their marriage. The novel somehow manages to be one of ideas—examining identity, sexuality, desire, and marriage—while delivering a strong plot. Like Isle McElroy’s debut, The Atmospherians, this novel is a biting look at gender and performance, with their trademark humor and grace on the line level.
I spoke to McElroy over the phone about the body swap trope, sexuality and desire, and the idea of fate.
Rachel León: Were there any body swap movies or books you were drawn to, even if that was well before coming up with the idea for this novel?
Isle McElroy: I’d seen Freaky Friday growing up, and I returned to it again when I was writing this book. I really liked the movie Freaky with Vince Vaughn, as well, which was a nice take on the genre. But the premise has always interested me—brief moments where you get to experience another person’s body. I think about it especially in relationship to my gender identity, how pleasant and amazing I imagined it would be to swap into another gender without consequences. So a lot of the inspiration for the book was from thinking about my own gender more than it was thinking about the tradition of the body swap. Often, body swap films tend to swap people of the same gender. Freaky Friday, our most prominent one, is more of an age swap. Overall, what really sparked my imagination are the questions at the core of the novel: How would I actually begin to live as this other person? What if I didn’t want to change back? What are the things that I can actually accept and enjoy about this other life? Especially as a trans person, it was something I had been thinking about my entire life. Like how great it would be to have some magical moment that would bring me what I wanted. The book is a fantasy in that manner; it gave me space to engage with that childhood idea.
RL: Yeah, I can’t think of any other body swap story that deals with characters of different genders. And the fact the characters are a couple creates a fascinating dynamic and allows for a deep exploration of how identity factors into a relationship, and how the burdens of being in our bodies can influence how we relate to others. Were those ideas you wanted to explore, or did they rise organically as you wrote it?
IM: I’m really curious about the level of intimacy that we have with people who are so close to our lives. These are characters who know each other’s bodies intimately. As Eli remarks early on in the book, this is the face that he’s seen every day, but would he be able to identify it before now?
I wanted to explore what would happen with two people who are this close to each other, if they do end up switching roles in their lives, how that intimacy would play out, would that rekindle their curiosity for each other? Or would there almost be a droning sense of familiarity between them because they know each other so well? In some ways they’re the perfect people to switch bodies because of the intimacy they share. But in doing that they must confront how separate and detached they are from each other, which is the thing we often say about being in a relationship—no matter how well you know someone you can never really, really know them. And the book grapples with that question—if this is as close as you can get, what remains unknowable?
RL: I also can’t think of a body swap story where the characters don’t know where the person in their body is, but when Eli realizes he’s in Elizabeth’s body, he has no idea where she/ his body is. And he’s in a foreign country.
IM: Yeah, he’s in a place where everything is unfamiliar to him and he’s still getting the hang of how to exist, even as himself. Not only does he have to learn how to be in Elizabeth’s body—different in scale and height from his own—he also needs to navigate a country where he’s lived for only three months. However, it helps the book plot-wise because he’s able to hide in ways he wouldn’t be able to if he was surrounded by people who know him. The biggest threat to Eli isn’t going unnoticed as Elizabeth, it’s the people who have an understanding of Elizabeth, such as her parents. So it made things a little easier for me as a writer because it gave me more space to allow for mistakes he might make. It gave Eli room to exist in Elizabeth’s body and come to terms with it. But it was also exciting to think about those different levels of unfamiliarity—the physical and the geographical.
RL: One recurring idea in the novel is that Elizabeth is too good for Eli, that in some ways he’s beneath her. The idea that certain people are better than others is one I resist, and yet also can’t argue with in terms of partnerships—people can be on different levels, or rather: different places in their lives. I wondered about your decision to create this dynamic in their relationship.
IM: That dynamic is important because Elizabeth must have something that Eli wants. He feels really insecure and unaccomplished in this relationship, so there are reasons for him to be excited about this transformation, to potentially reap the benefits of existing in Elizabeth’s life. So it was really important for there to be a big distance between the two of them. Whether or not Elizabeth is actually better than Eli is a question that the book asks and tries to unravel. It is a myth perpetuated inside their relationship. Relationships often fall into a narrative that might not be beneficial, and this is the one shaping theirs. It’s a dynamic that’s also played out elsewhere in the book—it shows up a little between Desi and Kiril, and how Eli’s mom thinks of his dad, even though his dad is no longer in the picture, and it comes up between Johanna and Henry. It’s so loud in the relationship between Eli and Elizabeth, but the reverberations reappear in every relationship in the novel.
RL: I loved the way the novel explores sexuality and desire. It’s filtered through the lens of Eli, who has had some bisexual experiences and has wondered if he was asexual. As common as sexual fluidity is, I don’t see it represented much. Why do you think our culture is so fixated on binaries and slow to recognize there’s often a spectrum?
IM: Spectrums are threats, they undermine stability, whereas binaries are safe. Binaries make it easy for people to assume who they are. They oftentimes make it easier to fit into a hetero-patriarchal norm of you’re either this or you’re that. And the book attempts to unsettle that a little, even though it falls into the binary—neither one of these characters ends up being in between. But Eli exists inside Elizabeth’s outside of a traditional gender and sexual spectrum. I wouldn’t say that Eli even has a real grasp of his sexuality, it shifts over the course of the novel, it’s something he questions. But in Elizabeth’s body, he thinks about how he relates to men, and his past experiences, and his relationship to Elizabeth. There are moments when he begins to see women differently, no longer thinking of them romantically but aspirationally, as people to model his appearance after. I didn’t want Eli to simplistically take on Elizabeth’s sexuality once he inhabits her body. Or to suggest his sexuality is rigid and remains exactly how it was. But there is something really unsettled about his sexuality and his gender.
RL: Yeah, the novel beautifully illustrates how our gender and sexuality can shift our identities.
IM: Eli is constantly navigating how this transformation has not only changed his gender but how it’s shifting his sexuality. Both of those are reliant on each other, nothing is fixed in place. It’s something that I’ve thought about a lot. The more in touch that I’ve become with my gender identity, the freer I feel to understand my sexuality. It’s almost as if I’m able to see something that I was unwilling to look at before I was more comfortable with my gender identity. I don’t think that one necessarily leads to the other. But there’s a holistic sense of acceptance that can come out of being more stable in, and thus embracing, them both.
RL: Eli says no one marries for love, that it’s always for some other (pragmatic) reason. I wondered if his feelings on marriage were more generational or situational?
IM: That’s one of the moments in this book where you can’t really take Eli seriously. He is extremely unreliable. His opening line is, “I’m not a responsible man.” He’s not trying to hide the fact that he cannot be trusted. So when he’s making these statements about marriage, about love, the reader shouldn’t take it as dogma. He does think of his marriage as pragmatic, but love is not pragmatic. He believes marriage itself is separate from being in love, but he’s also willing to take advantage of the institution. That seems like a very millennial thing—trying to exploit a system that is already exploiting you. Eli understands that marriage is a pragmatic institution that can fortify or validate love. He’s seen a lot of marriages end in his life, so his cynical understanding of marriage comes out of his own character and his history. Whether or not he’s right, the book doesn’t know, but it is something that he is grappling with: what is this institution that he’s entered? What does it do for the love that he already felt? Does it change it?
RL: One of my favorite paragraphs includes the line the title comes from. It rejects the idea of fate and that people aren’t meant for one another; instead lives collide. I can’t decide if that’s liberating or depressing—maybe it’s both?
IM: I’m going to get very Instagram-therapist right now, but the idea of a soulmate doesn’t seem true to me. That’s something that the book is trying to ask: are these people soulmates, were they meant for each other? They kind of were and they weren’t. And that’s what they have to accept—it is both fate and it’s pure accident. Not the accident of We were meant for each other, but the accident of they could have completely missed each other. So many of the most important relationships of my life weren’t dutifully planned. There were accidents that came about, they were incidental run-ins, and that’s what made them so important and magical. That is what the book is questioning—does it need to be a fated event for it to matter, or can it matter even though it’s an accident?