Isle McElroy Asks Torrey Peters “What Comes Next?”
A new quarterly interview series about debut authors working on their next book
It’s difficult to say anything that hasn’t already been said about Torrey Peters’s debut novel, Detransition, Baby. It won the PEN/Hemingway Award, was a national bestseller, a NYT Notable Book, and named a Book of the Year by more publications than my word count limit will let me include. Not only is it an incredible novel, the success of Detransition, Baby created more space for other trans writers to publish. The novel proved to the publishing industry–deeply conservative and unimaginative in its taste–that writing by trans authors can have mass appeal.
After so much success, the question most readers have is, “What next?” It’s the same question authors ask themselves. Notably, in the obvious way: What the hell am I supposed to write now? But the question tends to arise more often in a writer’s day-to-day life. What do I write about? What do I do with my time? How do I replicate that success? Do I even want to? These questions served as the inspiration for this interview series, What Comes Next?. Every month, I’ll talk to an author outside of the publicity window–that stretch of time where the writing actually happens–about what they’re working on, what inspires them, their routines, and what keeps them returning to the page.
I couldn’t imagine a better first guest than Torrey Peters. In addition to Detransiton, Baby, Peters is the author of The Masker and Infect Your Friends and Loved Ones, both of which will be reissued in revised editions by Random House in 2022. Peters and I spoke in her apartment in Brooklyn shortly before she left to launch the German translation of Detransition, Baby. We talked about writing routines, her entry into writing, touching hot stoves, happiness, cruelty, and deciding what to publish when everyone wants to publish your work.
Isle McElroy: Can you talk a little bit about what got you into your writing career?
Torrey Peters: I was still a better reader than a writer. You read enough and you start to imbibe the rhythms of it. And when it came around to college, I was like, I’m good at this. I think I would have liked to spend my life reading. And being a writer is like—
IM: A close second.
TP: But of course, what it means to be a writer took a long time to figure out. The difference between ‘I want to be a writer’ and all the other different valences of that word is still ongoing.
IM : What do you mean by that? Like moving between being a fiction writer or a novelist?
TP: I mean, there’s how to write, there’s what writing is for, there’s writing as a career, there’s writing as communicating something urgent to other people. There’s writing as narrative, there’s writing as the tracks of thought on a page. There’s writing, which is like, whatever, letters, and then there’s so many different reasons why you might do it, never mind the forms in which the actual product in the end might take. I think that the hard part for me wasn’t “What’s the product gonna be?” The hard part for me was figuring out why I was doing it, who I was doing it for, and why it mattered.
IM: How has it changed over time? Or is it just like a refining towards the same direction?
TP: I think I had two distinct periods. One is where I thought about writing as a kind of craft. And when I thought of writing as a craft, I don’t think I knew what writing was for. I thought if you write something beautiful that is enough. Now, I feel that writing is largely about communicating something urgent to certain people. If you don’t have anything urgent to say, it’s a different thing than if you do. Sometimes I don’t have anything urgent to say, and I have to figure out what am I in those moments when I don’t have anything urgent to say?
IM: Are you still a writer at that time?
TP: In the past, I would have said yes. But I currently think no. I think I’m something else in those times. I don’t know what I am. I’m like a practitioner of something.
IM: Like a doctor who’s not operating or something.
TP: Or like, there’s a chess player who plays against other people. And then there’s a chess player who’s just at home, alone, moving the pieces around. And if you’re just at home moving the pieces alone on a board, occasionally thinking about it, are you a chess player? Or are you just kind of vaguely interested in chess?
IM: Yeah, I think that’s perfect.
TP: And I have periods in my life where I’m vaguely interested in chess. More than I’m interested in playing chess against people.
IM: Artists and writers are famously never in competition with each other.
TP: I’m happy to be in competition when it’s time to play. I wouldn’t shy away from competition. I think competition can bring out a lot. But sometimes I don’t have a plan. I don’t have a thing I’m writing for. I don’t think of it as an identity. So if it’s not an identity then it’s not something I always am. That’s really framed.
IM: I want to step back a second. You were talking about reading and feeling the rhythms of the writers you loved. Can you talk a little bit about what rhythms were guiding your work? Are they artistic rhythms or are they ethical—writers who had something to say when they wrote?
TP: I didn’t used to think about it in terms of ethics. I had a change in how I thought of writing as it moved from a craft to a kind of communication. How ethics meshed with that changed. Now I think that things that are artistically good usually have some sort of resonance with things that are ethically good. And I don’t mean that they’re moralistically good. I think lots of things have bad ethics and can be really compelling. But there’s a coherence to the ethics that finds its mirror in an artistic coherence, and the two usually go together.
IM: So who are some of the authors who you feel like have that kind of ethics, or a philosophical viewpoint, right? Rather than is something ethical in terms of good or bad?
TP: That seems more like morality. [What writers have great ethics?] It changes all the time. I think that’s part of what’s fun. But someone for instance who I think whose ethics are great, but whose morals are not so clear is [Vladimir] Nabokov. There are these beautiful sentences and his ethics are kind of cruel. He has a kind of cruelty in his writing. There’s an inviting-ness and a cruelty to what he does. His writing and his stories are cruel. There’s an ethics and a worldview and a sort of cruel aestheticism to what he does. I don’t think that I do that. But that is somebody who I think of as being coherent in those two poles without necessarily being morally good or morally bad. I’m always looking for that tension in a lot of different writers. Absolutely. I go through real phases with writers where I get enamored of them. And I love them for a while, really deeply, and then I fall out of love and then sometimes come back to them. In the last couple of years, I really fell in love with [Elena] Ferrante. She has an ethics of ferocity that finds its mirror in the way that it’s written. Her characters are ferocious about making choices, constantly making choices and are constantly doing things and having agency. And I feel like that has to do with her thoughts about women’s writing but also it’s an aesthetic thing. That was fascinating to me to find somebody who could write this sweeping four volume epic that maintained a level of ferocity that you normally don’t find in 100 pages. People can’t keep it up for a hundred pages and here it is for thousands. Stuff like that is exciting to me.
IM: I’m really curious about cruelty. I was talking to a comedian the other day about the difference between cruelty and meanness. And we decided that meanness is a kind of love and that cruelty oversteps that and gets to a point of separation. But now hearing you talk about Nabokov, I’m thinking of cruelty as a kind of honesty, right? I wouldn’t use the word cruel to describe your work. Listening to other interviews with you, you talk a lot about the question of who the joke is on. And I think at times you are making jokes at your characters’ expense. That can be seen as, I wouldn’t say cruel, but there is a kind of meanness. So where do you situate the relationship between cruelty and honesty? Is there a kind of honest cruelty that comes through in writing?
TP: Explain to me why meanness could come from love, I don’t understand.
IM: Our divide was that meanness is a lesser form of cruelty, that meanness is almost like high school meanness, where there’s an in group of people brought together by the understanding of what mean things they can say. Whereas cruelty oversteps that into actually trying to harm and hurt someone.
TP: I think of meanness as something that’s ungenerous. It doesn’t have enough. Meanness has a scarcity or narrowness to it. And I think of meanness as coming from a place without thought, that you’re just sort of mean, you’re a narrow person, you’re intolerant, you don’t have anything to give. I think of meanness as thoughtless, whereas I think of cruelty as full of malice and pleasure and sadism. Meanness to me is a lack of life. But cruelty, there’s a fullness to it.
IM: You can hear it in the sounds of the words, right? Like meanness is like a dime on the ground.
TP: I think that the etymology of meanness has to do with—I don’t remember exactly—but a mean lifestyle is a lifestyle without any extras. Whereas I picture Nabokov surrounded by fine things. Sticking pins in insects, watching their suffering. There’s something very alive in that to me and that’s what attracts me to a lot of writing is the fullness of life that a writer can pack into it. Cruelty and malice and sadism exist in the human experience, and what do you do with them? What do you do with the fact that sometimes they can feel good? I think Nabokov is someone who transubstantiates that into aesthetic pleasure. I would say Ferrante can be cruel, because there’ll be a thing where you’re like, Okay, I’ve seen enough of this. And she just is like, Okay, you the reader wants to look away and I’m ratcheting up the humiliation one notch, I’m making it go on another three pages. She’s putting both her characters and the readers through it. What’s great about her is that she will turn around and give you something for having been through it. It’s manipulative, like I acted sadistically to you. And now I’m gonna like—
IM: We get an Ischia page.
TP: I like a writer willing to do that. You know, whether I’m willing to do it I think depends. I think I was crueler than I used to be. The Masker is a cruel book. It’s a cruel story. I was doing something with our cruelty. Whereas now I don’t have the stomach for it.
IM: I relate to that. A lot of my early work strives for aesthetic cruelty. We can call cruelty a kind of attention, too. I’m thinking of that Nabokov story, “Symbols and Signs,” where someone’s pulling their dentures out and they look like tusks. That is a gross level of detail. It’s clear that he has looked so deeply at this thing, but it seems cruel to describe someone in that manner. Can you talk about that evolution of moving [away from cruelty]? Why do you think you’re not as invested now? Is it just where you were emotionally?
TP: I think it’s like—I’ve heard that older people are happier than young people. And that seems weird, because their bodies have more pains and have probably suffered more and stuff like that. But that generally older people are happier because they have learned over the years to mentally not touch the fire. They’re like, if I think about things that are horrible all the time, then I will feel horrible. After 50 years of touching the stove or whatever, eventually they just don’t touch the stove. For me, the excitement of touching the stove and watching the smoke rise at my own expense and watching other people look at me in a horrified way—that impulse has diminished. I’ve done this, I understand how it works. I don’t want to touch the stove anymore. And then there’s a part of me that occasionally will be like, “Well, have you gotten soft?” But like I’ll touch the stove when it’s necessary but I’m not going to touch the stove for fun.
IM: I’m thinking of “touch the stove” also as sort of an authorial drive, too. I could be extremely glib in my comparison but there’s a certain style of writing that is touch the stove writing, that is either confessional touch the stove and then also political touch the stove, where we need to engage with this political subject and that becomes a form of stove touching. And then there’s the personal, in which I am confessing this personal reality which is its own messy stove touch.
TP: And then there’s Nabokov who is aesthetically grotesque.
IM: He’s holding our hands to the stove. He’s not going to do it himself. To switch gears, but if you’re not [touching the stove], what drives you to write? When you were talking about having something to write or having something to say, where does the question of having like, a personal touch the stove [moment arise]? Where in the art does it need to happen? And do you think that it needs to sometimes happen in the art and does that drive your desire to write? Or does that drive one’s desire to have something to say?
TP: I think that usually when I have something to say, it’s because something is unresolved. Usually, I feel that lots of things that are unresolved for me are unresolved for others. So in something like The Masker, there was a lot of shame, a lot of cross-dressing, it was about sex and gender. So I just wanted to speak about shame. Shame is so much about what is unsayable. If I can just say the shameful thing, in a strange way, we will have gone through this thing, and we will come out the other side and feel liberated from it. For a long time, I think the cruel things I was doing had a lot to do with shame. And I don’t feel as driven by shame anymore. I sort of wish I did because it was great material.
IM: Blame Brené Brown.
TP: You know, I get mad about stuff. Usually it’s when some way of thinking that I’m expected to partake in doesn’t feel good to me. And that way of thinking creates an internal tension in me. And that tension needs to be resolved somehow. And usually the way it’s resolved is through all sorts of feelings, like I walk around mad, or I walk around irritated, a lot of negative feelings. So sometimes I want to rant, there’s this desire to express myself, there’s an urgency. But then, of course, I’m just ranting at people. They don’t enjoy that. There’s no catharsis in it. So there’s this tension inside of me and the work is transmuting that tension into something that other people also relate to. I try to make them feel that tension and we feel it together. I’m alone when I write but the magic of reading and writing means we unravel a lot together. But if I don’t have anything to unravel, if I don’t have tension, if I’m just like, check out these words—that’s a valid way to write too, I guess—but I think writing is hard and if I don’t have that tension that moves me to do it, it’s maybe for a paycheck, maybe for validation. Generally, though, there are much better ways of getting both paychecks and validation than writing. That reminds me of a professor of mine who once said, upon reading something, it felt like it was easy for this person to write it and he didn’t like work that felt like that. And I’m constantly feeling that way. I was talking today about why everyone hates on Sally Rooney. And I think it’s that she makes it look easy. I actually think her work is filled with tension and she’s expressing a lot of it in a lovely way, but there’s the resentment that this is easy for you, you haven’t suffered.
IM: Connected to that, like, it’s about a year and a half since Detransition, Baby came out. How have you felt about the reception and conversation? Those tensions that [drove the book] are so ancient to you—when the book came out, they were already ancient, and now they’re even more ancient. At this point, do you feel you were successful in bringing those tensions to the surface for people to discuss?
TP: I don’t know. I think because I’ve just gotten every single possible reaction to it there’s not a consensus. Some people think it’s too radical, some people think it’s assimilationist, some people think it’s banal, some people think you need a PhD to read the gender theory. There are strong reactions but there’s no consensus. I can’t really know if people got that tension, except that they seem to have an emotional reaction to it. Whatever emotional tension I had seems to have been translated to a bunch of people who got all emotional when they read it. Oh, it must have worked. But how that particular emotional tension diffuses its energy inside of a person once it’s been transferred is much more unpredictable than I had expected. But I can’t be in the business of deciphering those reactions anymore. And that’s one of the things I liked about the Sally Rooney book is that she must have it so bad. Everyone in the world has an opinion about her. And that is what the third book is about, trying to resolve all that. I’m trying to imagine how much tension must have caused that book to be written and then the skill to make it look easy writing under that much tension? That’s not really answering your question, but just some thoughts.
IM: Evasive answers are the best. Can you talk a little bit about the difference in reception? I also had a chapbook come out before my novel came out. So there’s a sense of having a secret thing that you wrote when no one was looking. Your early books are going to be republished by Random House, so how are you feeling about that work now that you are known for this novel that came much later in your career?
TP: Those early books provoked really strong reactions in people. People were really upset by The Masker, they had strong reactions to those first two books. But they were on a scale that I could manage. Everybody who was mad about The Masker probably had my email. Yeah. And everybody who was inspired by Infect Your Friends and Loved Ones got a T4T tattoo. So I understood the reasons why people reacted in certain ways. And I think the difference is quantitative that has become qualitative. When water boils, you can’t put the steam back in the pot. And in those first two I could watch the water in the pot. And in [Detransition, Baby], the steam was everywhere.
IM: Is that shaping how you’re continuing to write?
TP: I spent a lot of time trying to pretend I haven’t read the reactions to Detransiton, Baby. They can have a really chilling effect on me as a writer. They push me around in all these subtle ways, where if I write something very edgy, am I writing this in reaction to all these conservative things that I’ve read about myself? Or likewise, if I don’t write something edgy is it because the people got to me? And then meanwhile, is a question of edginess versus not edginess one that I picked up because of all that happened. I’ve had a hard time clearing the decks in terms of other people’s opinions to figure out what I have to say right now. What is the generative tension in my life right now? And how do I do it in a way that’s artistically worthwhile and not just because like, Oh, this is a moment I could capitalize on. Or any number of reasons that are fear based, like this is my moment, I got to do something with it or if I don’t do this right, I’ll be a one hit there. Those things are generally bad reasons for me to write. They make me feel bad.
IM: That’s the tension of an entire career though. How are you going to keep finding inspiration?
TP: I love the idea that one day I’ll quit. I probably won’t, but most of my daydreaming isn’t about writing. Most of my daydreaming is about lots of other things. And as I talked to somebody recently, it was really interesting. I was complaining about [Gabriel] Garcia Marquez. And I was saying, he wrote this perfect book when he was like forty, and then he seemed to be really cool. He hung out with Castro, he punched Vargas Llosa. And when he was in his 70s, he started hanging out in Martha’s Vineyard and wanted to be friends with Bill Clinton or he was friends with Clinton. And after the Monica Lewinsky scandal he wrote a public letter that was like, Why my friend Bill had to lie or do what he had to do. I don’t remember how it was actually written or translated. And I was like, that guy he totally lost what was cool. And this person I was talking to, who speaks much better Spanish than I do, is an expert in Latin American literature and she was like, No, I think he figured out that nothing really matters and he had gotten to a place where he had forgotten that stuff matters. He was like living in this thing where everything was kind of like a joke to [him]. And I don’t know if that’s true. I actually think she’s wrong. And that he actually just bought his own myth. But the idea that he transcended to a trickster god is much more appealing. That he’s a trickster god scampering around Bill Clinton is much more beautiful as opposed to the grumpy old man holding on to his legacy and selling out everything that was beautiful about him.
IM: The writers I love most are the tricksters. I’m thinking like César Aira or Robert Walser. Do you know the story of Walser? The apocryphal story of Walser is that he was a young Austrian writer, celebrated, writing 12 hours a day. And in his early 30s, he checked himself into an institution where he lived for the rest of his life. He was famously asked near the end of his life, “Did you come here to write?” And he was like, “No, I came here to be mad.” After his death, they found what they called the Microscripts, stories written in German on the backs of postage stamps and other materials. I remember like ten years ago, New Directions announced they were publishing a translation of the Microscripts, and I was so excited. I was like, Yes, I’m finally going to see what this guy was writing when no one was watching. And so many of them were about women’s feet. And it makes me think about what someone writes when they are only writing for themselves. For him, it was these weird things, for César Aira, it’s his automatic writing, doing his page a day and doing what he wants. Those are like fascinating figures for me because they’ve figured out a way to [create careers] by not taking themselves too seriously.
TP: But also that writing is horrible to read. The process is interesting. What’s interesting to me is that they transcended being a writer but the rest of us are still treating them like writers. If I ever transcended being a writer, then I actually want to transcend. I don’t want to transcend by writing shit that actually nobody wants to read. It’s cool that he wrote about feet.
IM: Yeah. It’s pretty bad.
TP: I don’t want to read postage size notes about feet. Feet are wonderful. To me, they actually don’t have anything to say. And that’s fine. But then don’t say anything.
IM: Walser is different from Aira, because Aira is still like publishing. And Aira seems like a roll of the dice. Every six books, something really great happens, but it never seems intentional.
TP: [Karl Ove] Knausgård had a thing about that. Like kicking around—sports metaphor, trigger warning—it’s like kicking around the ball in soccer. Most of the game is like kicking around the ball and then you have like 20 seconds of brilliance but the most is kicking around the ball. I do think that but there’s a part of me that’s here for the 20 seconds of brilliance. I’m not here for kicking around the ball. But I guess kicking is working your way towards figuring out what to say.
IM: Yeah, another sports metaphor, I remember Terrance Hayes talking about practice—I think he played college basketball—so said practice was what he loved most rather than playing in games. That’s when you could try stuff, when you could do interesting things. And the game is a published book, where everything is stone.
TP: Yeah. That’s what I’m trying to figure out now. Because I have an opportunity to write stuff that doesn’t matter. It’s the first time in my life that people will publish crap [that I write]. And it’s tempting.