Jennifer Finney Boylan is an American author (she's written 16 books!) transgender activist and reality television personality who is a professor at Barnard College of Columbia University and a contributing opinion writer for the New York Times. Some of the wonderful books she's authored are SHE'S NOT THERE, LONG BLACK VEIL, I'M LOOKING THROUGH YOU, STUCK IN THE MIDDLE WITH YOU: A MEMOIR OF THREE GENDERS, and her latest, the absolutely enchanting GOOD BOY: MY LIFE IN SEVEN DOGS.
"Reading Boylan’s memoirs is like working on a three-dimensional puzzle that mysteriously creates space for more pieces. Each of Boylan’s memoirs, complete unto itself, yields insight into the author and those closest to her, and Good Boy is as affecting and funny as anything Boylan has ever written ... Boylan has mastered the art of setting scenes ... the dogs...possess a purpose beyond amusing and delighting us. Clearly, they embody human qualities."--The Rumpus
I'm thrilled to host Jennifer here. Thank you, thank you!
I always want to know what is haunting a writer into writing a particular book, what the “why now” moment was? I know this book came out of an essay you wrote about one of your dogs that went viral, but what else was going on that sounded a clarion call of “write this book!”
Two summers ago, I turned 60, and with this it occurred to me that I’ve spent a third of my life in this female body (given that I went through transition at age 40). Increasingly, I look back at my years “before” the way an expatriate might look back upon the country of her birth. What does it mean to be a woman who had a boyhood? What traces of the Olde Country do I carry with me as a result of that history?
When I think back to my days as a boy, the thing I think about are the dogs: I had so many, and they made my hard life easier, and brought me love. So this is a memoir of masculinity, in some ways, centered around the dogs I once had. I think that for men in particular, expressing emotion, and especially love, can be a hard thing to do. And yet, with dogs they are given permission to express their softest and most secret selves.
Dogs=unconditional love, but I also think that they truly show us how we can be the best version of ourselves. Since it feels true that the dogs you choose are significant to who you are and who you want to be, do you ever feel like there should be some sort of system of placing particular dogs with particular people? Or do you sometimes think that someone has to have the exact WRONG dog for them to grow?
It is a little bit like going on a blind date, isn’t it. Except that once the dog enters your life, it generally stays with you. Dogs are about love—but they’re also about loss, too. And we forget that so easily. You get a puppy, your lives revolve around each other, and then, in, what—ten years, if you’re lucky?—the dog leaves you. There you are weeping at the vets, sobbing out your brains, swearing you’ll never do this again, ever. A promise that lasts exactly as long as it takes for you to forget, and go on the next blind date.
But no, I don’t think we should interfere with the process that people go through to pick their dogs. Because in so many ways that process shows us who people are, and who they imagine themselves to be. I have a friend who has a tiny dog that lives most of the time in her purse, literally. I have another friend who had a half dozen Irish wolfhounds. Those are not just different kinds of dogs; those are different kinds of humans.
You’ve written an astonishing 16 books, which makes me wonder: has writing saved your life in some ways, and what ways would that be?
Writing has indeed saved my life. It has enabled me to weave a narrative between the “before” and the “after” in my life, and to see it as one story, not two. It has connected me to my past, and enabled me to love and pity and celebrate that boy that I once was; it has restored my own childhood and young adulthood to me. I think by seeing your life as a story, in fact, you are able to make sense of a series of events that otherwise just seem like chaos. And it’s not just writing that saved me, more importantly it’s the process of revision that saved me. All writing is about revision, of course: It’s not where you start out, it’s where you wind up. And any life can be made better by going back and seeing your choices with clearer eyes. And trying again.
I love that quote of Ben Franklin’s about the epitaph he imagined for himself, which reads, in part: The Body of B. Franklin Printer; Like the Cover of an old Book … But the Work shall not be wholly lost: For it will, as he believ’d, appear once more, In a new & more perfect Edition, Corrected and Amended By the Author.
What is most wonderful, among many things, about Good Boy, is your desire for everyone to accept who they are, and your sage, calming advice about how to do that. How do dogs show us part of that way?
Well, first off, thanks for that. I’m glad that my advice seems sage and calming to you; I have to admit that I have rarely been sage or calming to myself, and have struggled mightily with the thing that I appear to be telling everyone else to do. But dogs, of course, don’t love us for who we aspire to be some day, they love us for who we are, right now. That’s really all they want to do: love us, and be loved in return. It is this that of course we are here to do as well, but which we generally do so badly, or not at all. Why is it that what is so easy for dogs is so hard for human beings?
I think of that old Sly and the Family Stone song that goes, “I love you for who you are, not for who you feel you need to be.” The title of course, is “Everybody Is A Star.” Which everybody is.
Nobody knows that better than your dog.