It recently came to my attention that I’ve read a disturbing lack of books about LGBTQ+ characters and that my recent reading list contained a total of 0 transgender characters so I reached out to Twitter looking for books with LGBTQ+ characters to review. James Stryker was the first author to respond to my call for LGBTQ+ characters with his novel, Assimilation, a story about a person who is resurrected in a body with a different gender.
But don’t let me attempt to explain the book, here’s a blurb to do it for you:
She was far away, this woman he’d been. He knew her child’s and husband’s names. He could see their faces. But Natalie was a ghost.
Natalie Keller was a happy, attractive woman in the prime of her life: a mother and a wife. The kind of woman some people are jealous of. When a fatal car accident ends Natalie’s life, a new technology allows her husband to bring her back. Except it isn’t Natalie who wakes up over a year after the accident. It’s Andrew.
Andrew is not the only one who has returned from death profoundly changed, and he soon finds a group of misfits who share his fate. They include the brilliant and reckless Oz, who decides to make Andrew his project. The closer they become, the more Oz pushes Andrew into a carelessness that jeopardizes both of their lives.
Having paid for the procedure, Natalie’s husband Robert has control over Andrew’s body and legal identity. In order to get his life back, Andrew must play a dangerous game, keeping Robert in the dark and preserving his own sanity until he can legally revoke Natalie’s identity. But Robert is not the only threat. CryoLife, the company behind the new procedure, is eager to cover up any “mistakes.”
In a world where a new life is possible, there are still those who would tell Andrew and Oz how to live theirs. When the truth of who they are is on the line, what are they willing to sacrifice for their freedom?
A dystopian sci-fi thriller for fans of Ann Leckie, Lila Bowen and Kameron Hurley.
Now on to the interview:
1. Can you tell us a bit about your novel, Assimilation?
Assimilation takes place in a not-so-distant future where technology has developed to the point of being able to bring individuals back from the dead through cryonic preservation. The book is told from three points of view; however, it mainly focuses on Andrew after he has been reanimated following a fatal car accident. As Assimilation opens, an error in the medical procedure has impacted Andrew’s gender identity and he’s essentially a man waking up in the body and life of a woman. He then has to navigate his feelings of gender dysphoria in a struggle with the previous identity’s husband, and the cryonic corporation who’s looking to cover up any mistakes.
2. What part of Assimilation came to you first?
Cadaver preparation (embalming, cremation, plastination etc.) has always been interesting to me and I was researching cryonic preservation theories. In reading about current processes/challenges, an inherent part of such an invasive procedure would be significant impact on brain tissue – if/once cryonic reanimation becomes successful, there is a very real possibility that a person could return with different personality traits. While we still have a limited understanding of the exact structures that play a role, brain anatomy has more to do with gender identity, possibility, and expression than genitalia. I had the image of a young man paralyzed in a hospital bed opening his eyes to a man expecting his wife and a child waiting for his mother. The story built itself from there.
3. Your main character passes away as a woman and is revived as a man. Did you set out wanting to write a book that tackled trans issues or did it just sort of happen?
From its inception the idea of Assimilation centered around transgender issues. I thought the book’s concept would be a unique platform to explore a couple pieces of the transgender experience that I feel are often eclipsed in media sensationalism – managing the history of another gender identity and the struggle of a closet transgender youth.
For the first, essentially Andrew lived as a woman for 27 years – investing and building relationships as a woman. Coming back into the world as a man, that history doesn’t disappear. In choosing to pursue their true identity, a transgender individual has to manage and/or sacrifice the prior gender identity’s role. When gender is closely tied to our society and interactions, transition (even once complete) letting go of previously held images, expectations, and dreams is a painful, grief-filled process for family and friends.
Another twist in Assimilation is that while Andrew is 28, a guideline of the reanimation procedure has placed him under a conservatorship. He has limited rights and is under strict control of the woman’s husband, Robert. Leaking his struggle could result in being sent back to CryoLife, the organization responsible for the reanimation or worse punishment. As in the case of many transgender children and teens, Andrew is forced to deal with his gender dysphoria silently, with no options. He goes through a litany of emotions from trying to fit in as the woman to fighting thoughts of suicide.
4. Did you do much research into gender dysphoria and the trans experience before starting Assimilation?
I’ve always been passionate about promoting a greater understanding of the transgender experience. I’ve attended TransCentralPA’s Keystone Conference, which hosts workshops, seminars, and other programs regarding gender identity (keystone-conference.org). Another great resource has also been Laura’s Playground, a support site for a variety of gender identities and expressions (www.lauras-playground.com). Laura’s Playground offers live chat, forums, and additional information. I’ve been friends with many of the moderators and site visitors for years.
5. What is the hardest part of the writing process for yourself and how do you make it easier for yourself?
For me, the hardest part of the writing process is finding adequate time to accomplish it. I write quickly, but I need dedicated time. To get through a first draft, I end up taking vacation time and barely leave my kitchen table for a week or so, writing continuously for upwards of 20 hours/day (can usually manage around 10K words/day). The result is usually a completed first draft, but it’s physically and emotionally taxing, so not something I can regularly do.
I try to make it easier by intermixing longer works with short pieces or editing. I still feel productive, but these smaller sprints aren’t as draining and are great creative exercises.
6. Do you believe in writer’s block? Why/why not?
I believe in writer’s block in the context of “what I’d currently like to write about isn’t coming easy for me,” but I’ve never seen it as a completely closed door to writing in general. While Assimilation was my first completed novel, my second novel, Boy, was in the works for about seven years due to periodic “writer’s block.” If a story is lacking expressional fluidity it’s not that there’s a bad story, a bad writer, or that the writer has “writer’s block” – it’s just an indication that additional development for that particular idea is needed. When I hit this feeling, I try to focus elsewhere and trust that the piece I’m stuck on will unravel itself when it’s ready.
7. What advice would you give to a writer setting out to write about their first transgender character?
Take the time to consider details. Elements of gender are woven into so many aspects of everyday life that often go unnoticed. For example, in Assimilation the idea of just getting a haircut is a huge ordeal for Andrew. What if the stylist refuses to give him a man’s haircut? What if it ends up botched and looking even more feminine? Even walking into a salon with an interior of mirrors reflecting an image he hates, is terrifying. If a writer is going to accurately portray a transgender character, they need to bring in the finer points, and the thousands of worries that accompany even seemingly small actions.
8. Can you recommend some other awesome books about transgender people?
Most of transgender books I read are biography or other non-fiction; I really enjoyed Dhillon Khosla’s account of his transition in Both Sides Now: One Man’s Journey Through Womanhood. On the fiction spectrum, there were several elements of gender explanation in Jeffrey Eugenides’s Middlesex: A Novel that I found fascinating.
9. If you could give an aspiring author only one piece of advice, what would it be?
When you finish the first draft, remove yourself to edit ruthlessly. Editing is more than spell-check and comma placement. A writer has to be willing to detach, and treat the thing they’ve created as a body of work.
10. What are you working on now that readers can look forward to?
I have four other standalone books looking for homes – two of which have specific (though different) transgender themes:
In Boy, my second novel, after his father’s death a young man is shocked to discover that his father had a hidden past as a transgender man. To find out why this secret was kept from him, Luke must go through a journey of self-discovery which involves convincing his father’s terminally ill best friend that he can be trusted with the truth.
My third novel, The Simplicity of Being Normal, follows Sam, a transgender teenager stuck in an environment of religiously justified bullying at school and abuse at home. After confiding his gender identity to his only ally, a teacher hiding secrets of his own, Sam tries to survive the increasing violence at school in order to graduate and begin transition.
James Stryker lives in small-town Pennsylvania, though he grew up in Ogden, Utah. He relocated 2,000 miles to be with the love of his life, and he also shares a residence with a pack of pugs. James enjoys writing both short and novel-length pieces of speculative and literary fiction. Themes in his work focus toward diversity in the LGBTQ spectrum and the voice of underrepresented or misunderstood points of view. When not writing, James can be found reading, listening to opera at obscene decibels, wearing pedantic vests/sweaters with large buttons, and trying to figure out who in his neighborhood has fabric softener that smells like Dr. Pepper.
Did you find this interview helpful? Want to see more like it? Let me know in the comments section below!