Andrea Lawlor’s Paul Takes the Form of a Mortal Girl, finalist for the Lambda Literary and CLMP Firecracker Awards, draws on a rich lineage of trans and queer narratives, from classical myths and Virginia Woolf’s Orlando to 1990s zines. Its protagonist, Paul Polydoris, is “various.” The year is 1993 and Paul wanders from bar to bookstore, from Iowa City to the Michigan Womyn’s Festival to Provincetown to San Francisco. Paul is seeking answers, stories, including an answer to this secret: his ability to shapeshift, to become, as he is sometimes known, “Polly.” As Paul searches for a mysterious youth whom he suspects of sharing his abilities, he stumbles into other quests—for sex, for the perfect mixtape, for money. The structure of the novel itself supplies further diversions. Intermittent chapters step outside of history into surreal, fairy tale–like fragments that offer competing origin stories: in one Paul is both Hansel and Gretel; in another, he is the Dionysus-like child of Zeus, whom his mother beds during a gap year in Cyprus.
Paul is “like everyone else, only more so.” But the “more so,” the ability to be and see “more,” makes all the difference. In our interview, Lawlor and I speak about reflecting this expansive queer life on the page—all its glamor, tedium, and ecstasy.
• • •
“A lot of queer and trans people resent being forced to come up with a cohesive narrative. I don’t want to be representative. I don’t want to be the one voice. I don’t want to be pinned down.”
Spencer Quong: Paul Takes the Form of a Mortal Girl is set during the peak of the AIDS crisis, and is full of deep-cut references to 1990s pop culture. It’s a story about a very specific moment in the history of queerness, but also a narrative that regularly steps out of time with the fairytale chapters. Perhaps we can begin there. You’ve said elsewhere that you chose to include these “retellings of shapeshifter stories” because they “allow for the unreasonable, appearing to offer explanations while actually just adding more mystery to the universe.” I love that formulation: the illusion of giving more information.
Andrew Lawlor: I really wanted to challenge the idea of an origin story for Paul and for Paul’s ability to transform his body into any human shape (or sex) he wishes. I think a lot of queer and trans people resent constantly being forced to come up with a cohesive narrative. For example, there is this by-the-book trans narrative I could give: “I always felt like I was a boy,” or “When I was four years old. . . .” All that may be true, but it is also more complicated.
How do you know what you know? I was made to question easy narratives or explanations and I see the importance of that to this day. It feels really important to me to question the idea that there would be a simple explanation for somebody’s gender or sexuality. It does not feel true to lived experience. In my observation, gender and sexuality are things that are both fluid and deeply felt.
The filmmaker Jules Rosskam has a documentary called—I love the title of it so much—against a trans narrative (2008). I have always felt like I am against the trans narrative. I don’t want to be representative. I don’t want to be the one voice. I don’t want to be pinned down. I also don’t want to speak for people. I don’t want to write some anthem. I am happy if other people do that—as long as there are lots of them. I want to be one book among many. Let Paul Takes the Form of a Mortal Girl be just one voice. With Paul’s abilities, it’s the same thing: what could be more boring than a single answer to why he can do what he can do?
SQ: Yet, might we also say that Paul, at times, still seeks an origin story? He is obsessed with the mysterious youth, the only other person he has ever encountered who can change the way Paul does. When he first encounters them in Chicago, he chases them through the streets. Elsewhere, Paul talks about how much he hates the idea of having to come out again: “Is it endless he thought, like Russian nesting dolls with no tiny solid center?” Does Paul want a tiny solid center? Does he want to be resolved?
AL: For twenty-five years or so I have been thinking “Am I going to medically transition?” every day, and I still keep not deciding. At different times it feels more or less urgent to know the answer, and sometimes I just think maybe this is my life, being in the question. And that is okay with me actually. There’s a comfort to it. Things will be clear for a moment, then obscure again.
There’s something about that uncertainty which I think Paul expresses, but with a searching, with a constant seeking of clarity. I am interested in the seeking, in the quest. It is always going to be messy. I like social realism because it represents that messiness. I like reading fiction where you think to yourself: “I did not even know you could say that. That’s too real.” I had a teacher at Temple, Sandra Newman, who said fiction can shine a light on a neglected moment of human consciousness. I love that. I remember reading Drown (1996), Junot Díaz’s first book, and thinking: “Oh my God, you can say that? I did not know you could say that.” That’s always a desire of mine in writing, to say a thing that is true.
I will also say that I’ve been close to people who are very concerned with ideological purity. I’ve seen the ways in which it is harmful for human interaction. I can’t write an ideologically pure book because I’m not ideologically pure. I also don’t know what ideologically pure fiction would look like, and, even if I did, it would change ten minutes after it was published.
SQ: Right. Paul slips up in his politics and his personal life. He’s not always kind—he misses important calls, he more-or-less abandons his best friend Jane. At one point the narrator even says, “Paul was never very good at having friends.” But I think the book’s own awareness of his failings is generative—there’s no pretense of perfection. We are all capable of harm. And when we’re willing to admit to that, we, and Paul, can actually look more closely at the shape of our relationships. And Paul does frequently reflect on his past, he remembers and holds so many memories.
“Queer relationships can get really confusing. Do I want to be friends with that person, or have sex with them? Can you do both?”
AL: I do think Paul can be a really selfish friend. When people are wrapped up in their own experience, they forget to be present for their friends. But part of friendship is weathering that. In my experience, part of friendship is, you know, “Come back when you’re hungry.” I think a lot of people think Paul is not likeable and maybe part of it is the way he is with Jane.
But one of the things I love about being queer is that our friendships are so important and we recognize that. In queer communities, our friendships have all different kinds of shapes. There are clichés and jokes, but also a lot of truths about the ways that queers are friends with our exes, build community with exes. Of course, that does not mean that we have utopian friendships. Our friendships are still real human friendships that have missed connections and bad communication and harms done and dysfunction. But they are highly valued. And they are highly inventive.
Queer relationships can also get really confusing. Do I want to be friends with that person, or have sex with them? Can you do both?
Paul does a lot of things in his relationship with Jane that are not that great. But Jane is also selfish and insecure. They’re both—I hope—fully human. I don’t like the idea of somebody being a good friend or a bad friend or a good person or a bad person.
SQ: I love that moment when Jane and Paul are driving back from Michigan, and Jane thinks: “Was he about to cry? Oh Jesus.” She is just so done with him in that moment. So much of friendship is weathering misunderstandings and uncertainties. Your friend Jordy Rosenberg writes that there is value to “reading and not understanding.” Not understanding does not preclude intimacy or pleasure.
AL: Definitely link to that article!
SQ: Speaking of Jordy, both your book and his, the historical fantasy Confessions of the Fox, have received attention and praise in recent months as the vanguard of a new “trans literature.” This attention can be really exciting, but I also wonder about the strain of such categorization. I remember you saying a couple years ago at a reading at Amherst Books, “Paul is not trans.” You probably also said (or implied) that Paul is not not-trans. But it’s funny how the media, or even library or award categories, often impose a definitive label. Or, perhaps that’s even an impulse within the reader. I clearly latched onto the phrase “Paul is not trans” in my memory. I think I also opened the book thinking of Paul as a cis-man.
AL: By the end of the book, how do you read him?
SQ: I guess it is just more complicated.
AL: Great answer. It is so curious. I guess to answer your question, all I can really say is that you can never read your own book. And you can never know how other people are going to read it.
SQ: My mind is going to Woolf’s Orlando, about a sex-changing immortal—I know that Woolf was an important influence for you. It’s interesting to read your book and Woolf’s together, because Orlando is so linear in its shapeshifting: Orlando changes sex exactly one time. And Woolf is quite explicit in describing and sorting traits as “masculine” and “feminine”—whereas the narrative in your book is, as you say, much more insistent about refusing to ascribe strict categorizations.
But Orlando and Paul do share an experience of solitude, of loneliness—at least in part because of their abilities. The first words Orlando speaks are: “I am alone.” And although your novel begins with Paul trying to convince his friends to go out and party with him, when he is unsuccessful, the narrator says, “He preferred to go alone.” Much like Orlando, Paul seems to cherish the liberty of aloneness.
“When I was Paul’s age, my experience was certainly of loneliness, walking around cities by myself for hours at a time—a lonely flâneur. But maybe you have to be lonely to connect with someone?”
AL: Orlando was hugely influential for me. I read it in high school way earlier than I could understand anything about it (thinking about Jordy’s belief in the value of reading without understanding, again). I think of Orlando as a seeker, and I think loneliness is maybe a part of seeking.
When I was Paul’s age, my experience was certainly of loneliness, walking around cities by myself for hours at a time—a lonely flâneur. But it did always feel like a kind of questing, of seeking something. Seeking companionship or answers or sex or reflection. Something shiny. Something new.
However, I will say I remember Orlando more for its intimacy. It is an intimate gift—literally. Woolf wrote Orlando for her lover. I think both books are really more about connection, though I take your point on the loneliness. I mean, maybe you have to be lonely to connect with someone?
SQ: There is a line in Orlando, “For the philosopher is right who says that nothing thicker than a knife’s blade separates happiness from melancholy.” Perhaps the same is true of loneliness and connection.
AL: So true. Loneliness can help give you appreciation for being with others, and help teach you about who you are.
SQ: Thinking about loneliness and queer lineage, I’m wondering about the theme of AIDS and the role it plays in your novel. On a couple of occasions in the novel, there is mention of Paul’s vigorous health, the fact that he never gets sick, and Paul even wonders whether his shapeshifting abilities shield him from illness. Whether or not Paul possesses an incorruptible body, the fact that he doesn’t get sick profoundly shapes the book. Can you talk about what it means to write a novel set during the AIDS crisis in which the main character survives?
AL: Totally. A lot of people didn’t get sick. And a lot of people who got sick survived until the drugs got better and are now living with HIV. And, of course, a lot of people died.
I certainly was not the most affected. But I was close to people who were sick or dying or at more risk than I was. Ultimately, I don’t know how to talk about that time without talking about AIDS and the AIDS crisis and queer communities living with and responding to AIDS. But I also know that part of living through that time as a young person was sometimes going into massive amounts of denial, which I am sure is true for people now who are living with the pressing reality of AIDS.
SQ: And true for Paul, maybe.
AL: Sure. Is Paul immune? What does it mean to be immune? Do people have supernatural abilities in their bodies? I don’t know the answers to those questions. But I do think questions such as these preoccupied many of us at that time, and that it would’ve been impossible for me to write about the period and not write about AIDS.
“I don’t know how to talk about the 1990s without talking about AIDS and the AIDS crisis. Surviving can be strange for people who came out into queer life then. Who thought maybe we were all going to die.”
I’m not at the center of that. I don’t have all the things to say, but I have some things to say. I know what it is like to lose somebody and I know what it is like to not call somebody back and then they die—to have many messages from somebody you love very much and then they die and you didn’t return the messages. I know what it is like to have regrets. To survive with regrets. To feel like you could’ve done more.
Surviving can be strange for people who came out into queer life in the 1980s. Who thought maybe we were all going to die. It can be strange to be in your forties and think, “Oh, here, many of us are alive.” I am just a person who has lived through some decades. I don’t know. I don’t have anything really profound to say about that. But this topic is very personal for me.
SQ: You are reminding me of José Muñoz’s essay “Queerness as Horizon,” in which he writes that to imagine a queer future requires holding the past with us. Not regarding the past as a static object, but seeing how the past continues to surge forward.
AL: And José died. It’s hard to believe. Now that’s a long time ago. I remember when he was a graduate student. It is weird to me—I’m still getting used to the fact that he got famous, and now it’s been six years since he died. It’s hard to understand time.
SQ: We have been talking about this ongoing work of living and friendship and of mistakes, of not calling people. Of living in crisis. What can we give each other in such times?
AL: Well, teaching is very important to me. Teaching is a way of paying attention, together: to texts, to each other. It is a circulation of attention. One of the things we can do for each other in this life is watch and listen as we all grow and change. Witness.
I value authentic inquiry. In a classroom, if you ask a question but already know the answer, it will usually lead to a pretty boring discussion. I mean, sometimes it can be acting, but I do think there is value in asking questions to which you really do not know the answer—and figuring things out together. It is more interesting.
SQ: Yes! It turns the attention outward, not inward.
“Teaching is a way of paying attention, together. I value authentic inquiry, asking questions to which you really do not know the answer—and figuring things out together. It is more interesting.”
AL: It is a wild thing how much that matters. Listening to people. Witnessing. In pleasure and in pain. And as queer and trans people, there is a special kind of attention we can give each other. I think that is true any time you are with people with whom you share certain kinds of experience. There is a comfort there of not having to explain everything.
SQ: And in the attention we can lift from each other’s shoulders. The prying eye.
SQ: It allows us space to consider questions together, like what is queer and trans writing? It is such a privilege to be able to have sat with you and considered that question. And to come up with many, many answers, and to leave it open.
AL: Yes, one of the reasons I love teaching queer and trans writing classes is just to be around people who are going to write things that I want to read. That’s super selfish! More queer and trans writing, please.