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Elliott DeLine is the nearly-25 year old Syracuse-based author of Refuse (2011), a witty and provocative debut novel chronicling a young, intelligent, and deeply insecure protagonist, Dean, through his ambivalent attempts at securing love and connection within and without the transgender community.
DeLine most recently released the prequel novella to Refuse, I Know Very Well How I Got My Name, and currently blogs for Original Plumbing and Trans-Genre.net. In addition to being a dedicated and prolific writer, DeLine is also an animal-loving vegetarian and seriously devoted Morissey fan. He discussed literary nonfiction, success, failure, and the tensions between art, individuality, and community with the Lambda Literary Review
When did you start writing Refuse, and why?
I started writing Refuse in April or May of 2009. I felt suffocated, on all fronts, and angry. It was a place to put all the feelings and words I had been holding back for a long time.
How old were you, at the time? Where were you, and what connections did you have/ had you had to the trans community?
I finished the novel around the time of my 22nd birthday. I was living at home [in Syracuse] with my parents over the summer break between my sophomore and junior year at SUNY Purchase. I honestly had very few connections to the trans community, or even the queer community. My experience is still pretty limited, but it was especially limited back then. I had virtually no connections in Syracuse. Back at Purchase, I had found myself in a clique of queer people, which included two or three other trans men. I had been hurt and disillusioned with this little queer bubble. I felt stuck between two worlds, and unwanted in either. Which probably sounds pretty familiar to anyone who has read the book…
Is Dean you? Or you…then?
In many ways, yes. I think Dean is more me than I am.
Mark Simpson (auhor of Saint Morissey) named Refuse a “novoir”. Is Refuse a novel “[pretending] to be a true autobiography or memoir”? Or a memoir “pretending” to be a novel? Autofiction? A slippery thing—sly and well-fit to any genre, whatever it is? How does your novel identify itself? Why did you choose to write it that way?
Thank you, I think. It is both. I took my own experiences, mixed them up, re-ordered events, made connections where there weren’t any, added stuff that never happened, changed names, changed personalities, changed physical descriptions of characters, added and deleted characters, made two people into one, split one person into two…etc. Then I wrote it as if I was Dean and it was all true…but Dean is an unreliable narrator, which makes it even more of a mess. And Dean writes it in the third person, like it’s a novel—so yeah, there’s a lot of meta stuff going on. That always appeals to me in books, as long as it isn’t too contrived and obnoxious.
I have no idea how my novel identifies itself. I consider it fiction. I just have a highly personal process when it comes to creating fiction. I think all writers do it to an extent. I chose to write it that way because my own experiences bored me too much for a memoir, but the idea of writing about someone entirely unlike me didn’t keep my interest, either. It’s just what works best for me.
How much did any potential fears of trans community backlash and/or cis-people ignorance shape your creative decisions?
I think that all novels can be misinterpreted. People are so used to reading polemics, particularly when it comes to transgender and queer issues. They’re used to being told what to think, so some people assume that’s what I’m doing too. I see it more as testing ideas. I was well aware that several lines in the book would not sit well with other transgender people. I can’t recall a time that I said to myself, “oh, no, I better not make Dean say that…people might take that the wrong way.” I knew what I was trying to say, and I knew in my heart it wasn’t wrong. I believed I was saying it well, and it was a matter of other people reading well. I purposefully flirted with “danger.” I guess it was a way of saying “Fuck what cis-people think. People who are stupid will always be stupid, cis or trans.” I think it’s all in the book, really. The struggle with these questions is central to the story. But the short answer is, I didn’t want to let those considerations censor me.
Do you think literary nonfiction can truly exist?
The problem with the nonfiction label is people get mad at you if you make stuff up. They aren’t going to care if you say, “well, it’s literary nonfiction or creative nonfiction.” But it’s unavoidable. Your version of events is always going to be different that other people’s versions. In that sense, all writing is fiction. You can’t help but change things, subconsciously or intentionally, whether to protect others’ feelings or your own ego. It’s always been easier for me to just call the whole thing fiction and not even try to represent facts. But as to whether it can exist, my answer is “maybe.”
You mentioned in our last interview that you thought of Refuse as being in conversation with the trans community. I’m going to read it again and pay particular attention to this issue, but first go around I did feel unclear about what critiques or comments you pose to the trans community specifically. I’d like to get into some of that in this interview—not to counter or put you on the spot, but to provide an opportunity for your thoughts to be out there. What say you on that?
Sure, sounds good. Did you want me to talk about it now, or were you just warning me?
Just warning you. And I try to operate on a model of consent. Next question: If Refuse sparked one change in the world, what would you hope that to be?
That’s a difficult question to answer, because I can’t say “sparking change” was my motivation to write the book. But if given the choice? I would hope it brought some comic relief to people, young trans men in particular, with very bleak lives. And perhaps provide a sense of empowerment that those people weren’t getting elsewhere. But in general, I don’t see inciting social change as my role. I can point out flaws, but that’s about it.
You rock with characterization. Throughout Refuse you had me consistently intrigued by characters that I’d otherwise hate doing things I didn’t like. Refuse is both repulsive and seductive, and I was aggravated with how well you were able to pull me through the book. My guess is that you study people very carefully. Is this true? How do you manage to write so fully about characters that you yourself clearly don’t like?
There are only a few characters I really dislike. Maybe that shows, because I think they’ve all got their own stuff going on and reasons for why they behave the way they do. Even someone like Jayden, or Alessio, or TJ…I mean, they’re insecure, and I think that shows.
As for studying people—yeah, I’m usually the withdrawn one at a party, listening to everyone else talk and reading between the lines. Writers are psychologists in a way.
Tell me about your latest book. When did you start writing it, and what’s it about? Is Dean in it?
Yes, Dean stars in the new book. It’s called I Know Very Well How I Got My Name. It’s a novella, and prequel to Refuse. I’ve ended up going out of order, because I’m working on another novel that is a sequel to Refuse. I started writing some of the scenes for this book, I want to say… in the fall of 2011? I was in a creative nonfiction class at Syracuse University taught by Minnie Bruce Pratt. I wrote the bulk of it during the fall of 2012 and the winter of 2013.
It’s about youth, self-discovery, gender, sexuality, abusive relationships between minors, public schools, bullying, discrimination, class, and one’s name. And more than that, I’m sure.
How well (or not well) did you feel Refuse was received? What were you hoping for? What do you hope for your next novel?
I think it was received well. An overwhelming majority of the feedback I received was positive. I was amazed that people took it seriously, being a self-published book. I’m encouraged by the fact that people really sat down and read it. I got a dozen or so messages from people, mostly young trans guys, that they aren’t good at/don’t enjoy reading, but they read Refuse in one sitting and loved it. This reassured me it was a book that needed to be written.
I did and do hope for more. I didn’t necessarily expect more, but I hoped for it. I originally wanted to find an agent and then a publisher but I quickly grew discouraged and impatient. From a practical standpoint, I wish I were making more money from writing. From an emotional standpoint, I guess I’ve always struggled with intense perfectionism and I’m rarely satisfied for long with my achievements. This can be good and bad.
My newest book is a novella, and I mostly hope it keeps people interested and waiting for the next novel. I hope it stands on it’s own as a good book, but it’s the third book that I’m going to devote myself to now, not the marketing of the novella. I hope that by the time the third book is ready, I’ll have offers from people more powerful than myself and things will take off and I’ll have a sense of stability as a writer, and I can just keep writing.
I read failure—and, conversely, a search for the definition of success—as a central theme of Refuse. How do you understand failure? How do you define success?
I believe that’s correct. I’ve come to understand failure as something potentially alluring and empowering. I see myself as having the power to make almost anything artistic: to sort of romanticize the dullness, poverty, shyness, and disappointment. When things seem aesthetically pleasing, I can’t help being content. It’s a helpful coping mechanism.
I don’t know how I define success. I don’t know if it exists. I think it’s just important to keep going.
Okay, back to Refuse as being in conversation with the trans community. Insofar as I could infer, I read Refuse as a critique of the trans community’s failure to foster true, sincere, dynamic support for those most vulnerable and struggling with their body, understanding of self, and internalized/externalized transphobia. In other words, the trans community tends to “support” each other through coercively positive cheer-leading while those not precisely prone to rah-rah are left wayside, sometimes to die. Did I get that right? What other conversations were you hoping to pique?
Yes! Very well put. I can’t say it was a critique of the entire trans community. I’m in no position to speak about that. Nor am I pointing to any one person in particular. It’s the group mentality that I hate, when people stop thinking for themselves because they want to fit in somewhere and get approval. It can start with good intentions and good people, but put them all together and it’s a mess. I’m wary of queer people who all use the same academic words, and consume the same media, and dress the same and seem to think they are very enlightened and morally superior to the rest of the population. Elitism, I guess you could call it.
I hoped the book would also get people talking more about the importance of location. Transgender men exist in places other than Brooklyn and San Francisco, and we shouldn’t have to move away to get basic rights and respect. Some of us can’t move away and some of us don’t want to. We’re proud of where we come from, and there’s a lot we prefer about it. I would give my city a C- for transgender support and resources. There are plenty of F places that have it worse. Location can be a real disadvantage for trans people.
One of the biggest points I wanted to make with Refuse is that money is everything. Money decides whether you can transition, whether you can pass, where you can afford to live, and whether you can really survive on your own. If you don’t have money, or support from someone with money, and you don’t live in the right city, you’re potentially fucked. And it’s a catch 22, because you need a job to get money, and you need to live in an accepting part of the country to get a job, or at least to change your name and gender, which costs money. And you can’t get a job if your name and gender ‘out’ you as trans to employers…and so on and so forth. I wanted people to realize how absurd it all is, and how much trans people struggle, not just internally, but in the external world. It starts to feel like the entire system is against you, which it mostly true. It’s nearly impossible to exist somewhere in the gray area of gender and sexuality without money.
Did any of those conversations happen? Albeit a newer book, what ripples has Refuse incited thus far? Is there anything you will do differently for the sequel, or that you did different in the soon-to-be released prequel?
I have no way of knowing. It hasn’t changed anything around here. I don’t even know how many people have read the book. I know how many copies I have sold and how many fans I have on Facebook, but that’s about it. People rarely tell me when they use my writing in classes. I’ve found out from students a few times, and it blew my mind. I have no idea what the impact was, if I had any impact at all. I could have very well started a revolution in Nebraska and not know it. But I don’t think so. I like to tell myself I’ll have an impact long after I’m dead.
In terms of the prequel, I Know Very Well How I Got My Name…it’s just written differently. It’s less biting. I don’t know that I consciously tried to do anything different. I was just in a different mindset writing it.
Working on the third book, I feel calmer. I don’t have much to say about gender identity at the moment. I laid all my anxiety out there with Refuse. I do have more to say about the trans-man identity. I don’t know if that makes sense. I guess I am less stressed about the existential questions and more interested in the questions of how someone like Dean, or me, goes about living life.
Okay, so asking about Morrissey here is unavoidable. You’ve got his hair, Dean talks obsessively about him in Refuse, your novella is named from a lyric of his. Morrissey is clearly a profound inspiration to you. I will out myself here and say that, as a teen, I had enough boyfriends obsessed with The Smiths to put me off for life. I’ve tried in earnest to understand his pull, but I still don’t get it. What is it about Morrissey that so inspires you?
It’s like cilantro. Depending on genetics or something, it tastes god awful to some people and delicious to others. It’s not even a matter of preference—it’s just that the way their taste buds process it is different. People try to intellectualize why, but I don’t see the point when we’re talking about art. Morrissey’s songs reach certain people on a deep level, myself included. Other people, not so much.
Song lyrics have always been extremely important to me. My experience of music is far more intense than my experience of the written word, strangely. Morrissey isn’t the only singer that affects me deeply. Since I was young, I’ve been easily moved by human beings singing about their feelings. It’s the closest thing to spirituality I’ve experienced.
There are a lot of things I find interesting about Morrissey as a character—animal rights, fashion style, working class background, Irish parents, Catholic upbringing—but what was always most important to me was lyrics he wrote and how he sang them. While some people find the songs depressing, I actually think half the time that he’s really funny. I related to what the lyrics seemed to be saying about depression, sex, and life in general. It validated my own experience of these things. My daily sufferings were much more tolerable once they had a soundtrack.
I’ve also heard that Morrissey as a person can be a bit problematic. Controversy has surrounded him, particularly around accusations of racism. How do you reconcile Morrissey’s work and his person?
I’m hesitant to talk about this at all. I don’t want to be labeled what I’ve heard called a “Morrissey-apologist.” I was quite upset the first time I heard some of the things he was quoted as saying in a few interviews. But for me personally, Morrissey’s side of the story and insistence that his comments were misconstrued added up to a satisfying explanation. He’s one of my favorite artists, but I obviously don’t know him as an actual human being. It’s always been important for me to remember that. He’s never been a guru to me. Still, the emotional connection I have felt to the songs is legitimate and there’s no need for me to feel bad about that. For me, it’s about the songs and the story. My “personal Morrissey” so to speak, is a separate thing from the Morrissey who talks to journalists and gets spotted on his holidays. That’s how I look at it.
Final question on the Morrissey bent: are you at all concerned that Morrissey may be a frame that you must break from, in order to grow as an artist yourself?
No, I’m not concerned about that. For one, I’m working in a different genre. In addition, I don’t feel like he is a frame for my entire work. The new book, despite its title, has nothing to do with Morrissey or The Smiths whatsoever. Imitation is part of what artists do, and Morrissey isn’t the only person I’ve imitated. It’s just one of those things you wrestle with or go along with. I’m going along with it.