A Conversation with Jeff Garvin, author of SYMPTOMS OF BEING HUMAN
The best books give insight into people I will never be or worlds I can never visit. For example, there’s no chance I’ll ever be a pregnant teenage girl or live in the year 2200 on a remote planet out of our solar system, but a book can show me what those lives would be like, and ultimately help make me more empathetic. Jeff Garvin’s debut novel, SYMPTOMS OF BEING HUMAN, did just that–let me experience a world and a life I have little in common with, but ultimately made me more empathetic to people living that life. It’s the story of a gender fluid teenager struggling with questions of identity, family relationships, and friendship. It’s wonderfully written, honest, thought-provoking, and yes, in the end, made me teary-eyed. Below is a conversation I had with Jeff about the book.
Me: Okay, so your life has clearly been focused on the arts–guest starring actor on TV, frontman of a rock band, a BFA in film, and now the (soon-to-be nationally recognized) author of SYMPTOMS OF BEING HUMAN. Since writing on this level came to later in life, what lessons from those other mediums and carried over to writing this novel? What overlap, if any, is there for you between acting, singing, and now writing?
JG: It definitely took me a while to figure out what I want to be when I grow up, and I tried a lot of things along the way. I think all Art comes from the same place. And, while I have no idea how to actually get in there, I do have some practice at peeking through the windows. Acting forces you to abandon your ego in favor of whatever makes your soul sing in the moment. I use that muscle every day while I’m writing. On the music side of things, writing songs is like building a spacecraft: you only have room for what works. Everything else has to be mercilessly thrown out. That experience speeds up the editing process. Putting on a good rock show is a balance between doing what you love as a performer and focusing on giving the audience whatever they came for: inspiration, or maybe escape. I suppose that experience pays off when I’m deciding which idea to pursue, or how to frame my story. Lastly, filmmaking forces you to visualize EVERYTHING, which helps me with description and visual metaphor. From a business standpoint, acting, music, film, and literature are all Showbiz: lots of lonely work followed by lots of knocking on doors. So all that experience outside of writing fiction helped me figure out how to enjoy life and support myself while I banged on doors.
Me: So when you decided to finally pursue writing seriously, did you know what sort of stories you wanted to tell or did you just sort of feel your way? What led you to SOBH?
JG: I definitely thrashed around in the dark for a while. I wrote a contemporary adult manuscript for NaNoWriMo, then experimented with paranormal comedy and YA short stories. Then I tried my hand at epic and dystopian fantasy. I was in the process of trying to sell the latter when the idea for SOBH arrived. I was on my way to dinner with friends, when one of our group—let’s call her Jane—brought up a court case pending in my county. A transgender girl (assigned male at birth, but identifying as female) was suing the school district for the right to use the girls’ locker room at her high school. Jane gave us the gist of the story—and then she said, “It’s probably just a pervy boy trying to see some boobs.” I waited for one of my friends to object—or, at the very least, to defend the trans girl—but no one did. I woke up the next morning thinking about the girl—and the morning after that, too. So I sat down to start writing, and what came out was the first line of Riley’s opening blog post: The first thing you’re going to want to know about me is: Am I a boy, or am I a girl?
Me: Did the novel flow pretty quickly after that? How long did it take you to have the draft your agent sold? I ask because there’s a good deal of interest in the novel’s topic of gender fluidity (finally!), and you’re fortunate enough to have a novel on the topic.
JG: I started drafting in February and the book sold as an incomplete draft (a “partial” in pub speak) in a preempt in early June. So it happened fast. The timing (with regard to the subject of gender identity) is certainly fortuitous.
Me: How was the experience writing the novel? You’re dealing with a heavy subject overall, and I’m wondering if it ever affected your mood. How did you go about putting yourself in the mindset of Riley?
JG: For the most part, it was incredibly fun. I find Riley delightfully witty, snarky, and unapologetic—all qualities that are very satisfying to write. In their blog (I’m using “their” because it’s Riley’s preferred gender fluid pronoun), Riley gets to say all sorts of things that I wish I’d been able to say in high school. Writing from a teenager’s point of view is simultaneously liberating and healing. It’s also revealing; I really haven’t changed thatmuch since sixteen.
As far as the heavier stuff—yeah, those parts got to me. Anxiety is a real part of my life, and I struggle with it almost every day. It was gratifying to express that on the page and watch Riley thrive in spite of it. And that’s part of the beautiful healing power of art. It wrings your heart like a sponge, freeing up space for more love. The ending is always the hardest for me; it’s like leaving Disneyland after a magical day, or saying goodbye to a best friend.
Me: You said, “I really haven’t changed thatmuch since sixteen.” And man, isn’t the truth? I’m not sure if everyone’s like that, or just a few of us, but even 25 years removed from high school, I still think I’m 16 from time to time, definitely more than I’m comfortable with. Part of me thinks adults are just teenagers who are acting a lot more grown up than they really feel. Are there any specific moments in the novel that are drawn right out of your own high school experience?
JG: My freshman and sophomore years in high school were mostly miserable. I got picked on for being small, having a big mouth, and because kids thought I was gay. I got in fights. I planned routes to class so I could avoid certain antagonists. I remember one guy liked to poke me with a straight pin when I walked past him in the hall. I found hiding places where I could eat my lunch in peace. I transferred to an Arts High School for my junior year so I could escape all that. So, are there specific moments in the novel drawn from real life? Yes. I guess I’d rather not say which ones. That’s sort of embarrassing.
Me: I think a lot of kids who are dealing with gender fluidity issues are going to connect with Riley, but I also think it’s a great novel for anyone who doesn’t feel like they fit in, which, let’s be honest, is really most people in high school. Is there a message you hope readers take from this novel?
JG: Thanks, Kurt. I hope you’re right.
I always hated it when teachers crammed themes down my throat in Lit class. When I read The Old Man In The Sea in high school, my teacher obsessed over the scars on the Old Man’s hands, insisting they were symbolic of Christ’s crucifixion wounds. I argued at length that any old fisherman would have scars on his hands—from fishing. (Wow, I’m still angry about that. *takes deep breaths*) Maybe that’s why I’m reticent to give direct answers to questions about message or theme. But I’ll give it a try. I suppose I’ve always felt “other,” and on some level, I wrote the book to exorcise my own demons in the hope that it might help others to expel their own. I think that’s the reason I write. When I read a good book, it does two things to me: it takes me out of my own small world into a bigger one, and it tells me something about myself I’ve never been able to describe and didn’t think anyone else could know. If Symptoms can do that for readers, I’ll be tremendously gratified.
Me: Well, speaking only for myself, I read novels to experience lives and worlds I never can in real life. I finished your novel feeling like I understood Riley and the very real struggles someone who is gender fluid must deal with on a daily basis. It really was a very moving experience for me.
JG: Thank you. I’m thrilled to hear it.
Me: To wrap this up, I’d like to play a round of 5 Questions. This is more a chance to let readers know some odd-ish things about you, a light way to end the interview. You don’t need to explain your answers, if you don’t want to. Sometimes a little mystery is a good thing.
So to start off: Best 7K song to make someone a fan?
Me: Biggest guilty pleasure?
JG: Car-karaokeing Miley Cyrus’s “Party in the U.S.A.” and/or “Wrecking Ball.”
Me: Book you’ve read more than any other?
JG: It’s a tie between Catcher in the Rye and Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone.
Me: Mystery of the universe you’d love the answer to?
JG: I’d love to see a “Theory of Everything” unite particle physics and quantum theory.
Me: And, as always — You can invite one writer, one rocker, one actor/actress, and one miscellaneous person to a dinner party. Yes, they must be alive, and yes, your friends and family are already invited. Who are you picking?
JG: J.K. Rowling, Elvis Costello, Jack Nicholson, and Neil DeGrasse Tyson.
Me: Now you get the last word if you’d like it. Anything you want to say to finish this up?
JG: Kurt, thank you so much for your time and enthusiasm. Readers, thank you for your attention, and for giving me this awesome job in which I get to make stuff up. And, finally: Nitwit! Blubber! Oddment! Tweak!