Torrey Peters: ‘My book’s about dealing with the adult realities of being trans’

Torrey Peters’s Detransition, Baby is the story of Reece, a sharp and self-destructive trans woman in New York, who finds herself suddenly back in touch with a former lover, Ames. Ames was previously Amy, also a trans woman, but has now detransitioned. Ames’s new girlfriend, Katrina, reveals she is pregnant with his child. The three of them form an unconventional family and try to decide whether to raise the child together.

Detransition, Baby was an international bestseller and is being adapted for Amazon Prime by the team behind Grey’s Anatomy. The novel was longlisted for the 2021 Women’s prize for fiction, the first time the award has recognised the work of a trans woman. Peters lives in New York with her wife.

Torrey Peters Destransition, Baby UK hardback published by Serpent’s Tail
Photograph: Serpent’s Tail

Detransition, Baby has been described as the first great trans novel. How do you feel about that?
I see myself as coming out of a trans tradition. There’s a number of trans writers before me who wrote great novels. What I did was combine the things that trans people have always been doing well in their novels with a big domestic family drama. This allowed me a kind of crossover audience – it was just a bridge between those audiences. And the cis audience got to see itself through a trans lens. And that’s always been exciting for cis people.

Is Reece a version of yourself?
Both Reece and Ames are heightened versions of myself. Reece is me leaning into my cattiest, haughtiest and in some ways most bitter self; Ames is like what if I interrogated how much we really believe all these things we say about being a woman, the rules that circulate in the trans community?

Often, I think of novels as a test case and this book is a test case; it’s a generational test case that asks, how are we going to go forward? How are we going to move past a kind of YA stage of writing about this stuff where it’s like “Are my parents going to accept me?” and “Will I get a boyfriend?” How do we deal with the adult realities: should we have kids, how do you find meaning, how do you approach the next 30, 40, 50 years?

What can you do in a novel that you couldn’t do in a blogpost or article?
There are political dangers with saying: “I don’t know what identity is, I don’t know that this way is the right way” in an op-ed or a tweet. In a novel, that’s different. Trust builds between the writer and the reader. They trust me to take them to a certain place in the book. I will trust that the reader is not reading my book simply to extract moments of political point-scoring.

What was it like when the book took off?
People who I had never imagined reading it were suddenly reading my book. People from high school who I wasn’t friends with sent me messages saying: “I read about your most intimate desires” and I was like, “OK, Mary Grace, I remember you liked horses”. It was that to an exponential amount. Initially deep exposure, then surprise, then amusement.

In the wake of the Women’s prize longlisting, a group calling itself the Wild Women Writing Club wrote a letter of complaint to the organisers, signed by a number of long-dead authors including George Eliot and Aphra Behn. How were you affected by that?
It’s scary when you have something like that happen. To some extent, I could see the humour. It took me about two weeks to finally get my feet under me. I was so moved by the other writers who came out to defend me. Do you remember in Lord of the Rings when Aragorn and Gandalf charge together and the orcs just scatter either side of them? Well, I had Lauren Groff, Garth Greenwell and Carmen Maria Machado riding out into the trolls and they just scattered them. They were actual heroes. I’m going to always be grateful for them. They didn’t say anything to me about it, it wasn’t coordinated, they just went and did it. I’m welling up right now talking about it.

What other great books have you read this year?
Darryl by Jackie Ess, another trans writer I often speak about. It’s the story of a cuckold. It’s hilarious and moving. Ayad Akhtar’s Homeland Elegies pointed the way to new ways to speak about identity, new modes of honesty about identity and class. I am going to lose my fanbase and say that Jonathan Franzen’s Crossroads is very good. One of my favourite writers is Elena Ferrante and knowing that Franzen was challenged by Ferrante and sees Crossroads as his My Brilliant Friend, this great writer rising to the challenge, it’s really exciting.

Detransition, Baby is out in paperback on 6 January

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