Andrea Lawlor, English Professor, Author, and Poet

Author Andrea Lawlor is a visiting lecturer of English at Mount Holyoke College and a fiction editor at Fence magazine. They published a chapbook of poems, Position Papers, in 2016 and their first novel, Paul Takes the Form of a Mortal Girl, in 2017. A 2018 finalist for the Lambda Literary and CLMP Firecracker Awards, Paul tells the story of a queer shapeshifter as he makes his way across the United States, navigating a series of complicated relationships. Last week, Lawlor visited Oberlin for a reading and Q&A alongside fellow author Hilary Plum. 

This interview has been edited for length and clarity.

Could you talk a little bit about your book, Paul Takes the Form of a Mortal Girl, and what you’ll be reading from it today?

To start with, it’s my first novel, and it is a coming-of-age story about a queer shapeshifter set in the 1990s in the U.S. It starts out in Iowa City and follows Paul the shapeshifter as he moves around, going to Provincetown, Chicago, San Francisco, and other places. 

Tonight, I’ll read a selection of smaller bits that I would hope give an ambient sense of the book as a whole. The novel has some sections that are literary realism, or magic realism; fabulism is probably the word I would use. There are sections of that, where you’re in our world with a little bit of magic, and then there are some other sections that are homages to queer writers, and sections that are fairy tales, or myths, or these sort of impossible contradictory origin stories. So I’ll try to give a taste of those modes rather than read from the beginning.

You’ve spoken in previous interviews about how the book is based in part on personal experience, even calling it a thinly-veiled memoir. How did you go about separating the character from yourself?

Well, a good trick for a fiction writer — if you’re writing thinly-veiled autobiographical material — is to change the character’s name. That makes it fiction, like magic! I gave Paul many, if not all, of my flaws, and then added some extra. I also tried to change certain biographical details that I then used as constraints. So having Paul grow up in Troy, New York — which is a place that is demographically similar to the place where I grew up, a factory town in Connecticut — forced me to make certain other kinds of changes. What would have been true at the time for Paul would not have been true at the time for me, at least in some ways. And so I tried to change certain things that would have ripple effects and eventually bring it more into the realm of pure fiction, which it is. It is fiction. I am not literally a shapeshifter.

I think we’re always writing ourselves into characters in fiction — that’s true for me, at any rate. And I’ve certainly given other characters bits of myself, as well. I had some struggles writing characters who were very different from me, like Jane. Or Diane — I got nothing there. But I tried to use my experience or observations of other people and, you know, being alive for a number of years, to write that. 

Your book presents a nuanced portrayal of gender and sexuality; is this something you wish you saw more of?

Sure! I mean, what I’d really like to see more of is just other people’s takes on being queer, being trans — other words, other ways to think about gender and sexuality and the connections and differences between the two. I like to encounter things that tell me something I didn’t even know to ask for. Freshwater, by Akwaeke Emezi, for example — it’s a wild ride, but the material that that writer is working with is so different from anything in my experience. It’s exciting to read somebody else’s experience that is so radically different from mine — I like to see what other writers have up their sleeves.

When it comes to reading things that you didn’t even know you were looking for, do you think there’s a cost to writing material that sometimes is hard for readers to understand or empathize with? Or should writers go ahead and write books that are hard to understand but give readers new perspectives?

Definitely the latter. I think that we need a lot of books, and there’s definitely room for books that are more educational and walk readers through things that are unfamiliar to them in a really gentle way. And I think there’s room for books that say, “You get it or you don’t, everybody’s invited.” There’s also room for books that are only for a very particular audience, [and authors] that don’t care if anyone else reads them. I’m more of a people-pleaser in that way. I’m more into that sort of radical openness, in terms of audience. But I also like the idea of centering a book around a queer or trans audience, readers who are sort of like, “Yeah, that’s my scene, that’s familiar,” or “That could be my world.”

You mentioned that Paul was in the works for a while. How did it change over time?

I wrote what started out as a short story, a version that turned out to be the beginning of the book, in something like 2002. It changed a lot over the time I was working on it; I was never working straight through. It was a span of 15 years from beginning to end. And in that time, there were years where I didn’t touch it at all. But I probably cut 30,000 words. I had some ideas for things that didn’t ever see the light of day. I didn’t know how to write a novel when I set out to write it, and I was afraid if I didn’t finish this novel, I’d never finish a novel, so I just clung to it. Over the last 15 or so years, the conversation around gender has changed in a lot of wonderful ways, in ways that have been really instructive and liberating personally for me, and also culturally. I actually thought when I finished it that people were done talking about gender, and I was very happy to find that that wasn’t the case.

Another thing that happened over the span of the 15 years was that it became historical fiction. It started out as being about the very, very recent past — like, a few years ago — but then it became historical fiction and reached the point where I was asked how I got the historical details so right. That was a real turning point for me, to see that was a constraint. To see that I want to stay in this moment, to look at this span of a year and a half. So those were some of the big changes that happened for me, over time.

What advice would you have for young writers?

It’s hard to say. I think the general advice I have for young writers is to figure out what a sustainable process is for you. Know that it may change over time, and try to cultivate it. There’s no right way to write, no right process. There’s no right way to learn how to write, to write a novel, to finish something. You have to teach yourself who you are as a writer, and hopefully you’ll have some good guidance along the way. At the end of the day, it’s your writing, and it’s your life, and you have to trust your own instincts.

What are a few books you’d recommend to aspiring writers?

Especially to fiction writers, and people interested in writing things that are not necessarily literary realism, my favorite writing book right now is called [Wonderbook: The Illustrated Guide to Creating Imaginative Fiction.] It’s mostly written by Jeff VanderMeer, with these wonderful essays and sidebars by other writers. He sort of centers on non-realist fiction, but he’s got some of the best ways to understand certain elements of fiction writing as a craft, like thinking about story arcs, different kinds of structures, thinking about characters, world building. His chapter on revision is one of my favorite teaching tools. 

One of the best things we did in my graduate program was reverse outlines of novels we loved. I did a reverse outline of Virginia Woolf’s To The Lighthouse that changed my life. And now I do reverse outlines all the time. If I love a book, try to take it apart and see how it works. I think you can do a lot of that teaching yourself by looking really closely at other people’s work that you love.