Novelist Laurie Frankel has a track record of writing stories that are sensitive and deeply felt. With her latest, This Is How It Always Is, she takes that to a new level. The story follows a family whose youngest child is born a boy, but in kindergarten becomes known instead as Poppy. It's a timely subject, but also one that hits close to home; Frankel's daughter is also a transgender child.
The novel will make readers think, and may challenge some preconceived notions about transgender people. BookPage spoke to Frankel about the process of writing a story that has some obvious parallels with her own.
As the mother of a transgender child, you had a deep personal connection to this novel. Why did you feel compelled to write it now?
Now is an exciting time to be talking about these issues because, for the first time in history, lots of transgender kids and adults are coming out to acceptance, understanding, and celebration from their loved ones and communities. Great strides have been made. Horizons have widened. More and more people around the world are starting to see gender as a broad and complex spectrum along which there are infinite wonderful possibilities. But now is also a critical time to be talking about these issues. Legislators all over the country are proposing bills to restrict and remove transgender people’s rights and indeed safety. They’re doing it with lies. They’re doing it with cruelty. They are making the world are meaner, harder, scarier, less fair, more dangerous place for all of us, trans and otherwise. So part of the reason to write this book right now is to spread the love, spread the understanding, spread the truth and combat the other stuff.
Why did you choose to fictionalize your experience rather than writing a memoir?
Well, the easy answer is I am a novelist, not a memoirist. I love fiction. I believe in fiction. And I also believe fiction is truer than memoir. Just because it didn’t actually happen doesn’t make it less true. Fiction allows you to tell the stories that should happen, with the perfect arrangement of events and characters and relationships, rather than the imperfect ones that actually do happen. It’s also true that I am keen to protect my kid’s privacy. And frankly, thankfully, our own story is pretty boring and plot-free—great for living, poor for book-writing, so I got to make it up instead. Transgender identity can be a difficult concept for some people to grasp.
What is one thing you wish people understood about children like Poppy?
Actually, I wish people understood that children who aren’t like Poppy are in fact just like Poppy. All kids are average in some ways and outliers in others. All kids conform sometimes and struggle others. All kids face challenges and change unpredictably and grow in directions other than the ones their parents imagined. And all should be loved and honored and celebrated for who they are. This is how it always is. Over the course of the novel, Poppy grows to be older than your own daughter and faces medical questions regarding puberty.
All kids face challenges and change unpredictably and grow in directions other than the ones their parents imagined. This is how it always is.
How did you research the medical implications of the story?
My friend Carol Cassella is a great novelist and also a great doctor, and she helped me with the medical stuff for this book, though mostly I needed her assistance with the hospital scenes because the mom in the book is an emergency room physician (and I am very much not). The medical questions for transgender kids are important and complex but fairly comprehensible for a layperson. I read books. I read studies. I went to conferences and consulted experts. I met a lot of people. I asked a lot of questions. I listened. There’s a lot of information available now. I took in as much as possible.
I'm always curious about process. Did writing a book so close to home come quickly or was it more challenging? This book wrote pretty smoothly. Who knows why? Some books come easy; some come hard. It didn’t feel so close to home while I was writing it because in my head it’s so made up. The family in the book looks nothing like mine. Poppy is really nothing like my kid. From the outside, they seem so close. But because I know them both so well—and because for one of them I consciously made up every single thing—they don’t seem alike to me at all. As you say, for most of the book, Poppy’s older than my child, so writing her was very much an act of imagination.
Sibling dynamics are an important part of the novel, with the four brothers reacting in different ways to decisions their parents make regarding Poppy. And of course, those dynamics can be an important part of our life stories. You're the mother of one child. Do you have siblings yourself? Did your experience growing up with them inform this part of the story?
I have one sister. We were nothing like the horde of boys in this novel. The large family was part of the original idea for this book though. Lots of the details come later in the process, but that wasn’t one of them; that one was in the seed of the thing. For a while, I couldn’t decide whether I wanted them to be boys or girls, but I knew I wanted five siblings from the get-go, even though I also knew it would be hard to fully develop all those characters (and it was). So many siblings allowed me to explore how growing up is tough for everyone—in different ways but no matter what. All kids surprise you, need accommodation sometimes, love and understanding always.
The idea of finding community and sharing answers and questions and secrets and stories is the reason I write books.
The notion of finding community and answers by sharing our secrets is powerful. Did that come to you in the process of writing, or was that idea what set you on this path?
The idea of finding community and sharing answers and questions and secrets and stories is the reason I write books. It’s also the reason I read them (and I do so voraciously). There has maybe never been a more important time to find commonalities with one another, to read lives and perspectives which are different from our own, to seek strength in our communities, to share our stories. Those are the ideas that set me not just on this path but on all my paths.
What are you working on next? I’m at work on a new novel, which I’m not talking about yet I’m afraid (writers are superstitious like that), and making plans for the one after that. I’m also writing lots of essays around This Is How It Always Is to answer some of the very important, very timely questions like the sort you pose (and thank you so much for doing so). I think for the most part people’s curiosity about this topic comes from a place of love and recognition so I am eager to answer questions, share stories and talk about how great these kids are. So thanks for asking!
ALSO IN BOOKPAGE: Read our review of This Is How It Always Is.