The Making of “A God’s Life” and “Courting Hunger”

I’ve been working on “A God’s Life” and “Courting Hunger” since 2004. The following background notes on the writing of the books are reposted from the Kickstarter campaign, ending Sunday, Oct. 11, at 9 p.m. MDT.

“Courting Hunger:” Truth and Fiction

Mementos related to "Courting Hunger:" the Indigo Girls concert ticket from "How not to love a straight grrrl," my card from the nonprofit I worked for in Albany (SASU), train tickets from my New York to New Mexico move, my last bottle of testosterone, my mathletes pin ("Imaginary friend"), the quilt mentioned in "Kaddish," and Emma, who is not a memento but insisted on being in the picture anyway.
Mementos related to “Courting Hunger:” the Indigo Girls concert ticket from “How not to love a straight grrrl,” my card from the nonprofit I worked for in Albany (SASU), train tickets from my New York to New Mexico move, my last bottle of testosterone, my mathletes pin (“Imaginary friend”), the quilt mentioned in “Kaddish,” and Emma, who is not a memento but insisted on being in the picture anyway.
The poems in “Courting Hunger” occur between ages 4 and 34, or 1982-2012. Though the events are told as I remember them, they don’t tell all that I remember, and probably often diverge from what others remember. Some of the most important people in my life aren’t mentioned at all, or only in passing. Sometimes I deliberately omit parts of a story that are relevant to What Really Happened, but not to the poem. E.g., I cut a line from “Compassion” which clarified that my parents didn’t reject me when I told them I’m transgender, as my parents’ awesomeness is beside the poem’s point.

The book is also fictionalized in lesser ways. My sensory memories are often blurry, so I reimagine those to give poems more physicality. My favorite sort of metaphor is to interpret the setting as a reflection of the situation. I mostly do this with actual settings, but sometimes I’ll combine events or invent details to serve the metaphor. E.g., “The building stands on stilts, holding us / above floods. The stilts stand on sand” describes the building my high school was in, as well as implying the dangerous instability of social orders grounded in oppression.

I wrote the early drafts of most poems in “Courting Hunger” in 2010-2012, a period when I went from maintaining well (or well enough) on antidepressants to my worst and longest bout of depression yet (still going). In the three years since, I’ve been hospitalized for suicide prevention three times (the first two in 2012 actually, but not addressed in this book); had a prophylactic double mastectomy (an experience totally unlike the conjectured breast reduction in “Don’t say ‘transgender’”); was treated with electroconvulsive therapy, along with various antidepressants and experimental uses of other sorts of medication; and discovered through a friend’s help that many attributes of mine which I hadn’t encountered in other people are typical of people on the autism spectrum.

Because of those and other experiences, my understanding (including how I perceive some of the events described in “Courting Hunger”) has changed substantially from that expressed in the book. For a while, I tried to integrate more recent poems that reflect those differences, but they didn’t really fit. Instead, I completed the book with my 2010-2012 perspective intact. (The newer poems are the kernel of the next book, “Call Me Crazy” — Bob came up with this title, as well as the titles of all my books so far.)

A History of “A God’s Life”

I wrote and workshopped the first draft of “A God’s Life” — then titled “The Book of Names” — in 2004. Not my best workshop experience, but it did much to inform the evolution of the book, though there was only one bit of advice I used in a direct way: needs more sex. The comments helped me figure out what wasn’t getting across. For example, a poem that takes place at a family gathering in the suburbs, meant in part to illustrate the narrator’s discomfort in dealing with the web of relationships that having one relationship entangles him in — was understood to represent suburban family life as the happy ending the characters must be headed for. I mean no slight to those who prefer it, but the characters in question would find no more happiness in such a state than I would.

I had to put the manuscript aside while I worked on my thesis, “god-chaser.” As distressing as it was at the time, and as much as I still disagree with the logic of the decision not to allow a verse novel as a thesis (in short, because verse novels are more difficult to publish), I’m glad it worked out that way. Some of the poems in “god-chaser” would probably never have been written if I’d been focused on finishing “A God’s Life.”

Another … let’s say “benefit” of the delay was that my experiences over the next few years while finishing the book shaped its evolution. My general anxiety about losing Bob was sharpened and focused by his cancer diagnosis, and those experiences deepened two characters who became more central to the story in the process.

I also added another storyline to the book. I have a way of writing about religion and mythology that’s been described as simultaneously pious and blasphemous. I don’t mind so much if I offend members of my own religion (Judaism) or the dominant religion in my corner of the world (Christianity), but I still worry that Zoroastrian readers, should there be any, might take “A God’s Life” amiss. And for a long time I was determined against including anything involving Islam, though it felt like a major oversight in the context of the story. Given the narrator’s loathing of monotheism, I didn’t think I could introduce an important relationship with a Muslim character in a way that wouldn’t stir the loathsome cauldron of Islamophobia. I think I did find a way to accomplish that, and without violating the demands of character or story.

I submitted the manuscript to several publishers at different stages, and it received one acceptance and a couple near misses (including a we’d-take-it-without-all-the-“fuck”ing). Then, of course, I decided to self publish, not only to keep the price down, but to do all the “fuck”ing I please.

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