On Writing and Growing:
A Q&A with
We spoke with writer Eris Young about their work, the release of their new book They/Them/Their, and the mental health needs of nonbinary and genderqueer folk.
Q. Can you tell us a little bit about yourself and your work?
A: I’m a queer writer from California, living in Edinburgh. Most of my writing engages with ‘queer’ themes, but what this means changes depending on the project. I’m queer so my personal perspective (outside the gender binary, outside the mainstream experience of sexuality, etc.) will show through in my work.
I write a lot of speculative fiction alongside nonfiction, but no matter what I’m writing I generally end up writing about people who are ‘outsiders’, for whom heteronormative family structures don’t work, for whom binary gender doesn’t work, who’ve been excluded from mainstream social structure for one reason or another.
I love fantasy and sci fi but I’m not really interested in writing about kings and queens and heroes. I’m more interested in the stories of people on the fringes or the bottom rungs of society, whose stories are nonetheless valid and important and interesting.
Q. Congrats on the They/Them/Their book launch! How did it go?
A: It was really good. Almost more so than having the book itself get published, the launch felt like the culmination of a long period of hard work on both my part and the publisher’s. It can be quite hard when you’re a writer to convince yourself that what you’re doing is worthwhile or that anyone cares what you have to say, so it was really empowering to have a roomful of people implicitly telling me just that by their presence. If I’d known when I was younger that I’d have had that one day I’d probably have started sending my stuff out there and writing publicly a lot sooner.
Q. Why do you think writing is your chosen artform?
A: It’s one of the only things I’m solidly decent at. I’ve always made up stories and read and connected with language as a way to get a point across or accomplish a goal. I guess I didn’t ever really decide to be a writer, I was just always already doing it.
I never really thought of myself as having a ‘future’ or a ‘career’, or had a realistic idea of what I might be doing in ten, twenty years time, until I started thinking of ‘author’ as a legitimate option. Then I started actively imagining myself doing it, writing every day, getting published, doing talks, even teaching people, and even if I didn’t know what it was I’d be publishing or talking about or teaching I had a clear image of myself doing it, so I knew it was the right thing.
Q. How do you feel having the book out there? What’s the response been like?
A: The response has been overwhelmingly positive. I don’t know if my publisher has been shielding me from ten million bad reviews and only showing me the good ones, but I’ve had a lot of nonbinary reviewers say the book articulates their struggle, or they’re looking forward to being able to pass the book along to the cisgender people in their life rather than having to explain everything themselves.
It’s been called ‘necessary’ or ‘timely’ quite a bit, which I think is fair. It’s also (according to my family, who looked on Goodreads when I told them I had a book out last month) been called ‘boring’ – which, maybe the person wasn’t interested in genderqueer facts or statistics, which there are a lot of (and which I personally love). But if that’s the worst thing anyone has to say about the book I’ll be happy! I’m not interested in more big scandalous stories about trans people that are just looking to shock or titillate cisgender readers.
Q. This issue’s theme is ‘Moving On.’ Do you explore the theme of movement or moving forward in any of your writing work?
A: Totally. I was looking through the introduction of the book ahead of the launch and realised (shocker) I’m a different person than I was when I wrote it. And I’m going to have to revise it in a couple years because the laws and terminology are changing all the time, which is maybe a bit annoying, but part of my due diligence as a writer.
But I think even as people we’re all always changing and growing. Part of being nonbinary is constantly developing and interrogating your own gender and presentation, which can be both stressful and fun, so I’m kind of always ‘moving on’ from who I am at any given time.
Q. What are some steps (if any) you take to protect yourself and your own mental health when putting yourself out there as a writer?
A: Stay off social media as much as possible, especially when you’re in your own head and not feeling super confident. My number one piece of advice to anyone who’s trying to make it as a writer is ‘tend your own garden’. Keep your head down, don’t pay so much attention to how much everyone else in your life is accomplishing. When you’re feeling lost, turn your attention back to your work, and just, work!
It’s so easy to go on writing Twitter or writer Instagram and see how everyone is always getting book deals and winning awards and starting shiny new prestigious projects. But of course, no one is going on Instagram and posting a photo of their boring life admin or the eighth rejection letter they’ve received on a story. But that’s what’s happening! If you really want to make a life out of being a writer because you love doing it and you can’t see yourself doing anything else, then your work can be an anchor for you when the whole hustle feels like way too much to deal with. Eyes on the prize &c. &c. &c.
Q. Your book explores nonbinary and genderqueer identities. Do you think being able to authentically express gender identity has a positive effect on mental health and wellbeing?
A: There’s a whole chapter on mental health in the book, and one of the biggest conclusions I came to while writing and talking to other genderqueer people was that the freedom and support to be who we are without apology, the ability to demand space for ourselves and our gender expressions, is so necessary for our mental wellbeing.
The two (connected) main causes of mental illness for genderqueer and nonbinary people are minority stress and gender dysphoria, and both of these come from the many ways in which we are constantly dismissed, treated as strange or aberrant or bad or ‘other’, told we need to be something we’re not, and so on. Society needs to change radically before we can be really safe and accommodated but we’re slowly carving out these spaces for ourselves, and it makes a huge difference.
Q. Do you have any thoughts on how the mental health community can offer better support to nonbinary or genderqueer people?
A: Hmm, I guess being continually aware of the complex and sometimes contradictory ways that mental health and gender interact with each other. Listening to us when we say ‘this is my experience’ or demand specific accommodations or have specific access needs. No one person’s needs are going to be the same, even within the same community (especially considering how diverse the genderqueer community is) so being aware of this and agile when it comes to providing support and access and not expecting us to be happy with a ‘one-size-fits-all’ approach to providing mental health support and treatment. Trust that even if what we ask for is unintelligible to you that we are the experts on our own experiences.
Q. How do you think the publishing and creative industries can better support LGBTQ+ voices in an authentic way?
A: Put your money where your mouth is! Lots of indies seem to be doing this, which is encouraging. We need to make a buck as much as (maybe more than!) anyone else in these industries. Especially for trans people, it’s probably not feasible for most of us to do creative work ‘for the love of it’. This means that it’s important that publishers, orgs, and employers more generally (I’m looking at you, London publishing) are realistic when it comes to acknowledging and catering to the needs of the people in these ‘diversity boxes’ they’re trying to tick.
If you want queers (and poor people, and mentally ill people…) to be able to work for and with you, go to them! Allow remote working. Create bursaries. Foreground LGBTQ+ voices. Don’t adopt ‘we need new stories’ as a tagline and then only do events with straight white people. Acknowledge that our life experiences, opportunities and needs might be different from the mainstream, and fully take on board why it’s necessary to talk about this, understand why these different voices are valuable in shaping the industry. Like don’t just acknowledge that ‘diversity is good’, understand why.