When change is the only constant

Jennifer Finney Boylan examines evolving relationships in her new thriller

Jennifer Finney Boylan broke ground in 2003 with “She’s Not There: A Life in Two Genders,” her best-selling memoir about her transition to a woman. This month, her novel, “Long Black Veil,” is out.

Eerie and deeply touching in turn, it’s a complex thriller about six friends who venture one evening into the notorious ruins of Eastern State Penitentiary in Philadelphia, a night that will irrevocably impact each of them. Twenty years later, one of them is charged with a murder that occurred on that night, and the past and its secrets catch up with all of them, especially Judith, who is transgender.

It makes you think—about identity, the role the past plays in defining us and the constant change that marks relationships.

“At the heart of the book is a philosophical question,” Boylan says. “How much change could you accept in the life of the person you love and still accept them as the person to whom you have sworn your loyalty? If the only constant in life is change, then who is it we are making promises to, when at age 20 we pledge to always be someone’s friend? What do we know of who that person will be when they are 60, except that they will no longer be the same as the person you pledge your loyalty to?”  

“She’s Not There” propelled Boylan into the spotlight as a transgender woman. She speaks all over, now known as a leader to LGBT people around the world. She appears on national news and talk shows and is a contributing opinion page writer for the New York Times and numerous other publications. She is the Anna Quindlen Writer in Residence at Barnard College of Columbia University, national co-chair of GLAAD and a special advisor to the president of Colby College.

We talked to Boylan, who lives in New York City and Belgrade Lakes with her wife and two sons, about her latest work. Here are edited excerpts.

Q: What made you decide to write this novel?
A: The idea for this novel came during a trip to visit the ruins of Eastern State Penitentiary in Philadelphia, a spot advertised as “the most haunted place in America.” You can really feel its scary history, just walking around there. And I got thinking about prisons and being trapped—it’s a metaphor for plenty of things, and transgender identity not least.

And so I thought about a group of friends who might have been exploring the old prison … and what might happen if they found themselves accidentally locked in. And what might happen, once they were locked in, if they found out that behind those walls they were not alone.

I thought that returning to fiction would be difficult—but then at least one, and probably many more, of the characters have a lot of my own experiences. And so the leap from memoir to a novel turned out not to be nearly the high wire act I had feared, but something that felt very, very familiar.

Q: Your transgendered character says that some of her friends don’t have the words, the language, to talk to her about her transition after the fact. What advice would you give friends of a transgendered person who knew that person before?
A: Well, if you’re a friend of a trans person, try to be in it for the long haul. I don’t know about you, but I kind of “tenure” my friends, which means that even when they’re in the midst of some tornado, I’m dedicated to waiting them out and to being there when the winds stop blowing. I might not be able to make those winds subside, but I can surely be there so that on the other side I can help get the cow off the roof of the barn.

Like many people in transition (and not just trans people), I was kind of giddy and elated and emotional in the heart of it all, and I think I tried the patience of virtually everyone who ever loved me. In time, like any second adolescence, I came out the other side. So be patient, is my main advice. Try by all means to use the right names and pronouns—failing to get with that program as soon as possible can be incredibly hurtful. People don’t know how hurtful that can be.  

Q: Art and music figure prominently in your novel. Do you find inspiration in works of art in your everyday life?
A: The painting of John the Baptist by DaVinci haunts this novel—a painting which, to me, is one of the most amazing works ever. John stares at us, this incredibly androgynous figure, a man/woman, with one hand on his heart and one hand pointing up to the heavens—he’s clearly telling us that what’s eternal and godlike is also that which is within us, and it contains all these opposites, male and female included. It was an incredibly controversial painting at the time … traditionally, John was depicted as a wild-eyed, locust-eating hermit. DaVinci decided instead that he might be imagined as a transfigured soul, an androgynous, eternal being. It’s on the cover of the book, and what I like is that readers might look at the cover and their first thoughts might be, “Is that a man or a woman?” And I say, “Ah-ha.”

Music has been a constant in my life, from my days as a piano player in bars in London to playing in taverns with various rock ’n’ roll bands in central Maine.  

Q: What are you reading for pleasure? Can you recommend something?
A: I just read Richard Russo’s new collection of short stories, “Trajectory.” Russo’s readers—and Mainers of all stripes—will be delighted by this new book, which drops in May.

Amy Canfield is the managing editor of the American Journal and Lakes Region Weekly and a Maine Women Magazine editor.

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