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By Jhon Sánchez
I had read Trenton Makes more than once. The first time was for John Reed’s workshop at the New School. Tadzio had just graduated from his Masters in the prestigious University of East Anglia in Britain, and we landed in the same class. For me, he was one more classmate with good taste and cool wooden frame glasses. We workshopped the second part of his book, and I read the first part on my own. I was impressed, and like a good student, I wrote some notes, scrapped a couple of lines, and made some comments to a piece that was already excellent. The second time I read it was early this year when Tadzio was teaching the same workshop. I was curious about what changes he had made in the novel. And now, in preparation for this interview, I’d had the pleasure of reading it a third time.
Tadzio, I’m your consecrated reader now.
JS: Let’s talk about the workshops. Why are they important?
TK: Workshop is about attempting to know your own writing through the critical eye of the reader. While I suspect I will never truly see my work as it appears to others, workshop is where I come closest to that experience. That’s why it’s so important for your workshop peers to go beyond “I like it” or “I don’t” to the aspects of the text that drive their likes and dislikes, to look at the techniques and examine how they affect their experience of the story. I’ve been accused of never taking editorial advice, but that’s really not true: I have learned a lot about what I want to say and how I can best say it from workshopping.
JS: Why did you choose that title, Trenton Makes?
TK: When I learned that women had worked in Trenton’s wire-rope factories during WWII—something that was essential to the plot—I thought right away of the Lower Trenton Bridge. I have been obsessed with that bridge for years and years because it has this weirdly passive-aggressive slogan for regional industry on the side, “Trenton Makes, the World Takes”. It fits so perfectly with a question I wanted the novel to ask: to what extent are we the products of our own decisions, and to what extent are we “manufactured” by the mechanisms of history and culture? By luck, Trenton turned out to be a perfect portrait of the United States in the 20th century—success and optimism followed by overreach and disintegration, all running on a hidden engine of poverty and disadvantage. It allowed me to investigate what I suspect is the essence of the American condition today: a long and painful cultural hangover from the many social assumptions that have been undermined by loss of exceptionalist fantasies based on race, gender, nationality, and so on.
JS: The Advocate titled a review about your novel, “The ‘Trans’ book I Couldn’t Stop Talking About This Year.” How do you feel about that? Do you think your protagonist would call your novel a trans book?
TK: Kunstler isn’t a trans character, and I certainly don’t think of Trenton Makes as a “trans book”: this isn’t about someone who grows up with a sense of being in the wrong body. This is about a woman who is given a job and a salary and the experience of self-reliance and independence, and who yearns to keep that self-reliance when conditions contrive to take it away. She becomes aware that there is a value—cultural, economic, social—that the system invests exclusively in the male body. What Kunstler wants is the value, the offer of autonomy; the body is only a means to that end.
JS: This is a historical novel. How does that change the way readers relate to the experiences of Abe Kunstler, the main character?
TK: I wanted readers to feel sorry for Kunstler, specifically about his isolation, at least in the beginning, because the novel is intended to be an argument for the value of inclusion. Setting the novel at just a certain moment meant that while Abe’s world wasn’t all that different from ours, Abe was denied certain systems through which today someone might hope to find solace or encouragement: he has no chatrooms, no support groups, not even any meaningful cultural references or public figures to look at. I believe putting the character in this extreme position—as someone completely without community, with no chance to develop a sense of belonging—ultimately makes a more forceful argument about the importance of community.
Later, of course, we realize that Abe has taken the wrong road. Instead of fighting for change, he subscribes to the idea that “if you can’t beat them, join them”—but that is just another way to reinforce the status quo. In order to beat the system, Abe joins it, embraces it, even exemplifies it—in some ways he’s the ultimate American, a truly self-made man—and is thus destroyed. What’s important is that he’s corrupted and destroyed by circumstances that are entirely within our control as a culture, but which we choose to accept or overlook. As an early critic wrote about Frankenstein’s monster, “we think the monster, a very pitiable and ill-used monster.” That’s how I think of Abe. His monstrosity indicts us all for our apathy. His story is to some extent the story of every American who convinces himself that exceptions acquit the rule, and so, for example, escapes from knowledge of endemic racism by noting aloud that some black people are rich. To acquit the system by exception is ultimately to embrace it.
JS: You were inspired by the life of Billy Tiptoe, the jazz musician. Can you comment on that?
TK: I was at the library looking at jazz albums, and I read on the back of one about band leader Billy Tipton, who was discovered at the moment of his death to be biologically female. I was fascinated with what that would mean on a personal level, in terms of living your daily life. It suggested to me a really big canvas for a discussion of self-creation, all those questions of personal identity and masquerade. Once I started, though, it very quickly—and maybe inevitably—became much bigger. The more I looked at historical cases of women living as men, the more obvious it was that the real story was about our social, economic, and political systems. After all, we can’t say anything for sure about Antonio de Erauso or James Barry in terms of gender and sexuality, but we know without question that, as women, they wouldn’t have been allowed to become soldiers or doctors or basically anything else they might have aspired to because of a system that is designed by people like me—white, male, etc.—to cater to ourselves while encouraging us to misinterpret our own privilege as merit.
JS: The book is divided into two parts: One is right after World War II, and the other is during the Vietnam War. Why did you choose those specific periods?
TK: In terms of my novel, I wanted to examine the extent to which war was another expression of and excuse for the exercise of America’s obsession with masculinity. There’s no escaping the fact that the American Century is a century of war. This was the truth behind the shiny chromium beauty of mid-century America. Ironically it was the Vietnam War which finally made clear that the image of the happy suburban nation rested on assumptions that couldn’t be maintained. After all, you were told to you were going to fight for freedom, but then came home to segregation and restricted clubs and anti-gay legislation and all the rest of the ingrained inequality. The first time that happened, after WWII, people allowed themselves to be hopeful. By the time Korea was over and Vietnam was starting and nothing had changed, hope was in short supply.
JS: Your book made me think about manhood. Would you agree there is a juxtaposition between Abe and his son in the way they approach manhood?
TK: That’s very much the heart of the novel. I made them mirror images of a sort (both androgynous, both unhappy in their bodies, both unable to live up to the gender roles that society had defined for them) in order to underline that it’s the way they approach the structures of manhood—as represented by war, or certain kinds of work—that separates them. After all, there is a sense in which no one should understand Art better than Abe, but because of the path he has chosen, because he has given up everything—all human comfort and friendship, all solidarity with others—to become a part of the system, he can’t allow himself to see that the system is flawed. Art wants to challenge exactly the thing to which Abe has devoted a very difficult life.
JS: Abe Kunstler behaved in way disapproved of by his society. The reader may disapprove of Abe as well, but at the same time, we care about him. How did you achieve that?
TK: Technically, I did it by making the reader aware of Abe’s secret very early in the novel, I think on page 40 or something. It’s a kind of dirty trick to play—to make us feel for this person who eventually comes to represent the most oppressive aspects of America—but I did it for a good reason: my intention for Abe was always that his story should counter the very American trope of good people sometimes driven to do bad things, which assumes we can all be part of a bad system but somehow remain inherently good. I wanted instead for the novel to demonstrate the inescapable fact that corrupt systems are deeply corrupting. We can only experience that corruption as tragic if we have sympathy for Abe.
JS: You served as campaign writer for Misty K. Snow, the first transgender candidate for the US Senate. Could you comment on your experience with that? In your opinion, what are the most important issues we need to stress in favor of trans people in the USA?
TK: On Misty’s behalf, I want to stress that I supported her above all because I thought she was the best candidate. I was really blown away by her performance in the primary debates. I highlight that because I think Misty would rather be elected for her platform than for her body, or what her body might represent. It was just a wonderful bonus that by supporting Misty I was also able to express my belief that solidarity is our best weapon in the fight against bigotry. I don’t know that I am qualified to say much about the issues that face trans people specifically, but I have confidence that it is solidarity—with people affected by racism, by poverty, by bigotry of all kinds—that we are most likely to reach an equitable and just society. Misty’s focus on working-class issues is one example of that: as a wage laborer herself, she stood in honest solidarity with people who might otherwise not be sympathetic to a person whose very existence potentially confuses and therefore scares them.
JS: What is your next project? A novel?
TK: It’s a novel. I don’t know that I can say much more right now, as it’s still just wild scribblings, except that I hope it will look at the dangers of accepting the insane concept that there is such a thing as a “real American” defined by religion, race, and so on.
Well, now I have to read your book for the fourth time. They say we need to read a good book at least five times. Thanks, my classmate, my professor, and my friend.
Tadzio Koelb is the author of the novel Trenton Makes, which was shortlisted for numerous awards including the Center for Fiction’s First Novel Prize and France’s Grand prix de littérature américaine. His reviews and essays on art and literature feature regularly in publications on both sides of the Atlantic, and have appeared in the Times Literary Supplement, the New York Times Book Review, the Guardian, and the Brooklyn Rail, among others. Other publications include Morasses, a translation of Gide’s Paludes, and a short critical biography of Lawrence Durrell for Scribner’s British Writers Retrospective. Koelb grew up in Brooklyn but has since lived in France, Belgium, Spain, England, Madagascar, Rwanda, Uzbekistan, and Tunisia. He teaches creative writing at Rutgers and the New School.
Jhon Sánchez: A native of Colombia, Mr. Sánchez arrived in the United States seeking political asylum. Currently, a New York attorney, he’s a JD/MFA graduate. His most recent short stories are Pleasurable Death available on The Meadow, The I-V Therapy Coffee Shop of the 21st Century available on Bewildering Stories and “‘My Love, Ana,’—Tommy” available on https://www.fictionontheweb.co.uk/ . On July 1st, The Write Launch released his novelette The DeDramafi, which will be also reprinted by Storylandia in 2021. He was awarded the Horned Dorset Colony for 2018 and the Byrdcliffe Artist Residence Program for 2019.