An Interview with Author Elliot Wake
By: Alex Falck
Elliot Wake’s interconnected novels, Black Iris, Cam Girl, and Bad Boy, aren’t often mentioned on LGBTQ book lists, and that’s a shame. His sexy, violent, diverse and feminist romance/thrillers have all the fun of a guilty pleasure without the guilt.
Black Iris follows Laney, a party girl and the ultimate unreliable narrator, as her mother’s suicide sends her diving into a self-destructive spiral of drug use and hookups. The book flashes forward and backward in time, slowly unspooling the story of how she seduces glamorous power-couple Armin and Blythe into helping her take revenge on her homophobic high school bully.
Cam Girl, the most character-focused of the three books, is narrated by Vada, an old friend of Blythe’s who’s moved to Maine with her childhood BFF and now girlfriend, Ellis. One drunken night, Vada causes a car crash that severely damages her right arm, putting the brakes on her artistic career. Besieged by guilt, depression, and internalized homophobia, she breaks up with Ellis and falls into online sex work. Working as a cam girl ultimately proves empowering, though, allowing Vada to discover who she is and to finally accept Ellis’ nonbinary identity.
Bad Boy unites Ellis with Laney, Blythe and Armin and introduces trans man Ren as the narrator. These five have created a black-ops-style organization called Black Iris that takes vicious revenge on men who terrorize women. But when Ren asks Laney to take on someone who hurt him before his transition, she refuses, and Ren becomes convinced that she has it in for him.
Notably, the characters’ identities mirror Wake’s personal arc in real time, from queer woman (Laney, Black Iris) to nonbinary (Ellis, Cam Girl) to trans man (Ren, Bad Boy). I was curious about the interaction between his real life and his writing.
What decisions did you have to make about maintaining your “brand” while changing your name and gender?
We kept the same cover style we’d established with Black Iris, which has become iconic for me and my writing: bold, intense, rough-edged. My publisher left it up to me how to list my name. I decided “Elliot Wake (formerly known as Leah Raeder)” was the best way to link my past and future books. It makes me incredibly happy every time I see it. It’s an open declaration of transness on the cover of a book that stands on store and library shelves. It’s a thundering shout into the maelstrom of voices on a personal and political level: We exist. Leah existed, and Elliot exists now. Trans people exist.
What pressure do you feel coming from the queer community in regard to your work?
Honestly, it’s a vise grip. On one side there’s the pressure to accurately represent marginalized characters who have traditionally been ignored or portrayed poorly in fiction. On the other side, there’s the pressure of never being able to please everyone—of not getting it “right” for each individual and their unique lived experiences.
This is the monolith problem. Trans people are not a monolith. We don’t share the same exact experiences. The way I’ve experienced being trans may or may not mesh with another trans person’s own experience. And my work involving trans themes isn’t intended to represent the entire spectrum of being transgender—it can’t possibly, the same way a novel about cis people can’t represent all cis people or their experiences.
One thing that struck me about Bad Boy was the way you—through Ren—talk about being trans the way that trans people talk to themselves or each other, but rarely to cis people. Why did you decide to let all the self-doubt, conflicting feelings, and internalized transphobia out onto the page? Were you concerned about how people would respond to it, and what kinds of responses have you received?
My biggest concern with Bad Boy was: could I talk honestly about being trans—the good, the bad, and the ugly—and trust that readers would actually get it?
Honesty won out. But that makes it sound far nobler than it really was. My aim wasn’t honesty; it was self-therapy. It so happens that being brutally honest with yourself about your gender means exposing a lot of internalized bigotry and cognitive dissonance. And I had to trust that my skill as a writer would convey those issues adequately to my readers, with enough context and information to encourage them to think critically and draw their own conclusions.
Despite the fact that transgender woman and nonbinary people have gotten unprecedented press coverage in recent years, trans men have very little media representation or visibility. How do you feel about that?
It’s the trans man’s curse of invisibility. We have less representation, but we also endure less harassment and violence. There are myriad factors behind this—everything from the way testosterone works to change a body, to misogyny, to, yes, even misandry—but ultimately it’s a lesser burden than trans women bear. I think the focus of trans activism and press coverage should be on eliminating mistreatment of trans people, the brunt of which is borne by trans feminine folks. Does that mean trans men and our issues should fall by the wayside? Of course not. But ending that mistreatment uplifts us all.
I will say that the anti-masculine mentality crystallizing in progressive communities is really ostracizing and damaging to trans men. We’re told that it’s just blowing off steam from millennia of patriarchy (though as AFAB people we also suffered misogyny before and to some degree after our transitions), that if it doesn’t apply to us we shouldn’t take it to heart (though the mantra “men are shit” pervades most activist spaces and is impossible not to internalize, the same way race stereotypes are osmosed), that all masculinity is toxic (but we’re trans men, so either we’re not Real Men and thus not toxic, or we willingly defected to Team Toxicity and renounced all claim to feminism), etc.
Are there any questions you wish I had asked?
What I’m reading, particularly by other trans masculine writers. The sad thing is: nothing. There are so few of us out there, and most are published by small presses with minimal publicity. Like we talked about in the trans male visibility question, this is an area sorely disproportionate in representation. I’m doing my part with my trans boy YA stories, but I want to be spoiled for choice. I want the next trans boy writer to grow up surrounded with a richness of books about people like him. I want him to feel like he’s not alone. Because he’s not, and he should know that. We’re here for him.
Thanks to Elliot Wake for taking the time to talk with me. This is my second in a series of interviews with trans authors. If you liked it, please check out my interview with April Daniels.
Alex Falck is a Children’s Librarian at the Chicago Public Library. Alex is particularly interested in hearing and amplifying the voices of historically silenced people, including people of color, LGBTQIA+ people, and people with disabilities. Alex listens to lots of podcasts, and blogs at teenlib.tumblr.com. Find them on Twitter @AlexandriaFalck.