By: Alex Falck
When Dreadnought and Sovereign — the first two books of April Daniels’ Nemesis trilogy — came out last year, they generated a lot of buzz. Readers loved the combination of action-packed plot with nuanced characterization, and trans readers especially felt that the book spoke to them.
Nemesis is set in present-day New Port City (think Seattle meets NYC), in an alternative universe where superpowers are real. Danny is a normal, 15-year-old trans girl who isn’t out to anyone but herself… until the famed superhero Dreadnought dies at her feet and passes his powers on to her. Instantly, Danny’s body is transformed into her physical ideal (yay!), which outs her to everyone she knows (uh-oh). Now her father wants her to hide at home, her best friend is creeping on her, and the Legion Pacifica (think the Justice League) can’t agree on whether she should be allowed to keep her powers or pass them on to someone more “worthy.” But Danny knows the truth: She’s the most powerful metahuman on Earth, and no one can take that away. (For more summary and review, see my Tumblr.)
After we read Dreadnought, my friends and I speculated about why April Daniels decided to make Danny certain of her gender from a young age; although that’s a common trope, most of us were in our late teens, 20s or 30s by the time we realized our gender(s). Was Danny’s young certainty simply more convenient to the story Daniels wanted to write, a reflection of Daniels’ own experience, or a compromise for cis readers who might not otherwise accept Danny’s gender? I decided to ask the author herself, and Ms. Daniels graciously agreed to an interview.
This will be the first in four-part series of interviews with trans authors who have published books about trans characters, exploring their writing and depictions of trans characters.
When did you start writing the Nemesis books, and what was the inspiration for them?
I started writing Dreadnought on November 1st of 2013, and sort of accidentally NaNoWriMo’d it. I had been fired earlier in the year for being trans. Well, the justification they gave was that I hung up on a Nazi, and that was unacceptable customer service. I was working short-term contracts to pay my rent, and on the last day of one such gig I happened to have the idea that it would be cool if trans girls had an unabashed power fantasy that was written just for them. I spent the last day of the contract brainstorming and outlining and started writing the next day instead of looking for a job.
Dreadnought and Sovereign tell two distinctly different, though connected, stories. In Dreadnought, Danny is coming into her power, while in Sovereign she has to learn how to use it responsibly. Did you have a different goal for each book, or is there a single aspiration behind the series as a whole?
The first book was purely built around the goal of making scared trans girls feel powerful. The second one stalled out during drafting because I didn’t really know what it was about. It took more than a year to figure out it was going to be about anger instead of power, especially the anger that comes from helplessness.
There’s so little good representation of trans people that we can be very sensitive about how we’re portrayed. Were you concerned about how trans readers would react to Dreadnought and Sovereign? About cis readers?
The scenes discussing trans identity got vetted by a lot of my friends to make sure I wouldn’t accidentally kick anyone’s sensitive spots. We made some minor wording changes to avoid certain perennial intra-community arguments.
I didn’t really think too much about what cis readers would want, beyond a vague sense that they’d be the bulk of the market and that might constrain me to a small readership. I tried to avoid alienating them but didn’t do anything to really attract them, either.
Have there been any responses that surprised you?
Some people are surprised that the book has some dark moments, but I wrote it for a community whose biggest holiday is an annual group obituary so I don’t know what folks were expecting.
Although Danny’s story is unique, some aspects of her experience fit into the standard trans narrative, particularly being very certain of her gender from a young age. Was that based on your own experience? If not, what went into that decision?
I didn’t know that I was trans until my early 20s. In retrospect, my childhood is littered with eggshells, but I really had no conscious idea. The thought was too dangerous even to have when I was growing up. So I was a little nervous diverging from my own perspective on that point, but I felt it would help move the plot along quickly if she was already seriously questioning her gender from page one. I also hoped that in the intervening years since I was her age, greater understanding and visibility has helped more young people be able to face these questions at an earlier age than I was able to do so. Consequently, Danny is about as sure of things as I was when I decided to dip my toe into transition. This wasn’t meant to undermine anyone who didn’t have a similar self-understanding at a young age, but rather to try and help readers of that age who may not yet be questioning discover that the strange, unknowable sensations making their lives hell have a name and a solution.
Did you feel pressure to compromise some aspects of the story in order to make the book more accessible or marketable to cis readers?
No, not particularly. Everyone who worked on this book was thrilled to be involved, in a way that kind of weirded me out at first, since I’m not used to being the center of enthusiasm. I always figured that if the book ran into pushback, it’d be from being challenged by a PTA or something. I was really hoping that would happen, actually, because it would have done amazing things for my marketing. No joy so far but I’ll keep pushing my luck and see what happens.
Did you have a specific audience in mind when you were writing?
Yeah, transgender girls, ages 14 and up, and especially those who aren’t out yet.
I was writing for a primarily trans audience; cis people could come along for the ride or not, as they chose. The thinking behind this was to accept that trans-focusing my work might make my audience smaller than it otherwise would be, but they hopefully would be more loyal. Happily, my thinking was unnecessarily bleak about my chances for attracting a broader readership, but the loyalty plan still seems to be working even without the tradeoff.
What would you like to say to young trans people who want to be writers?
You don’t need to do what the other queer authors are doing. They will still love you if you do your own thing.
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.