Renee James, author of Coming Out Can Be Murder
Q. Tell us about yourself, your background, where you were born/live? Your work prior to becoming a writer.
I was born right after World War II in a very rural area in Washington State. We lived on a gravel road in the middle of nowhere. When I was 10 we moved to Chicago which was a place I hated until sometime in my early adulthood, I realized it was a great place.
When I finished college and military service, I went to work as a magazine writer and editor, mostly in Chicago but with one career-changing stint as a staff writer for Time-Life Books in the mid-Seventies. I learned more about writing in my year on that staff than I have in all the years before or since. I worked in magazines for more than 40 years and still write articles on a free-lance basis.
Q. When did you first realize you wanted to become a writer?
My father planted the idea in my head when I was a small child. He was a high school English teacher and loved Steinbeck and Hemmingway and the great American writers of the 20th Century—along with Shakespeare and Chaucer and the great classics. I always wanted to be a novelist, but it took a lifetime before I could put together the discipline and will to create a story line.
Q. Is Coming Out Can Be Murder your first book? If not, what were your previous writings?
Coming Out is my first novel. I co-authored a biography back in the Eighties, mainly to see if I could do it and to help pay for college expenses for my kids. And I've published hundreds of articles, editorials and columns along the way.
Q. How did you come up with the idea for the book?
I finally began confronting my transgender nature when I was in my fifties, after a lifetime of trying to ignore it or deny it. Part of the process was getting to know other trans people and contemplating whether or not to transition to the other gender. While I will never transition, the process got me thinking about the turning points in my own life. One came in my late thirties when I decided to re-marry and raise a family. I thought about what my life would have been like if I had decided to transition instead. That thought helped me establish real life priorities—I wouldn't trade anything for my wife and children and grandchildren—and it also got me thinking deeply about what it's really like to be a transsexual woman in today's America.
I was travelling a lot on business then and started writing a fictional journal based on what my life might have been like if I embraced Renee completely back when I was 38 and single. I wrote while waiting for airplanes, on long flights, and in hotel rooms at night.
It was captivating. I got to maybe forty thousand words and took a long look at it one day and I thought, you know? this is really interesting. I thought Bobbi was an interesting character, way different that any character I'd seen in fiction, and different than the trans women profiled in the various autobiographies that have been published in the past. And I was especially struck by what a profound coming-of-age story Bobbi's transition represented.
So I went back to the beginning a wrote a novel, using first-person, present tense so we could get a strong personal feeling of what it's like to be trans and to be transitioning. And I decided to add a murder/suspense elementto add structure and tension to the plot, and to create a background that brings Bobbi's character into a sharper focus.
You can't imagine how much fun it has been!
Q. How about the characters? Are they based on people you know?
I cursed Bobbi with a lot of my qualities—doubts, insecurities, a love of doing hair, a sensitivity to people and environment. It made it easier to develop her, but this is also an aspect of transgender people that seems to get understated in non-fiction. And it made for a more complex character and added complexity to the plot.
The other key people are inspired by people I know in the Chicago trans community. The two psychologists are painted from impressions I've gotten of several therapists serving the trans community, for example. Cecelia, my favorite character, is based on someone I know, but Cecelia is the potential for that person, not the person herself.
Another favorite character of mine based on a personal experienceis Jo-Jo, the air-head trans woman who comes to Bobbi for hair styling late one night. She's a minor character and my editor suggested I cut her out of the story. I kept her in for several reasons, one being, she helped define the spectrum of transgender personalities – we range from stupid to brilliant, just like every other sub group of society. Also, the scene conveys something heroic and true about the best hairdressers—they really can't say no to someone in need, even when they should.
Q. What does your family think of your writing? Your friends and co-workers?
My wife has been extremely supportive. She has read and edited all along the way. I've also had really wonderful support from a woman I knew through the magazine business, who has critiqued and praised and provided moral support. Of my friends in the transgender community, my long-time mentor and close friend, Katie, has been a valued consultant and confidante on this, from editing several different drafts to lending encouragement and support.
Q. What is your work schedule like when you're writing?
I'm not very disciplined, I'm afraid. Generally, I work in the mornings, until two or three in the afternoon. On workout days, I start at nine; on the other days, I start at seven. If I have article assignments due, they get priority. Now, with the book nearing release, I also spend a lot of time doing marketing stuff—soliciting reviews, writing copy for my press kit, creating material for the web site, writing my blog, posting promotional stuff on Facebook.
When I was still in the pure writing stage of the book, I wrote all day, until I stopped for dinner at night. In fact, I had to get an ergonomic keyboard and learn how to use it because I was developing chronic pain in my hands and wrists.
Q. Are you one of those writers who can write in a public place?
Yes. And I love to. I don't very often—it would mean leaving my dog alone in the house, which I hate to do. In college, I used to read and even write papers in the campus coffee shop and I still love to combine work with an environment of hustle and bustle. But it doesn't matter where I am, once I get into writing, I'm focused. Most of my work is done in total silence at a desk in a corner of a small room. I think the silence would drive most people crazy, but I don't notice it.
Q. Who are your favorite authors and why?
John Steinbeck will always be my gold standard for writers because he was a great, great storyteller and a man of passion and courage. To me, The Grapes of Wrathis the American anthem. It shows our best and our worst, and it's as relevant today as it was when he wrote it. And the longer I live, the more I think of the Cannery Row trilogy as a brilliant insight into the human condition.
Harper Lee and To Kill a Mockingbird are also at the top of my list, for the same reasons. I watch the brilliant movie version of the book sometimes and the final lines haunt me for weeks afterward. Still.
I'm also a fan of several of today's commercial fiction writers. John Grisham is a great story teller. I love the writing styles of John Sandford and Lee Child. I love Tony Hillerman's characters and the insights he brings to Navajo living and traditions.
Q. What are you reading right now?
I just finished a beautiful book, A Secret Woman by Rachel Pollack. It may have been the first mystery novel to feature a transsexual heroine (it published in 2002) and I think it's really brilliant. It has a very classic whodunit plot, with lots of twists and turns, and the main character is a very successful police detective who is trying to cope with a gender identity crisis. Rachel is a terrific writer and story teller, and very successful in the science fiction/fantasy genre and in non-fiction. This was her only mystery, but I'm hoping she does a sequel.
A Secret Woman didn't get much publicity,like many fine books that get overlooked when they came out. The book is out of print now, but you can still get copies through Amazon or B&N, or buy a signed copy from Rachel through her web site.
I've just started reading 8-Track Flashbacks by Tom Alt. Tom is a fellow Windy City Publishing author and I love his book concept—it's a collection of amusing stories from his adolescent years in the 1960s, each tied to the most popular rock-and-roll song of the year. Tom writes with great wit and charm, so I'm enjoying the read.
Thank you so muchhy Renee for being here today and also for sharing your book with me!!
Coming Out Can Be Murder is narrated by Bobbi Logan, a Chicago hairdresser who begins investigating the murder of a trans woman friend when neither the media nor the police seem to take notice of her brutal death.
Fighting the demons of her own gender transition, Bobbi navigates Chicago’s mysterious transgender underground to find the killer, only to become his next target.
Coming Out Can Be Murder combines a fast-moving plot with a unique character study, putting the reader in the mind and body of a sensitive, articulate transsexual woman as she begins living full time in her true gender. And Bobbi takes the reader on an extraordinary journey through Chicago’s vibrant transgender community and the city’s famous Boystown neighborhood, from its high-brow cafes to its pulsating dance clubs.
James, an active member of the Chicago transgender community, sketches a variety of characters in Coming Out, from a seductive transgender sex worker to a politically connected power broker whose smooth demeanor hides the vicious personality of a sexual predator.
Among the most memorable characters is Bobbi’s mentor, Cecelia, a brash, over-sized, larger-than-life trans woman who refuses to be intimidated by the disapproval of others.
“Cecelia is the trans woman people remember seeing in a restaurant or store,” says James. “She’s too tall and doesn’t look feminine, but she dresses well and has great composure. You don’t know anything about her because you don’t know how to start a conversation. In this book, you hear her talk and you get to know her.”
The other character most talked about by early reviewers is Betsy, Bobbi’s ex-wife. While many marriages involving transgender people end in hostility and acrimony, Betsy and Bobbi never quit loving each other after their divorce. Their love just takes a different form.
Bleue Benton, Manager of the Oak Park (IL) Public Library’s nationally acclaimed transgender literature collection, hails Coming Out Can Be Murder as “an important contribution to the field…a great story with beautiful self reflection.”
Adds Ms. Benton, “Renee James has written a groundbreaking mystery. Her smart, perceptive, and engaging heroine leads us through gender identity issues as she seeks understanding, acceptance, and justice. This page-turner is important and needs to be read.”
Coming Out Can Be Murder goes on sale June 1 in paper, Kindle and eBook formats. The book is available in book stores, through on-line services like Amazon and Barnes and Noble, and wherever books are sold.