In the fourth of her series of interviews with women who write nonfiction, E.B. Bartels speaks with Cris Beam.
Cris Beam has written two books of nonfiction–Transparent: Love, Family, and Living the T with Transgender Teenagers (Harcourt, 2007) and To the End of June: The Intimate Life of American Foster Care (Houghton Mifflin-Harcourt, 2013)–and a young adult novel, I Am J (Little, Brown, 2011). Her books have received many awards, including a Lambda Literary award and a Stonewall Honor for Transparent, and a Kirkus and American Library Association Best Book honor and a Junior Library Guild Selection for I Am J. Additionally, Beam’s work has appeared in The New York Times, The Atavist, The Huffington Post, The Awl, Out, and on This American Life, among others. She teaches writing at Columbia University and New York University.
EB: Why have you–as a writer, a woman, a person–been drawn to writing nonfiction?
CB: I write fiction as well, but nonfiction is such a large genre–there is so much room in it, so much room to play with form–it feels like there are endless possibilities.
I really love learning about different types of people, and I love reporting on them. I started out as a journalist–I’ve always wanted to know how people think, and why they do the things they do. I write to try to understand how people make their decisions, how they live together, how they form communities. You can do that with fiction, you can imagine–but nonfiction allows me to actually spend time with people and ask them questions I might not be able to ask in fiction. Nonfiction allows me to be a kind of spy.
EB: As a journalist, what publications did you write for and what sort of things did you write?
CB: I did my undergrad at UC Santa Cruz, and I came to New York with all these visions of being a New York writer. There were a lot of internships available–all unpaid–at great publications, and I got offered a few, but I had to try to figure out how to make a living and do my unpaid internship, which seemed impossible. It seemed they were only available to very wealthy people. I couldn’t work a forty-hour-a-week unpaid internship and pay my rent. It was a little bit crushing. When I came here, I had saved up $2,000–and this was in 1994–and at that time I thought, I’ll be all set, that’s so much money. But it barely covered my first and last month rent and living for a month. I was really, really broke. I couldn’t take any of the internships, so I ended up writing for trade publications, because they were the only ones that could pay. I worked for a while at Drugstore News and at a place called Barbeque Business News. But it was a way in… Then I worked for a long time at a place called Folio, which was a magazine about the magazine industry. Working there was really useful, because I got to work with other magazine editors, and that was how I got to understand the industry. After about three years, I was able to quit and freelance entirely.
EB: Regardless of form–journalism, memoir–what do you feel you bring to your nonfiction? What makes it Cris Beam nonfiction versus Patricia O’Toole nonfiction or Lis Harris nonfiction?
CB: Mostly I have done immersion journalism. For my last couple of books, I spent seven years and five years, respectively, in the communities I was writing about and really trying to connect with people.
I also find that I will go in seeking one thing, and I find another. For example, my first book [Transparent] was about transgender street kids–at the time there wasn’t really anything being written about transgender teens, and I spent seven years following these four kids. At first I thought I was drawn to them because they were queer and I was queer–that must be the tie–but slowly I realized there was a much, much deeper connection. These were all motherless kids, and I had also left my mother’s house when I was fourteen, and I never saw her again.
If you can let down your initial perception, and let other connections filter in, you find you’re often tied to people in more ways than the first superficial way might think…. You will find different and new ways to understand human beings.
I tend to be pretty vulnerable in my work. While I work hard to let my sources speak, I also listen very carefully to what my own intuition says. I let my own story weave in, because I feel that as a writer your own story is always there. I think it’s important to pay attention to what’s coming up for you personally as a writer, and how that changes your perception, and I think it’s important to be honest about that with your readers.
EB: I agree. I feel like it’s such a scam when writers try to pretend there’s no “I”–that the “I” isn’t there.
CB: Yes, but at the same time you have to be careful to get out of your own way. You have to know when to be there and when to step aside.
EB: How does writing nonfiction benefit your life, as a person and as a writer?
CB: It benefits everything! A fish doesn’t know it’s in water. I’ve been lucky to get to know so many different kinds of people. In my first book, I was supposed to be this objective reporter, but one of the kids was in a lot of trouble, and she ended up becoming my daughter. It was supposed to be a piece of reportage, and it became a piece of memoir. I ended up taking her in. So one of the benefits is that I got a daughter! And I became so engaged with the trans* community that I ended up meeting my partner–a trans guy–so that’s another benefit. I got a husband out of it.
The work is in life, and the life is in work. There’s no way to know what life would be like without it.
And the people! For my last book [To The End of June: The Intimate Life of the American Foster Care System], I got to spend a lot of time with people who have creative and resilient ways to manage tremendous suffering, and that has been a real honor to witness. I feel very lucky.
EB: What about the things that you have found challenging about writing nonfiction? In particular, what is challenging about being a woman writing nonfiction?
CB: Professionally, as a woman, you’re always looking around and saying wait a minute, why is the masthead 75% male, and you look at the prizewinners and they’re male, and they’re white. That’s been going on for the twenty-some-odd years I’ve been writing. Some great organizations like VIDA have been drawing our attention to it, but I don’t see a lot of work being done to change it. In academia it’s the same old game–it’s still white male institutions at the top. Though there is a lot of great writing being done online at places like The Atavist, Narrative, Guernica, Public Books, and, of course, on Fiction Advocate.
I tend to write about subjects that are really exciting to me, and subjects that I have access to. So I don’t have trouble accessing my subjects, and I have been very lucky with my publisher and my editor–they have supported my subjects. I’ve had tremendous support.
EB: Last, do you have a favorite passage of nonfiction by a woman writer?
CB: I always think of Audre Lorde’s line: “Your silence will not protect you.”
There have been many times I have thought about not writing something–particularly when writing memoir–because I’m afraid. I’m afraid I will hurt someone I love, or it’s too emotional to say it, and I think about that line all the time. Carrying something around can be just as toxic, just as dangerous, just as frightening–that remaining silent is no protection. That line always gives me the courage to speak and to write, because silence will not protect you at all. I hold that line in my head as a talisman. I think about it whenever I feel afraid, and I feel afraid a lot. But then I remember that being afraid doesn’t make me any safer.
– E.B. Bartels is from Massachusetts and writes nonfiction. Her work has appeared in The Toast, The Butter, xoJane, The Rumpus, Ploughshares, and the anthology The Places We’ve Been: Field Reports from Travelers Under 35, among others. E.B. has an MFA from Columbia University, and she runs an interview series on Fiction Advocate called “Non-Fiction by Non-Men.” You can visit her website at www.ebbartels.com, see her tweets at @eb_bartels, and read her haikus about strangers’ dogs at ebbartels.wordpress.com.