In Andrea Lawlor’s debut novel, "Paul Takes the Form of a Mortal Girl," readers join the main character on a journey stretching from Provincetown to San Francisco.
As part of our Summer Fiction series, NEPR’s Chris Ayala sat down with Lawlor to discuss Paul and how his story came to be.
Andrea Lawlor: Well, it's 1993, Iowa City. Paul is a young, queer shapeshifter. I guess if I had to describe Paul, I would say always hungry -- sort of always looking to see what he can get. Not just food. Attention, sex.
Chris Ayala, NEPR: Paul goes to Boystown in Chicago and the Women's Festival in Michigan, and then back to Iowa City, and Provincetown and San Francisco. Why was going to all these places important to Paul and the story you set out to tell?
Well, I guess, I don't know that I set out to tell a story as much as follow the story. You know, it's basically journalism. Just kidding.
I mostly wrote about places I knew or had spent time. I spent a lot of time in Provincetown. I lived in Iowa City as an undergrad and working as a bartender. I went to Chicago at that time. I lived in San Francisco, although later than the time of the book.
I never actually have been to the Michigan Womyn's Music Festival, which doesn't exist anymore, and had a strongly felt position of not wanting to go in my youth for a variety of reasons, which later I was able to understand were largely political, and feeling, like, as a person who doesn't identify as a woman, I felt, instinctively, I didn't belong there.
But I think all of these places, even Iowa City, really, for me, they're all kind of like queer hubs. But, yeah, I think it's just being around people who felt culturally familiar. I mean, that was my prime directive as a young person, you know, just, like, 'Be with the queers. Where are the queers?'
What was going on in your life when you knew that Paul was a character that you were going to follow, and how did that influence this novel?
I didn't really write fiction in a serious way until I was about 30. I took a night class. I had a office job and I thought, OK, well, my girlfriend had said, 'You know, I don't know why you're doing the soul-crushing jobs when you're a writer,' and I was like, 'What makes you think that?' But of course, she knew that that's what they wanted to do.
So I decided to try to write, and when I first started writing, I didn't know how to come up with a plot. I thought I would retell Greek myths as a sort of skeleton to hang a story on, and by the time I started writing the first bit of this book, I was living on unemployment and working in a bookstore, or cat-sitting or something -- I don't know what I was doing. And I decided to rewrite the Tiresias story from Greek mythology, and I sort of found Paul, but then just kind of put it away.
A few years later, I began a grad program at Temple, which had the great benefit of having Samuel Delany as a professor, so I was able to work with him. When he saw this story, he said, 'I don't think you're done with Paul.' I will always probably do anything Samuel Delany tells me to do, so then I started writing more, and tried to follow that.
And then eventually, I applied to the MFA program at UMass and got in, then I had sort of a bit of the novel before I had started at UMass and I finished it at UMass. So I really did work on it over a span of about 15 years. And what's a little bit funny is at this point, many times, I said the funny joke was that it wasn't historical fiction when I started.
This book is set in the early '90s. Is there something about that time -- the culture, the politics -- that made it the right place for the story?
In retrospect, I could have a lot of reasons why this was the right choice, but it wasn't. Again, it wasn't a choice. It was what I was writing about, and then it became a constraint later that meant certain things had to stay out and certain things could be explored.
To me, it's really interesting to see the ways in which some young people are sort of saying, like, 'Oh, you know, I really can relate to this.' And I remember that feeling of being a young queer person, and reading books that were set 20 years before, and thinking, 'Wow. Oh, OK. So these are my ancestors. This is my history. I can relate to this, too, even though it's not my exact experience.'
Catch up with all of NEPR's Summer Fiction Series.