Chuck Caruso on why an important character in his new thriller is transgender
Being published this month by London-based independent press Cloud Lodge Books, my debut crime novel The Lawn Job is a thriller with plenty of sex and violence to keep readers turning the pages, and loads of twists and turns to have them guessing until the final chapter.
I love the noir novels of James M Cain (The Postman Always Rings Twice and Double Indemnity), Jim Thompson (The Grifters and The Killer Inside Me), and Patricia Highsmith (The Talented Mr Ripley series), so my novel represents an attempt to bring the dark excitement of those classic crime stories into a 21st-century setting. The Lawn Job includes texting, legalised marijuana, heavily armed militia types, racial and cultural diversity, and a transgender character named Juana. Her presence in the novel also entails a fairly frank exploration of gender identities and sexual desires, not just hers, but those of the other characters.
Juana is not the protagonist of the novel. Rather, she is the protagonist's sometime girlfriend. They have a sexual relationship. Her boyfriend does not consider himself gay, but her transgender identity does not trouble him. As the story progresses, she remains an important, well-rounded secondary character. Her motivations, like those of other the characters, are at times enigmatic. This is, after all, a crime novel. Without revealing too much about the story, I can say that the outcome of the novel intertwines closely with her personal fate.
Another way that novels work is by providing us with new perspectives on the world. Not surprisingly, we learn a lot about Juana throughout the novel and how others relate to her helps reveal their characters as well. Of course I would hope that's the case with all my characters, but I found this to be especially true with her. Sexual identity represents an important part of who we are and how the world sees us. Some people accept non-traditional identities and some do not. Culturally, we continue to grapple with issues of masculinity and femininity. Regardless of where and how we identify ourselves, these things matter deeply to us.
That's part of why I chose to write about a transgender character, to deepen my own understanding and to try to share that experience with my readers. I wrote The Lawn Job as a thriller. It's meant to be brisk and entertaining, not a message novel. I suspect my book would have become a lot less interesting if I'd set out to advance some specific agenda or tried to make heavy-handed points.
I am not myself transgender; however, I want to write about the world around me in a more honest and inclusive way than I often see in books and movies and television. I have friends and family members who are trans. I have colleagues and students who are trans. The person who delivers my pizza is trans. When I bought a new phone last weekend, the salesperson helping me at the phone store was transgender. These people matter to me. I cannot write about a world where they become invisible. I want to write about the world I live in, and people like Juana are part of my daily life.
Of course, as an author, you have to imaginatively inhabit experiences that are not your own. While writing The Lawn Job, I was very aware that the trans experience is not my own. I was also aware that some trans readers might feel as if I'm appropriating their experiences, or be offended that I don't know what I'm writing about. I was also aware that the mere presence of a trans character might alienate less open-minded readers, perhaps causing them to avoid reading the book entirely.
But I believe we have to take both risks.
Even if I did not get Juana exactly right, I had to try. It's better to work toward empathy and fail than to avoid writing about trans characters because to do so would entail pretending they don't exist.
We're making progress. The characters in our popular media continue to become more diverse with each passing generation. But still too often, members of the LGTBQ community vanish from depictions of our world, and when they do appear, they emerge as token representatives defined wholly by their sexual identities. We need to work harder and do better.
We need more and more well-rounded LGTBQ characters in our fiction. Not just in fiction that is named, and perhaps pigeonholed, as being about LGBTQ issues. We need characters that can populate our books and movies not to be just "the gay guy" or "the trans woman" but to exist and function within that fictional realm just as they do in the real world, as full human beings.
The Lawn Job by Chuck Caruso (£9.99, Cloud Lodge Books).