Issue 31

Torrey Peters x Leila Mottley

In a Valentino double-cover special, Port is proud to present an in-depth conversation between two of the most exciting voices in contemporary literature. Torrey Peters is the award-winning author of the book Detransition, Baby, and her collection of four novellas, Infect Your Friends and Loved Ones, will be published by Random House in 2023. Leila Mottley – the 2018 Oakland Youth Poet Laureate – has recently published her debut novel Nightcrawling, a New York Times best seller that has been longlisted for the 2022 Booker Prize. Together, they delve into their respective work, alternative modes of motherhood, and fiction’s ability to reveal how much our lived experience shapes who we are


Torrey Peters: I read your book this week and loved it. I’m really excited that randomly, we get to talk.

Leila Mottley: I’m such a fan of yours, so this is super exciting for me too.

I was listening to some interviews with you and so many people talked about your age. One question was ‘How do you feel about publishing the book of the summer at such a tender age?’. I would feel weird if people talked about my age in such an alienating way. I don’t know what a ‘tender’ age is… Because there’s a generational difference between us, I’m curious, how do you feel about how your age has been framed in this process?

I knew that this was going happen. When we were in conversations with editors during the submission process, I asked can we not lead with my age. That’s all I wanted. They replied that even if we don’t lead with it, it’ll be in all of the headlines. And that’s what’s happened. It’s weird, especially because no other author has the first question be about their age.

I’m sorry to make it the first question!

People often tell me, ‘When I was 17 I was doing ‘blank’, I wasn’t writing a book’ and I’m always thinking, don’t be rude to your 17 year old self because I was also doing all of those things you probably did. I feel the criticism, the judgment around teenagers, is present when they’re talking to me because they see me as an exception to adolescence. This implies that all teenagers are doing nothing and are useless unless they’re producing something to be consumed by adults. It’s a strange environment to constantly navigate. People might be drawn to me because of my age, and I’m okay with that if it gets them to the book.

I noticed the tone was an interesting kind of ageism. It’s not one that I think about myself so much, but it reminded me that the award for Detransition, Baby that felt truly good was the PEN/Hemingway, because they stated something to the effect of ‘good book wins award for good books’. It wasn’t, ‘trans author with trans book wins quite transly’. So, having just gone through that myself, I was looking at the way that your book was talked about, and everything shouted ‘Youngest ever Booker nominee’. If I was you, I’d want to have ‘good book is chosen for Oprah’s Book Club for good books’.

I would’ve loved that. It’s so true that you end up getting pigeonholed into this one thing as the defining factor. I initially didn’t even think of my age when I was writing it, that wasn’t the big thing on my mind. It is a fact about me I literally cannot change. And now I’m older, but everyone still perceives me as 17.

It’s interesting that age is the one of those things adhered to you. Are there other things that you do want adhered? When reading those aforementioned interviews, you mentioned Jesmyn Ward, for example, and other writers. Was it important to be identified with black women, and do you want people to mention other sorts of demographics? How do you feel traversing all that?

I love so many black women writers, including Jesmyn Ward, and so to be within that literary tradition feels good. At the same time, I often notice that all black authors then get compared to Toni Morrison. It happens every time. Is that the only black author many people know? Because I don’t think my work’s very similar to Toni Morrison at all. I end up navigating the thought of, do I want to be compared with these writers? Because I love and admire their work. But at the same time, I don’t want to be them. I often get placed into the narrative of ‘you’re going be the next x’ and that can be a limiting way to think about art.

Yeah, I hear you, but at the same time, I find myself talking about Toni Morrison a lot, and it has to do with the fact that in the trans scene that I came up in we were doing trans writing for trans writers. A lot of it borrowed from ideas that were forged by black feminists. Texts like the anthology This Bridge Called My Back, or the work of the Combahee River Collective. People like Judith Butler make references to black feminists – but when I’m speaking to general audiences interested in queerness, they don’t always think about black feminism, but I can be assured they will know Toni Morrison, so that’s who I mention. It’s a balance for me: splitting the difference between trying to give credit to many thinkers – while also getting an audience to comprehend completely and quickly – and rhetorically, to that end, Toni Morrison is extremely powerful. So much so that quoting her ends up being effective at explaining even trans contexts. 

It’s so true. She has this kind of claim on every type of art. She’s an icon. When I’m rereading her work, I am in awe of the craft elements, and I know she often talks about revision as key to her work. I would love to look at her first drafts.

Are there other people you would like to put yourself in with?

Jacqueline Woodson, because of the way she explores black girlhood and queerness in cities in a less overt way. She tells stories of people and they all happen to be queer, which fits in line with my work. There are many authors I love who I don’t think I am in any way similar to, but I’ve been reading a lot of funny fiction at the moment. That’s something I particularly enjoyed about your book, the humor. James McBride also uses voice and comedy extremely well. I’m almost done with The Trees by Percival Everett, which has wonderful elements of satire. We’re always told to read widely, and I do, but I’m always going to read black women’s books first and foremost. For me, that feels like a resistance to the cannon.

How did you feel when you were writing Nightcrawling?

I wrote it as a deep character exploration into my protagonist, Kiara. During the two and a half month drafting process I didn’t leave her head. That first draft didn’t have a whole lot of structure to it and had quite a few mundane, unnecessary scenes. However, they helped me understand every element of her life.

That’s very familiar to me. Sometimes the scenes that aren’t published are actually the places where you find the character. In the past, when I used to see guys on Grindr, I used to make them – to see if they truly wanted to come over – buy me sushi beforehand. Not crazy fancy, just a simple tuna roll. I wanted to know how much did they really care? It was like sending a knight on a quest before you give them your favour – you must go to the restaurant and conquer one Tekkamaki roll! When I was writing Detransition, Baby and laughing about this specific request, I realised that was the voice of my character Reese, that sort of logic and the gender roles that speaks to. In a certain way, that was a touchstone moment of building the character. It’s not at all in the book, but I had to write it to discover who Reese was. Same with the character Ames, so much of them came out of things that just never made it in.

Going back to the idea of being defined by transness, what do you see as the core of Detransition, Baby? I felt this idea of motherhood and wanting it, asking what does motherhood even look like, was an integral question. Did it start there, and how do you think about the book?

There was a little while when I was in my thirties and had transitioned, thinking, ‘How do I actually live?’. I was looking at my friends, many of whom are trans women, and saw that a lot of us were struggling. Then I would look to the cis women my age and they were all getting pregnant, building families. Their preoccupation was motherhood, and it’s so hard to tell the difference between what you want and what the cultural script says that you want. I think people don’t fully understand the degree to which the cultural script for trans women is just the cultural script for women in general. Because New York women were getting pregnant in their thirties I guessed I should do that. But of course, I can’t, so what does my womanhood even look like? Obviously it was going to be a book about trans women because that’s who I know. What was interesting for me is how much existing scripts and genres already accommodate trans stories. People assume that because it’s a trans book it’s going to break the binary and language itself, create its own art form, but I didn’t grow up reading experimental trans poetry. I was consuming domestic fiction. The books that I liked were Mary McCarthy’s The Group or Saul Bellow’s The Adventures of Augie March, and ultimately, they’re domestic fiction, stories of families. In some ways, the great American novels are these sprawling family novels. This is totally accommodating of a trans story and I was interested in what happens when you open up this mode to people who haven’t traditionally written it. Because my own personal preoccupation at the time happened to be motherhood, those two things came together.

In reading your novel, I thought how both Reese and Kiara possess an alternative motherhood vibe. There are moments where all of this unwanted emotional work gets asked of Kiara, and her scenes with Trevor feel so alive, are so tender, because it is a kind of mothering relationship. Here’s this person who actually has a tremendous capacity for emotional care. She shouldn’t necessarily have to do it – have it all thrust on her – but there could be a place for it.

Absolutely. In her relationship with Trevor, there’s this inevitability of her not being able to mother or care for him because of the rejection of communal care in our culture and what it looks like for people to step in and be caregivers. For Kiara, even if she had the resources, even if she wanted to take him in and continue to parent him, no one would allow that because they don’t see her as his mother. I think that ties into Reese and her idea of, well, where am I going to fit in all this? Kiara experiences this dilemma, but you know, when you love a child, you’ll do anything for them regardless of the outcome.

At the Detransition, Baby stage in my life, it was easy for me to think of trans issues as unique to transness. That’s a trap I fell into, because I believed there’s a really specific way in which no one would consider me valid as a mother. At the same time, I was encountering phrases like ‘anchor babies’ on the news, people stating this motherhood is legitimate and that motherhood is illegitimate. In writing the book I discovered that this isn’t actually a trans issue, it’s a question of, who gets to be legitimate?

Do you get asked a lot if the book is autobiographical?

All the time.

How do you feel about that?

The funny thing is I always want to ask, ‘Is this where you think my stepson came from, 13 years ago?’. I often wonder which of the three central characters they think I am. There is a degree to which I did emotionally pull so much from my life, certain facets of myself, of my friends. But after giving my characters alternate histories and different choices than I’ve ever faced, suddenly they have a model that’s so unique they end up making different choices. I understand why people ask the question, but my response is, don’t you understand what fiction does? It reveals how much our lived experience shapes who we are. The characters will never be me. They haven’t lived what I’ve lived, and vice versa. I just want people to believe in character more, the magic of it.

Definitely. Interviews are so funny. I always get asked, are you Kiara? I don’t feel like exposing my entire life, especially because I’m not that far removed from when I was 17, but what they need to understand is that Kiara is her own person. There are ways we merge and ways we veer away from each other. I’ve had people say, ‘I know your life is entirely the opposite of Kiara’s’ because at some point I had said that I had a bookshelf in my apartment growing up. I found that incredibly interesting, because they were making the idea of reading and literature synonymous with wealth. They assumed she would never have books in her house, but in my vision of Kiara, there’s a bookshelf. That doesn’t change anything else about her life.

Sometimes I want to interview the interviewers. What’s next for you? I know you wrote two other books before Nightcrawling; I believe one of them was in the mode of magical realism?

Yes, I was 14 when I wrote that. I wrote a historical fiction novel when I was 15, then Nightcrawling when I was 16/17. I’ve written two books since and l’m almost done with the first draft of the third. I’ve kind of scrapped the other two because sometimes I’ll write a book and then just leave it. That’s helpful to my process as often I write things that I’m not ready for, but will come back to at some point. Right now I am working on something – I can’t say that much about it – that has a very different setting, is more of an ensemble. It’s definitely going to feel different from Nightcrawling. There’s such rapid growth between 17 and 20 and sometimes I get scared that people are going to expect me to be the same writer as I was when I was 17. But I’m not, because I’m not the same person.

Did you write it while you’re doing all this publicity? I’ve been having a really hard time writing in the last year and a half because of exactly that. I feel like people want Detransition, Baby part two, and actually, I started that book in 2015. I’m a different writer. My preoccupations are different, but then I’m also aware I have this audience and I don’t want to disappoint them. I’ll switch between having the impulse to please and then jump to one that wants to shock and reject, like the next thing I write, you’re going to be disgusted by it, this is what you get for liking my book! I’m vacillating between the two and have been doing screenwriting simply because the weight of expectation doesn’t feel as heavy or painful for me. Are you able to deal with that?

I’m always struggling with that lately. I felt so much pressure with the two books I wrote between selling Nightcrawling and it coming out. I’ve decided I’m going to try hard to not think about what anyone else wants and just focus on the books that I want to write. I panic about once a week that the books I want to write are wrong and there’s no market for them. I’ve realised that you can’t really write on tour. People have said they love to write in their hotel rooms, but I’m sleeping! Tour life is insane. I’m trying to process so much and just make it to the next destination, the next interview. I can’t write at all during all that. I’ve slowly started again, but my pace has changed. It’s such a different experience being the author rather than the writer. Now I’m working late at night when I know no one’s going to bother me, yet it’s so much harder than it was before. I don’t remember having any panic during Nightcrawling because I was convinced no one was ever going to read it. That helped a lot. You can’t recreate those circumstances when you know that someone will most likely read it.

When I wrote Detransition, Baby, I had self-published my previous work. There are jokes in it that I was writing for specific friends so I really had a sense of audience, of who this book is for. One of the things that I’m now working hard to understand is this question of, what is there for me, rather than an external audience? Did you have an audience in mind when you wrote Nightcrawling, and is that the same audience now?

I was very publicly a poet at the time I wrote Nightcrawling. I’d be performing a few times a week and everyone knew me as a poet. My fiction was a solitary endeavor, no one read it. I’d write a novel once a year and I don’t even think most of my best friends knew about them. I didn’t want to change people’s image of me. I wrote Nightcrawling with the idea that I alone was going to read it and that is why the book is the way it is, a depiction of my 17th year and what it looked like for me, to be existing in my body at the time. I wanted to create and read a novel that recognised how scared and vulnerable I felt. I thought, if I can read this and feel just a little bit better about the role of fiction, if I can create a book that helps me feel solace, then I’ll be happy.

I’m aware that people who I wouldn’t normally ask to read my book, have done so and loved it. I have mixed feelings about this. Because the audience, the one I envisioned once I sold the book, was pretty much just teenage black girls. That’s a very small percentage of who’s read my book and I’m wrestling with not knowing exactly why so many of these other people like my work. I don’t want to change who I write for, because I also think that there are black girls who will find it. I even felt affirmed when I read it back. Part of what I’ve been doing at the moment is saying I can scrap my work before anyone else reads it and it has still served a purpose, for me. That’s been helping: knowing I don’t have to show anyone, not my agents, not my editor. Probably the only person who will read it is my partner, but she reads everything I write, and she’ll tell me the truth without judgement or permanence. I worry way more than I ever used to while writing, perhaps because of the conditions of writing when you know there’s an audience.

I’m going to take two things from your answer that I loved. It’s so important to remember that you can scrap your work, that actually, you don’t have to follow up. And the other is the word solace. I know that when I’m writing really well, there is a kind of solace. Writing can be a lonely business, but when you get that feeling, suddenly you’re not alone… It was such a pleasure talking to you. Thank you for you making time while on tour, the emotional space for it. I know how it is.

This was so fun. Thank you for talking to me.

Torrey Peters

Photography Eric Chakeen 

Styling Jessi Frederick

With thanks to The Production Factory, NYC

Leila Mottley 

Photography Hugo Mapelli

Styling Hugo Lavín 

Make up Kathy le Sant at Call My Agent

With thanks to The Production Factory, London

This article is taken from Port issue 31. To continue reading, buy the issue or subscribe here