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Master Class

"Tranny" Author Laura Jane Grace On Transitioning From Punk Rocker To Book Writer

Against Me! firebrand Laura Jane Grace talks about writing her book, Tranny, while in the process of coming out as transgender.

"Tranny" Author Laura Jane Grace On Transitioning From Punk Rocker To Book Writer

Against Me! in 2016

[Photo: Jordan Uhl via Flickr]

Writing a memoir is an inherently lonelier experience than making an album. And that’s just how Laura Jane Grace wanted it.

Laura Jane Grace[Photo: Ryan Russell]

The driving force behind head-knocking rock band Against Me! started writing her book back in 2012, the same year she came out as transgender. Everything leading up to this moment is exquisitely chronicled in Tranny: Confessions of Punk Rock's Most Infamous Anarchist Sellout, which is in stores, and which Billboard has deigned one of the 100 Greatest Music Books Of All Time. Her reasons for writing an autobiography in tandem with such a deeply personal public disclosure, though, are another story altogether.

"I started working on the book pretty immediately after coming out," Grace says. "There’s a multitude of reasons for that and looking back on it now I think one of them was, ‘Oh, here’s something I can engage myself in where I don’t have to fucking deal with other people while doing it—just a total solitary occupation while going through this transition and trying to work on myself.’ I just thought maybe the best thing to do at that time would be to reconcile with the past."

1987: Texas, Family Polaroid

If Grace didn’t have clarity on the evolving meaning of her past at the outset of this project, she did have an exhaustive record of it. Unlike other debauched rock gods, whose memories have been compromised by years of chemical adventure, Grace had boxes of handwritten journals dating back to age eight. She began her first one in elementary school. When her father had to move the family from Italy to Germany for two months, a teacher asked the military brat to keep a journal as an assignment. The habit stuck, and despite losing a handful of journals in her teenage years, Grace had a full record of a youth marked by gender dysphoria. There were loads of angsty Moleskines to plumb through when she began to search for prime book material.

"I’ve had ambitions of being a writer for a long time," Grace says.

Writing more prose, she reasoned, could only lead to becoming a better lyricist. Before starting the column Mandatory Happiness for Noisey in January 2015, she had been writing record reviews for Relix Magazine under the radar for years. She’d also done pieces for Vice Magazine and never turned down an opportunity to keep a tour journal for any publication—something she was used to doing anyway.

"Oftentimes there aren’t a lot of options of what to do with your time on tour," she says. "That’s why the majority of musicians end up becoming drug addicts: because there’s so much downtime where you’re just sitting there. Being in a band often is just a game of hurry up and wait."

While Grace was waiting around—inside interminable airport terminals and craft service-saturated green rooms—she was writing down every detail, both gory and boring. She kept meticulous records of her travels with Against Me!, right down to the seat number on her flight and the color of certain hotel hallway carpets. With all of this info combined with the other journals from her shambling youth, there was more than enough material to get started. Way more than enough, actually.

The first step in conquering this Mount Vesuvius of memories—almost as large and almost as volatile—was transcribing the handwritten journals into word files. It took over a year and a half for Grace to transcribe all of them. By the time she was done, the word count exceeded a million and a half words. It was both reassuring and overwhelming to have so much raw writing to mold into a book. She had no idea what an undertaking it would be to actually carve it down to size, though, or how much the process would resemble cutting an album.

2007: NYC New Hats, Against Me! With Butch Vig

"It was a lot more sitting in front of a computer than I do when making a record, but it was still similar," Grace says. "The idea that nothing is precious, anything can be cut. When it came to sequencing I realized that, in a book too, not everything has to be completely linear—'and then this happened, and then this happened,' etc. So you have the ability, the same you would with ProTools, to cut a chunk out and move it over here or there." She adds, "Also in a weird way, it began to feel like each chapter was the same as a song. There’s 10 or 11 chapters in the book and that’s about how many there are usually on a record."

After getting a firm grasp on what the book would be, Grace started talking with publishing houses for the first time. She was struck by how much these offices functioned like bizarro-world record labels, except in these cubicles hung posters of Margaret Atwood rather than The Misfits. Unfortunately, Grace was also struck by the equivalent of a label head pushing for a poppier direction on an album.

1986: Laura Jane Grace in Kindergarten

"For a while there, the people at my original publishing house, I kind of felt like they wanted this really rosy story. Like real soft focus," Grace says. Then she fixes her voice into the tone of an overzealous heartland Wal-Mart greeter. "Becoming Laura or whatever. But I just couldn’t give them that. It was really important to me to not lose the realness and not censor myself and not leave anything out just to save face. So that's why I left."

Shaping the book went a lot smoother once Grace signed on with her new publishing house, Hachette. As she further refined the material, she discovered that collaborating with a book editor was like working with her Against Me! bandmates. There was now some light at the end of the isolated, introspective tunnel.

"If you lock yourself in a room for six months making a record, you will lose your mind, and you will lose perspective on how the music actually sounds. The same goes for writing," Grace says. "Not having someone to bounce things off of or get criticism from or to get suggestions from—that’s just never been my style. I need that kind of reflection from people whether it’s just to reassure myself or to possibly prove myself wrong. I always need to come up for air and to get that response."

Against Me! in 2007[Photo: Flickr user Michael Schmidtlein]

Another thing Grace did to help gauge how people might respond to her book was bring it directly to them. Starting in 2015, she began booking solo shows where she would play autobiographical Against Me! songs in a chronological order, and do readings from the manuscript in between. The immediate feedback (or lack of it) let Grace work out things from the book in a live setting—the way she was used to figuring out new songs. With these crowdsourced tweaks, the singer/songwriter finished up her first book.

Laura Jane Grace started writing as a ruminative retreat while publicly coming out as transgender in 2012. Digging into the past didn't unearth any paradigm-shifting revelations right away; in fact, she felt a growing distance from herself while writing, as the person she'd been became a character in a story. When she emerged with a manuscript in hand, though, the internal portrait of herself finally cohered into a knowable, three-dimensional entity.

"After it was over I was like, ‘Oh yeah, this is me and this is my life. These are things I did, these are cycles I’ve been caught in, and those are what I’ve used for coping mechanisms,'" she says. "Not everything I’m proud of, but you can’t just ignore those things. Taking them on is how you move forward."

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