In her New York Times opinion column, Jennifer Finney Boylan wrote about her relationship with her beloved dog Indigo, and the tear-jerking column went viral. Good Boy uses that column as a springboard for a book that is part-memoir and part-exploration of masculinity and femininity, in the context of a man’s, and now a woman’s, best friends.
We sat down with Boylan to chat about her most beloved dogs, what makes this memoir unique, and her next book.
Celadon Books: Tell us how you came up with the idea for Good Boy.
Jennifer Finney Boylan: Dogs help us understand ourselves: who we are, who we’ve been. They teach us what it means to love, and to be loved. They bear witness to our joys and sorrows; they lick the tears from our faces. And when our backs are turned, they steal a whole roasted chicken off the supper table.
If you want to know what lies in someone’s heart, ask their dog.
Dogs also enable us to express a kind of love that sometimes we’re too awkward or uncertain to share with other people. I think this is especially true for boys and men, for whom love can be particularly hard to express. As a transgender woman who began life as a boy, it’s in the dogs that I owned pre-transition that I can now best understand men, and the person I once was, a long time ago.
I look upon boyhood now the way an emigrant might look upon the distant country of her birth. There are times I can’t even quite remember what that country was like. But I remember the dogs: There were the mulish Dalmatians of my childhood and adolescence; there was an uncontrollable, joyful mutt named Matt during my college years; there was a deeply neurotic Labrador during my twenties, a dog who chewed on her own paws with such abandon you’d think they were a delicacy rarer than clams casino. And as a young husband there was Alex, the Gordon setter, who knew me better, in some ways, than I knew myself.
All of those dogs helped me through a difficult life, by showing me the meaning of loyalty and of love.
This is a memoir of the seven boys and men I once was, as reflected in the seven dogs I owned at each stage of my life. To paraphrase Charlie Kaufman, We wuff what we wuff. Not what wuffs us.
CB: Is there one dog you loved the most? Or is that like trying to pick a favorite child?
JFB: I’ve had good dogs and bad dogs, but the dog I might be fondest of is a black lab named Ranger, who passed away at age 15. He was there when my children were toddlers; he was there the day they left for college. My life has been a series of strange adventures and accidents—a whole universe of unexpected variables. But Ranger was the constant.
CB: In Good Boy, you state: Time heals some of the wounds that the world gives us, but not all of them, and some we keep forever. Incredibly, a few hurt more, the longer ago they happened. What period of your life was the hardest to revisit while writing this book?
JFB: In my mid-twenties, I wasn’t sure I was going to survive my life; I knew I was trans, but I had no idea how to come out and exist in the world. I had a relationship that was circling the drain. And my father was dying. That era came to a head when I drove up to Nova Scotia, with the intention of jumping off a cliff into the cold Atlantic. And yet, something gave me hope, something helped me understand that if there is trouble and loss in this world there is also great joy. I had a dog named Brown that came to me in the heart of that troubled time one night and put her head on my lap. This is the dog that chewed her paws. I thought of the words from scripture, slightly altered: Whoever lives in love lives in Dog, and Dog in him.
CB: You’ve written 15 books, including three memoirs. What makes this one unique?
JFB: I’ve focused on my life as a transgender woman in previous works—this time I’m trying to focus on my life as a boy and as a young man, trying to understand what the connection is between the person I was and the woman I became. And while I understand that my circumstances are unusual, perhaps, that question—how do we connect our present with our past—is one that everyone asks. And one way to make peace with the past is to see what connects who you are with who you’ve been. For me, part of what makes that connection is love, and the love I’ve had for my dogs in particular.
CB: Your writing has made such a significant impact inside and outside the trans community. What message do you hope people take away from Good Boy?
JFB: I understand that many trans women don’t feel like they ever had a male past, that once they were old enough to achieve some agency over their lives, they became themselves. I respect that–but my own experience was different; I did live a boy’s life for almost 40 years, at least on the outside. I’m hoping that people will understand that having a boyhood then makes me no less female now. I’m hoping that in the story of a woman and her dogs, people will see someone very familiar, even if in extraordinary circumstances, and in so doing recognize the humanity of transgender people, and feel a sense of connection and compassion.
CB: Can you tell us what you’re working on next?
JFB: Well, as a baker, I was tempted at first to write a history of pizza, entitled A Slice of Life. Instead, I want to write a history of the transgender movement, showing the long struggle for equality from its origins to the “Tipping Point” of the current decade. It will be a personal story, since I witnessed so much of the recent history first hand; but it will also show the danger that our people, and our movement, find themselves in now, as forces allied against us become more powerful and more cruel. I am hoping to tell the stories that will show that the arc of history is long, and that it bends toward justice. I am hoping to show that with humor, and hope, and fire, we will in time prevail.