Middletown is dedicated to my sister. Eliza and Anna are, in fact, variations on our middle names (there’s that middle word again). Very little of what happens to them resembles anything like what our lives were like, but the feelings they have for each other are the same as how I feel about my sister and how I know she feels about me. How hard she tried to always protect and take care of me, even when it made me mad, how much I thought she was basically magic. Our parents got divorced when we were 12 and 15 and we suddenly found ourselves alone, together, a lot. The whole idea for the novel came from wanting to write about that feeling. The novel is based off of one specific memory: soon after my parents’ divorce, my sister and I had an enormous fight and I threw a dish near her (fine, at her). And we both looked around this empty kitchen with shards of porcelain all over the floor and we finally just started to laugh, because no one was going to come clean it up but us. I wanted to write about the feeling of laughing with someone right after you threw a dish at her head, which I think while not exclusive to sisters, is a special quality of that relationship.
Eli is as close to writing about myself as I will ever come, is the truth. I grew up at a time when we didn’t have the same kind of language or understanding of gender as we do now, but I had a mother who understood me. What she always said as there were as many ways to be a girl as there were girls in the world and whatever kind of girl I was was just fine. I was definitely not a tomboy (in fact, I was a figure skater, but I did it in a suit, not a skirt), but the first time I was mistaken for a boy, I was 6 years old and (for some reason, because this rarely happened) wearing a dress. There was something just “not girl” about me, there still is, and Eli has it, too. She wouldn’t use the same words I use to think about it, but the feeling is the same.
There is a picture of me at 5 years old in my brand new outfit, it’s a white button down with a little pocket square and tie, and green plaid pants. My hands are stuffed deep in my pockets and I am beaming, so pleased with myself. Now that I am older, I can zoom out and see that my mother is hoping that I won’t notice that we are in the boys section and feel embarrassed, and I can see her shooing away the sales ladies who try to redirect us. She went out of her way my whole life as a young person for me to know that my version of the word girl was great. One of the ways that my students enter my work is through a character like Eli—her journey with her gender is similar to mine, sure, but it’s different, too, because the kids around me think about gender more widely than I did at their age. I tried to ask myself what if I were me, but grew up now, how would that change how I understood myself? I have been working closely with lgbtq youth for 15 years, and I feel humbled and grateful that they share their ideas and questions and stories (and jokes!) with me. I tried to do them justice here.
Here I am, on the left, the longest my hair has ever been and the best outfit I have ever worn.