Abigail Tarttelin’s second novel, GOLDEN BOY, about intersex teen Max Walker, won an American Library Association ALEX Award and was shortlisted for LAMDBA’s Best LGBT Debut. In this article she talks about her experiences with publishing a LGBTQIA+ story, with focus on a intersex protagonist, and her thoughts about how we need PR that dares to be honest and open about the queer stories they’re promoting.
Seven years ago I wrote a book called Golden Boy, about an intersex sixteen-year-old who falls pregnant after being raised as a boy. It was sold in a flurry of offers at the London Book Fair, to ten territories in all, and has since been published in English, Swedish, Spanish, Dutch, Mandarin, Italian, Turkish, and Portuguese. I knew nothing about publishing before I went into the industry, so I paid keen attention to how each country published and promoted the book, and what I noticed was a marked difference between how much publishers dared to mention the term, “intersex”.
Let me set the scene for you, because in May 2013, when the book was published, the world was a very different place. We are currently (at time of writing, September 2019) enjoying a wave of feminist and trans activism, as well as an unfortunate amount of right wing disabling of women’s reproductive rights. In 2013, I was living in the states and, while Republicans in the USA had begun quietly dismantling laws that protected a woman’s right to an abortion, we had yet to enter those waves of feminist and trans activism that would provide us with new vocabulary, ideas, and awareness. It would be two years before Caitlyn Jenner would come out as trans, and four years before New York-based supermodel Hanne Gaby Odiele would be the first celebrity to willingly come out as intersex.
To my publishers’ credit, everyone seemed very excited about depicting an intersex protagonist. They spoke to me about friends’ children who were intersex and seemed quite knowledgeable about the subject. But I was surprised that, when promoting the novel, the publicity in some countries didn’t feature the word “intersex” at all. A glance at the covers of various territories is revealing: the UK hardback cover, the first edition published, doesn’t mention intersex, and the cover is a deeply unrevealing mix of pink and blue stripes. For such a big sale to a major publisher, the hardback didn’t seem to stir up much publicity in the UK. It sat, of course, alongside other debuts, with nothing to make it stand out; the synopsis hinting vaguely at a “secret”. Meanwhile, the Spanish edition, entitled El Chico de Oro, was published the following month and, while this cover too gave nothing away, the publicity campaign focused on talking about intersex awareness and human rights. The publisher, Bruguera, flew me into Barcelona to give interviews with El Correo Gallego, El Periodico, and La Vanguardia, three major newspapers. The interviews were broad-ranging, but intersex was the focus of each discussion. I read the articles the next day, three two-page spreads with enormous photos accompanying them, at breakfast in the hotel, before a bookshop tour with booksellers who were excited about the prospect of raising awareness. One of the titles of the articles mentioned “intersexualidade”, one “intersexualitat” in a sub-title, and one was titled, “El narrador hermafrodita”, likely because the word intersex, despite being in use since 1993 to describe Variations of Sex Characteristics, was not widely used until recently.
In the USA, intersex was one focus of the publicity, balanced against the more typical pitch of “exciting new author to watch.” The pitch worked well for magazines, and the book was reviewed or profiled in Interview, EW, O Magazine, Glamour, Cosmopolitan, Vanity Fair, and more. I was sent on a tour of eight major North American cities, and then to the Miami, Gaithersburg, and West Hollywood book festivals. At some bookstores, I was pitched as a debut author with a great book; at others, I was an LGBTQIA author reading at LGBT bookstores, or sitting on LGBT panels. The reception was different every time but a pattern began to emerge, and I realized one of the reasons my publisher might choose to pitch me differently to different stores: many major bookstores at the time had an LGBT section, a corner towards the back of the store, to which Golden Boy would be sent if it had been considered an LGBT book. I think and hope this is something that has changed now, but this certainly seemed the case in 2013. That isn’t however, to attribute this to individual booksellers and storeowners; I think there was a general feeling at the time that LGBTQIA issues and feminist issues were niche—and the last few years, with #metoo and the aforementioned waves of trans, feminist, and gender activism, have shown that to be untrue. Conversely, at specifically LGBT bookstores I was given a very warm welcome, although I’m certain at the time I wasn’t as tuned in as I am now to the long, hard-fought history of the stores I was walking into. I remember a beautiful event at which I was undeniably nervous, at Glad Day bookstore in Toronto, and a very warm and welcoming crowd, mainly of gay men, at Books Inc, in San Francisco. (This is still the most male crowd I have ever “played” for, and I continue to notice that, although the novel’s male audience is small, it is literally only the most thoughtful, interesting, and wonderful men in the world who read Golden Boy. Make of that what you will.)
As the book came out in its many languages, publishers continued to mention intersex to varying degrees, with interesting results. In Taiwan, the book, with a medical report for Max on the back cover, became an instant bestseller. In Brazil too, the book sold very well, thanks largely to the publishers’ clever pitch that Max had a “secret about his sexuality”, which meant that the novel was pitched to the LGBT community, including those who had not heard of intersex but would still be interested in reading about the topic. In 2014 the UK publisher changed their pitch, putting intersex on the back of the paperback and a new byline on the cover which reflected Max’s non-binary identity (although honestly I have never really been a fan of that line, “Blue-eyed boy or girl next door?” which is a little too sensationalist for me).
Over the next few years, the book started to reach intersex readers. OII’s chairperson Hida Viloria, writing for Autostraddle, gave the book a rave in the USA, and Morgan Carpenter recommended the book on Intersex Human Rights Australia’s site. The LAMBDA jury generously named Golden Boy as a finalist for Best LGBT Debut in 2013. Slowly, readers around the world started to write to me, first referring to the novel as “your trans book”, and then, finally, since 2018, “your intersex book”. Last autumn, I was invited by an intersex reader to speak at Amnesty International’s first Intersex Awareness event, and then by another reader to submit a paper to Interdisciplinary Perspectives on Intersex, a conference I spoke at earlier this year. But this was slow coming, right? Six years since publication to reach a very obvious intended audience that had (I gather, from emails and messages) only been reached in dribs and drabs until recently.
There was a simple lesson I learnt from all of this. Pitch to your obvious readers first. Make sure everyone who was waiting for this book anyway, has read it before you worry about anyone else. My obvious readers are intersex people, feminists, and other LGBTQIA people. This book is about gender, intersex, breaking up the binary, and loving people—including yourself—for exactly who they are. When Golden Boy was pitched to these readers, they loved it. They bought it instead of borrowed it, went and told all their friends about it, and shouted about it on social media, in some cases for years. From the emails and messages I have received I know, for intersex and LGBTQIA readers, it has often been a light in the darkness. When it was more vaguely pitched, nobody from these groups found it, and that registered in the sales records.
Golden Boy was best-loved when it landed straight in the target—the target audience, as much as it sounds cold and clinical to say that. And that’s good for sales, because the deepest drop creates the most ripples, but it’s also good for impact. Writing Golden Boy, I wanted to speak about the human rights violations intersex people suffer through, but also about the societal pressure to fit into a binary that isn’t reflected in biology, that we all suffer through. And when you want to do that, there’s no point worrying whether people are ready for a topic like intersex and being vague in your publicity and marketing. The whole purpose of the book is to get people ready to love their future intersex partner, or gender-questioning child, or trans or gay or poly parent.
I think we need PR that focuses on LGBTQIA books, or even provides the PR for the LGBT books that might also have a publicist in house at the publishers following more traditional PR routes. We also need publishers to be braver about how they talk about novels which focus on controversial and unpopular issues, as intersex was in 2013. Because people fucking need these books. As a teenager, I needed these books. I still need these books. We’re here. We’re queer. We’re waiting, hand out. But, with thousands of novels published every year, to find LGBTQIA books we need publishers to point directly towards us and say, “this book is for you.”
~ Abigail Tarttelin
The Walker family is good at keeping secrets from the world. They are even better at keeping them from each other.
Max Walker is a golden boy. Attractive, intelligent, and athletic, he’s the perfect son, the perfect friend, and the perfect crush for the girls in his school. He’s even really nice to his little brother. Karen, Max’s mother, is a highly successful criminal lawyer, determined to maintain the façade of effortless excellence she has constructed through the years. Now that the boys are getting older, now that she won’t have as much control, she worries that the façade might soon begin to crumble. Adding to the tension, her husband, Steve, has chosen this moment to stand for election to Parliament. The spotlight of the media is about to encircle their lives.
The Walkers are hiding something, you see. Max is special. Max is different. Max is intersex. When an enigmatic childhood friend named Hunter steps out of his past and abuses his trust in the worst possible way, Max is forced to consider the nature of his well-kept secret. Why won’t his parents talk about it? What else are they hiding from Max about his condition and from each other? The deeper Max goes, the more questions emerge about where it all leaves him and what his future holds, especially now that he’s starting to fall head over heels for someone for the first time in his life. Will his friends accept him if he is no longer the Golden Boy? Will anyone ever want him—desire him— once they know? And the biggest one of all, the question he has to look inside himself to answer: Who is Max Walker, really?
Read more about it on Goodreads.
Abigail Tarttelin’s latest novel, Dead Girls, is a feminist, funny, and twisted story about 90s-era girlhood and avenging your best friend’s death.
When her best friend Billie is found murdered, eleven-year-old Thera – fearless and forthright – considers it her duty to find the killer.
Aided by a Ouija board, Billie’s ghost, and the spirits of four other dead girls, she’s determined to succeed. The trouble with Thera, though, is that she doesn’t always know when to stop – and sometimes there’s a fine line between doing the right thing and doing something very, very bad indeed.
Tense, visceral and thought-provoking, Dead Girls is the new novel from Abigail Tarttelin, the critically acclaimed author of Golden Boy.
Dead Girls is released in the US on October 15!