Walk out onto Riis Beach anytime this summer and you’re sure to see your Twitter crush reading Jackie Ess’ incredible debut novel Darryl. It has one of those beautiful covers you can see from the other side of a subway car. Alex McElroy has already listed it as a book that reimagines masculinity for Buzzfeed and Stephen Ira has interviewed Ess for the Poetry Project. The book is about a (seemingly) cis straight white man as he explores cuckolding, GHB, and hiking in Eugene, Oregon. Slowly, things shift, or as Torrey Peters describes it, it’s a book about an experience that is not necessarily about transness so much as benefits from a trans lens.
Reading Darryl is certainly somewhat of an acid trip, walking through internet culture reflected back in ways that vacillate between cruelty and tenderness. Darryl Cook is a seeker who keeps trying on a new “successor mask” as Dominic Fox notes in a recent review. On a recent humid day, I called Ess up to talk about Darryl, the Bay Area Trans Writer’s Workshop, Nevada, and internet celebrity.
What were the origins of Darryl?
Jackie Ess: A lot of that time it wasn’t very much in the works. I wrote a first draft of it… in about five or six months, so in that way it moved quickly. But then I went through a series of rewrites and I went through a period where I didn’t really wanna do anything. I had a moment where I was worried what would happen if I released it. Some periods where people had some pretty legitimate critiques of the book that I wasn’t sure how to respond to, I think ultimately I did not respond to any of those critiques really but I became clear on why they were wrong… It began by kind of doing a bit, my partner at the time had a nature photo Instagram. It would be pretty great if just a Rorsach kind of ink blot guy read the most insane shit into these pictures. You just see some trees, oh that tree in the middle oh that’s my wife. I started doing this character, I really liked doing this character, I like doing dad jokes, I like annoying people… I started doing this character and I was like ok maybe I’ll make him this little Twitter account… I started doing these really impassioned twitter threads… I was like wait, this is the novel. I tried earlier to do this novel and it was just really experimental and it just sucked.
Is that related to the Cliff Canon character?
Cliff Canon is a great man. I really think Cliff Canon was really my best self in many ways because he loves trans women and not enough people love trans women. That’s what I would say about Cliff Canon. Cliff was a little bit different because Cliff was very much about doing a bit and sort of doing a prank… I had no aspirations to turn Cliff into a novel and I don’t think he ever will be. I have another book that at this point is mostly through the first draft… I sort of evolved from method acting. When I wrote Darryl I was sort of the Jared Leto Joker and now I’m the Heath Ledger Joker.
Can you talk about the Bay Area Trans Writer’s Workshop?
I was living in the Bay Area and I was obsessed with the trans lit moment. I was the west coast buyer of trans books… I was trying to establish correspondence with people, I would travel to try to meet people, I was an extreme kind of superfan for a little bit. I think probably to an unhealthy degree, I really idolized it. I was like we don’t have this [trans writers workshop] on the West Coast but we should… I got in touch with Cat Fitzpatrick who was running the Trans Poets Workshop NYC who I met before and I asked her for advice and she said one of the things you should do is pick a sort of official sounding name because after a while it will be a real thing. It will embarrass you in the beginning but it will turn out to be better and this turned out to be absolutely true. Because it was just like a bedroom operation but I had done some zines and actually made some money off these zines, like $400 or something like that and that was enough because it was pretty small we can commit to always serving food and buying people BART tickets… We have something where ok, if you wanna come to this on Sundays and people started coming out. It was kind of an interesting thing. I don’t know how functional it was as a workshop, that was something we were all new to. There are different issues with workshops. One issue is that people will treat it as a performance space, another issue is people will treat it as their support group and sort of recklessly go into very traumatic material. We had all kinds of things like this come up. Obviously, sometimes people hate each other… We got this thing together, we kept it going, and we put on a reading or two… It got a little bit more official after I left… I think Julian Shendelman was absolutely the glue.
So when you’re talking of being a superfan and this Trans Lit moment are you talking about Topside Press or just in general?
Well, let me give you an example. I feel like sometimes if you’re too much of somebody’s fan it’s difficult to be somebody’s friend, like there’s something weird about it, like I know there was some point where I was living in Seattle and I could barely drive and I borrowed a van so I could go down to Olympia so that I could go down to a zine festival because I was finally gonna have a chance to see Imogen Binnie. We went and saw a movie. We saw Jem and the Holograms… At a certain point when you’ve binged somebody’s social media it’s sort of like I know you but you don’t know me. And I also think you can invest people with too much institutionality that can be kind of uncomfortable to carry. We’ll see if people do it to me because now I’m like a real writer to a small number of people. I’ll find out what that really feels like from the other side… So far it’s been great, so maybe I’ve been kicking myself too hard.
I think this point you’re making about imbuing institutionality is really interesting.
It can be very frustrating too because along with that institutionality people can generate a lot of resentment. Because you can feel you’re being excluded from something that isn’t a thing, so I think in a way Bay Area writer’s Workshop was proof of that to myself.
Do you feel Darryl is a satire? I feel like there are moments where I read it as satirical but there’s a lot of moments where it feels really poignant, there’s something about Darryl that I read as a tender figure.
I think he absolutely is a tender figure… I do think that, speaking of Beckett, I don’t think there’s a huge distinction between something that is satirical and humorous or even slapstick and something that is deadly serious. I think that’s where I try to live.
Can you talk about the book’s discussion of ugliness and ugly girls?
Nobody ever asks me about this section, it’s my favorite part of the book… that section, Darryl is kind of confused… He’s like I’m gonna go for a walk, a dog starts following and the dog gets hit by a car and in this moment of compassion he’s helping out the dog and he’s like I’m gonna give this dog some food. he tries to buy the dog a hamburger and as soon as the dog gets a scent of the hamburger he runs away… This story is not my story, it’s a story told in Louis Zukofsky’s “A” section 12 and Charles Reznikoff’s By The Well of Living and Seeing. I was always like what is it about these stories, I’m gonna write one one day… and one of the things that’s different is Darryl has this vision of the hamburger girl and it’s a profoundly condescending vision… and I don’t know if it’s clear enough but to me she’s supposed to be an extremely non-passing trans girl, like somebody who’s got a really uphill battle, very dissonant features… But Darryl sees her and he has this immensely condescending vision but at the same time it opens up all these possibilities for him. He is at the time, he’s been thinking about things like transitioning and he says oh my god I’ve been thinking about the most beautiful women of the world, I’ve been thinking about archetypes, dolls… and now I’m realizing most women don’t look like that, most women don’t look like that… And he sees this woman and he says your ugliness frees me from beauty, and the fact you’re a loser frees me from striving for success and your poverty frees me from wealth and it’s like this incredible litany… your not passing frees me from this idea of a very normative transition… Even Darryl is like I probably shouldn’t say all that… for me it was really important to have it there… It’s a shift internally but it’s not a shift that quite happens in time, it’s not something that he manages to fully process in the narrative. It’s just like in life you have these realizations but it’s not quite enough… to follow through on… Of course, Darryl has other encounters with trans women… They’re all similarly very projective and very condescending,… Darryl has this way where he reinvents himself in contact with people, they can just make or remake him… When he looks at his lovers he thinks they’re gods and goddesses…
Can you talk about some of the influences in the book? I know we’ve touched on Nevada and Beckett.
I will say that my concept of trans writing and who reads it really changed over the years. When I was writing I had this idea, well, the references to Nevada can be really subtle because everybody’s read Nevada… Actually there’s no one who would read a book of mine that hadn’t read Imogen’s book first. It felt like that was the door to trans literature. I don’t think now there’s just one door. The first trans book that you read it’s not obvious which one it will be, that’s an amazing change… That book was looming very large in the background. I haven’t produced much of an update on it… I think we came to a similar places, me and Imogen … both books feature a little bit of a failed conversion narrative of some kind… The subtle difference is that in Imogen’s book, Maria in Nevada is kind of of recklessly… trying to do gender therapy on this person or something like that. In Darryl, I don’t think that’s happening. One thing I always hope people do in Darryl, is keep track of what Darryl says they are doing versus what they actually do and say.