Writing Trans Joy in Spite of Everything, a guest post by Edward Underhill
I didn’t set out to write a Timely Book.
Always The Almost, my debut YA novel, releases on February 14th. It’s about a lot of things: classical music, competitions, falling in love, messing up, and navigating the regular pitfalls of being a teenager. But it’s also about a trans boy. My main character, Miles, is a sixteen-year-old trans pianist, growing up in a small town in Wisconsin. His background is in many ways kind of similar to mine: I grew up playing cello, competing in high-level competitions the same way Miles does (and yeah, coming in second a lot, just like Miles does), and I grew up in suburban Wisconsin, too.
I did not know I was trans when I was sixteen, though. I didn’t figure that out until college.
Books take so long to go through the publishing process that I think part of me hoped by the time Always The Almost reached shelves, we’d be in a more accepting, kinder place for trans people than when I started writing this story in 2019 (which was, coincidentally, ten years after I came out as trans myself). Instead, a slew of anti-trans bills is flooding state legislatures. Bills to ban drag performances, bills to ban birth certificate amendments, bills to ban (and even criminalize) gender-affirming care—not just for trans kids, but also for adults.
Add to that the efforts to ban LGBTQ+ books in schools and libraries and the threats to teachers and librarians who work to get these books into the hands of kids who need them, and it’s really a heck of a time to be flinging a book filled with trans joy into the world. I still remember the fear I felt—that so much of the trans community felt—after the 2016 election, and sometimes I can’t believe how much more fear I feel now. Practically every week there’s a new headline in about how kids must be “experimenting” with trans identity because it’s “trendy,” and we definitely shouldn’t be encouraging them, or maybe even believing them.
I’m excited for my book to come out, but it’s mixed with grief, too. And some anxiety, knowing that by putting my stories full of unapologetic trans and queer kids into the wider world, I’m probably inviting a whole lot of hate into my life. Or at least into my Twitter mentions.
There are so many valid reactions to this moment, and I’m really glad to see trans authors writing stories that encompass all of them: rage, horror, stubbornness, hope. For me, my form of resistance is to write joy. Not the joy that comes from naiveté, from ignoring the real world or pretending it doesn’t exist—but the joy that comes from carving out your own space, from claiming it, from finding your community and holding onto it. The joy that comes from seeing the ways that society wants you to make yourself smaller and instead choosing to live more fully.
I write trans kids who are snarky, vulnerable, grumpy, and occasionally angry, but also desperately want their own happy endings. I suppose you could say I write them those happy endings, but I think of it more like writing “happy middles.” The end of the book isn’t really the end of the story—for Miles, it’s the beginning of the next chapter. A promise that there’s so much more to come. In this moment, I’m not interested in writing stories where trans people perform trauma, or stories that are full of trans pain—although I recognize these stories are important, because they reflect the real world, and the pain, hurt, and dangers of existing in the real world as a trans person.
The stories I want to tell are the ones where trans kids fall in love. I want to write stories to let them expand and take up space and find and choose their joy, in spite of everyone else. Stories where trans kids don’t need to prove their identity to anyone. Stories where people believe them, and where they can mess up, make mistakes, and experience everything else in life besides being trans. Not to ignore their transness or the challenges and dysphoria it brings, but to let that be simply one part of a greater whole—a piece that can actually be your superpower, and not just your kryptonite.
It’s not an easy place to inhabit as a writer right now. There are days when all I feel is angry and small and hurt and dehumanized. It’s hard—some days really hard—to push back against all that and sit down and write stories that I know won’t even make it onto shelves in some places. As the anti-trans laws grow and seep across state lines, it’s hard to figure out how to write trans joy anyway. How to acknowledge the reality of what many trans teens are facing and still give them an escape, a reminder that they deserve all the love.
But the good fight is in trying. The good fight is holding our joy close and protecting it fiercely. There is meaning in the struggle. I hope that when readers pick up Always The Almost, they feel seen, and it gives them space to simply exist, get lost in a story, and remember that they are real, whole, and beautiful.
And honestly, I hope it’s fun, too.
Meet the author
Edward Underhill (he/him) is a queer trans man who grew up in the suburbs of Wisconsin, where he could not walk to anything, which meant he had to make up his own adventures. He began writing (very bad) stories as a kid and wrote his first (also very bad) novel in his teens. In college, he studied music composition, before earning a master’s degree in film music composition. After a few years living in very tiny apartments in New York, he moved to California, where by day he writes music and by night he writes stories, which aren’t as bad as they used to be. When not doing either of these things, he’s probably gardening or hanging out with his cat. Always the Almost is his debut novel.
About Always the Almost
A trans pianist makes a New Year’s resolution on a frozen Wisconsin night to win regionals and win back his ex, but a new boy complicates things in Edward Underhill’s heartfelt debut YA rom-dram, Always the Almost.
Sixteen-year-old trans boy Miles Jacobson has two New Year’s resolutions: 1) win back his ex-boyfriend (and star of the football team) Shane McIntyre, and 2) finally beat his slimy arch-nemesis at the Midwest’s biggest classical piano competition. But that’s not going to be so easy. For one thing, Shane broke up with Miles two weeks after Miles came out as trans, and now Shane’s stubbornly ignoring him, even when they literally bump into each other. Plus, Miles’ new, slightly terrifying piano teacher keeps telling him that he’s playing like he “doesn’t know who he is”—whatever that means.
Then Miles meets the new boy in town, Eric Mendez, a proudly queer cartoonist from Seattle who asks his pronouns, cares about art as much as he does—and makes his stomach flutter. Not what he needs to be focusing on right now. But after Eric and Miles pretend to date so they can score an invite to a couples-only Valentine’s party, the ruse turns real with a kiss, which is also definitely not in the plan. If only Miles could figure out why Eric likes him so much. After all, it’s not like he’s cool or confident or comfortable in his own skin. He’s not even good enough at piano to get his fellow competitors to respect him, especially now, as Miles. Nothing’s ever been as easy for him as for other people—other boys. He’s only ever been almost enough.
So why, when he’s with Eric, does it feel like the only person he’s ever really not been enough for…is himself?
Publisher: St. Martin’s Publishing Group
Publication date: 02/14/2023
Age Range: 12 – 18 Years
Filed under: Guest Post
About Amanda MacGregor
Amanda MacGregor works in an elementary library, loves dogs, and can be found on Twitter @CiteSomething.
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