Interview: Candid Conversation with Author and Actor James Sie
by Becky Lauer
Author James Sie’s second novel, All Kinds of Other, tells the story of two teen boys who fall in love in a Los Angeles high school. Sie offers an escape for readers through the perspective of Jack Davies, a trans boy who moves to Los Angeles from Pittsburgh, and Jules Westman, a gay boy who’s lived there his whole life. When he’s not writing, Sie lends his voice to animation and video games, with a long list of acting credits including Curious George, Kung Fu Panda: The Paws, and, most recently, The Simpsons. We met via Zoom, where most things are these days. I tried not to crumble as I heard the Cabbage Merchant from Avatar: The Last Airbender talk to me from the other side of the screen. He said he couldn’t tell.
TCR: There are two different points of view we follow throughout the novel. Which voice came first, and how did you organize them?
JS: I would say the Jack character came first. He was the boy who hooked me into writing the book because of the complexity of what he was trying to do as far as being stealth at a new school and running away from a very traumatic situation at home. I’d say that Jules, in some ways, became a proxy of me. He is the teenager I was, and Jack is the teenager I wish I could have been personality-wise. So, a lot of what Jules is going through—a kind of discovery of who he is and who he wants to love—was very similar to my own coming out. Also, I think his discovery of the world of the transgender community definitely mirrored my own. I was able to impart information through him that I thought readers who were not as versed in the trans world might need.
YouTube [videos] were wonderful for me because they served the purpose of getting the basic information you need out in a fun and realistic way so that it wasn’t an exposition dump. Otherwise, it would be hard to enter their world. I didn’t want a character to have to explain to another character, “This is what being trans is.” “Oh, no! Don’t you understand that sexual attraction is different than gender identification?” I didn’t have to do that because I had these wonderful YouTube videos in my head. The other important thing [I found] in my research—there were so many vlogs with trans-teens detailing their coming-out process and their transition. That kind of social media and Tumblr are so important for the trans community to find one another. The more research I did, the more I felt like including those types of communication was important because I think they would be important to Jack.
TCR: Why did you pick 2015 for a high school setting as opposed to any other period?
JC: I picked 2015 for several reasons. There was this profusion of videos and posts on these two sites [Tumblr and YouTube] that were really key for the trans community to find each other. That wasn’t there before. Because I was doing research at [that] time, they became crucial to my understanding. I didn’t know what would happen further down the line as far as what’s current, you know? The new thing. I knew that if I tried to chase after that and try to write it ‘of the moment,’ I would miss that moment. Like, wait, here’s Snapchat. Oh, but here’s TikTok. I didn’t know what the new thing would be by the time the book came out. I needed to plant a flag at a certain time. I did the research in 2016, so I knew where the world and the state of the trans community were at that moment. Things have changed so very much since I started writing, in ways that are wonderful and in ways that are absolutely horrible. I wanted to fix it so I could write specifically and truthfully about a certain time period. I knew that if I left it amorphous, it would lose its specificity.
I didn’t set it in 2016 because that starts the age of Trump.
TCR: Of course.
JC: Yes. When I started writing the book, one of my goals was to tell a story of trans teens that could be affirming and hopeful while acknowledging the very real challenges they have growing up and interacting with society at large.
I had so little hope during the Trump era. There was so much that was so bad so quickly that I didn’t want to drag that muck into the book. I thought it would tilt in some ways if you had to acknowledge the blatant transphobia and the uprise of violence towards the trans community. In 2015, mainstream America was discovering the trans community. There was a certain level of hope around the executive orders about transgender equality and rights in government, and they all disappeared in 2016. I thought with setting the novel in 2015; I could avoid a lot of the overt ugliness and concentrate more on the characters and their own journeys.
It’s so interesting how increased visibility is good because it makes people aware [through] trans people they know or trans people in the media. That’s great, but at the same time, that increased visibility created a backlash of anti-trans bills going through state governments right now. There are at least 40 bills, and it’s really frightening. The thing they just passed in Arkansas, where they’re going to deny transgender affirming healthcare to children, is reprehensible.
TCR: There’s no excuse for it.
JC: Right. And I can’t speak for the trans community because I’m not a part of it, but I’m trying to be the best ally I can be.
TCR: What made you choose the location?
JC: I chose Los Angeles because I live here. I can write about it authentically. But also, because it’s such a progressive city. I knew I wouldn’t necessarily have to deal with a lot of physical violence in the schools. There is support here, but at the same time, when I interview trans teens, I don’t know that they feel that support. It was interesting that even people who are progressive, who definitely think they’re on the right side of trans equality and all LGBTQ issues, have blind spots. There are so many microaggressions that happen without them knowing it. While the book doesn’t have overt physical violence towards the two characters, it was interesting to show how words and attitudes can also affect the psyche of these kids. I wanted to have a place that was a sensibly safer space for trans teens, so Jack wasn’t so worried about being physically injured when coming out but would still have to negotiate what it means to be trans in school and the microaggressions and ignorance.
Then I chose Pittsburgh because I wanted a place that wasn’t as progressive and didn’t have as strong a support network. At that time, Pennsylvania was going through bathroom bills where they were trying to legislate that trans kids could only use the bathroom of the gender they were assigned at birth. But Pittsburgh is a great place. It feels working class, with pockets of progressiveness. It’s a place where Jack would feel safe, but his friend Evie [a trans girl] wouldn’t. That way, [Jack] can come to Los Angeles and find a more accepting place, at least initially.
For me, there’s a little [of Shakespeare’s] As You Like It going on. Rosalind and Celia go into the forest of Arcadia, where things can happen because they can be someone different. [In All Kinds of Other], Jack enters Los Angeles, which exists as the forest, and he can be who he wants to be, but there are complications that arise from that.
There’s a sense in the LGBTQ community, of which I am a part, that the gains for one are gains for all. The danger of thinking of the LGBTQ community as a monolith is that you lose sight of the particular needs of [specific groups within] the communities. I’ve had gay friends who say things that are very ignorant of the situation in the trans community. “Ugh, pronouns. I can’t! That’s too much,” “I’m okay with anything,” or asking intrusive questions about “how does it work?” It isn’t called out as often, but to be an ally, you have to really educate yourself about the situation and be open to hearing about another community. Just because the ‘T’ is adjacent to the ‘G’ doesn’t mean you have discovered everything about the other letters.
TCR: You use a broad scope of references, not just One Direction and The Fault in Our Stars, but you also go back to The Princess Bride and things that are timeless. How did you keep it all balanced?
JC: For some reason, I like treating a book like an archeological dig in which you find different artifacts and then have to place them in context. In my last book, Still Life Las Vegas, I had graphic novel sections written and drawn by the narrator from sketches he’d done. It’s a more interesting narrative with different media inside one book. For [All Kinds of Other], the YouTube transcripts and Tumblr posts were a way to make it feel more real. But within each of those different modes, there was a very specific goal. The YouTube transcripts were a way to get information out and to highlight the relationship between, then, Adam and Evie because their relationship forms the jumping-off point for Jack. I wanted to make that as strong as possible so that we could understand why [Jack’s] so guarded, why he’s so defensive and why he feels this kind of unworthiness within him. The Tumblr posts were also meant to give background to Jack and show exactly where he came from so that by the time we start his section, we’re fully briefed on what he’s been through, and we don’t have to go through it again during his time in Los Angeles. That forms our understanding of who he is as a character, and then we launch from there.
TCR: The Tumblr posts play an important role in revealing information throughout the novel. What was your approach to including them alongside what was happening in person?
JC: I was able to complete a narrative of Jack’s time in Pittsburgh within Tumblr, and then it became simply a matter of editing and placing them within the first section. I cut some of them out because they weren’t necessary. I didn’t want to overwhelm [Jules’s] narratives with the Tumblr posts [about Jack], so I just had to figure out how many I needed and place them throughout to make that story feel alive.
The Tumblr posts were great because the first section was from Jules’s perspective. I wanted the reader to see Jack the way Jules did. At the same time, I didn’t want to lose the thread of the trans issue. I wanted readers acclimated to the situation so that by the end of the first section, they can experience what a trans boy might go through in his transition.
TCR: When did Evie’s story enter the creation of the novel?
JC: I needed [Jack] to arrive in Los Angeles with a certain mindset and a wounded condition. The story of Adam and Evie came pretty quickly. I wrote those Tumblrs first because I wanted to know exactly what happened to Jack to make him leave Pittsburgh and inform the reader of what baggage he was bringing to Los Angeles. I started my own ‘missingevie’ Tumblr. Writing in Tumblr was important versus writing on my laptop in a document and trying to emulate it. Tumblr gives you a certain parameter in which to write. The way the line spaces. The way you do the hashtag.
TCR: You have experience in the cosmos of fan culture since you’re a popular voice actor. Did that experience bring you into contact with young people who influenced this story?
JC: I wish I could say it did, but no. I’m sure there are a lot of queer fans who follow me, but most of my inspiration came from interviewing kids here in Los Angeles and Pittsburgh. It was great. I went to the Pittsburgh Equality Center and got to meet a group from their Youth Night. Those interviews and talks fueled what I wrote. I wanted to make sure I understood what teens were going through today versus trying to impose my own idea: “Oh my gosh, what must it have been like.” I tried as much as I could to ground [Jack’s] feelings and events on things seen on vlogs, or I’d gotten through interviews of teens documenting impressions of how they viewed the world.
TCR: How did you turn what you learned in the interviews into events in the novel?
JC: I wanted to make it a hopeful book and give trans readers some joy because when I started writing it, there wasn’t a whole lot of fiction about trans teens, especially trans masculine teens. Fortunately, right now, there are many great books, so they have a multiplicity of options to read. It was maybe going to be a much lighter book, but doing the research and talking to the kids made me want to honor their experiences as far as not minimizing the challenges they go through or ignoring them because that would seem untrue and would belittle their real struggles.
The other thing is, I’m a somewhat unlikely person to write what you’d call a romance. I tend to see the darker shades of things or think of events in a minor key versus a major. Some darker shades would have filtered through anyway. In the end, what I was trying to do was create a hopeful love story that was realistic and was based more on [character] personalities—how their insecurities and their armor was the story of them developing themselves versus some large plot point about where the town comes together, and they learn something. Or everybody comes around. I find that so unrealistic, it would be hard for me to write. It’s less about romance and more about connection—finding the other people who will support you and help you grow.
In the end, the balance came from finding ways for these two kids to grow and become stronger within themselves and find the support they need. That contains both the dark and the light. Which is why I sometimes say the difference between me and Becky Albertalli, who wrote Simon vs the Homosapien Agenda, is that I feel like in her books, family is a source of strength and comfort. And for me, I can’t understand that. I deliberately left it open-ended because I don’t think parental attitudes change quickly. There’s a nod to it developing, but I don’t think it changes with a switch.
TCR: These young characters don’t know who they can talk to. That makes it a darker situation. How did you balance what was too triggering without minimizing the negative experience of trans people?
JS: This is something I found very educating in this writing process, especially for YA. My editor is attuned to writing sensitively for marginalized communities. He and I worked really hard, and he pushed me to find that balance. That’s incredibly difficult to find. Because you can write things that are perfectly true and that happen all the time, but at what expense to your reader? We had to calibrate. What was too much or too triggering? What would cause a teen reader who experienced these things not to read further? And to be honest, that line is different for every reader. There were a lot of microaggressions that I took out, and I discovered that a little goes a long way. I don’t have to have people mispronouncing all the time, even though that’s how it happens. If you keep reading that, it’s a hammer to your head. So, we took out a lot of that.
Originally, I had a certain slur used on a Tumblr post. It felt real and like what they would say, but my editor firmly but gently said, “Do you need those words? I think the reader knows that word since it was hurled at them. Do we need to say it here?” And he was right. I took it out but not in a way that sugar-coated things. I just didn’t use that word. Not using slurs forces you to find ways that are as effective but not as hurtful.
I once gave a talk to a group of kids for a summer writing program. It was interesting how these seniors in high school were so adamant about the idea that you could not write a major character outside of your own experience. There could be a side character or supporting character, but it was against the rules to write someone outside of your experience. I think that’s a concern for all writers—how you can do that or whether you should do that.
I, of course, believe in owned voice, and I think that the idea of the diversity of writers writing about their own experience is really important. But at the same time, if we silo ourselves off and only write about what we know and what we are, books become very sterile. We lose creative empathy.
I write to discover and to understand. I could have written it just from Jules’s point of view, but if I’m going to have a character be trans, I don’t want to relegate them to a side character. I want to make them as complex and as full of agency as they can possibly be. But I would say if you’re writing outside of your own experience, it is so incumbent on you to do the research. If I were to write a character that was Chinese American, even though I grew up with an Italian mother, just by the fact of who I am, I could write about a Chinese American with much less scrutiny. And I don’t think that’s wrong. If I’m going to write a character outside my own experience, the bar is higher. You can’t be lazy about it. You have to invest in doing the work to make sure you’re creating as accurate a depiction of that experience as possible. I’m not saying you shouldn’t write a character outside your own experience, but you have to put in the work.
Becky Lauer is a student at the UCR Low Residency MFA where she writes about monsters. She lives in Portland with her cats enjoying the cloudy weather when it’s around.