[June is Pride Month, and this year we're celebrating by honoring 30 LGBTQ firsts. To see the full list, visit nbcnews.com/pride30.]
The novelist Torrey Peters has been lauded for her deft hand at writing about the inner lives of trans women, and that work was recognized in March when she was longlisted for the Women’s Prize for Fiction. The prestigious United Kingdom award is given yearly to celebrate and honor female fiction writers.
Peters was nominated for her book “Detransition, Baby,” a novel with themes of motherhood, womanhood and family. The story weaves around its three main characters, exploring gender, sex and various complications brought on by an unexpected pregnancy. The book is among the first written by a trans woman to be released by a big-five publisher.
When Peters, 39, was announced as one of the prize’s nominees, congratulations ensued. In addition, a small but vocal group of critics published a transphobic open letter denouncing her nomination.
“What ended up happening is that there was a huge outpouring of love and support and defense on my behalf from the place that is purported to be the home of transphobia,” Peters told NBC News. “And I think that's wildly heartening.”
Peters’ path to publishing wasn’t always clear. After she received her MFA from the prestigious Iowa Writers Workshop, she experienced a publishing industry that did not serve her or her community and did not understand her work, she said.
“I had an agent, and basically that was when I ran into things where they were like, ‘This is a little weird. We don’t really know who the audience is.’”
She gave up on mainstream publishing and self-published novellas through her website, one for $8 and another as a name-your-price download. “Pay what you want (free totally acceptable! Readers > $),” she wrote.
“The thing that ended up happening is that it shaped me as a writer who didn't feel the burden of representation,” she said, adding that she was free to explore whatever she wanted, including stuff so “out there’ no one was claiming it.
She had the idea for “Detransition, Baby” 20 years ago. She began writing it a few years ago, when she was in a period of instability, frustrated at being in her 30s and not being where she thought she should be. She went through a reckoning with herself, exploring who she was and who she wanted to be.
“It's sort of inevitable that what I was looking for in a book was a book that could hold the urgency and the turmoil of those questions,” she said.
By the time she was finished writing, she’d begun speaking with editors about what was possible for the book. “What ended up happening is that the novellas had enough of a sort of cult following that some other editors were willing to take a chance on me,” she said.
Peters credits her agent with empowering her to guide the publishing houses on how to sell the book, and when the novel was being submitted to publishers for consideration, she included a two-page letter detailing how she saw the book in the market and how it might be sold to readers. She paraphrased what she wrote, saying, “This book is in the tradition of what you do … you don’t have to reinvent the wheel.” She saw the book as women’s literature, in the tradition of difficult women, that just happens to be a transgender iteration of it. “Don’t freak out,” she recalled telling the publishers, “treat it like a normal book … you do your part, I’ll do the trans part and let’s do this thing.”
What Peters didn’t anticipate was what would happen once the novel hit the shelves. “When the book got big, that was the surprise to me — that it got big,” she said. It became a national bestseller, a New York Times editors’ choice and garnered several national book club picks. It was also longlisted for the Women’s Prize for Fiction.
Peters said the transphobic response to the prize nomination was done in bad faith.
“It’s just bigotry,” she said. “These are not readers. People used it as an opportunity to put forth the oldest, most homophobic things. You can recognize a bigot as opposed to a reader, because bigots are just saying the awful s--- that they said first about gay men, then lesbians, and now it’s about trans people.”
The Women’s Prize for Fiction defended its inclusion of Peters’ novel, saying in a statement that its aim is to “honor, celebrate and champion women’s voices.” While her book didn’t make the award’s six-title shortlist, the controversy’s effect on sales was positive, and “Detransition, Baby,” reached No. 5 on the U.K. bestseller list.
“I see myself as a winner, not maybe in the ways that the prize tends to bestow winners,” Peters said. “But it’s been much more than anything I could ever hope for.”