With buzzy titles like Detransition, Baby and Future Feelings hitting bestseller and summer reading lists, 2021 has been a big year for books by transgender authors with trans characters. The newest title to add to the list is Summer Fun by Jeanne Thornton. The novel follows Gala, a trans woman living in Truth or Consequences, New Mexico, who is obsessed with the Get Happies, an iconic American family band inspired by The Beach Boys. Gala needs to know why the Get Happies stopped producing music and proceeds to write letters to the band's leader, B—-, to solve the mystery. The parallel stories of B—- and Gala "form a dialogue about creation — of music, identity, self, culture, and counterculture."
Summer Fun is about being trans in a tiny desert town, but it is also about American myths, like the stories of Paul Bunyon, and American music icons like Brian Wilson — and how believing in these myths, and the power of fandom, can change your life forever. It doesn't hurt that the book has received a seal of approval from Torrey Peters, the author of Detransition, Baby, who called it "the Pet Sounds of trans literature, a masterpiece that feels both astonishingly new and comfortingly familiar."
Thornton recently spoke with NewNowNext about how her time in Truth or Consequences almost two decades ago sparked Summer Fun, how The Beach Boys inspired the Get Happies, and what line from the book makes her want to go back and tell her younger self, "Oh my God, baby. It's going to be cool one day."
You stayed in Truth or Consequences for a little bit back in 2002. What led you there?
I was taking a road trip. It was after my first year of college at the University of Texas. At the time you could sort of travel by a system of hostels. They were like five hours apart from one another. One of them happened to be in Truth or Consequences. I planned to stay there for one night. I had some weird 19-year-old idea that like, "I will go to California this summer. I'll get a job in San Francisco and have this wonderful summer of magic and it'll be like the 1960s again or something." And that didn't happen for various reasons, but I ended up staying a lot longer than I planned. Not as long as the character in the book, obviously, but like four or five days, maybe or something like that — just kind of hanging out at this hostel, interacting with the people there. There was a much older guy who had been in a VA hospital in Georgia, who sort of had been sprung by these two punk kids, this punk couple who had brought him to this hostel... to go to a place where he would feel comfortable dying. So it was this very, very heavy encounter with him. It was this weird time of having this mystical time at a very beautiful, kind of grungy place in the desert.
Did you think at the time, "Oh, this would be a good setting for a book or some story"? Or did that come later?
I don't remember even what I thought. One of the tricky things about trans-ness — at least in my case, I don't know if this is generally true — is finding it sometimes difficult to access exactly what you were thinking at the time before transitioning. So, I know I wrote something about it for an undergrad writing class... but then not really ever again until I started working on this book in 2009.
That's right, you mention 11 years in the book's acknowledgments. Is that how it took you to write this book?
The actual writing of it, the bulk of it, was between 2009 and 2015. And then there was sort of a period of time where my agent and I were trying to take it out to sell it places. It took a while to find the right editor for it. It started out much, much longer than it is. I would even say almost double the length. Not quite that, but it had to get radically shorter each time we tried to sell it. I fully understand why everybody who passed on it in 2015 did not want to publish this extremely long, weird book about music and transsexuality.
Can you give a synopsis of Summer Fun for those who will be reading this interview and haven't read it yet?
Yeah, totally. There's this trans woman named Gala, who's living in a hostel very similar to the one that I was staying in back in 2002. She has been there for about eight months and settled into this sort of nebulous situation there. And she's writing. She is a great fan of a musical group called the Get Happies, who are like a popular surf rock act of the early 1960s. They're this canonical American band in the world of the book. Gala is a large fan of this band and is writing them this series of letters that are sort of troublingly omniscient to magically bring about a reunion to the band, which has not been heard from in some time. So we have this story of Gala in the present tense, navigating this complicated set of relationships with another trans woman who lives in the desert nearby, and this cis woman who's an indie documentarian traveling the country doing these strange interviews and films.
The book starts out with a quote from Brian Wilson, and you mention him in the acknowledgments. While reading, I kept thinking that the Get Happies were supposed to be like The Beach Boys. Would you say that's correct?
I think that there's a certain kind of legendary-ness to American music, in some ways, particularly with The Beach Boys. When I was writing it, I was thinking about that kind of material as being like American mythology in the sense of Paul Bunyan and the Blue Ox, or Casey Jones and the Railroad. There's this very American quality to the story of Brian Wilson. There's this Joseph Campbell energy that I think people are drawn to in part because there are these really American contours to that story. I felt like there was something that kept me thinking about this story. There was something that kept me thinking about the dynamics of fans. Before I knew that it was going to draw a lot from the specific kind of Beach Boys/Brian Wilson story, I knew that I wanted to be writing a long book about a band.
You mention Connie Converse in the book, and I looked her up afterward. Her story is fascinating.
Right? I don't remember when this centered, the plan for the book exactly, but the idea of putting these two kinds of narratives — of being a musician with a singular vision, the one that gets very rewarded by the vision, and the one who follows her own very complicated path — in a way that Connie Converse did. I mean, she left music right at a certain point and went off to live in Michigan for a number years and sort of went away. But I was really fascinated by the idea that we're told this story, I think, particularly with music and innovation, that you'll do this, and the world will be excited that you did it in some ways. Right? And there's sort of like, in the story of [Brian Wilson's] Smile, there's the idea that it's ahead of its time and the world will catch up with it.
But the fact that you can do something like that — be really radically ahead of your time and just not have it be discovered, not have it in any way that's going to come back to you immediately — I think that's really interesting. It undermines the whole idea of this Amadeus-y vision of the music that comes from God and will win out in the end or something. It felt this deep awareness of the injustice of that kind of outcome was something I wanted to bake into the book, and also thinking about the gender dynamic of it, where there's the different reception that Connie Converse gets as someone who is very forthright. She has a strong queer vibe, at least [sonically], with these sort of swaggering songs like "Playboy of the Western World" and this one about "Father Neptune," these songs that really, really feel like gay yearning songs. And in the case of Brian Wilson, all his songs are, "Let's go to the drive-in and make out. Boy, there sure are a lot of girls on the beach." Right? They have this beautiful production around it. They have this very spiritualized energy to them, but it's on this very assimilable narrative. I think that's interesting. These songs can be beautiful, but they're also so queer that they can't be sold in the late '50s and '60s, in the case of Connie Converse.
There was also a line in the book that jumped out to me that I never have thought about before. You wrote, "She laughed, although I couldn't tell whether it was earnest or the laugh cis people give when they relate successfully with a trans woman. The, 'Oh, you are human!' laugh."
Oh, that's a mean line. I think it's a mean line, but it's certainly a felt line. This is speaking from my experience, I don't know about everybody's. But when I'm, as a trans woman, interacting with a cis person over a period of time, there's a period where I think, "Okay, when will I know that I've passed the audition to be somebody who can be related to directly like that?" Like, when do I get to the point where I start being somebody? ... Talking about this in a different context, it's like the rules of friendship are never for a moment forget that I am this thing, but also forget constantly that I am this thing, right? It's this almost impossible double bind to put people in, but it's also an emotional need for a while until you sort of get over it, and just see past it to trust someone. I think there's this kind of period of audition. When I read it now, I think about like 2015 Jeanne or whatever year I wrote that line initially, and I think, "Oh my God, baby. It's going to be cool one day." You know? I mean, I still feel like that sometimes, but I probably wouldn't put that line in there.
No, it made me stop and think. It's a book that's about a funky, pop-rock psychedelic band, but there are deep conversations and deep themes in there, and lines like that remind you of that. That's why I think this book is so special.
Thanks for saying that. Thank you so much.
Summer Fun is out now.