An Interview with Ellen Wittlinger and Toby Davis — by CJ Bott and Elizabeth McNeil
—follow up information following many messages about the Parrotfish Quote/Quips —
(Note from the editors: In order to give Ellen Wittlinger’s important book, Parrotfish, the attention it deserves, we have paired CJ Bott’s interview with Ellen Wittlinger and Toby Davis with Elizabeth McNeil’s analysis of the book and its place in young adult literature with transgender characters at the center. Dr. McNeil’s analysis follows the interview.)
Tolerance often follows personal experience or knowledge, and in today’s world, there has not been much written about transgendered youth. In Ellen Wittlinger’s recent YA novel, Parrotfish, she presents Grady, a transgendered female-to-male teenager who gently pulls us out of our ignorance. Part of Ellen’s inspiration for this book was Toby Davis, who, though born female, is now living as a male.
CJ: Many authors take risks in their writing—some with structure, the safer risk—but you so often take the greater risk of content or subject matter, this time by telling the story of a transgender teen. What motivates you to take the greater and more important risk of introducing topics that many find too uncomfortable to write about?
Ellen: If it’s uncomfortable to talk about, it’s probably important to talk about. My last three books have dealt with oral sex among young teens [Sandpiper], spiritualism versus atheism [Blind Faith], and a transgender teenager [Parrotfish]. Kids are thinking and talking about issues like this, and I want to be part of that conversation.
I’ve always been the kind of person who wants to know everybody’s secrets because what’s hidden underneath is what makes us unique and interesting, what makes us human. And when I’m beginning a book, I like to choose a topic that I know a little about but want to know more about. That keeps the writing interesting to me.
CJ: Did this story come to you or did you go out looking for it? How did you research it?
Ellen: Well, in a way the story did come to me. My husband and I had just moved to western Massachusetts near where our daughter Kate lives, and she introduced us to some of her friends, one of whom was Toby Davis. She had told me before I met him that Toby, though born female, was living as a male. I liked Toby as soon as I met him. He’s just a little shy with a big, warm smile and a good sense of humor. And it turned out Toby knew who I was. He’d read Hard Love as a teenager and was excited to meet me.
Before long an idea began to percolate. Why not write a story about a transgender teenager and ask Toby if he’d help me make sure it was a true story? I was a little hesitant to ask, but I ran it by Kate. She was enthusiastic and passed the idea along to Toby, who was thrilled.
Before I even spoke to Toby, though, I wanted to know what I was talking about, so I read several books, Transgender Warriors, by Leslie Feinberg, and Gender Outlaw by Kate Bornstein, among others, which helped me understand the difference between sexuality and gender. I wanted to know what the issues were. Then I emailed Toby a list of 30 questions, all of which he answered. And then we met for an afternoon of tea and truth-telling at a downtown café. There was no question that Toby wouldn’t answer at length. I think what amazed me most was that there was so much I didn’t know about this subject. I think of myself as liberal, gay-friendly, and pretty up-to-date about what’s going on in the world, but these things I didn’t know.
I haven’t written the story of Toby’s life—that was never the intention. What I hope I have written is a story that gets it right about a transgender teen.
Read the entire article and analysis HERE