By Alaina Leary
Today we’re pleased to welcome Isaac Fitzsimons to the WNDB blog to discuss his YA novel The Passing Playbook, out June 1, 2021!
The story is set in a fictionalized version of a real place called Apple Creek, OH, which is where I did my student teaching back when I was in college.
On one hand, the area is quite conservative and there’s a large Amish and Mennonite population there as well. But on the other hand, the liberal arts college the next town over attracts students and professors from around the country and even the world, who bring their own perspectives, so it’s a real mix of people, which made it the perfect setting to explore the conflicts in this book.
Because I wanted it to be grounded in reality, I researched the laws for amending birth certificates and regulations around trans athletes participating in high school sports, and Ohio was one of the states that met the criteria that I needed for this book.
Spencer’s central tension comes from the decision to come out as trans or not as someone who ‘passes’ at his high school. Passing and coming out are tricky topics and, of course, so individual to each person. Coming out is also something pretty much every trans person has to do over and over again throughout their life. Why did you want to explore this in Spencer’s journey?
There’s a scene in the book where someone calls Spencer brave for coming out and Spencer says that he doesn’t want to have to be brave, he just wants to live. And I think that captures an experience that many trans people face where we’re expected to be activists and educators when like Spencer, we’re just trying to live.
It’s not that Spencer doesn’t want to be trans, it’s that he doesn’t always want the pressure that comes with it, which to be clear, is a privilege that he holds as someone who passes.
The problem is that passing can take a lot of mental and physical energy. Trans narratives often portray the physical side of it, so I wanted to write from the perspective of someone who had access to hormone blockers which prevented him from going through a puberty that didn’t align with his gender identity and has less of the physical burden and more of the mental strain and anxiety that someone will find out.
But it was also important for me to include multiple viewpoints to show that there’s no right way to be trans, so we have Spencer’s best friend, Aiden who is also trans but is out, and Riley, who is discovering they are nonbinary and coming out for the first time.
It’s extra challenging for Spencer to decide whether to come out because he was bullied at his last school and has the opportunity to fly under the radar at Oakley, something I’m intimately familiar with (I went through the same thing when I was in high school and it took me a year to come out). How do Spencer’s previous experiences with being openly trans impact his self-concept now and his fears surrounding being out?
Though mentioned only briefly in the book, Spencer experienced pretty significant trauma after coming out at his old school. I intentionally didn’t show extensive flashbacks or detail the specifics because I didn’t want to retraumatize any readers who have experienced something similar.
Being stealth for Spencer isn’t about shame or internalized transphobia, it’s about healing and rebuilding the armor he’ll need as an out trans person in a world that isn’t always kind to us.
I was also intentional in giving him loving relationships with trans people to show that he’s very much connected to the community. And in the end, the choice to come out is just that, a choice. Throughout the book, Spencer has agency to control how much he shares with people because these types of boundaries are so important.
Soccer is a big part of who Spencer is. Do you play soccer? Did you watch any soccer as part of your writing process? How did you draw his love of soccer into the story?
I love that I can count watching soccer as part of my writing process! I am the least athletic person in the entire world and to be completely honest am somewhat terrified of being hit in the face/head/body by athletic equipment of any kind so, no, I do not play soccer. But I’ve always loved watching international soccer games.
In 2016 there were the Euros and the Olympics meaning I was watching soccer the entire summer. When it was over I decided to find a team to support and watch year-round. Now from August to May, I watch soccer every weekend.
For Spencer, there’s two aspects of his love of soccer that I drew on. First, he craves the validation of being on the boys’ team. And second and more significant in my opinion, when he’s playing soccer he feels completely in control of his body, which is important for the development of all teens, but especially for transgender teens.
A lot of this book is about self-acceptance but it’s also about community acceptance and the impact it can have when the people in your life support you and stand by you. How did you write the characters in Spencer’s life with this in mind?
I gave Spencer supportive parents and a support network but also wanted to include issues that crop up even with that type of support. Spencer’s mom is a logical person who jumped into action when she found out her kid was hurting but didn’t fully process what it meant to her emotionally.
Spencer’s dad has done his processing and is fully accepting, though we see that it wasn’t easy for him in flashbacks. Now it’s Spencer who has to come to terms with what it means to be perceived as a queer Black boy on the verge of adulthood, and his dad helps with that.
Another idea I wanted to explore was active allyship in that it’s not enough to proclaim yourself an ally and leave it at that, it’s an ongoing process of learning and demonstrating through your words and actions.
Did you do any research for this book and if you did, what’s one of your favorite things you learned?
I was raised pretty secular, save for occasional church services at Christmas and Easter. As an adult, I’ve developed my own beliefs, but I’ve never been involved in the oppressive organized religion experienced by Justice, the love interest in the book. For research, I watched a lot of documentaries and read memoirs from people, especially queer people, who come from that type of religious upbringing.
I don’t know if this is my favorite, but probably the most interesting was researching Hell Houses, haunted houses put on by churches where each room is a different “sinful” activity that leads to hell. That research made it into the book and I’m sure some people might think it’s exaggerated but it is definitely real.
Are you a plotter or a panster and did you surprise yourself at all with the writing process for this book?
I’m a plotter in that I outline before I write and even in revisions I have to have a roadmap telling me where to go. But I use the outline more as suggestions because inevitably while writing I’ll find another path that calls to me. This was the first book I’ve written from start to finish so really the whole process was a surprise, and I’m still learning with book two!
If you could design your dream panel to promote this book, what would it be about? What other authors would you love to have on it with you?
Since I’m a couch sports enthusiast, I would love to have a panel with trans authors who are real athletes. Especially with all the anti-trans laws being debated across the country, it’s so important to listen to people who can speak to what it would mean to be excluded from something you loved.
A few people I’d invite would be AJ Sass, a figure-skater and author of Ana on the Edge which came out last year. Schuyler Bailar, the first openly transgender NCAA Division I swimmer and author of Obie is Man Enough, which is coming out in September. And Jazz Jennings, a transgender activist who has written about her experiences with discrimination in sports growing up in her memoir, Being Jazz.
If the characters in The Passing Playbook showed up on your doorstep in real life, who do you think you’d get along with most? And who would honestly grate on your nerves even though you love them?
Spencer’s little brother, Theo, for sure! We would just sit and watch Planet Earth together in silence. And I think Grayson would probably annoy me.
What other books do you think The Passing Playbook is in conversation with?
I think Running with Lions by Julian Winters. Both Julian and I wrote about soccer teams that are super supportive of queer teammates. Openly Straight by Bill Konigsberg is an older one about a gay soccer player who starts at a new school with the intention of staying in the closet, but then falls for a teammate.
Do you have any recommendations for published or forthcoming books?
2021 is truly the year of trans boys in books, which is incredible! I’m likely missing a few but there’s Between Perfect and Real by Ray Stoeve, May the Best Man Win by ZR Ellor, Meet Cute Diary by Emery Lee, The Witch King by H.E. Edgmon, and The (Un)popular Vote by Jasper Sanchez.
What’s one question you wish you were asked more often (and the answer)?
I’m waiting for someone to ask about my inspiration for the Transgender Day of Remembrance scene because the true story is stranger than fiction.
For those who don’t know, Transgender Day of Remembrance takes place every November 20. It’s typically a vigil where people come together and read the names of those who passed away while lighting candles. It’s a really somber and sobering experience hearing all the names read.
There’s a scene in the book that was based on my real-life experience at my first Transgender Day of Remembrance. I was living in Seattle at the time and while Seattle is known for being rainy it sort of mists and drizzles as opposed to the storms I’m used to coming from the East Coast. But while we were reading the names the wind picked up and rain started pouring down in sheets, cutting off the power to the microphones. So instead, we passed around the list of names and everyone read one aloud. And I swear that as soon as we finished reading the last name, the wind and rain just stopped. It’s one of those things that sounds made up, but it truly happened, and I wanted to capture that in the book because it was such a profound moment that reminded me that there’s something bigger than us out there.
Isaac Fitzsimons is a lifetime dabbler in the arts. His background includes performing sketch comedy in college, learning how to play three songs on the banjo, and, of course, writing. He currently lives outside Washington, DC, and does research for an arts advocacy nonprofit in the city.