Author Q&A with Blake Kinnett
by Christine Nessler
September 13, 2023
Tell us about yourself.
I was born (and raised, if you can believe it) in the foothills of the Appalachian Mountains, on the Kentucky side of the Tennessee-Kentucky border. I’m now working toward a degree at the University of Nebraska – Lincoln. A long way from home. I’m transgender, I’m disabled, some flavor of queer. I’m sorry – I’m not very good at this question.
What inspired you to write Pretty Women?
My mother has an autoimmune disease, and that inspired some of the symptoms that Avie experiences in the story. During my writing process I was thinking about womanhood – what it means to have access to womanhood, and what it means to be denied womanhood. Access to womanhood, from my perspective, at least, is limited by several factors – race, ability, health, proximity to cisness and straightness, age, to name a few. And I think, too, that no matter what kind of woman you are, eventually, if you live long enough, you will be denied your womanhood, whether that’s because of age or ability or health or any combination thereof. I wanted to write about what it was like to slowly lose access to gender, and, more importantly, what it means to reclaim that gender anyway. In no way does this story explore every aspect of what it means to be a woman, and it wasn’t meant to do that at all.
Tell us about the contrast between how Avie and Jack of Pretty Women see beauty.
I think Avie sees beauty as a part of her femininity that she feels like she’s losing, and Jack sees beauty as something that she’ll never have access to. And beauty standards are ever changing, even as they revolve around things like whiteness, wealth, and thinness. I remember when I was growing up, I was considered ugly by my classmates because I had larger lips and thick, dark eyebrows. Then when I went to college, everyone was overdrawing their lips and coloring in their brows, and that was the moment where I was like “Oh. This is all some bull piss.” When you’re trans and/or chronically ill/disabled, you sometimes must create your own sense of beauty, because you’ll find yourself very quickly defined out of it in a lot of cases. And I think when it comes to beauty in the story, I was thinking about ways to define your own beauty on your own terms.
Where do you find beauty in the world around you?
This is going to sound incredibly morbid but hear me out – ancient bodies are beautiful. Really, ancient humans are beautiful, bodies or not. Have you heard of Shanidar 1? He’s a Neanderthal found in Iraq, and he lived to be about thirty-five to forty-five. Our best estimations are, of course, only estimations, but he’s thought to have experienced a blow to the head that might have blinded him in one eye, and his right arm and leg were thought to have been impacted by the blow, too, leading to paralysis. But he lived for a very long time, for a Neanderthal, and these injuries did not kill him. His people took care of him. They loved him. I studied history in undergraduate, and my favorite classes were always with the professor who specialized in ancient history, Dr. Aaron Irvin at Murray State University. We tend to think of the ancient world as being a very brutal time for humans, and in some cases, it was. But it was also a time of incredible compassion and care, across civilizations. And there’s proof of that — in the bones. Isn’t it beautiful that we get to look at the remnants of people who lived thousands upon thousands of years ago and see ourselves looking back?
What hurdle does each character have to overcome in order to be made new?
I think there’s a level of acceptance you have achieved at some point in your life, whether you’re trans or disabled. I don’t like to say that I ‘became’ disabled so much as I learned about it one day, mostly because I don’t really know how long I lived with it before I was diagnosed. And after I was diagnosed, I went through a period where I was like “not me.” Something like 0.3% of people have my diagnosis, so how could this happen to me? And because I’d been living with it for so long, I had no idea how bad it really was. So that was what I was thinking about when it came to Avie’s character – reaching for the moment where you’re able to accept that this is your life now, and it can still be a beautiful one. I think I was really doing that thing where you try to write it into existence, because I still haven’t entirely reached that place for myself yet. And I think that assuming because the story ends means that Avie has reached that place for herself is probably wishful thinking. It’s been my experience that acceptance and grief are part of the same cycle, and I’ve been moving through that cycle since my own diagnosis in 2019.
For Jack’s character, I think it’s about faith. Some trans people are afraid of transition because they think they’ll be ugly, or they’re worried they won’t like the results, or they can’t imagine themselves as their desired gender. The latter being most of Jack’s issue. Transition is a leap of faith, and some people take it, and others don’t or aren’t ready, and either way, it’s your journey and it’s beautiful and special. For Jack, I don’t think she was able to take that leap until someone else believed in her – until someone else saw the woman that she was. It is so helpful as a transgender person to have a community, or even just one person, who believes in you, and sees you for who you are. This is especially true if you’re transgender in a rural community, like Jack, and you don’t really have access to a queer or transgender community of your own.
What message do you hope your readers take away from this piece?
You know, I’m kind of over trauma porn. I know that’s a crass way of phrasing it. It seemed to me that stories about sick and/or disabled people and stories about trans people tend to have one awful thing in common, and that’s the idea that we’re “overcoming” something. Being transgender, being disabled, these aren’t things that you have to overcome, they’re just states of being. And I’m not going to act like we don’t have it rough, especially these days. But I think that means that now more than ever, we need stories of transgender joy. And I especially wanted to challenge the idea that pre-transition is just crying in front of a mirror because “I’ll never be a real man/woman.” There can be joy in discovery. There can be joy in the becoming.
How does your work in creative writing allow you to positively affect the world around you?
I don’t know. Isn’t that the question that we all have? I think – or would like to hope – that all writers ask themselves this question, and hope that their work puts some good out into the world. For me, personally, I think writing keeps me gentle. My instincts tend toward the vicious. I am a deeply cynical person. My heart is a necrotic, curdled organ, pumping ichor into my veins. And I get worse the longer I go without art. My goal with every piece I write, and the thing I want out of every story or novel I read, is to find a voice that makes me love again. I think it makes me a better, more understanding person. And we could probably do with a few more understanding people in this world.
How does writing keep you inspired?
I like writing that I can dance to, the kind of writing that makes you get up and pace back and forth because the language is so electric that it travels from the page to your brain. I won’t claim to know why other people write, but I think part of the reason I write is to be understood – to scoop out some vital part of myself and present it on the page, hoping that someone else will point at it and say, “Yes, that’s me. I do that too. I am that too.” That connection that you make when you read a book that speaks to you, and hoping to have that connection as a writer writing about things that you hope speaks to other people — I think I would say that inspires me.
What advice can you give to other aspiring writers?
It’s funny because I still consider myself an aspiring writer – this is my first publication, so I don’t remotely feel qualified to answer this question. I’ll try. Read and write, obviously. I can’t tell you how many writers I know or have known in the past who spend more time talking about reading and writing than they do reading and writing. But aside from that, the best advice I can honestly think of is DON’T TWEET. Never tweet. You see a Bad Art Friend or a Cat Person discourse or any other literary twitter drama, resist that devil. I know that twitter is good for engagement and promoting your work and all, but you’ll be so much happier reading about the drama or discourse than you will be participating in it, and the people who follow you to hear your hot takes about the latest Main Character on Twitter are probably not the audience you want to cultivate – they’re not gonna buy your books. Post your promotional stuff, Retweet other writers’ successes, hype your people up. Don’t discourse.
What do you think of when you hear the term, “The Good Life?”
I was thinking the other day – my cat has no idea where his food comes from. He knows it’s under the sink and he knows that he gets one scoop in the morning and one at night, but he doesn’t know that I have to go to the Russ’s Supermarket down the street and pick out his bag of Tender Selects Blend and haul it back home so he gets his daily and nightly scoops of salmon. He trusts that I will feed him. He has faith that the bag will always be under the sink. I think that kind of security must be a pretty good life.
Blake’s Fiction piece “Pretty Women” is available in issue #12 ~ Our Summer Honeybee Prize issue.
Thank you, Blake, for allowing us to share your story with our readers and for the honest, straightforward, and impactful answers to our questions. We wish you the best!