I'm super stoked to kick off Queering Up Your Bookshelf, an interview series in which I'll chat with LGBTQ+ authors about the queer stories they write. Follow this for new posts every Wednesday.
To start us off, I'm excited to welcome Jeffrey Marsh on this blog to chat about their book How To Be You, inspiration, and finding yourself. Welcome, Jeffrey!
Jeffrey Marsh has over 350 million views on social media. Jeffrey is the first nonbinary author with a "Big 5" publisher, Penguin Random House. Jeffrey created the best-selling self-esteem classic ‘How To Be You,’ which topped O Magazine's Gratitude Meter and was named an Excellent Book of 2017 by TED-Ed. ‘How to Be You’ revolutionized publishing categorization as the first book to seamlessly combine three genres: memoir, workbook, and spiritual self-help. Jeffrey is a precepted facilitator in the Soto Zen tradition of Buddhism.
1. What is your writing origin story?
I wanted to write a book for fun. I wanted to write for expression and to help myself heal. I know it sounds selfish! But it was honestly the least selfish thing, because it seems to have helped other people. ‘How To Be You’ is a love letter to me — to my eleven-year-old self. I have wished many times to be able to reach back in time and tell little Jeffrey that they are worthy and that they are valued. It’s lucky because it turns out that a lot of readers were waiting for a love letter like that and people have really enjoyed reading it for themselves. Because, after all, it is a love letter to everyone in the world. My friend was writing a book a couple years ago, and we did a tv spot together and then HER literary agent said “do you think Jeffrey has a book in them?” And there was no other book I wanted to write.
2. What inspires your writing and how do you keep that inspiration alive?
As I said in the answer to question one, I’m really inspired by myself. Just kidding! I’m actually inspired by the LGBTQ youth who don’t have the same hang-ups I was taught to carry around. I just gave a speech at an LGBTQ youth event in Utah, and the kids (they don’t like to be called kids but I’m doing it anyway) are so far ahead. They get being nonbinary; they understand trans identity. But more than that, the youngest among us understand how hate works. I grew up thinking that because people couldn’t handle who I am it was my fault somehow, and it is very inspiring to see younger folks not taking haters so seriously. I pour all of that inspiration into my writing.
3. What does representation mean to you and how does it feature in your writing?
Honestly, I’ve always kind of thought of “representation” as something that happens in fiction — and this question has opened my mind! Obviously memoir is a kind of representation, and ‘How To Be You’ is partly memoir. I would hope that I represent how to be human and how similar we all are. I was asked in a TV interview about whether readers would “find out about people like you” from the book, meaning find out about nonbinary people. I answered that readers will find out about themselves from reading my book, and I designed it to be that way. Representation is so much about how we have the same feelings and desires and we all deserve the same respect. One more thing to note I guess is that I never really intended to “represent nonbinary people” but I was the first out nonbinary author with a major publisher, so it all just happened. I remember what we might call “internal representation” too: Penguin Random House didn’t really know what nonbinary was or what to do with me. The copy editor returned my manuscript with the “they’s” changed to “he’s” for example, so there was a lot of representing I was doing behind the scenes and not just in public.
4. How are writing and activism linked for you?
I feel that they are the same thing! Just me being me is activism at this pint in history, so in a weird way I don’t actually have to give it much thought. Me doing normal career stuff and writing and being interviewed and all that happens to be my activism. I intended ‘How To Be You’ to be universal, and I hope I succeeded, and it just might open hearts and minds toward nonbinary folks too — fingers crossed!
5. What is your best piece of writing advice?
I’m very predictable and I give the same advice for everything: there is nothing wrong with you. I’ve seen too many people come up with an idea of what writing is and how it’s supposed to look and then use that idea to feel bad because they can’t do it. In other words, admit that you don’t know what writing is “supposed to look like.” Give yourself some space. Do you start with an outline? Or a phrase? Or a color? Do you write in the morning? Only on Tuesdays? Do you want it to be fun? Cathartic? What do you want? To me, writing is a wide open space, and let’s not fill that space up with judgement and self-hate. Stay open to weird ideas.
6. What is the hardest lesson you learned while writing?
My hardest lesson was that writing is an imperfect medium. With written words there is no inflection, no verbal context clues, so your words can be interpreted in a variety of ways. Usually people get what I’m trying to say, but I’m a very expressive (and entertaining?) speaker and something is a little lost in the written word. Clearly there are brilliant-er writers than me. The only thing I can hope for is that a bit of my spirit and the thrust of my self-love attitude come through in the printed/digitized words.
7. What do you hope readers will take away from your work?
A deep knowledge that there is nothing wrong with them.
8. What are you currently working on? What’s next for you?
Book number two! I’m currently writing sample chapters for a second book and working on getting the proposal together. It is early days, but it’s nice to have a focus point on the horizon of writing — it keeps me on track.