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Author Jennifer Savran Kelly on Gender Identity and Secret Love Letters

· Updated on October 4, 2023

In Endpapers, Jennifer Savran Kelly explores art, love, gender, and their influence on one’s identity. While the exploration of identity in literature is typically tied to coming-of-age tropes for young adults, Kelly’s book reexamines what it means to come of age in adulthood.

The debut novel follows Dawn Levit, a genderqueer bookbinder who discovers a queer love letter in the endpaper of a ‘50s lesbian pulp novel. While Dawn’s partner wishes she were a man, society pushes her to be “more” of a woman, and Dawn struggles to cultivate her expression within these limits. But upon seeing the pulp novel’s cover of a woman looking into a mirror with the reflection of a man, Dawn embarks on a journey of discovery to find the mysterious letter’s author and ultimately her own story. Set in New York City during 2003, Endpapers explores what it means to move through life on one’s own terms.

INTO: What was the initial inspiration behind Endpapers?

Jennifer Savran Kelly: The very first kernel of the idea came from my first bookbinding workshop. Our teacher was talking about the anatomy of a book. She told us that bookbinders sometimes find personal letters hidden under the endpapers of books — the part that gets pasted down to the inside cover. Something about that stayed with me for many years. It seemed romantic and tragic to me at the same time that someone would want to write a personal letter, but would only put it in a place where no one could get to it unless the book was destroyed. Alternatively, it also struck me as romantic and tragic that the recipient of the letter would be living with this letter right within their reach. You could be walking around with someone pouring their heart out to you, and you don’t even know.

As a bookbinder yourself, have you ever uncovered secret letters or anything similar?

I’ve seen scraps from the printing floor in the spine of the books, but they’re usually not as interesting as finding something personal.

Were there any specific challenges you faced in the writing process?

One of the biggest challenges was that I didn’t know what nonbinary gender was when I started writing this (novel). It wasn’t long ago, but it was only in the past five or six years or something like that that it’s entered the mainstream knowledge or consciousness. I was writing about and exploring feelings I had, thinking about what my life might have been had I acted on them in a different way which was how I came up with this fictional character in this fictional story.

How did writing about gender exploration change your own views of gender?

I better understand what it means to be genderqueer. I now understand feelings I’d had for most of my life that I didn’t have words for. I understand why you can present to the world one way and identify as another, that what people see and who you are on the inside don’t always match. I don’t make assumptions about anyone anymore.

I’ve noticed that in the YA genre, sexuality and gender identity are more discussed, but not so much in literary fiction. Why do you think that is?

I’ve been wondering that myself. The only thing I can come up with is that I have a fourteen-year-old son. I didn’t come out to him as genderqueer until he was ten or eleven, so it’s not like he grew up his whole life knowing about this. But I’ve seen that with him and his friends, it’s so automatic. When somebody tells them that they are genderqueer or nonbinary or trans they flip like that because they haven’t lived a life that’s told them that that’s not something that happens. It’s so much more visible now. I think there’s a comfort in writing in that (YA) space of feeling like people are going to accept this because they’re at that stage of life where they are more accepting. 

What was your intention behind setting the novel in New York City during 2003?

I lived in New York for a number of years after college and I learned how to do bookbinding there, and so it was sort of a love letter to the city. The 2003 aspects came when I had determined I wanted Gertrude to be the character who wrote the letter. I was thinking about Gertrude and Dawn’s character, and what the timing would have to be like so Gertrude was still alive. It placed me in the early ‘00s, and I thought that was perfect because the aftermath of 9/11 was a time that we now look back on and see how much tension there was in the air. We also know how the Muslim community was being victimized and the hate crimes rose — and have continued. Within that atmosphere, the Defense of Marriage act was being pushed by President Bush and Massachusetts was trying to legalize gay marriage. People were talking about freedom, but at the same time, Bush was trying to take so many freedoms away from Americans.

In Endpapers, we see how art challenges us to think outside ourselves. How was our challenge to you as a person?

Art has always been my way of seeing things in a new way. It’s always challenged my perception. I don’t know what it is about art, but it affects me deeply. I’ve always had a lot of friends that were vegetarian or vegan when I was in high school and college. They would tell me their reasons, and they made sense to me, but it wasn’t enough to have a real impact even though I agreed with everything. I wasn’t feeling it viscerally, and then I went to Spain and came across a series of line drawings. The first was a farmer or something with a wheelbarrow full of carcasses and then the next was a butcher in a butcher shop holding a knife and he was covered in blood. The third was a woman looking into a shop window and then the next was a Jewish person being gassed in a gas chamber. They were very minimal, but super powerful, and I didn’t eat meat for 17 years after. Art has always had this effect on me where if I see something at the right moment and it’s powerful enough then it makes me see something in a new way.

What lessons do you hope readers can take from Dawn’s journey of coming of age in their 20s?

I hope that Endpapers functions much like the letter that Dawn finds, so those who are figuring themselves out can feel a little bit of that process on the page, and it gives them hope. And for people who are not genderqueer or don’t know anyone who is genderqueer or non-binary, that it gives them a bit of understanding. What I wanted to show about Dawn was that whether you’re queer or genderqueer, straight, cis, that everyone has sides of themselves that we’re trying to reconcile. At the end of the day, I wanted Dawn to be a relatable human being. We move forward through connections with other people, through finding the thing you love to do, through letting other people in, through learning to trust. This is how we learn to have empathy for others, so we hopefully move beyond ourselves and our own experiences.♦

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