This week’s installment of Ten Questions features Stacy Jane Grover, whose debut essay collection, Tar Hollow Trans, is out today from the University Press of Kentucky. In these complex inquiries into place and selfhood, Grover explores her upbringing and the emergence of her trans identity in Appalachian southeast Ohio. With a profound desire to be “a country woman, of the land, that place of undefined gender,” Grover nonetheless travels to the city seeking a more liberated existence, only to find a different form of “constraint” away from her beloved nature. In Grover’s research into family, regional, social, and medical history, she uncovers the many queer narratives interwoven with the people, places, and rituals of Appalachia: a great aunt who subverted gender norms and was murdered at sixteen; early-twentieth-century government interventions into the lives of rural women, seeking to “feminize” them in the name of health and hygiene; communal practices that put less pressure on the nuclear family and more on an extended network of kin. These narratives shape Grover’s understanding of her own personal experiences with friends, family members, and the various characters—both in person and online—that she confronts while resisting any certain conclusions about herself or the place where she grew up. “If there’s any hope in identity as a project, in all that we hold and practice to make sense of ourselves, whether we call it queer or transgender or Appalachian, it might be found in being bewildered, in forgoing knowability to bestow upon ourselves a complex interiority and wonderous possibility,” she writes. Publishers Weekly calls Tar Hollow Trans “a unique, fascinating collection.” Stacy Jane Grover is a graduate of the University of Cincinnati and holds an MA in women’s, gender, and sexuality studies. Tar Hollow Trans is her first book.
1. How long did it take you to write Tar Hollow Trans?
The process of writing the book took about fourteen months, from pitching the book to my editor to turning in the completed manuscript.
2. What was the most challenging thing about writing the book?
The book was a real learning process for me. I had published essays in magazines, so I wasn’t even sure if I could write something book length. I also hadn’t found a consistent daily writing schedule. I had to learn through writing the book how to discipline my creativity so that I could write whenever and wherever I needed to.
3. Where, when, and how often do you write?
I write every day, usually in the mornings, and also as the day allows. I write at my desk in my office or on the porch. I do write a lot on my phone—so, often, wherever I happen to be.
4. What are you reading right now?
I’m actually not a big reader in my free time, and it’s hard for me to read anything while I’m drafting. So I usually only read in preparation for something I’m going to write. I’m in a nice break period right now.
5. Which author or authors have been influential for you, in your writing of this book in particular or as a writer in general?
I almost exclusively read Anne Rice when I was younger. Following her online shaped how I’ve come to understand writing as daily work, how to stick to an artistic vision while being open to change, and the need to be sincere with one’s audience.
Alison Stine and Carter Sickels have been dear friends and mentors. They’ve taught me through action how to be a writer who uplifts other writers. I’ve only had one creative writing class, and it was with Kristen Iversen. I know the essay as a form because of her teaching and generous spirit.
6. What is one thing that surprised you during the writing of Tar Hollow Trans?
The shape the book took surprised me the most. I proposed an entirely different book from the one I wrote. I couldn’t write the original book I had an idea for, because I hadn’t lived it. When I allowed myself to be honest and sincere on the page, the essays began to take a different shape, and the forms they took outweighed my want to stick to the original idea. So instead of a book of essays about my transgender life in Appalachia, I ended up with a collection of essays that explore the process of trying to write myself into those identities, when I am not sure they’ve ever truly fit me. That’s why I love the essay as a form, because it allows for so much flexibility and spontaneity.
7. What is the earliest memory that you associate with the book?
In January of 2021, I tweeted that I wanted a contract for a book on being transgender in Appalachia. Maybe a day or two later, my editor—then unknown to me—contacted me about pitching her the idea. I was actually working on a different book idea at the time.
8. If you could go back in time and talk to the earlier you, before you started Tar Hollow Trans, what would you say?
Writing won’t ever save you. Focus on living your life.
9. What forms of work, other than writing, did you have to do to complete this book?
My work is research intensive, so I had to collect family stories, conduct archival research, and read lots of books and articles on gender theory and Appalachian studies. I read almost all of the work that I cite in the book during my MA, which I completed two years before I came up with the idea for and started writing the book.
10. What’s the best piece of writing advice you’ve ever received?
In Beyond the Writers’ Workshop: New Ways to Write Creative Nonfiction, Carol Bly writes, “Literature has low enough standards. But we can avoid writing the worst literature if we make ourselves ask ourselves, every two or three sentences we write, ‘Is that what I really think?’”