andrea bennett is a National Magazine Award–winning writer and editor and the author of two travel guides, one book of poetry, and, most recently, the essay collection Like a Boy but Not a Boy: Navigating Life, Mental Health, and Parenthood Outside the Gender Binary (Arsenal Pulp Press), a CBC Books’ pick for the top Canadian nonfiction of the year, and one of Autostraddle’s best queer books of 2020.
A Q & A with andrea bennett
Why did you pursue a career in writing?
We always ask kids in North America what they want to be when they grow up. It’s like one of the central questions asked of kids. Which is kind of weird? But my answer was generally always “writer.” When I was in teen, and as an undergrad, I made zines with friends, but had given up on the idea of writing for a living. It was really being accepted in the UBC MFA program—the only MFA I’d applied for—that put me back on that track.
Can you tell us what it’s like being a professional writer?
I really enjoy becoming obsessed with something and pursuing knowledge about it via research—both through interviews, and by reading. I love that part of being a professional writer. It’s such an amazing freedom. And I’m so grateful that people read my work, and sometimes connect with it—that’s a huge privilege.
Being a professional writer, if you’re not also independently wealthy, requires you to pair that creative side of yourself with a very organized, almost entrepreneurial side. You need to be able to hit deadlines, pitch and submit work, navigate several projects at different stages, and be on top of financial stuff. Those two sides—creativity and practicality—are very different. In some ways it’s sort of weird we expect any given creative person to embody both of them.
“I really enjoy becoming obsessed with something and pursuing knowledge about it via research—both through interviews, and by reading. I love that part of being a professional writer. It’s such an amazing freedom. And I’m so grateful that people read my work, and sometimes connect with it—that’s a huge privilege.”
Why did you pursue a degree from the Creative Writing program?
I was working in communications in Ontario when I applied to the MFA, and to be perfectly honest—though my employer was great, and my coworkers were great—I just was not suited to that kind of 9 to 5 job. I’d taken a couple creative writing courses as an undergrad at the University of Guelph, and I applied to UBC on a whim, because I’d heard good things about the program, and read the work of graduates. I was waitlisted at first, and finally accepted. I hoped that going through the program would make it possible for me to figure out how to make a life as a writer.
How did the Creative Writing program help your writing practice?
It helped in some very practical ways, like learning how to pitch nonfiction to magazines, and how the process of publishing a book in Canada might work, with or without an agent. It also helped me realize that authors seem like a totally different class of fancy person from the outside, but they’re really all just random humans, and it’s possible to become of them.
I was also really really lucky to go through the program with the cohort I landed with—there were a lot of amazingly talented writers in my year. (When I first arrived, I was like, ah, yes, well! No wonder I was waitlisted!) Reading their work, and receiving their feedback on my own, really allowed me to level up my skills.
Can you tell us a little about your recent essay collection, Like a Boy but Not a Boy: Navigating Life, Mental Health, and Parenthood Outside the Gender Binary?
Like a Boy but Not a Boy is a collection of fourteen essays about gender, mental illness, parenting, mortality, bike mechanics, work, class, and the task of living in a body. It includes “Everyone Is Sober and No One Can Drive,” sixteen stories about queer millennials who grew up and came of age in small Canadian communities. It’s a book that’s very much rooted in my perspective as a non-binary person and parent.
The book also wonders what it means to be an atheist and search for faith that everything will be okay; what it means to learn how to love life even as you obsess over its brevity; and how to give birth, to bring new life, at what feels like the end of the world.
“I wrote those essays in the book, Like a Boy but Not a Boy, because I wanted to join that conversation of trans and gender non-conforming parents writing about these issues and experiences. I hope it’s helpful for other queer parents, even if their takeaway is, “Ah, I feel differently, but reading this clarified that difference for me.””
Why did you choose to write about your experiences navigating parenthood and what do you want readers to take away from your book?
When I was thinking about becoming pregnant, and becoming a parent, I really wanted to read about other trans and gender non-conforming parents’ experiences, to prepare myself and feel some sense of familiarity, or community. Parenting, in particular, is still such a hyper-gendered thing in mainstream North American culture. Giving birth is considered a quintessentially feminine, or female act. So what does it mean to not be female, or feminine, and give birth? And more practically: how do I advocate for myself as a non-binary parent, to make sure, for example, that there is literally a correct box to check on the documentation surrounding birth, healthcare, and school for my child?
I wrote those essays in the book because I wanted to join that conversation of trans and gender non-conforming parents writing about these issues and experiences. I hope it’s helpful for other queer parents, even if their takeaway is, “Ah, I feel differently, but reading this clarified that difference for me.” I hope straight and cis parents connect with the essays too, of course, whether something resonates with them in familiarity, or offers them a perspective on trans parenting that’s helpful to them.
Do you have any forthcoming writing or projects that you’d like to share with us?
My next poetry book, tentatively called The Berry Takes the Shape of the Bloom, looks like it will be coming out in 2023. And I’ve started working on my next book of essays, which will most likely be about food—appetite, sustenance, desire.
Do you have any suggestions for students or new graduates pursuing a writing career?
I think the most important piece of advice I can offer is to never be afraid to ask questions when you’re uncertain about something. What’s the normal etiquette? How does the process work? What will the timeline be? When can I expect to hear back from you? There are so many unwritten rules in publishing, and I feel like I learned a lot of them through observation and waiting (impatiently!) and making missteps. You don’t have to do that! It’s OK to acknowledge that you’re new to something, and to ask for clarification, and clearer communication.