Jennifer Finney Boylan

Photo by Dan Haar

In our second episode of The PEN Pod, we spoke with author, New York Times columnist, and PEN America trustee Jennifer Finney Boylan. Boylan is the author of several books, including the forthcoming memoir, Good Boy: My Life in Seven Dogs. Boylan sat down with The PEN Pod to talk about the impact that the health crisis has had on readers and writers at large, how we can help support each other, and what she’s reading now. Read below for main takeaways from our conversation, and listen to the full interview below.

What impact is this health crisis having on the literary community, especially for authors like you who have books that are coming out now?
For me personally, I have a book tour that’s planned for late April, and I have a funny feeling that’s not going to happen. This book, Good Boy, is about seven dogs that I owned, pre-transition. So in some ways, it’s a way of capturing what it was like to be a boy and a young man. The good boys in the book are the dogs, but they’re also all those boys that I was, some of whom are good and some of whom are not. We were gonna do a whole event for the World Voices Festival with authors and their dogs, and I know that PEN was trying really hard to find a venue where everyone would be allowed to bring their dog. We finally found one, but as it turns out, the challenge to that venue was not the dogs. It was the humans.

“Wash your hands and protect your heart.”

How can writers and readers support each other right now?
My last day in New York City, I was walking up Amsterdam Avenue and I saw, spray-painted like a stencil on the sidewalk, the phrase “Protect your heart.” And that really got through to me, because I think we’re all so intent on not catching COVID-19 that we’re forgetting to take care of our spiritual selves. And so the thing I’ve been trying to say to everybody over and over again is, “Wash your hands and protect your heart.” I think one of the ways we do that is by staying in touch with other people as best we can. This is a good time to remember, now that we can’t do it, just how important we are to each other and how important community is. We have to do the best we can with talking on the phone—old-fashioned phone conversations, just like we used to back in the 1970s—but also, look out for our spiritual selves. Look out for our hearts. And one of the ways you can do that is through literature and books. If you’re anything like me, you have a big stack of books you’ve been meaning to get to, and this is a good opportunity to sit down and enter another world—hopefully a better world.

“This is a good time to remember, now that we can’t do it, just how important we are to each other and how important community is.”

What are you reading, listening to, or watching that’s providing a welcome distraction?
I’m reading There, There by Tommy Orange [which was the 2019 PEN/Hemingway Award winner], which is a book that I know many other people read last year, but I am finally getting around to it right now. It’s a story of Native American life and in fact, urban Native American life, the experience that American Indians have living in cities. It’s a story that is told through the point of view of about a dozen different characters who are all converging at a powwow. It’s a book that’s really opening my eyes because it’s not a community I know a lot about. And writing about transgender people, I know what it’s like to try to write about a community that other people don’t understand and don’t have enough connection to. So it’s opening my eyes. It’s also just a really well-written book. The characters are wonderful.

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