interview with Lexie Bean, author of much-needed novel, "The Ship We Built"

L. Munir: Hiya, hope you are keeping safe and healthy. To start off, congratulations, not just on the debut novel, but to release such a poignant sentiment at such polarizing times! It must seem exhilarating to be published, but I am sure you weren’t planning the release to happen during a pandemic. Has that affected your thoughts about the book, or other people’s readiness for it, do you think?

Lexie Bean: Thank you! Yes - I never would have imagined the release happening in this way. At first, I felt very demoralized. However, in time, I realized that it’s a very dear time to release such a book. Many people of all ages are being quarantined in unsupportive and/or abusive environments. Many people continue to be quarantined in prisons. There are people who may have pasts of these things, and are forced to confront the ghosts of them in new ways. I’m very thankful to offer a resource right now. Both a resource of someone to sit with who will understand, and a resource that encourages imagination, writing letters, and finding new ways to connect with others who are hurting. With this, I also hope to continue to offer free programming for different LGBTQIA2S+ and allied organizations throughout this summer.

In the process of writing and releasing this, I have ultimately realized that the people who will be ready for it will be ready for it. The people who are not, will not be. And that I should not alter my story - one largely based on my personal experiences - to bring comfort to the wrong people.

LM: Was writing this novel a continuous process, or did each scene/letter come at different stages? Were segments cathartic, or emotionally tiring to write?

LB: They all came in different stages! Traces of the very, very first draft I wrote (as a picture book) is mostly featured in a late December chapter. The rest of the pieces came to me in different orders as little poems. After I had about thirty of them, I laid them all out on the floor to try to find an arc.

Alongside my own writing and healing over the course of six years, different layers of Rowan’s story also became more visible. For example, in my earliest drafts I thought of Rowan as a survivor of domestic abuse, but didn’t speak on it directly (as many kids also wouldn’t). The more I spent time with him, the more I feel like he was comfortable sharing with me as both his writer and listener. In my earliest drafts, he also wasn’t so clearly navigating his gender. I came out as trans as I continued to work on this piece, and Rowan is ultimately the one who supported me on that journey.

There were sections that were more emotionally full for me to write. But not always in the way an outsider would think. It was in adding personal details, like the smell of Peanut M&Ms or the fact I reach for my ribs when I’m feeling far away, that felt the most vulnerable. It’s the everyday moments or carriers of violence that I am the most ashamed of. Ultimately I did not write anything that I was not ready to write. Therefore, anything I chose to put felt more like a release than something that was re-traumatizing or forcibly pulled out of me. I’m thankful I let myself take six years to write The Ship We Built for this reason.

LM: What made you approach the subject in such an interesting manner, particularly with the main character writing these letters and then attaching them to balloons?

LB: To me, a balloon implies a celebration. Rowan has to find ways to celebrate his feelings and existence on a daily basis; especially, when the people around him seem to find every way they can to bring him down.

I also choose balloons because it’s something where he can not control where it goes. He has to trust that whatever internal world he shared is enough for whoever finds it. Queer and trans people, or frankly anyone whose identities doesn’t meet the “norm,” have to do so much curation when meeting and connecting with the people. Without Rowan knowing who exactly he is communicating with, he can only show himself. I wanted to honor a format that would really elevate his secrets and internal world. Ideally, I wouldn’t have to do that much work to humanize someone who is a pansexual trans child. But I felt it was necessary in a transphobic and queerphobic world.

LM: What would you tell the “Rowan” of your younger self?

LB: I was a lot like you - just on the other side of Michigan. I would have lived for the day I found one of your balloons. Maybe I wouldn’t have had so many bad thoughts about myself.

But Rowan, or little Lex, you shouldn’t have to be “like” anybody in order to be loved, valued, or safe. You deserve and deserved better. I collected seashells and you collect rocks, and together we know that we belong on this Earth whether or not anybody stops to pick us up or hold us. We hold ourselves, and sometimes it’s not enough and I hear you.

LM: I recall seeing a playlist that had songs pertaining to the writing process of this novel. Is there a link to Spotify/a collective place where fans and new readers alike can listen to them? And why did you create this playlist?

I created this playlist because I was not a big reader when I was growing up. I was considered one of the “slow readers” in my class and was taken to the Resource Room to avoid holding anyone else back. I had a lot of shame around this at a young age, and thought of this often when making The Ship We Built. I wanted to offer ways to engage for people who may have different barriers to reading.

LM: Will there be accessible publications of the novel - an audiobook, etc?

LB: Yes! Outside of there being a playlist, there is currently an e-book. And as of late June there will be an audiobook! It was actually recorded in my current bedroom closet while in quarantine. Making these alternative publications was very important to me given that I know that a hard copy isn’t always financially accessible or safe for those who may simply get in trouble for holding a book or a certain kind of book. I also made a free activity book, full of writing and drawing prompts. They are largely framed in a way in which one does not actually need to read the book to follow along. It’s available for a free download on the Penguin Classroom site.

It is also my hope that since the back of the book does not give direct mention to LGBTQIA2S+ identity or transness, as well as other “hot topics” that are usually barred from children (like sexual abuse and incarceration) - people in volatile environments may be able hold the book more safely. Even before COVID-19, I structured the book and description in a way that will invite readers both who wouldn’t necessarily seek out these narratives and people who would, but would need to read them incognito.

LM: Thank you for your time. Thank you also for writing such a delicate book for people of such a delicate age, a truly remarkable achievement! Could you provide some parting advice for writers who are afraid to pen their true selves?

LB: Thank you! And thank you for being on the journey with me! The best advice I’ve received is to write what only you can write. This is a very tender process - meaning, the earliest drafts are sacred. The earliest drafts should only be for you or for those very closest to you. This will allow more safety in telling your truth. If telling the truth does not feel safe for whatever reason, weave it with poetry, lyrics, fiction, and/or research. This may take time. In my case, six years and the lifetime before that. This may also take letting your piece take on the form of many mediums, some that may not even have language. Maybe it’s an interview series, a picture book, a painting, a play, an article, a novel, a screenplay, a puppet show, a collage, or all of the above. Let it become what it wants to.

The Ship We Built is now available in the UK. Click here to purchase.

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Lexie Bean is a queer and trans multimedia artist from the Midwest of the USA whose work revolves around themes of bodies, homes, cyclical violence, and LGBTQIA2S+ identity. They have performed, curated, and facilitated around the world and became a Lambda Literary Finalist for their work with the trans community. The Ship We Built is their debut novel.

Instagram: @oklexiebean.