The lauded Paul Takes the Form of a Mortal Girl has, in 20 years, gone from workshop exercise to new queer classic. Its author reflects on the remarkable journey.

By David Canfield
March 25, 2020 at 07:30 PM EDT
Ramin Talaie; Vintage

First, it was a workshop exercise. Then, an experimental work of fiction out on submission. Then, a small-press publication with a run of merely 500 copies. Then, a resurgent reprint backed by the resources of Penguin Random House. And now, a new queer classic that's just won a prestigious Whiting Award, and is under option by none other than Ryan Murphy.

Andrea Lawlor couldn't have predicted this journey for their electrifying debut novel, Paul Takes the Form of a Mortal Girl, a provocative book soaked in the '90s queer scene about a bartender and student who possesses a secret shapeshifting ability, taking him on a gender (and genre)-bending odyssey across the United States.

Chances are you've never read anything like it — perhaps why it keeps finding new audiences. On Wednesday evening, the Whiting Foundation announced Lawlor as one of the 10 recipients of this year's awards, one of the most prestigious for emerging authors. (Each recipient receives $50,000.) Past winners include Colson Whitehead, Jonathan Franzen, Suzan Lori-Parks, Tony Kushner, and Ocean Vuong; among those cited beside Lawlor this year include Jia Tolentino (Trick Mirror) and Ling Ma (Severance). (The full list of winners is now available.)

Lawlor, who started writing later in life, spoke to EW a few days before the announcement, a unique moment to be experiencing good news in such uncertain times. "It's totally bananas," Lawlor says. "It's crazy. It's still what it felt like two months ago [when I found out], but it feels better in many ways. The world has changed in two weeks."

Lawlor reflected on the road to this moment, step by step. Read on below. Paul Takes the Form of a Mortal Girl is available for purchase.

On Paul's Humble Beginnings

It was a span of 15 years. I didn't really start writing until I was 30. I took a living-room workshop in San Francisco. I had never taken creative writing classes as an undergrad. I was working in a bookstore, I had quit this terrible corporate job I had in web development, and I was figuring out if I could be a writer. I finally took this writing class and I wrote what became the first section of Paul in that. I put that piece in a drawer for a while. I did a graduate creative-writing program at Temple [University] with Samuel Delaney. You know the way that graduate students do, I was up for a workshop one week and I didn't have anything. [Laughs] I pulled this old piece out of the drawer and I brought it in. Delaney said to me, "You're not done with Paul." I was like, "Okay! Whatever you say." He was really a hero to me. I realized at that point that he was right and I wasn't done with Paul, so I started working on that; that led to the beginning of a novel, which I finished in the MFA program at UMass.

On Trying to Sell the Book

Over the course of those years, I was teaching, I was a graduate student, I was an adjunct, I was a writing-center staff member, my partner had our baby. All these things happened. I was never working full-time on the book for all of that time. I was teaching, taking classes, working, and I was writing. That's how most writers actually live! When I finished the book, I sent it to a couple of agents and I got some really nice, really kind rejections. Like, "The writing's really nice, but there's no story, there's no plot, there's no conflict." One asked, "Could Paul learn a lesson?" I was like, No. Everything in my soul was like, No, this is not actually how life works. Paul is not going to learn a lesson in 250 pages. But I diligently tried to amp-up three-act structure and resubmitted it to him; he said, "This is lovely... send me your next book." At some point I was like, "They can't sell this, that's fine." The feedback indicated I was dong the logistical stuff right, and people thought the writing was nice, but they weren't sure about it as a novel. I kind of stuck with it. I wasn't going to change the pronoun every time Paul changes his body presentation.

On Getting Published

Rescue [Press] put it out. I got to work with probably the best editor I've ever met in my life, Hilary Plum, an amazing developmental editor. She really went through everything, line by line, believed in the project. We had a great working relationship. They put everything behind their, like, two books that year. They did that for me. It was 500 copies first printing; I have friends who had more galleys than that. [Laughs] But somehow, it got to [The New Yorker]. The friend I have who works there was like, "I had nothing to do with it." I don't know if I believe her or not. But it was in "Briefly Noted" and then everything changed.

On Getting Re-Published

I started getting calls about film and TV rights. Rescue was like, "Could we help you get an agent to deal with this?" I was like, "I'm going to go back to this one agent that I've always had this agent crush on, PJ Mark." I asked, "I was wondering if you could look at it again, or I would trust your referral to someone who would." He [took a look] and was like, "Let's do this. It's the right time now. It had to happen this way." PJ was able to get this deal with Vintage [an imprint of Penguin Random House] to do this beautiful reprint. And half of everything goes to Rescue in perpetuity. To me, that's amazing. I want to support they do. Small-press publishing and independent bookstores, all of that is where literary culture happens. It's this thing that I care so much about.

The thing is, I wouldn't have wanted to go through a process in a big house where marketing people were like, "You've got to do this and you've got to do that." On a first book, I don't know if I would have been able to hold to myself the way I was with Hilary at Rescue.

On Writing a New Queer Classic

In that it means people appreciate the book, I'm really moved and really delighted. Pedagogically and politically, I'm of the mind to smash all canons. What I'd like to be part of is a wave of current queer and trans writers getting attention. It's really amazing to be reading and writing in this historical moment. That's a gift. All the writers that the Whiting has honored. The people [to whom] they are giving this prize are people who feel exciting to be mentioned in the same breath as. But also, there are so many queer and trans writers right now. I think we need more books. I don't want to be an anthem, or like, "This is the one queer book you have to read!" For me, it's like, "No, you read this, then you read another book next week."

On Winning a Whiting Award

It's strange. It was already strange. I don't love keeping secrets, but it was fun to keep this fun secret. That was difficult to me, to keep it on the DL, but it has gotten stranger. I am so in awe of the work that the Whiting Foundation does and all of the people involved with that. And so excited and honored and encouraged to be part of a group of really amazing writers, many of whose work I already admired, and some of whom are new to me. It's really thrilling to know that even in a terrible time, there's support for the arts. Seeing the ways in which people are rallying to do online ceremonies and still celebrate authors and encourage people -- that feels like the world I want to live in. And so much of the world right now is not -- it's a worse world, rather than a better world. So it's an amazing thing to have this happening right now. Kind of unbelievable.

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