For the Love of April French author Penny Aimes on giving the trans experience an authentic voice in romance
The steamy novel will be released on Aug. 31.
When it comes to offering happily-ever-afters for all, the romance genre often fails the trans community.
But Penny Aimes, making her literary debut with the steamy For the Love of April French on Aug. 31, is part of a wave of writers changing that.
As a trans woman, April French is accustomed to being a pit stop on the way to other people's bliss. But when one drink turns into something more, April has to consider what a life bursting with passion and love could mean. "Feeling [like] you're not the main character in your own story is very familiar to me," Aimes tells EW. "The book is self-aware in a sense."
She hopes readers will find April to be a complex, lovable heroine who bears the authenticity of Aimes' lived experience as a trans woman.
EW caught up with Aimes to discuss what inspired her book, the pressures and joys of being an #OwnVoices trans author, and what she hopes both readers and publishers will take away from the story.
ENTERTAINMENT WEEKLY: This is your debut. How long have you loved romance and how did this end up being the story to introduce yourself to the world as an author?
PENNY AIMES: I've tried to write a lot over the course of my life. I've always been a voracious reader and a lover of books, especially genre books. When you read a genre book, even if it's not very good, you still get whatever you came for — you get spaceships or you get a mystery or you get kissing or whatever. Whereas if you just read a bad lit fic, it's just nothing. I steered clear of romance for a long time before my transition because I steered clear of anything that might threaten the illusion of masculinity growing up and in my twenties. I was the token guy who turned out not to be a guy. In the last few years, there's been a big realization that romance is really for everybody. A lot of my friends started getting into it, and I realized, "Hey I've never given this genre a chance because of my own baggage, so why don't I just dive in?" And I found a lot of books I really loved. I sat down and I started writing a manuscript, and I thought, as usual, I'm never going to finish this. But this was the one that just kept growing and growing.
Tell me more about where April French came from and how you devised her love story.
There's a lot of me in April; there's a lot of me in several of the characters. April is the person that I try to be. She just effortlessly is that person because she's a fictional character. She doesn't have all of my characteristics; she's much more of a people person, much better at getting along with people and just genuinely caring about other people and their problems than I am. I would like to be better at that, but I'm not always as good. I really exaggerated that. A big part of where April came from is actually my own experiences in communities online with an involvement with kink. I joined the kink community hoping to have some adventures or whatever. Before I knew it, I was a moderator and a den mother to a bunch of adolescent and post-adolescent trans girls, and not really a sex symbol in the community. I was like, "I don't know how this happened. I just have an aura of responsibility about me." I tried to cut loose in this virtual environment but no. That was the seed of April's story, of her being that person and finding someone who saw what was special about her.
April is convinced she's always the person before someone's happily-ever-after, just a pit stop along the way, and so many of us can relate to that feeling. Why was that something you wanted to explore?
It's something I wanted to explore because it feels very familiar to me. Both because of the experiences I talked about a second ago, but also that feeling that you're not the main character. Especially writing about a trans woman as a main character in a romance novel. It's self-aware in the sense that these are the characters who aren't usually the main character. She is a little astounded to find herself the main character in a romance and to find someone who is just really head over heels for her.
It was something I really wanted to dig into — that feeling of not having anyone on your side that you can get sometimes when you're trans. It's amazing how having one good ally, having a family member or a spouse or a co-worker or a best friend who really is in your corner and sees you as the person you are and celebrates that, can really make [a difference]. The difference between having somebody in your corner all the way and not is night and day, especially when you feel rejected by the world.
The book also revolves around the BDSM community and a kink club. Give me a bit more background on that setting and why this was a world you wanted to put your characters in.
It started as a seed of an idea of a person who is everybody's friend and confidant, but is never really the beloved, which is something I saw a lot in the kink community. A lot of people are searching for that deeper connection, for that long-term connection, and it's even harder to find. April feels like she's the only one, but there's a point in the book where there's a cis girl who's younger and April sees as prettier than her. There's a point where she says, "You always take these guys after they're done with me," and she's like, "Well, are any of those guys still with me? Or are we both in the same shoes?" This is something we all experience. It wasn't [like] I sat down and said, "Oh, I want to write a book about the BDSM world," so much as this was the idea that I had for a story, and it's the one that did end up becoming a novel. I didn't always know for sure that it was ever going to get finished, but it was just the seed I had of her meeting this guy who was going to take this sort of sudden and intense interest in her.
For the uninitiated, the words BDSM and romance probably evokes 50 Shades, which is not accurate. Tell me why and how the world of your book is different and why it's important to distinguish those things.
I did try to write something that was real. I don't have a ton of real-life experience, but I know a lot of people. I have a lot of virtual experience, and a lot of the friends I made in that community are people who have a deeper real-life connection with it. The difference between this and 50 Shades of Grey is that it's very explicit about consent and negotiation. It's a huge part of the story... April's not just a canvas for him to act out his fantasies on, which is what she's used to being. He actually cares about her, and the things that they're doing, it's very participatory and cooperative.
A lot of April's journey is just allowing herself to want something deeply. Why was that something you wanted to explore?
That's a very common trans experience. Especially trans people who have transitioned later in life — you spend your life learning to deny your desires and it's the reason why a lot of trans people after their transition have a period where they go a little bit wild and have their adventures. Because all their life they've been repressing these desires. April's story is that she got to a certain age and decided, "I'm going to own my desires. I am a trans woman and I'm a kinky trans woman and I'm going to go out and be in this world." Then she got there, and at the end, her repression still kind of won. She wasn't the vision she had in her head of who she would be with the right person, of the sexy free spirit. She was still this responsible, repressed person at heart. At the root, she was still the same person. And Dennis is the person who really gives her a safe space to explore those desires without putting herself at risk because she's been hurt a lot of times.
In non-indie/self-publishing realms, the trans community is still woefully underrepresented in romance, so what do you hope readers and also publishers take away from this book?
I hope that people see April and fall in love with her. My goal is to show a trans woman who is as complex and lovable as any heroine can be. I also wanted to give a little more authenticity to that experience. There are some great trans heroines; there's about six of them probably in romance novels that have been written by cis women. They're great, but they do lack some complexity. There are topics that I wouldn't want to see a cis woman take on, the insecurities and some of the anxieties that come along with being trans and the daily sort of erosion that you experience. Seeing us as real people and being able to connect and realize that it's not that hard to connect [is important]. A lot of people get caught up in esoteric academic questions about trans people, but when you let go of the philosophy of it and say, "Okay this is a woman but it's a woman with a particular experience. What is her life like? How does that experience reflect her life?" You can get past all that and just connect once you've made that personal connection to that woman. It's very hard to come back and say, "Oh, but what about bathrooms?" Once you know a trans woman, and you realize this is a woman you know and recognize her thoughts and feelings, it's very hard to turn around and worry about these things that are so esoteric and are driven by people's imagination for what trans women are versus the reality. Putting that reality in front of people is really important.