Ivan Coyote & Rumpus
September 09th, 2012
The Rumpus Interview with Ivan Coyote
By Marie-Helene Westgate, August 1st, 2012
Ivan Coyote was born and raised in Whitehorse, Yukon Territory, and is the award-winning author of six short story collections, one novel, three CDs, and four short films. Last year, Coyote and Zena Sharman co-edited the Lambda-award nominated collection Persistence: All Ways Butch and Femme. In 2012 Coyote and folk-singer Rae Spoon began touring with Gender Failure, a traveling show where Rae and Ivan share the stage telling stories and playing music. So far, Gender Failure has made it to Montreal, Toronto, and New York.
In Gender Failure, Coyote and Spoon (a folk singer who hails from the Canadian prairies and now lives in Montreal) play the part of singer, of musician, and of storyteller. The show itself is a mixed-media performance parsing together songs and spoken word about growing up queer in the nether regions of Canada, trying to navigate the murky waters of identity, and failing to conform to gender norms.
In the show, Coyote shares funny, heartbreaking memories of being a child, and of eventually moving from the Yukon to Vancouver, where new dilemmas emerged as the queer community and life in the city opened up. In an intimate and highly original performance, Gender Failure transcends gender and sexuality. It entertains with impeccable musical numbers and surprises with stories rarely shared on large stages. In a performance that spans multiple genres, Coyote manages to intimate the brutal, complicated struggle of becoming yourself in a world where there isn’t a word yet for who you are.
The Rumpus: What can you tell me about Gender Failure?
Ivan Coyote: Rae and I both feel we don’t make very good women, obviously, and we’re also kind of, well – we’re gender failures. We don’t follow all the rules for being a proper trans dude either so that’s where the title came about.
When Rae and I got together it was like, we’re gonna push each other. We have been touring together and performing together and writing and doing shows together for about seven years. We had a project called You Are Here, which was a family-based show. It was an experiment for us: if two genderqueer or trans performers wrote a completely straight show about their grandmother, could it bust out into the mainstream? The answer is yes. But it was a different vibe, the two of us performing in front of a mainly straight theatre crowd. With Gender Failure, we decided to do something that was going to be more targeted toward the out community. We wanted to push that community’s boundaries in terms of trans issues because the queer community sometimes needs to brush up.
Rumpus: When your first book got published, what did you expect would change? And how did reality measure up to those expectations?
Coyote: I didn’t expect to publish a book. I was so young and it came so out of left wing, I mean – we never submitted a manuscript. We were approached by a publisher back in the Taste This days, so I can’t really say that I had any expectations. It was kind of like the golden egg that dropped in our laps. We had no idea what we were doing. I didn’t really know what was going to happen. I wasn’t even hanging around with that many published authors at the time so it’s not like I had someone to take me under their wing and tell me what would happen next; like the fact that after you publish a book, you have no control over who reads it – like your grandmother. That was a bit of a shock for me. I can’t really say I had expectations because I was sort of stunned.
Rumpus: You write a lot of stories about gender and identity. Can you speak to the pros and cons of writing stories that sometimes fall into categories like queer literature? How do those kinds of stories get perceived?
Coyote: Here’s what happened to me once when I was brought in to diversify the audience at a storytelling festival with a really straight, white-bread crowd: fourteen dykes drove up all the way from Michigan, like fucking fourteen hours, to come see me. And there’s a whole bunch of – literally – church ladies in the first ten rows, so I can’t serve the audience who actually came to see me. I can’t speak directly to them because I’m going to alienate half the little old ladies there who are already alienated anyway as soon as I walk on the stage, just because of what I look like.
I have no problems being put into a box as a queer author. That said, my work speaks to lots of different people and I get a lot of young queers who are like, I gave my book to my dad so he could understand my trans issues, or my parents are really evangelical Christians and my dad really liked it because he could relate to your dad, so there are many places where my work crosses over.
Overall I don’t really worry too much about who’s going to read my work and how they’re going to perceive it, especially right now when I’m in a real creative process. I’m really immersed in the material. I’m just enveloped in the creative act and enjoying myself and letting my instincts guide me as opposed to over-thinking this kind of stuff too much.
I don’t ever wanna have only a queer audience or speak the things that are only gonna be read or only gonna be understood by a queer audience. A good storyteller can cross those boundaries. That’s what stories are for. That’s our job: to talk across those boundaries that we put in between ourselves.
Rumpus: In February you wrote your last column for Xtra! [Canada’s gay and lesbian news publication]. How has life been since then?
Coyote: Xtra! was really great for fourteen, fifteen years. I spent four years freelancing and eleven years writing a monthly column; it was time to move on and do other things. I was worried about not having that regular deadline at first. I worried I wasn’t going to get something done every month. But I just wrote six thousand words last week, so it’s actually been the opposite. I feel creatively freed up by not having to worry about what I’m gonna write about that I haven’t written about ten thousand times before and making sure it’s one thousand words long and figuring out how to make it fit in a queer newspaper. It’s really taken a lot of pressure off. I’ve really freed up a lot of creative space in my head.
I’m also starting a new blog that’s got some of the crème de la crème of the queer literary scene in North America. We’re also approaching some European writers. It’s probably going to launch in September or October so keep posted for that. It’s radical sex and politics with moderated discussion. I’m interested in people discussing ideas. I’m not interested in a bunch of anonymous fuckheads having a troll war. One of the things that frustrated me about Xtra! was the un-moderated discussion.
Rumpus: The anthology you co-edited with Zena Sharman, Persistence: All Ways Butch and Femme, is nominated for a Lambda award… but what I want to know is, how was it working with your wife?
Coyote: That book would not have happened if it weren’t for my wife. I thought I was familiar with publishing, having, at the time, like seven books out or something? Number nine is about to come out. Anyway I thought I was really familiar with the process. But I was just familiar with wrangling one author. Zena and I were wrangling forty-two authors. So it took Zena’s powers of spreadsheets to keep all that shit together and to keep a pretty tight production schedule.
It was a fantastic process. I would jump at the chance to work with my wife again. I don’t know that she would jump at the chance to work with me though. The last thing I’ll do is speak for her.
Rumpus: Are you not as skilled in making spreadsheets?
Coyote: It’s just not my thing.
Rumpus: What would you say your greatest obstacle is as an artist?
Coyote: Time: time off the road, extended periods of time. Right now for the kind of work that I’m doing, it’s extended time. I’m not working on the kind of creative projects that I can do in 4 days in between bouts on the road.
I’ve got a good portion of May totally home, a good portion of June totally at home, a good portion of July totally at home. And because I’ve been having a healthier practice on the road I’m not as fucking exhausted when I land, even though I’ve been going pretty full force since the end of February. I think I’ve spent maybe four or five nights at home. But I’m not as trashed as I used to be when I would come off of being on the road. I know I’ll be up and running and ready to go.
I’m really inspired right now so I’m very excited about the projects that we’re working on so. Really, really, really looking forward to that.
Rumpus: Is the transition easier now when you get home?
Coyote: It’s still exhausting. Zena always has to remind me why I’m so tired – which is because I took one hundred flights and did twenty-eight gigs in seventeen cities and four countries in the last sixty-eight days.
There’s a little fridge magnet that says: It’s okay to take a nap. Zena keeps threatening to embroider it onto a pillowcase for me.
Rumpus: You’re gonna to have to travel with it.
Coyote: Oh great, just what I need: more things to carry.
Rumpus: What would you tell young writers?
Coyote: Don’t go into debt. Or if you do, be very, very careful about it. It’s hard when you’re first starting out. There’s not a lot of money at first, but don’t believe the starving artist either. I make decent money now. I work like a fucking animal, but I make decent money.
You have to be smart and you have to be a good business-person. My best advice is that if you get your ass out of bed every day and iron your shirt for work and go to your shitty job that you hate and do it all day for forty hours a week or fifty hours a week. You’re never late and you pack your lunch and you show up and no matter if you feel like it or not you do your fucking job cause you have a good work ethic.
Take fifty percent of that work ethic and apply it to your own work. Get up and do it whether you feel like it or not. Bring your best self to it whether your feel like it or not.
Also, as quickly as you can get rid of people in your life who don’t support you and cannot celebrate your successes as quickly as you can do that, take a look inside yourself and learn to support your fellow artists. Find a way to rejoice in their successes too. Don’t be one of those guys who’s like oh, so and so got a grant how come I didn’t get a grant? We really need each other and we can’t afford to exist in little fucking vacuums.
It’s hard to work as hard as I have for as long as I have and have some other frustrated artist tell me how lucky I am when I know for a fact that they haven’t applied themselves as hard as I have and they haven’t tried as hard as I have.
Rumpus: And surely you do feel lucky but not because you didn’t have to work for it.
Coyote: I am lucky, I’m one of the luckiest fucking people I know. But life didn’t fucking knock on my door and say, Oh sorry you were napping but I wanted to hand you this book contract. Surprise! That’s not how it goes.
But really apply yourself. Use your same work ethic – if you have one, but let’s operate from the assumption you have a work ethic – but the same work ethic you would bring to your job that you didn’t like, bring half of that and you will find success.
It’s not magical. I don’t have some like one-in-a-gabillion talent, you know. I’m good at this job because I do it. I practice. Yeah, I’m a good performer. I do 250 live performances a year. If I wasn’t getting better there’d be a serious problem.
So just keep at it.
[Marie-Hélène Westgate is the senior editor at Freerange Nonfiction. She earned her Masters of Fine Arts in Creative Writing from Sarah Lawrence College’s MFA program, and is currently at work on a novel. Her work has appeared in One Cool Word, Lumina, and Freerange. Marie-Hélène lives with her partner in Brooklyn, where she spends as much time as possible locked alone in a room.]
Reprinted by permission of Marie-Hélène Westgate and Ivan E. Coyote, September, 2012
Essay Date: 2012