Gretchen Felker-Martin’s new horror novel Manhunt is sure to inspire discourse. Hell, it already has. With its post-apocalyptic setting where testosterone is poison and TERFs run death squads, it’s readymade to piss off all corners of the internet. And yet the novel is so much more than a provocation.
Within her heightened setting, Felker-Martin has crafted a collection of characters that feel as true to our world as their own. The depths this book explores about trans people’s relationships to themselves, each other, and the world at large touch on experiences I’ve never seen in fiction. Felker-Martin finds the humanity in all of her characters — even her worst ones — and it results in a work of art as challenging as it is entertaining.
I was lucky enough to talk to Gretchen about the book, discover more about her writing process, and, of course, discuss the horniness of The Nanny.
Drew: The world of the book feels so full. Where did you begin? Was it with the concept? The characters? The themes?
Gretchen: The very first thing I came up with for Manhunt was the image of a trans woman shooting a man while he was drinking water at a pool. And that’s sort of how I work. I take an image and I build outward from that. So it’s like okay what has to be true about the world for this moment to make sense?
Drew: So in building the world what comes after that image?
Gretchen: I’m like alright why are they out here, what are they getting out of this, what are the obstacles in their path as they’re pursuing this extremely desperate way of making a living? And from there I start to think about the other people who are in this world and how they feel about this and their connection to it. And from that you get the militant TERFs and sort of the complacent community dwellers who don’t want any part in the lives or welfare of people who they depend on for estrogen supply.
Drew: It’s interesting you say that because while reading, I kept being like oo I wonder what this kind of person would be like in this scenario and then the next chapter I’d be like oh that’s how!
Gretchen: I really wanted it to be comprehensive. And obviously no one story can encompass every experience of life but I hope that I’ve done justice to a good double handful of people who typically get overlooked.
Drew: Two of your main characters, Beth and Fran, are initially referred to as the taller woman and the shorter woman. I thought that was such a great detail to establish their dynamic of a trans woman who will always be identified as a trans woman and a trans woman who is close enough to assimilation to taste it. Can you talk about the dynamic between those characters and more generally the dynamic between those types of people?
Gretchen: So I’m 6 foot 4. I’m very fat. My experience of being trans has always been one of being very visible, very obvious. The identity is not one that I can put aside or even aspire to put aside if that was something I wanted. And walking around like that with a target on your back is a very, very different experience than being able to pass. Or even being able to go stealth and disconnect from that whole world. And I think understandably there are a lot of very complicated emotions between those two groups of trans women. On the one hand, we are together in the gutter in a way that very few other people get to experience and that creates a very intense bond. But it also means that when people reject that connection — reject that identity in favor of assimilating into mainstream society — it’s very, very painful. I think both for those of us who can’t and for the person in question who’s severing themself from their community and from their history and putting themself in a situation where they’re always going to be a little bit of a cuckoo bird — something that doesn’t quite belong in the nest, even if that sense is only internal. And I think there’s so much going on in that connection. There’s jealousy and covetousness and desire. It’s just endlessly complex.
I wanted to write a story about and for trans people — people who have been in it.
Drew: That complexity is really felt in the work. You both do justice to the pain that Fran feels while still holding her as a character responsible for her choices and actions. It feels balanced in a way I found endlessly compelling.
Gretchen: I’m so glad that comes through. It’s so important to me. Fran is emblematic of a lot of women I have loved or love, but who have also said and done things to make it clear that on some level they don’t consider us quite the same species. And that’s just a very strange thing to live your life understanding about the people around you.
Drew: I think because cultural discussions are dictated so often by cis people and straight people that the nuances of what it means to be trans are so often lost. It’s hard because on the one hand you want to create space for people who are queer, are trans even, but maybe aren’t visibly so or aren’t medically transitioning. But all these different identities — all these different ways of appearing and going through the world — create such different experiences. And yet we’re still supposed to talk about things in the sense of trans vs. cis.
Gretchen: Yeah which has become so transparently ridiculous. As though you could compare Ruby Rose’s experience to mine. (laughs)
Drew: (laughs) Right! And we have to find ways to talk about it where we’re not saying “Ruby Rose isn’t trans.wp_postsIt’s just the idea of being trans isn’t one that inherently holds a certain amount of marginalization and also — something you emphasize in the book — our experiences don’t end with our marginalization.
Gretchen: No, they don’t. There’s so much there. You hear the word valid thrown around a lot. “You’re valid.wp_posts“Your identity is valid.wp_postsIt’s practically a truism. Of course your identity is valid. However you feel about yourself, that’s your sense of self. It’s not like someone can come in and tell you you’re wrong about it. But there are many situations in which it doesn’t really matter very much in connection to the experience you have of life. And I think we have a very hard time being comfortable with the idea that something can be real and valid and accurately describe your internal experience and also just not be very important.
Drew: Yeah I’ve had friends in private accuse people of coming out as nonbinary to avoid criticism. And I have a real problem with that. Not only because I don’t think people come out as nonbinary to avoid criticism, but also because why should coming out as nonbinary excuse transmisogny or whatever else? As a trans woman, I shouldn’t even get away with transmisogyny, so why should someone who doesn’t have that experience?
Gretchen: Yeah. (laughs)
Drew: I want us to move to that more complex place! Both for the trans people who experience various levels of disdain from within our community and for people who want to identify as trans but are worried they’re not experiencing some made up amount of oppression in order to do so. That complexity benefits everybody. And it was so exciting to see that in your book, to feel like you were exploring these things that people don’t really like to acknowledge.
Gretchen: I wanted to really move past a lot of the typical timber of trans issue stories where it’s all about coming out and going through transition and learning how to dress or whatever. Those are stories for cis people and for brand new baby trans people who don’t have trans friends. I wanted to write a story about and for trans people — people who have been in it.
It’s almost a cliche that these very vocally queer and accepting and self-avowedly radical communities will turn on trans women like jackals. And the reason for this is underlying prejudice. I think that a lot of people fail to understand that that kind of prejudice is like water — it’s always looking for a way downhill and as soon as one opens up it takes it.
Drew: You write a lot in the book about safety. A lot of the characters at some point express a desire for safety but you’re also very honest in the book about how safety is an illusion. And it’s often an illusion that results in exclusion and hurts others more than helps the people striving for it. But it’s also a very human instinct or at least we’re taught to have an urge toward it.
Gretchen: I agree that it’s a natural human urge to want to be safe. The fact that we can’t really be safe in any meaningful or comprehensive way is not something that gels very well with our emotional reality. We can’t take it in or process it with any particular acuity. Which is why we keep trying to do things that are impossible. And we will for as long as one cares to project.
But especially to me what concepts of safety mean in an American context, in the context of my lifetime, is the way the country changed after 9/11. This sudden overwhelming focus on physical security, checkpoints, identification, registration, just this enormous bureaucracy of minute and meaningless symbolic actions that are supposed to make people feel safe. In reality they’re just a combination of surveillance and forced complacency. And I think that a lot of queer people have a hard time decoupling from that — especially white queer people — because we’re so used to the world not shocking us and not attacking us and not surprising us. When it does and we have a bad feeling, we start screaming like we’ve been shot.
These are not equivalent things, but I do think they connect on a sort of symbolic level. I think a lot about how white women’s vulnerability has been leveraged both by white women and by white men as a cause for inflicting violence on especially Black men but people of color of all sorts. And I see a similar dynamic play out in so many queer communities with overstatement of harm and with people who do not live in a life that is bounded and saturated with transmisogny treating trans women like inherently violent and dangerous people or objects. I think there’s an enormous problem in the queer community with an overwhelming desire for safety and for never feeling discomfort. Manhunt is really my attempt to show the utility and the importance of existing in discomfort. The importance of staying with that discomfort and learning what it means and why you’re experiencing it.
Drew: That makes me think of the flashback scene when Beth is kicked out of her queer living situation that has the little sign out front declaring an acceptance of all genders. That felt really true to the parts of the queer community that are vocal about acceptance but then, at the first sign of discomfort, turn so quickly. It can be so painful and is something that for me has started to feel predictable.
Gretchen: Absolutely. That particular part of the book is actually based on two situations that happened to people I know. It’s almost a cliche that these very vocally queer and accepting and self-avowedly radical communities will turn on trans women like jackals. And the reason for this is underlying prejudice. I think that a lot of people fail to understand that that kind of prejudice is like water — it’s always looking for a way downhill and as soon as one opens up it takes it. And it’s incumbent on each of us to notice that and resist it. I think our reaction is more in this moment like when a person insists they aren’t racist — which is a complete mislocation of what racism is and how it functions in the world. The question is not am I transmisogynist, am I racist. We’re all brought up and conditioned to enforce those systems. What we have control over is whether or not we become self-aware and begin to challenge the impulses those systems create.
Drew: Slight pivot — obviously the world of these characters is brutal. And yet this book is so horny and I was extremely grateful for that. The sex varies from hot to painful to hot and painful. There’s just so much different kinds of queer sex and scenarios for queer sex. And, to me, the biggest taboo that the book breaks is that the TERF/trans woman relationship is often shown to be a sexual one. And not just in the sense that some of the TERFs are chasers but also in the desire that trans women feel in return.
Gretchen: This is another parallel that’s far from one-to-one, but a book that has been really influential in my thinking about desire is Nancy Friday’s My Secret Garden. It’s a book of anonymously submitted sexual fantasies and many of them are from Holocaust survivors who later in life would eroticize their experiences with camp guards and even torturers. I think that everyone desires the love and acceptance and undivided attention of people who have power over them. There is this almost Freudian fantasy of your oppressor gratifying your sexual desires that’s very transgressive, that’s very powerful. You have this situation where you’re completely degraded, you have no choices, you have no agency, but this person who controls your life, who controls whether or not you exist, is going to satisfy you and is going to take responsibility for you as sort of a corollary to their authority over you.
Drew: It’s interesting when Fran and Ramona start I guess you could call it having sex and Fran is like it wasn’t that bad. You don’t really provide an answer but in that moment I was wondering whether that was really true. It’s all so complicated. That specifically was such an interesting dynamic and especially after Fran has already had a similar dynamic with the billionaire.
Gretchen: It was really important for me to capture that. Fran and Ramona is directly reflective of my experience in sex work. It’s the act of giving someone that you might despise access to your body and access to your performance of affection and presence in order to get something that you need to survive. That’s Fran’s experience there. She’s just realized that she has completely failed her friends and has sort of let her daydreaming carry her off to a really rotten place while Beth and Indi and Robbie were slipping into real trouble. And so in her mind the way to make up for this is to give her body as sort of a form of punishment that will also allow them to survive and to continue living.
Drew: I definitely felt that combination of self-harm and self-sacrifice.
Gretchen: Yeah. I think those things are very similar. Something that’s been very important to me throughout my life and career are the lives of martyrs and the culture of holy self-harm. The ways in which our culture has conceived of self-harm has really changed over the past century or so. Now it’s seen as sort of taboo and something that needs to be stopped and hushed up — something dangerous — but I think a competent therapist or clinician will tell you that self-harm is an expression of an internal urge that has no other possible form of expression open to it. And there is something really powerful about that and looked at in a certain way it is something that is beautiful in the sense that any powerful, transporting emotion can be beautiful.
Drew: Moving from physical self-harm to a more mental and emotional self-harm, how do you balance the real threat that TERFs and TERF rhetoric present without letting bad faith arguments consume you?
Gretchen: In terms of my actual connection to TERFs and TERF-adjacent people, there was a time in my life where I would argue with them and feel like I was doing something important. That time in my life is over. When I run into a TERF online I block them, if I encounter them in real life, I cut that part of my life off. These people will not get another pound of flesh from me. I think they are contemptible and worthless and any form of engagement with them amounts to sticking your hand in a garbage disposal.
Drew: (laughs) Yeah I think that’s good advice. Do you feel the same about people who aren’t necessarily TERFs but who latch onto some TERF rhetoric to validate their worldview? Or is engagement more worthwhile there?
Gretchen: That’s a very difficult question. And the answer that I’ve come to in my own life is that you simply cannot plan for stupid. There’s nothing you can do about people who are that credulous and are that disinterested in the essential dignity of every living human being. You just have to focus on the love and connection that you have in your life and focus on building a strong, durable community with as many useful and genuine connections and alliances as you can. And that’s the option we have in the face of that kind of indifference.
Drew: I really like that. Going back to the idea of safety, the book creates this heightened scenario of something I’ve been thinking about a lot — that because of TERF rhetoric, I’ve found myself aligning with cis men in a way that before I transitioned and when I was first transitioning I very much did not. I had so many issues with cis men — some justified, some not. But over the years as I’ve gotten rid of some other binary thinking, I’ve found that I’m in a position of defending the allowance of cis men in certain spaces because — whether fairly or unfairly — I’m grouped with them.
Obviously the cis men in the book are violent zombies but it’s interesting how both the trans characters and the TERF characters use cis men or are saved by cis men. I wouldn’t call it a deus ex machina because it’s too justified within the world, but any time I wondered how a character would get out of an impossible situation character, a hoard of cis men zombies would attack as an unlikely ally. That specific felt like a metaphor to me.
Gretchen: (laughs) Yeah it is. So much of the book is about how when you remove men from the equation or abstract them into just sort of a violent force with no particular gendered role, you’re confronted by the realization that women — particularly white cis women — are very much the same. And so much of the last 50 years of feminism have been them claiming more and more of that power and status culminating in the last decade of obsession over these optics-only governmental appointments and women who are ascending to the rank of police commissioner or marine captain or general. There’s this kind of fixation on women taking over arenas that have traditionally been male-dominated and I think that the actual takeaway is that if you put a woman in a man’s role she’s indistinguishable. Human brutality is the real factor at play.
Drew: I found it really interesting how the book withholds by shifting perspective. It felt really pointed when we experience a scene from a certain character’s point of view. Did that come naturally as you were writing it? Or did you ever change whose moments were shown through?
Gretchen: I did shift a couple of times, because the way that these characters see the world around them is so important for characterizing what’s happening to the reader. The one that comes to mind is originally the scene where Beth is being held hostage in the woods and Robbie rescues her was originally from Robbie’s perspective. And I thought not only would it be more dramatically interesting but also it’s more emotionally fulfilling to give this character who has been defined by her competence, independence, and physical strength a dramatic moment as kind of a damsel.
You just have to focus on the love and connection that you have in your life and focus on building a strong, durable community with as many useful and genuine connections and alliances as you can.
Drew: Okay, the last thing I want to ask you about — Fran Fine is a reference to The Nanny, right?
Gretchen: (laughs) Yes, it is! I love The Nanny!
Drew: (laughs) I’m watching it for the first time! It’s my comfort sitcom right now. So when I saw that I was like wait a second! It’s also as horny as your book which felt really appropriate.
Gretchen: Yeah The Nanny is insanely horny. I had an enormous, unbearable crush on Fran Fine as a child and teenager.
Drew: I see her as one of those cis trans icons.
Gretchen: Absolutely. She’s cis camp.