×

Local Author Spotlight/Crapo: ‘Earth As It Is’ looks into world of heterosexual cross-dressers

  • Greenfield novelist Jan Maher was born in Indiana and lived there until she was sixteen. She drew on her memories of her Midwestern landscapes and people to create her fictional town of Heaven where her latest novel, “Earth As It Is,” is set. For the Recorder/Trish Crapo


Saturday, February 25, 2017

Jan Maher’s new novel, “Earth As It Is,” is set in a small, fictional town called Heaven, Indiana. Charlene Bader, a hairdresser from Chicago, comes to the town in 1945, shortly after the end of World War II and sets up a beauty salon that soon becomes a favorite gathering place for the town’s women.

Charlene quickly becomes renowned for her wonderful, relaxing shampoos and fashionable cuts, as well as for her ability to listen well and to keep a secret — an admirable quality in such a closely-knit town.

Yet, as the reader learns in the novel’s very first pages, Charlene has a secret of her own.

Upon her death, when her body is discovered, the townspeople learn that the woman who had lived among them for close to twenty years is a man. Born and raised in Texas as Charlie Bader, he has willfully created an alternate life for himself as a woman.

Maher will be reading from the novel at Greenfield Public Library on Saturday, March 4, and as a featured reader at Greenfield Spoken Word on Tuesday, March 16.

Maher, who lives in Greenfield, was born in Indiana and lived there until she was sixteen. She drew on her memories of her Midwestern landscapes and people to create her entirely believable fictional town — which she first created for an earlier novel titled simply “Heaven, Indiana.” The two novels overlap somewhat in chronology and share characters. In fact, the bare outlines of Charlene’s story is told in passing by a character in the first novel. Maher says the “nugget” of Charlene’s story is true — she heard of it first through an anecdote from her mother’s childhood.

Despite its seemingly unconventional subject matter, the novel’s tone is quiet and even-keeled. There is nothing sensationalized about Maher’s approach as she explores Charlene’s conflicted feelings about her desire to dress as a woman. Maher did extensive research, both scholarly and through interviews, to explore the world of heterosexual cross-dressers.

“Even now, this particular gender expression is not even accepted in some circles that are otherwise all about gender equality,” Maher says. “I was surprised to run into that when I was doing more research, getting feedback from people who inhabit those circles.”

Maher said she ran into people who said, “I don’t believe there are heterosexual cross-dressers. Any heterosexual cross-dresser is really transgender and just won’t admit it.”

And yet, Maher also met plenty of heterosexual cross-dressers who “didn’t express in the least wanting to go through sexual reassignment surgery” or express a sexual preference for men.

I say to Maher, “This is going to sound funny, but while I was reading I was thinking what’s so interesting is it’s almost — and this is a word I’m not sure you’re going to like — it’s almost conservative in its narration and its tone.”

Maher smiles for a second. “You know, Indiana is flat,” she says.

We both laugh.

Maher says that when she was doing the final research for her first novel, she made an “incognito” trip back to immerse herself in the landscape and in the sound of the language.

“It’s very even,” she says.

“And Indiana has this history of secrecy that’s really interesting,” Maher adds. “In the ’20s, it was entirely dominated by the KKK. Entirely. The governor and almost all the elected representatives were Klan members. And yet in the Civil War era, it was the first state north, so there was a secret anti-slavery society. Everybody was keeping secrets one way or the other. Whatever side they were on, they were clandestine about. So, all this stuff goes on but it’s under the surface.”

“And I was just thinking,” I interject, thinking about the character of Charlene, “that the best way to keep a secret is to seem like somebody who couldn’t possibly have one.”

“And also, and I think this is key to the character of Charlene,” Maher says, “to keep other people’s secrets. She listens faithfully and she doesn’t betray anybody’s confidence, ever.”

In the book, the beauty parlor becomes the town’s gossip mill but Charlene never participates Maher points out. She learns through listening; getting to know the women directly and the men through the women’s stories about them. And she becomes adept at deflecting direct questions about herself with answers that aren’t really quite answers.

“It was a skill, fielding questions but not really answering them. She learned that if she kept her focus closely on the head of hair in front of her, the customers didn’t want to break her concentration,” Maher said.

In this way, Charlie manages to make a life as Charlene for nearly twenty years before events begin to unravel his secret identity.

Upcoming readings

Hear Maher read from her novel on Saturday, March 4, 11 a.m. to 1 p.m. in the LeVanway Room at the Greenfield Public Library, 402 Main St., Greenfield. The reading is sponsored by the Friends of the Library and World Eye Bookshop. Contact the library at 413-772-1544 for more information.

Maher will be a featured reader, along with Peter Marcus, at Spoken Word Greenfield on Tuesday, March 16. Held the Third Tuesday of every month, the reading series is held at 9 Mill St., Greenfield. Doors open at 7 p.m.; reading begins at 7:30. For more information, visit: www.humanerrorpublishing.com or contact organizer Paul Richmond at paul@humanerrorpublishing.com.

Trish Crapo is a writer and photographer who lives in Leyden. She is always looking for poets, writers and artists to interview for her columns. She can be reached at tcrapo@mac.com.