One Year and One Million Words with Laura Jane Grace
How two boxes of journals became a punk rock memoir.
Photos by Mitchell Wojcik
It was soft and subtle. I might've been the only one who picked up on it over the sounds of plates and utensils clanking together in the diner.
"Will there be anything else, gentlemen?" the waitress asked the two of us.
"Gentlemen." It was wrong.
"Just the check," I said.
Seated across from me, Laura Jane Grace extracted from her clutch purse a credit card and handed it to her. The waitress plucked it from her fingers, their knuckles tattooed with the word "HOWL" and their nails painted with black polish, and retreated to the kitchen.
"Gentlemen." It was an odd mistake, I thought. Laura has a long brown mane that flows a foot past her shoulders and she constantly flips the thickness of it from side to side as she talks. She's got a soft, coy way of speaking when in public. But in her black Doc Marten boots, black jeans, and black Happy Hippie hoodie, a gift for recording a cover of the Replacements' "Androgynous" with Miley Cyrus for her LGBTQ foundation, she wasn't presenting herself by society's standards of femininity. She wasn't wearing a dress or eyeliner. She wasn't in heels. She wasn't en femme, as she'd say.
When the waitress returned with the receipt, her tone was higher and more excited. "Excuse me," she said to Laura with a hand over her chest. "I'm so embarrassed, I didn't realize who you were." Certainly, here would be where she realized her error, that she had used the wrong descriptor for a person who very publicly came out as transgender three years prior in the pages of Rolling Stone, a woman who famously fronts a popular punk band under the name Laura Jane Grace. The waitress continued: "Are you... Tommy Gabel from Against Me!?"
I felt my heart sink in unison with Laura's. How could someone be familiar with Against Me!, but be oblivious to the story that had come to define its frontwoman over the last few years—that they had dropped the name Tom Gabel in pursuit of a new life as a woman?
"Ehh... kind of," Laura replied through her teeth with a cringe and a shrug.
"Kind of?" the waitress repeated quizzically.
"Yeah, kind of." Laura didn't feel like explaining it. She didn't want to make the waitress feel bad, either. So she just left it be, letting the conversational pleasantries deteriorate into awkward silence.
"Okay, well, whenever you're ready. Have a good day," the waitress finally said before taking her leave.
Once she was out of sight, Laura looked across the table at me, released the smile she had been stifling, and burst out laughing. "Well, Dan, welcome to my life."
Really, it was the perfect introduction to Laura's life, which she and I were about to spend the next year documenting for a book.
"Yeah," I said, shaking my head in disbelief, "I understand." But I didn't. As progressively minded people, we tell ourselves that we understand the plight of those whose experiences with gender, sexuality, race, or class differ from our own, but we're lying to ourselves. No two human experiences are identical, after all. What we mean is that we are sympathetic, that we are supportive, that we care. But understanding—true understanding—comes from a perspective many of us will never reach. So to do justice to Laura's story on the page, I would have to understand her. Not as a transsexual, not as an artist, but as a human being.
It all started a few weeks prior with a message from her out of the blue: "Would you be interested in helping me finish my book?" I thought on this long and hard, upwards of nearly three seconds, before sending back my carefully constructed answer: "Fuck yes."
At that point, I didn't know what Laura meant by "book"—it could have been a historical fiction where Betsy Ross is a vampire hunter for all I knew. I didn't know what she meant by "finish," either. She might've been trying to wrap up the final chapter or staring at a blank page. I didn't care. I'd been following her music since I was 16, when I was a giant fan of Against Me!'s first album and through my 20s when I was one of those bitter jagoff punks critiquing her major label output. I'd also recently offered her the opportunity to write an advice column here at Noisey called "Mandatory Happiness," and, as her editor, I liked Laura's writing enough to know I was in. As it turned out, the book was her memoir and it was a long way from finished. Laura had been paralyzed by the daunting task of it for a couple of years, and needed help making sense of it all.
We left the diner and drove in her old police cruiser to her friend Marc's studio in Fenton, Michigan, where Laura spends her time when she's not in Chicago with her seven year old daughter, Evelyn. Once we arrived, she led me into her bedroom.
And there they were.
Under her bed, beside a few guitar cases, were two cardboard boxes, overflowing with dozens and dozens of journals. Each one was full of entries dating all the way back to when she was just eight years old, and continuing right up until that very morning. I'd been reading pages she had emailed me, but seeing them all in person was daunting. Every page was covered from top to bottom in ink, chronicling her every thought, secret, and experience over nearly 30 years.
Stuffed between those pages were mementos—plane tickets from trips around the world, flyers for dive bar gigs and arena shows, deeply personal letters from fans, photostrips taken in booths with friends, and even the occasional crumpled up note with words scrawled across it: "FUCK YOU SELLOUT."
When all of their contents were input into a computer, they totaled well over a million words. One. Million. Words.
Laura has done enough living for two lifetimes, quite literally, and it was my job to help her turn it all into a cohesive story. I often get asked what our collaborative writing process was like. My response is always the same: "We both sat around a keyboard. Laura took A through K, I took L through Z." I will continue to use this as my go-to answer 1. because it's hilarious and 2. because the real answer is much more complex.
My first task was curating the journal entries—recommending which ones were gold, which could be condensed, and the several hundred that should be cut. That was a strange power to wield. "You know these words that seemed like the most important thing in the world when you wrote them? Well, they suck, axe 'em." I was ruthless. I had to be. We were trying to get a million words down to 75,000. Fortunately, all those tattoos Laura has collected over the years seem to have thickened her skin, and she took criticism without protest.
The first day was spent sketching out the arc of her story. We sat on the floor in front of a drumkit in the studio's live room, frantically writing down ideas as they came to us on scraps of paper and organizing them into small stacks. After a few hours, we found ourselves completely encased in loose paper. It was that euphoric rush of creative excitement before the weight of pesky things like logistics and hard work send you into a pit of existentialism. To anyone else, it would have looked like madness—the manic scrawlings of two overworked detectives trying to solve a string of murders. But in that moment, this was pure artistic brilliance sprawled out before us.
After we mapped out something resembling a cohesive plot, I spent a few days interviewing her. We woke up late, took long walks through the woods during the afternoon, and in the evenings I sat beside my recorder and her by her bottle of wine and she told me her life's story, from birth until that morning's breakfast. I can honestly say there was never a moment—either in these interviews or at any point in this project—where Laura said she didn't want to talk about something, or that something was too personal too include. Not once did I hear the words "off the record." She spoke candidly and with a razor-sharp memory.
Laura is the type to look you straight in the eye and smile when she talks, and she did so while recanting intense stories of divorce, rampant drug use, fights, sex, arrests, gender dysphoria, and thoughts of suicide. There was only one topic that made our conversations turn dark: Evelyn. There was a journal entry wherein a three-year-old Evelyn told Laura, who was only a few days into her transition at the time, that she didn't want her dad to be a girl anymore. We read this entry together and the room grew silent. Laura looked down into her wine glass and drank it down to the last drop.
We did these long interview sessions over the course of a few days until we had over 30 hours of recordings. I brought it all back home with me to begin my second task of compiling all the interviews, highlights from her journals, and chapter fragments she had started. I took this massive block of over a million words she had given me and aimed to whittle it down into something beautiful. Laura has one of the last great stories in rock 'n' roll, and I wanted to help give her a book that told it right. I wanted this book to stand among the greats.
I set up a folder of 12 Google docs that would become our lives for the next few months and crafted an outline of the book in them. Laura would go in and add material, and then I'd add material, and then her. We did this back and forth at all hours of the day, every day. Laura has the "good" writer's problem in that she writes too much. I'd often leave her a note on a paragraph that said, "Can you give me half a sentence here to explain this further?" I'd check back in an hour to find that she'd added an entire page of new material. I kept the ten words I needed, and, like a cold-hearted bastard, chopped the rest.
Sometimes I'd wake up to see that she had been tinkering and rearranging things all night. It felt like opening a drawer full of wires and Christmas lights that I had to spend hours untangling. While this sometimes made me want to pull my hair out, I was grateful that she was so intimately involved. As a fan, I would have been bummed if she had treated a book like some celebrity vanity project that she dumped on a ghostwriter and slapped her name on. Instead, she poured over every word, just like I did. I've heard her tell people that she and I split the work, but to me, writing is two percent sitting in front of a computer, and 98 percent living. So as far as I'm concerned, she had been working on this book for over 30 years before she hired me to be her word sherpa.
On January 7, a few months into our work, Laura told me she wanted to call the book TRANNY. I liked it instantly. Actually, I hated it instantly. It made my skin crawl. But that was the point. It was crass and offputting—everything a book about punk should be. It was also entirely fitting. This was not a rosy look back at her life. It was brutally honest and scathing. We drove this self-deprecation home even further with the subtitle: Confessions of Punk Rock's Most Infamous Anarchist Sellout.
We had our friend Chris Norris, who has designed several Against Me! albums under the name Steak Mtn., compose a cover with our proposed title. He came back to us with a simple black and white outline of Laura's face, the word TRANNY written in big block letters across the top. We sent it in to our publisher. "We like this. Let us know what you think," we wrote to them. Their response? Radio silence.
A full week went by without a reply and we cursed ourselves daily for being so naive. Of course they weren't going to let us call a book TRANNY, how stupid. Why would a publisher, a company in the business of selling books, even entertain the notion of letting us name a book something so blatantly unmarketable? We started frantically brainstorming other titles. Some were similarly self-effacing, like SELLOUT, while others were godawful puns that started out as jokes before turning semi-serious in our desperation. (The frontrunners were Tranarchy in the USA and Punk & Dysphorderly.)
After almost two weeks, we finally heard back. Our editor wrote to tell us he had run it by the sales team and the consensus was that it was "intriguing" and the title could stay. Laura wanted to own the power behind that word, and she got what she asked for. Soon, tens of thousands of images of her face would be printed under the most abhorrent transphobic slur, and she'd be inextricably bound to it forever. And on a smaller scale, so would I. My name is on the cover too and will be attached to that word for the rest of my life. It's a fight in which I'm proud to stand behind her.
We had a deadline to meet by March, and from January, two months seems like a long time. But for a 12-chapter book, eight weeks boiled down to more than a chapter each week. I taped a calendar with hard deadlines to my refrigerator and crossed them off as we met (or didn't meet) them. Since we were both working other full-time jobs, every hour in our schedule counted. Sleep was replaced with coffee. Time with loved ones was swapped for revisions and rewrites. Laura and I were sharing a brain after a while, speaking our own language, and knowing exactly what each other wanted. I even began having dreams as her. Not about her—as her. We were obsessive, and became methodical, producing pages like clockwork. It felt like we were training for a marathon.
In the last days of February, we hunkered down at her apartment in Chicago, and kept the opposite schedule we had in Michigan. We would wake up when it was still dark out to get a jump on the day. One morning I awoke at 5 with my feet hanging off the end of Evelyn's tiny bed which she was kind enough to lend me for the week. I walked to the kitchen to find Laura already awake and smoking a joint out the back door, ready to work. We would work until we had to drop Evelyn off at school, get breakfast, come home, work until it was time to pick her up, eat dinner, watch a Harry Potter movie of Evelyn's choosing (she insisted on watching the series backwards for some reason), and pass out by 9. Repeat the next day.
After a seemingly endless winter battling deadlines and depression, the spring came and beckoned the thaw. While we were locked in our own little bubble for a year, things were happening out in the world. The word "transgender" had become a heated topic in the news after North Carolina passed their oppressive HB2 act, which, among other awful things, bans people from using the bathroom that aligns with their gender identity. Two weeks before the book's due date, Laura made national news when Against Me! played in Durham and she burned her birth certificate on stage. The response literally reignited our passion for writing once it became immediately obvious to both of us how important and timely this book was going to be.
We finished the book in a hotel on Ludlow Street in New York. It was the last Saturday in May, just hours before our final deadline.
We had stayed up late the night before, agonizing over the last chapter, trying to figure out how to wrap up the story of a person who hopefully has many years still ahead of them. Sometime around midnight, we took a break and I asked her something that I'd been thinking about a lot.
"Do you feel like a woman yet?"
She thought about it for a bit, then winced and shook her head. "Not really, no."
"No?" I asked.
"I think when this book is finally done, I can move on," she said.
It was at that moment, a day before the book's completion, that I fully understood what was at stake for Laura with this book. This was the literal closing of a chapter in her life. It was like an anchor holding her back to shores she was ready to set sail from.
We labored over the final page the next morning. I am a stickler for endings so we spent a half-hour on the final sentence, making sure every word was in perfect balance. We sat on the same side of a computer, staring at it until there was nothing left to fix.
"Did we just... finish?" she asked.
"I think we just wrote a book?" I said. It was so surreal that the moment ended up being more anticlimactic than emotional.
We hugged in the lobby and I kissed her on the cheek. She told me she loved me and I said I loved her back. And then we walked our separate ways. Excitement hit me in waves as I ran home. It felt like my brain came back online after months of being fixated on a singular goal. I suddenly remembered that I had friends and family and an entire life I'd pushed to the side over the last year in pursuit of this thing that I wanted to be perfect.
I crammed the manuscript through the proverbial mailslot at 11 PM on a Saturday night, and by 11 AM the next morning, I was on my way to an island to spend a week sleeping off the past 12 months.
I've had a tremendous guilt weighing on me since we finished the book. As soon as we typed that last sentence, my responsibility was largely finished. Laura, on the other hand, has to do the interviews, she has to answer for the words we wrote, she has to be photographed topless for Rolling Stone to promote it. (Very few publications have requested to photograph me topless.)
I felt empathy for my friend. We had just spent months laying bare every detail of her life, answering all the questions one could possibly have about her, so that she could move on. And now she had to spend weeks answering more questions about it.
Laura and I have different relationships with TRANNY. I'm incredibly proud of it. I hope my friends and family read it. Laura is proud of it too, and for that reason, hopes her friends and family don't. She's got to deal with scorned ex lovers, angry former bandmates, and diehard fans.
I thought about her fans a lot while working on the book and how they would feel while reading it. I've seen how passionate they are about her. They shed tears when meeting her and get her face tattooed on their bodies. I've seen many people call Laura their hero. After reading this book, knowing every unflattering detail of her life and personality, they might not feel that way anymore. That was a risk she was willing to take.
Of the million-plus words of Laura's that I've read in her journals, the three that have stuck with me the most were found in an unlikely place. It was what she wrote on the first page, under the line, "This journal belongs to:". For years, she filled this space with "Tom Gabel," before it eventually gave way to "Laura Jane Grace." I even found a page where she practiced her new signature over and over again. But in the period in between, when she was clearly struggling with her identity, and penning the lyrics that would become the songs on Transgender Dysphoria Blues, I found one journal where she wrote something that nearly brought me to tears. It simply said: "No one important."
At the book's launch party in New York, we finally got to celebrate all of our efforts. For months, TRANNY was like a secret language that only Laura and I spoke. But as 400 people sat and stood before us, clenching their copies of a real, finished product, it felt like it now belonged to the world. We told them stories and laughed about the long process that at times nearly drove us to madness. Then Laura played a few songs before signing books and taking photos with fans for over two hours.
Just before we took the stage that night, I gave Laura a gift. It was a fresh journal with a black cover and "LJG" embossed in silver on it. I hoped the permanence of it would, in some small way, finally help her feel settled in her new name.
Before I gave it to her, I flipped open the cover and saw 192 blank pages, a clean slate on which she could start a new life. I thought about the dozens of things I wanted to write to her on the first page, things that had collected in my mind over the last year. I wanted to thank her for connecting me to a project whose magnitude is bigger than either of us. I wanted to tell her how much the experience changed my life. And I wanted to encourage her to continue writing. But ultimately, I scrapped it all. We'd been through over a million words together over the last year, and I'm sure she didn't need any more. So with a black pen, I wrote down the only two words I had left to say.