I first met Amy Ellis Nutt when she proposed writing a book about Nicole Maines, her identical twin brother, and their family. At a diner in New Jersey, over eggs and coffee, Amy and I talked for a couple of hours about this remarkable family and their journey — not only to accept their transgender daughter but to celebrate her and fight for her rights and the rights of all transgender Americans. I left the diner knowing Amy would write an important book and that I wanted to edit it for Random House. Now, almost three years later, that book, Becoming Nicole: The Transformation of an American Family, is being published this week.
David Ebershoff: What first drew you to the story of Nicole Maines and her family? Tell me about the first time you met them?
Amy Ellis Nutt: There were several aspects to the story and the Maines family that hooked me right away. First of all, Nicole and her brother Jonas were still young teenagers and, in many ways, the family’s journey was still unfolding. As a journalist, that was exciting. Because the science of gender identity is still being learned, I also felt that Nicole and Jonas being identical twins gave me a perfect opportunity to explore the importance of this intermediate territory between nature and nurture called epigenetics: how our environment (even the environment of the womb), contributes to who we are, even when our DNA is identical, as it is in the case of Nicole and Jonas. What cinched the deal for me was meeting the family for the first time. They were all warm and generous, funny, honest, and articulate, and they welcomed me into their home. On her laptop, Nicole showed me videos she was making for school, Jonas told me about writing songs on the guitar. They were clearly creative kids, with their own personalities, but with an obvious love for each other as well as their parents.
This is Nicole’s story, of course, but it’s also her family’s story. I think of it as the biography of a family. What was it like to write a book with four central characters? How did you research their lives?
It’s true, Becoming Nicole is about a family, about four people, not just one, and I felt that this kind of story had not yet really been told. I think Wayne and Kelly were also keenly aware of this, and the importance for the wider world in sharing the lessons of their lives in raising a transgender child and her identical twin brother. At the same time, they were—are—extremely protective parents and weren’t eager to put their children in the spotlight. Agreeing to do a book, with a long-range publication date, gave them the assurance they needed that Nicole and Jonas would still have the time to grow up and experience the world the way most teenagers do—that is, free of the public’s glare.
The book follows Nicole from the time she was born and given the name Wyatt until this past summer, when she graduated from high school and had her gender affirmation surgery. You’ve been following and interviewing Nicole and the family for almost four years, even before the story was complete. What was it like to report a book as it was happening, as opposed to reporting a story that has already taken place?
For me, having this much time to report, and to be able to essentially watch the family’s life unfold in real time was a wonderful opportunity. Of course this was not only because the twins were still growing up, but because time itself is the gift that comes from writing a book with distant deadlines, which is so unlike writing for a newspaper. We certainly all knew we were in this together for the long haul. I also realized I would need all that time precisely because the book was about four people, not just one. So I made many, many trips to Maine from New Jersey, where I was living until moving to Washington, D.C., last year. I was also able to see, and be with, and observe the family in different contexts. It also helps a writer a great deal when your subjects are not only willing to talk, but do so with great honesty and thoughtfulness. Finally, Wayne turned out to be a reporter’s dream. He is an almost obsessively organized person who was able to loan me boxes of files of report cards, medical records, drawings the kids made growing up, and hours and hours of video. I mean, how many authors writing a biography of a family can say they watched the twins before they were even born? Yep, Wayne saved a recording of the sonogram of the twins at six months in utero!
You’re a Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist at The Washington Post. You are one of the most-respected journalists in the country. A journalist must remain detached, to a certain degree, from his or her subject. Given how much time you spent with Nicole and the Maines family, how did you manage to maintain enough detachment to ask the tough questions and to write a narrative that portrays the family in full complexity.
Objectivity, or at least detachment, is integral to every story a journalist reports and writes, so this was no different. That being said, detachment is not a bar to the kind of intimacy that is required to fully report on the lives of a single family. Although all of the Maineses are extremely likeable, they also understood I was writing a book that needed to delve deep into how their experiences, both good and bad, affected them as individuals and as a family. I think my honesty with them in telling them how I would be reporting the book helped to earn their trust. Finally, Kelly and Wayne were extraordinarily generous in their honesty. Their lives had already had their share of crises and they were clearly not always on the same page, but I think their love for each other, and for their children, made it easier for them to acknowledge their mistakes and flaws. I should add that, in order to get the fullest possible picture of their lives, it was important for me to try and speak with some of the other “characters” in the book, especially those who were adversarial.
What do you hope the book achieves? What do you want readers to take away from it?
I truly believe that everyone who reads this book will be able to see some part of themselves, or at least an aspect of their own lives, represented in its pages. In some ways, what’s most remarkable about the Maineses, is their ordinariness. They are a typical, middle-class American family, while at the same time a family forced to face an extraordinary situation. Not every family, obviously, has a transgender child, but nearly every family has to deal with crises. Nearly every family has to deal with stresses, with challenges to understanding and accepting each other, so I think the lessons of “Becoming Nicole” cross many boundaries, not just gender. How much are we willing to listen to our children, to our spouses? How much are we willing to change? What does it take to survive as a family, to understand differences and accept difficult truths? All of us are more than just our names, or the words others use to describe us. There will always be a conflict between our need to know who we are as individuals, and society’s need to categorize and classify us. How we respond to that conflict – as individuals, as a family – is what this book is really all about.
Becoming Nicole is available now.
Amy Ellis Nutt is a science writer at The Washington Post and the author of three books. She won the Pulitzer Prize in feature writing in 2011 as a reporter at The Newark Star-Ledger in New Jersey.
David Ebershoff is an editor and writer. His novel, The Danish Girl, is the basis for the forthcoming film featuring Academy Award-winner Eddie Redmayne, portraying transgender pioneer, Lili Elbe.