Jeff Garvin Wrote an Acclaimed YA Novel About a Gender-fluid Teen

Jeff Garvin turned in the manuscript for his second novel recently. Now he’s going through the inevitable aftermath of a sustained burst of creative energy: He’s elated and depressed. Pressing through that means keeping busy. He already has ideas of what he’s going to do for his next book, and he’s making a list of things he needs to do between now and the next round of edits.

One of those things is activism for LGBTQ causes, among them the Trump administration’s rescinding President Barack Obama’s guidelines for trans students’ bathroom use. “It’s going to activate all this political rhetoric,” says Garvin, “and it’s not a political thing.”

What’s a straight, married father of two doing fighting for the rights of trans kids? Why is he waiving speaker’s fees to talk via Skype with fans as a fundraiser for the Trevor Project? It all makes sense after reading Garvin’s first published young adult novel, Symptoms of Being Human. It’s the sympathetic portrait of a gender-fluid teenager from OC battling dysphoria at the same time they’re also fending off bullies and schoolyard bigots. The book came about during a discussion with friends about a trans girl suing the school system to be able to use the bathroom of the gender she identifies with. The free-for-all argument that followed left Garvin so upset and disillusioned by his friend’s lack of empathy that he sat down and wrote the first line of the novel.

Garvin was doing the opposite of what many people advise first-time writers to do. Writing about something he didn’t know much about, he wanted to get it right, talking with friends and meeting with leaders in the trans community. “You launch a rocket, and it’s out of your hands, and you’re wondering if you’ve hit the target,” Garvin says. “Open your heart, and you’ll nail it.” Bullied in high school more than 20 years ago, the author still remembers how it felt, using it to his book’s advantage: “I was drawing on a primordial teenage rage and unhealed teenage hurt.”

Garvin graduated with a BFA in film from Chapman University in 1998; a short career as an actor in television, indie films and theater followed. He was also lead singer for the alternative band 7K, with which he recorded three albums. Novelist feels like another step in his artistic evolution. “Talent is overrated,” he says. “Being an author was logistical for me—I did a spreadsheet.” The Google Sheets algorithm showed him that he had 16 hours of free time per week outside of family obligations and his job, with its two-hour commute, where he could get up early and knock out enough pages to be productive and not be a zombie when he arrived at work.

Making writing a habit taught him discipline, and the handful of failed manuscripts taught him what worked and what didn’t. When he went pro, he quit the commuter gig, taking a significant pay cut. “It’s like having a job, just one where I get paid very erratically,” he says with a laugh, but life is good. “I have a very wonderful, middle-class existence.”

As he moves into the editing stage on the next book—another YA novel, this time about underrepresented mental-health issues affecting young people—he offers some practical advice worthy of a book all its own: “The rewards are absolutely there, but they have a price. Thirty percent of all of the awesome stuff that you imagine is there, but the remaining 70 percent is all admin. Enjoy the shadow side of that career if you want to be happy.”

Dave Barton has written for the OC Weekly for over twenty years, the last eight as their lead art critic. He has interviewed artists from punk rock photographer Edward Colver to monologist Mike Daisey, playwright Joe Penhall to culture jammer Ron English.

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