Ever really listened to the words to "I Want It That Way" by the Backstreet Boys? In the days before she became a novelist, T Cooper was researching its lyrics for Teen People and thought to herself, "This is the stupidest, most confusing song I've ever heard." So she came up with her own theory about it.
"I decided that it has to be about anal sex," says Cooper. She thought a spoof was in order, so she got together with three girlfriends and created the Backdoor Boys, a Backstreet cover band. Their first gig was a launch party for a book about drag kings. The women acted "really gay, and really into each other and not the girls in the crowd," she says. Before the group knew what was happening, the Backdoor Boys landed on the cover of The Village Voice.
The group's tenure was short but sweet. "When I got the book deal," she says, "I thought this is ridiculous to spend too much time jumping around on stage and acting gay." Not that Cooper's days exploring gender were over once she became a full-time writer.
Her novel, Some of the Parts, chronicles the lives of the ambiguous, transgendered Isak, who shows what she's got at a freak show; her HIV-positive roommate, Charlie; his bisexual niece, Taylor; and her neurotic, lonely mother, Arlene. Barnes & Noble selected the book for its Discover Great New Writers program.
Cooper's experience with the Backdoor Boys helped her characterize Isak, who sort of straddles both sexes. But, she says, no part of the novel is autobiographical. And even though the author has occasionally been asked what she's doing in the girls' restroom, Cooper says she identifies with older, straight Arlene more than with Isak. "I kind of fell in love with her more than any other character," she says.
Cooper seems to enjoy subverting people's expectations. In the novel, Arlene lives a narrow life. But when she meets Isak, who, one has to suppose, puts off a lot of people, there's an instant connection between the two. "Things like that happen all the time," says Cooper. "I love that stuff. It makes why we're here more interesting and surprising and whimsical."
What Cooper seems ultimately to be saying about gender is that the words "male" and "female" don't tell much about a person. She gave the character Charlie a boy dog named Mary to make a point. "The dog still comes," says Cooper. "It doesn't matter what he's called Why does gender matter so much?"
It certainly didn't matter when Cooper was playing with the Backdoor Boys. "Definitely a lot of lesbians loved it. We'd play at straight places and have girls hitting on us We played at gay men's clubs and they'd hit on us."
Cooper has been touring the country promoting the book, but when that's over, she's going to get serious about working on her next novel, which she thinks will be about Eastern European immigrants in the United States. But that could change. "I could be talking out of my rear end right now," says Cooper, "but that's my plan. It could be about monkeys for all I know."