"What's your sign?"
The first thing Marcus Ewert uttered during our hour-long lunch at Starbelly Café, home of the crispy, falafel-esque pea fritters and bacon-jalapeño ice cream, was a question about myself. I replied that I was a Sagittarius; the round-faced 42-year-old grinned from ear to ear and told me I was in the right profession. "Sagittarius is all about traveling the world, telling stories," he said. "That's awesome for you."
Not exactly a traditional interview approach.
Then again, Ewert has ignored tradition for most of his life. The Georgia native dropped out of Columbia University his freshman year to pursue romantic relationships with renowned beat writers Allen Ginsberg and William Burroughs, snagged them both, and has enjoyed a zig-zaggy life ever since, holding jobs in fields from special education to animé web-cartooning and toy design.
Several decades after his beat adventures, Ewert has nestled into a cozy Victorian to write children's books. First published in 2008, his breakout picture book 10,000 Dresses depicts the artistic awakening of a transgender child, and with issues of LGBT rights and gender identity reaching critical mass in public discourse, it's high time the book got noticed.
[The following has been edited for length and clarity. Also, the author asked the interviewer a ton of questions about herself, all of which she omitted.]
SF Weekly: In another interview [for Boston Edge,] you mentioned that you didn't want this to be a "big issue" book, i.e. a one-sided story that drives a single message to the exclusion of everything else. Do you think you accomplished that?
Ewert: I think so. I hope so. My first thought of what it was going to be was a kid, a cis-gendered [comfortable in the gender someone is born into] kid, watching their uncle transition to a female identity. I started writing it, and it was so mundane and so boring and so bad. I was putting myself to sleep. I was like, come on, you can write anything, what would you write about? And I thought, oh, what if I write about dresses? Like dresses made of a ton of mirrors, or plants. Dresses made of gold. I had all these alternate ideas as well.
Now it's the kid's story, which is just better writing, right?
SFW: Why kids' books?
Ewert: I was a voracious reader from day one. I read Tolkien before I could understand it, and the Narnia series is great. I think for me, however excited I get from anything I read nowadays, nothing completely takes me over in the way a kids' book take you over when you're a kid. Kids just throw themselves into whatever they're looking at.
For my day job, I'm my two-and-a-half-year-old nephew's nanny. And his level of engagement, it's a world for him, he enters with no resistance, no holding back -- they don't know how to hold back at that age. I like that, just that level of how, how magical kids' books can be. That was the world I lived in when I was a kid.
SFW: You said that you're interested in making magic happen. Can you tell when you've succeeded?
Ewert: You know, not usually. When I wrote 10,000 Dresses, though, I always thought there would be an audience for it. When I was first working on it seven years ago, I had a lot of people who were like, "No parent was gonna touch it, no kids are gonna touch it." But the issue's way bigger now, transitioning in schools, stuff like that.
SFW: As a kid, did you cross-dress?
Ewert: I never did. Growing up, I definitely didn't identify as female, but I definitely felt profound anxiety about being a guy. Some of my earliest memories were feeling this profound dissociation. It's funny, now as I'm older I feel much much much more comfortable, and much of that is from being friends with different trans folks, realizing, "Oh, there's different ways to be male." I would definitely say Bailey [is based off me,] even though my experience and my perceptions are different from hers.
SFW: What's next?
Ewert: I've been writing memoir bits about hanging with Allen, hanging with Burroughs, what it's like being a teenager with these revered cultural figures. I've published sporadically; in like 2000, my best buddy and I had an animated show on the internet we did called Piki & Poko. It was a tribute/parody of Anime stuff, with astrological stuff, too. I've done a lot of writing, but 10,000 Dresses was the first book solely mine that was coming up.
I'm working on the sequel to 10,000 Dresses, called Bailey and the Valentine Castle. I quickly realized it was way too long to be a picture book. So it's gonna more like a first grade chapter book. I just recently sold another picture book manuscript to Houghton-Mifflin, this kids' book called Mummy Cat. It's about this mummified cat who, you know, gets up every 100 years and walks around, you know, through his tomb. [Mimes mummy cat]
Then he wonders why his best friend, this female cat, this Egyptian Queen, hasn't gotten up too. It's all in rhyme. When I was a kid I was super into Egyptology, so that's kind of a thing.
SFW: Tell me about hooking up with Allen Ginsberg and William Burroughs.
Ewert: I knew both of them until 1996, when both of them died. I went after Allen to be my first boyfriend when I was 17; I tracked him down [at the Naropa University writers' program.] And he was like 63. Through him I met William Burroughs, and he was even older than Ginsberg!
Allen was really dismissive of my work, actually, which hurt me a lot. I remember showing him something early on. He didn't even ask me follow-up questions about it. He traveled a lot, he was a Gemini, but that's kinda like a Sagittarius. He traveled here [San Francisco] a lot right before his cancer diagnosis, so we got a lot of quality time.
Burroughs, too, the heyday of my knowing him was [for a period of time of] two to three years where I would visit him at his old school Americana house in Lawrence, Kansas. He was really big on guns; we'd fire them together -- I was an awful shot. I stopped going there because I was just so bored, the glamor had worn off. He was very stiff, very reserved, codified. He had these set responses for everything. Like, I'd mention tigers and you're going to say this lil' anecdote, and so on. He was so emotionally wounded as a person. After that, we would still talk on the phone, but the conversations were incredibly stilted. It was like talking to your grandpa on the phone.
SFW: What's your sign?
Ewert: I'm a Capricorn. It is a good sign for a writer. Capricorn was the sign J.R.R. Tolkien was, and it's basically....I mean, yours is specifically storytelling, mine wasn't as much, but Capricorns are about 1 on 1 identification with the work they do and throwing themselves into it (laughs). I was just reading the earliest drafts of Lord of the Rings, and it's fascinating to see how completely different, how much he'd work and rework and rework; I completely identify with that. If I were to gather up all the drafts of 10,000 dresses I had, it was a shitload. I was like, paying careful attention to each word, that's how it influences writing.
Extra wisdom on books:
People think that a book, making a book more interactive is more engaging, which I don't agree with. I think not everybody's gonna be a super-huge reader. If you're reading a story, that's one thing, but if you're interacting that enters the realm of game, and that's scratching two different parts of the brain, I think. So there's always going to be a market for books, I think.
And kids' books, picture books, are great because there are things about that experience. You can do it through apps, but [there's something about] having a big book open on your lap.
Ewert will host a reading of 10,000 Dresses and interactive talk on Saturday, Aug. 10, 2013, from 12 p.m. to 2 p.m., in San Francisco Main Library (100 Larkin, at Civic Center Plaza), in the Fisher Children's Center. The event is free, but advance registration is required. Visit www.ourfamily.org for more details.