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New Books Network Interview: Jennifer Savran Kelly

Updated: Sep 5, 2023

A young person's face partially obscured by multicolored strips of paper, one of which shows the New York skyline; cover of "Endpapers"

It is easy to forget how quickly attitudes toward gender fluidity and queer culture have changed in the United States. Even though conservative politicians are again trying to limit the sexual choices of their constituents, national polling data confirm that these are minority views, especially among young people, which suggests that in the long term the trend toward greater tolerance will endure. As Jennifer Savran Kelly notes in our New Books Network interview, that is not the world Dawn Levit, the protagonist of Savran Kelly’s debut novel, Endpapers, experienced as recently as 2003.

Although in most respects 2003 does not yet qualify as historical fiction, in this arena the novel really does open a window on what now seems very much like the past. Moreover, Savran Kelly contrasts Dawn’s confusing (to them, not to us) but navigable experience in New York City not long after the September 11 attacks with the far greater discrimination encountered by members of the queer community in the 1950s, including those targeted by J. Edgar Hoover during what became known as the Lavender Scare. Read on to find out more.

As usual, the rest of this post comes from New Books in Historical Fiction.

Dawn Levit has reached a crossroads in life. What seemed like a stable relationship with a gay roommate is becoming ever more complicated; frayed family ties will not mend soon, if they ever do; and half the time Dawn can’t even decide on waking up in the morning whether to dress as a woman, a man, or some combination of both. A job restoring old books for the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York brings tactile and professional satisfaction, but it cannot compensate for the artistic inspiration that appears to have deserted Dawn just when it’s needed most.

When by chance Dawn discovers, in the endpapers of a water-damaged book, a love letter in German from one woman to another, the urge to identify the writer holds out the possibility of distraction from day-to-day problems. The book dates from the 1950s, making it difficult but not impossible to investigate the circumstances that caused the letter to be written, then hidden, and to the person who wrote it all those years ago. The search opens a window for Dawn onto the history of the queer community in New York and elsewhere, offering opportunities for greater self-acceptance and a renewed connection with the artistic muse.


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