I’m so lucky I was able to be brave with ellie krug and Jennifer Finney Boylan

Welcome to our LGBT podcast This Queer Book Saved My Life! In this episode, we talk with idealist, legal advocate, and author ellie krug (she/her) about the LGBT book She’s Not There by Jennifer Finney Boylan. ellie told us, “I will say that the book caused me to pivot. It did. There’s no question about it. But it also helped me believe that maybe I can write a book.” Then we discuss writing She’s Not There with Jennifer Finney Boylan (she/her). Jenny shared, “Looking at it now, I think there’s a little bit of the aroma of apology to the book. There’s a certain sense in She’s Not There of trying to justify myself.” Our conversation with ellie and Jenny range from cathartic writing vs. good storytelling, navigating loss while living authentically, and how trans narratives have changed over the past two decades.

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A big thank you to Natalie C., Archie A., Bill Shay, and Paul Kaefer for being This Queer Book Saved My Life’s first Patreon supporters. Their sponsorship level directly supports transcription services that ensure this LGBT podcast is accessible to our deaf and hard of hearing audiences. Patreon supporters help keep us on the air and promote accessibility. They receive a variety of benefits, including shout outs in our episodes, social media mentions, access to live-streaming events, virtual lunch with me, or even better, bring me to work day where I can do a talk and Q&A around queer diversity, equity, and inclusion. You can subscribe at patreon.com/thisqueerbook.

EPISODE TRANSCRIPT

 Hey everyone. This is J.P. and a big thanks to Quatrefoil Library for all of their support of our LGBT podcast.

 Quatrefoil Library is a community center that cultivates the free exchange of ideas and makes accessible LGBTQ+ materials for education and inspiration. Located in Minneapolis, Minnesota, visit them at qlibrary.org

That’s q library.org

As we look ahead to August, we have some great episodes lined up for you! I’ll be talking with author Lara Lillibridge about Alison Bechdel’s memoir Fun Home. And Alison joins us for that conversation. We will also have Theodor Seuss Giesel Award winning children’s author David LaRochelle joining us to discuss Conundrum by Jan Morris. Plus I talk with Neil Aasve about Bi America by William Burleson, and Bill joins us for that episode. New episodes drop every Tuesday!

Plus, big news! We are hosting our first ever live event! On Wednesday August 24 we will be recording an episode before a live audience! It will be at 6pm CST at Lush Lounge and Theater in Northeast Minneapolis. Stay tuned to our website and social media.  

 If you haven’t had a chance to check-out my fundraiser for the 2022 Lambda Literary Writer’s Retreat, you can listen to the special bonus episode called Naming Names. I read a draft essay that I will be working on at this year’s retreat. Your tax-deductible donations – of any size – to Lambda Literary mean the world. Give the episode a listen or visit my page bit.ly/jpwriter.

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J.P. Der Boghossian: On today’s episode, we’re speaking with ellie krug about the LGBT Book She’s Not There by Jennifer Finney Boylan. Jenny’s memoir was the first national bestselling book by a Trans American writer. For ellie, it was a seminal moment in her transition.  

ellie krug: But I will say that the book caused me to pivot. It did. There’s no question about it. But your book also helped me believe that maybe I can write a book. 

J.P. Der Boghossian: We also talk with Jennifer Finney Boylan about her reflections on the book now almost two decades after it was first published.

Jennifer Finney Boylan: Looking at it now, I think there’s a little bit of the aroma of apology to the book. There’s a certain sense in She’s Not There of trying to justify myself. 

J.P. Der Boghossian: My name is J.P. Der Boghossian and you’re listening to This Queer Book Saved My Life!

Let’s meet ellie krug and Jennifer Finney Boylan!

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Ellie uses she/her pronouns. She grew up in a blue-collar household. She was the first in her family to go to college. She is a student of Dr. Martin Luther King and Bobby Kennedy. She told me that their words sank into her and taught her she has an obligation to make the world a better place. As Bobby Kennedy was a lawyer, ellie knew at 12 she wanted to be a lawyer too. She went to Boston College Law School. She practiced law in Boston before moving back to her hometown of Cedar Rapids, Iowa. In 2009, she transitioned from male-to-female and she was the first transgender attorney to argue before the Iowa Supreme Court.

After her transition she developed formal training programs including Gray Area Thinking. I had the honor of participating in one of her trainings a few years ago, and putting on my Chief Diversity Officer hat for just a second, ellie’s trainings are brilliant.

Her memoir Getting to Ellen: A Memoir about Love, Honesty, and Gender Change was published in 2013. She hosts a weekly radio and podcast show Ellie 2.0 Radio. And she writes a monthly newsletter, The Ripple, which she describes as “highlighting the ways in which humans are good to each other.” She’s a news junkie and regularly reads the Atlantic, while watching MSBNBC and CNN.

Professor Jennifer Finney Boylan’s pronouns are also she/her. Jenny has written 18 books! As I mentioned earlier, her memoir She’s Not There was the first bestselling work by a transgender American. She is a passionate and nationally known human rights advocate. She serves on PEN America’s Board of Trustees, a long time board member of GLAAD, and a previous member of Board of Trustees for the Kinsey Institute for Research on Sex, Gender, and Reproduction. She’s also a contributing opinion writer for the New York Times. She is also the inaugural Anna Quindlen Writer in Residence at Barnard College of Columbia University.

Mad Honey, Jenny’s new book, co-written with Jodi Picoult, is available for pre-order now. It comes out October 4. If you’re looking for your next great suspense novel, with an unforgettable love story, and a moving exploration of the secrets we keep, pre-order now. 

Here’s my conversation with ellie and Jenny.

J.P. DER BOGHOSSIAN: So ellie, tell us, what is the book that saved your life?

ELLIE KRUG: She’s Not There was the book. I think saying ‘save my life’ would probably be an overstatement but I will say that the book helped me to pivot. The moment of truth for me that caused me to stop suppressing and say I’m going to go be who I am was 9/11.  On the night of 9/11 I realized that unless I was brave, unless I did what I needed to do, I’d lay on my deathbed and consider myself a coward. That was just unfathomable for me. I just could not imagine leaving my life thinking I was a coward. It took me years to leave my wife because she didn’t want to be married to a woman. I also wanted to date men. I needed to go date men. So it took me years to leave her and then there was another five years where I was playing games with myself: dating women who were okay with me presenting as female but I had not started hormones. I certainly hadn’t had any surgery. I think that she thought giving me She’s Not There would keep me a man. That I would decide that this is all I need to do. I don’t need to do anything further in terms of transitioning. She gave me the book, the relationship with the woman ended and I didn’t even read the book while I was dating the woman but after so I came out just around that time Period. Where I read the book and I will tell you Jenny. I had thought I’m going to come out… I’m going to present as female; change the name you; do the whole social transitioning thing; get on hormones but I was never going to have surgery. That’s too scary. It’s too unfathomable. I’ve had bad experiences. One time when I had anesthesia, the doctor didn’t know whether I was coming back or not. I’m not going to do that all right? Jenny, I read your book and there was something… it’s just something about your story. You told the story. I forget, was it Shrang who did your surgery?

It was just the way you talked about it. You were brave and reading your book, along with having a very pivotal therapist for me caused me to pivot! It did. There’s no question about it. I vividly remember one day, I called my brother and I said I’m going to go have bottom surgery and then I said on top of that I’m going to go have facial surgery and my brother’s like you go sis! Your book helped me to get to there! You’re a wonderful brilliant writer but your book also helped me to believe that maybe I can write a book.  I was a lawyer so I only knew how to write like a lawyer. Jenny are you familiar with the Loft Literary Center in Minneapolis? I started taking classes at the Loft. I walked into the Loft and I said I’m going to write my memoir.

It took a number of different classes for creative nonfiction and a very, wonderful writing group that I was the worst writer in! If you’re going to be in a writing group, you want to be the worst writer not the best.  I eventually got my book published and it continues to sell and people like to buy the book. Well the name of the book is Getting to Ellen which is a memoir about love, honesty and gender change. It’s a print-on-demand book.

J.P. DER BOGHOSSIAN: Are there particular parts of She’s Not There that really resonated with you the most?

ELLIE KRUG: Yes. I’ve already talked about the part where Jenny spoke about having surgery and about being brave and about the hoops that you had to go through to go to Dr. Shrang. You had to have confirmation surgery beforehand. you know back there were only four or five doctors in the U.S. doing the surgeries. The part that was bittersweet is that my wife was my soulmate. I mean we started planning our future during a trip to Europe. We’re going to get married. She’s going to be a fashion designer. I’m going to be a lawyer. We’re going to have two kids, a golden retriever and that type of thing. I ended up building this incredible life with her in Cedar Rapids, IA of all places! We had beautiful daughters, a house in the best neighborhood, a law firm of my own, I made more money than 95% of all the lawyers in Iowa. But I knew that I was going to lose all of that by coming out. I knew that I would lose it all and so it was bittersweet for me to read that book. Jenny you kept it together. I needed to go date men. That was you Jenny. I had to go do that and now I only date men. Well I don’t get dates. I mean this doesn’t work for us men. They’re just scaredy cats. It was bittersweet to read that you were able to do that. You kept your position. I think you were at Colby at the time. You kept the social stature. Rousso stuck with you. You had people that were able to go along with you on the journey. My best friend did not leave me Thank god, I don’t know if I would have made it. My brother stuck with me. I lost my sister for a while. I did lose a daughter. I lost a daughter for nine years but she came back. My sister came back. I lost other people that never came back. , and I you know It’s all worked out just fine. I’m way happier as Ellie Krug for sure…way happier.

J.P. DER BOGHOSSIAN: Wow! Thank you ellie for sharing that. I’m curious as you were writing your book how the She’s Not There helped you tell your story?

ELLIE KRUG: I did something very intentional. I did not pick the book up as I was writing my book. I did not want there to be any, you know… because the book was important to me and Jenny, you’re such a great writer. I did not want there to ever be even in the back of my mind some idea that there was something out of that book that somehow shows up in my book: writing style, syntax or terminology. So I intentionally did not look at the book while I was writing my book. Jenny takes us on a journey, you know? You bookend it with the man who’s kind of giving you the look, okay? People tell me they love my book because it’s like I’m sitting and talking to them. It’s a braided memoir. So the book is about my story but it’s also about my father and so the braid in the memoir is about dealing with my father’s suicide and the aftermath of the suicide. I think that for readers, they don’t expect that they don’t expect that braiding. The Loft helped me get the right teachers and got me in the right writing group. I persisted at it. I had to unlearn writing like a lawyer and I had to learn how to write like a human. I just got lucky and I got it done.

J.P. DER BOGHOSSIAN: That raises a question Jenny. I hope the segues you talked about like how you started your career as a novelist but then needed to change genres to write She’s Not There. You’ve said that nonfiction would serve as a better vehicle for your truth.  Could you share more about that? Did you consider autobiographical fiction or did it have to be nonfiction?

JENNIFER FINNEY BOYLAN: My training was as a novelist and as a short story writer. I had never really thought about writing nonfiction. I mean I’d been a journalist. I’d done reporting but I was always interested in making stuff up. My friend, Rick Russo and I wrote a screenplay in the late 90s it was right before I went to Ireland. I spent about a year working with him and there was something about learning some of the elements of screenwriting that kind of got my attention as things that would be useful for me as a storyteller. I mean I’ve written about moving from fiction to nonfiction around the time of transition. It was also the effect of having studied screenwriting and learning how to structure dramatic action through scenes that cut back and forth to each other. That’s the thing in filmmaking: the way that one scene speaks to the next and how you cut from one to the other. There’s a great kind of a cliche of screenwriting but there’s a phrase which is common, come in light and get out early. 

I don’t really know about truth and nonfiction in terms of telling a true story. I think that there are certainly things in memoir including She’s Not There which are not photographic legal truth but I know that there are also novels which tell a truer story than a lot of journalism. 

Stories help us learn the truth. Nonfiction and fiction go about it in different ways and which one is really more appropriate in the long run for telling a particular story, I think has to do with the story you’re trying to tell.

J.P. DER BOGHOSSIAN: I’ve read that you considered your Mom’s bridge club to be the audience for She’s Not There. How did you come to choose that as your audience?

JENNIFER FINNEY BOYLAN: I was not writing She’s Not There for transgender people actually. To this day it still surprises me that it has had as much of an effect on Trans people as I was writing for a group of people who had really never thought about Trans issues very much before or thought of it as something that happened  in lives unlike their own. Those were the nice ladies that I grew up with. The nice bidge playing Republican ladies. I figured if I could win THEM over that would be good because I don’t need to win transgender people over. They already know this stuff  and a lot of Trans people, I think, are maybe rightly irritated by some of the  simplification that She’s Not There provides. It’s a neat story. I think most transgender stories including mine are messy stories. I’ve written other books that are messy! 

But, She’s Not There does have a lot of loose ends in it, I’m not sure ellie, whether you saw the  edition of She’s Not There that has the update chapter. A new epilogue from my wife. A new intro for me. The updated edition of the story  I think does have an even better job of tying up all the loose ends.

I wrote some of it years and years before and I just had those stories. I could never publish them because I would be outing myself but most of what I wrote in those two or three years in there and  looking at it now I think there’s a little bit of  the aroma of apology to the book There’s a certain sense that She’s Not There is trying to justify myself. I’m kind of like am in a way, narratively. There are moments where I’m really down on my knees kind of begging for understanding and compassion to straight cisgender readers. I’m begging these people for their blessings. A difference between coming out as trans now and coming out in  that time is, I think, a lot of people who come out now especially younger people are not asking for anybody’s  understanding. The movement, such as it is, has progressed to the point where people feel a sense of competence and courage about coming out and being themselves. If anybody else objects to it, they can go to hell. I see that in my children’s generation and in a lot of even older people who come out now. With the climate for trans rights having changed so much. I was trying to win people over as a kind of rhetorical strategy of the project as a whole. The goal was to open hearts that might have otherwise been closed and I still think that that’s a good strategy because even now there’s still a lot of closed hearts. 

What is the difference between cathartic writing and good story telling? We’ll dive into that with Jenny after this break.

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J.P. DER BOGHOSSIAN: Queer people are adjusting to the new realities of coordinated legislative attacks against the community. Book bans, legislation banning trans athletes and gender affirming care. I ask ellie how she is processing all this. And heads up, we do have an unorthodox end to our conversation thanks to some electrical/cable work outside ellie’s home. But stick with us. It leads to a really lovely moment. 

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J.P. DER BOGHOSSIAN: In another episode, in a conversation with Carmen Maria Machado she said that her memoir In the Dream House was not cathartic to write, in any way

She described it as passing a kidney stone, so my question was going to be what was the experience for you, but it sounds like it was pretty much the opposite of that in that you had a mission that you knew from the outset,

JENNIFER FINNEY BOYLAN: Well, that’s the effect I hope of the published work. I think it’s important to note and again just speaking not as a Trans activist but as a Professor of English, writing is not supposed to be cathartic. I mean it can be cathartic or it cannot be cathartic, but the value of a piece of literature is not what the author was experiencing while she was writing it. You can suffer a great deal and cry a lot of tears over works of art that still suck and your reader in the long run doesn’t really care about how hard your life was. Your reader doesn’t really care about how many tears you’ve cried or how many jokes you’ve told. What your reader wants to know is do you have a story to tell? Can you make me laugh? Can you make me? Can you amaze me? Can you surprise me? Do you know what you’re doing? Writing is good therapy. It can be and it should be. There are many wonderful forms of therapy. In fact, expressive therapy, that really help people to work through their issues through art. That’s a thing I really honor and admire. But it’s also important to remember that just because you’ve expressed yourself and either found catharsis or something has nothing to do with whether or not you’ve created something that is worth reading. It always reminds me of that song by John Lennon. You know that song he wrote about his having lost his mother as a child. He was going through primal scream therapy at the time and he’s screaming mother. And he’s really basically screening for like four or five minutes. I’m sure that he felt better afterwards. But I don’t want to listen to that. Was writing cathartic? No. My goal was to tell a good story. My goal was to create a work of literature. I was not particularly interested in improving the lives of Transgender people or anybody else. I was trying to create a book that people would be moved by and think this is this is some tale!

J.P. DER BOGHOSSIAN: That’s making me wonder how are you processing the direction of this of this country? Twenty odd years later we’re dealing with book bans and ‘Don’t say Gay’ bills. I mean hundreds of bills. This will be the worst year of anti-LGBTQI legislation. I’m curious What is your viewpoint on that? How you’re processing it?

JENNIFER FINNEY BOYLAN: It’s increased visibility of LGBT and especially T people that has brought about the backlash and the blowback. So it’s definitely steps forward and steps back. When I came out nobody really knew that they were supposed to hate me. People had not really been instructed and there were people at least among some of the conservatives who I associated with at that time who had fewer issues with Trans than they did with Gay and Lesbian bias. I think in those days it was seen and there’s still this major narrative in terms of the way some people talk about Trans people. It was seen as a medical issue, a neurological issue. It’s more like people think I compare being Trans to having multiple sclerosis. At one point, there were an equal number of people with both conditions, to the extent that you can call being Trans a condition. There are times when I am still happy to talk that way. It puts me at odds with the current narrative in the culture about Trans issues in which I think we’re much more of a sense of identity, a much more of a sense of messing with gender and messing with some of the gray areas. I found that people were generally supportive in that era and maybe more than now. In the years since then, because we’re more visible now, we have presented a greater threat to the cultural forces who oppose change of every kind. I don’t know if it was easier then but I know that things have certainly changed. We wouldn’t be seeing all this blowback if LGBTQ people weren’t more able to live their lives out in the open. I think it means that we shouldn’t be surprised. It’s inevitable. We’re not going back in time. This country cannot go back to a time when people had to live in fear and silence and secrecy. The question is whether or not room is going to be found for everyone to belong and for everyone to feel included. Until that time we just have to keep fighting.

J.P. DER BOGHOSSIAN: ellie, as an idealist how are you processing? What’s your viewpoint of the turn that we’ve seen over the past twenty years?

ELLIE KRUG: When people ask me about what it was like, I say I transitioned thirteen years ago but for the Trans community, it’s like one hundred years ago in terms of how you know, things have…

JENNIFER FINNEY BOYLAN: We call those Trans years!

ELLIE KRUG:…changed so dramatically. The idealist in me says you know we’ve made great progress. The thing that I do find, J.P. you live in the Twin Cities but I’m out in Greater Minnesota. I mean I live on a street filled with very conservative, older people. It’s villas, older people, retirees. Not many of them are my political party but they’ve come to accept me and like me. I had had a retired Marine a month ago, lean down and give me a kiss on the cheek because I had done a favor for him and his wife. So the idealist in me and the work that I’m doing out here is proving that we can get past the divisions. I have an evangelical family that has kind of adopted me. They like me. They’re just good with me and that’s wonderful. I believe that we can get past the divisions Jenny. I disagree with you about going backwards. We’re already backwards. We’re already into Jim Crow Trans.  The Trans version of Jim Crow. We’ve got fourteen states now that have passed  laws against Trans kids mainly trans girls participating in sports from kindergarten through Senior year of public school university. We’re already there. We were there with the former administration. The ban on Trans service members. My fear is that it’s going to get worse, way worse before it gets better, if it’s going to ever get better! I don’t know where you’re at on it Jenny: but in my room, in my in my world, it calls for me to do more than what I’ve been doing. I’m on the verge of doing more in a way that I’d never expected I would do. I don’t know how much time I’ve got left  on this earth but I’m going to go out fighting and I’m going to go out trying to lead around compassion. The message of compassion for all. I believe even those who are intolerant, they have good hearts. I do believe that they are good people. They’re just afraid. They’re afraid of what they don’t know. They’re fearful that somehow I’m going to affect their child or their life. But I also believe that those good hearts can be tapped. If they can get to understand that I am just a human just like them: surviving the same things, wanting the same things that they want. The voice doesn’t match the appearance. I’m sorry about that, okay? That’s the way it is for me. Guess what? You’ll get used to it. Give me a glass of Chardonnay and we’ll have some laughs! They’ll get to know me , and I’ll get to know them. and then maybe when it gets tough, because it’s going to get tough, that maybe they’ll say ‘I don’t want any of that’. I like ellie Krug and this is going to hurt her and I’m not going to join on that band wagon

JENNIFER FINNEY BOYLAN: You and I are not in disagreement about most of these issues including the question of whether or not things are getting worse and that whether or not we’re all truly in peril.

ELLIE KRUG: J.P, I want to tell you I’m very grateful that you reached out to me and asked me your question about the book that was pivotal or important to me. Jenny it’s been a real honor to meet you and to be here with you in your space, in this space and I just want you to know that I really respect you and cherish the work that you’re doing. I know that you’re going to continue to do it and thank you. It benefits me greatly. But more importantly, it’s benefiting the kids. That’s the most important thing. We have to protect the kids.

JENNIFER FINNEY BOYLAN: I want to say when I first started coming out, I had a mentor, who is not particularly well-known person anymore but a semi well-known figure in the Trans community. That person just said to me as time goes on, pass it forward. If I pass something to you, it certainly sounds  like you’re passing something on of your own self between the work that you’re doing, the writing that you’ve been doing and the writing you’ve published on idealism and inclusivity. All of that. You’ll find in years to come that you’re going to run into somebody who said ‘well, you already told that story.’ You’ll hear more people who say because of you I wrote my story.

I had an experience one time. I was stopped on the street in New York by young woman and she said Jenny Boylan? I turned around like yes, and she just she introduced herself to me. She was from Brownsville, Texas. she didn’t really know much about Trans people other than she had the sense of self. She saw me on the Oprah Winfrey show and she said that that kind of changed her life and now here she was in her 30s. She was a lawyer in New York City having gone through transition and found herself and moved ahead and I just said to her that thing that was said to me: Pass it forward. Take this acorn and plant it somewhere and make a tree.

J.P. DER BOGHOSSIAN: I want to thank ellie krug and Jenny Finney Boylan for joining us. As a reminder, head over to ellie’s website elliekrug.com to signup for her newsletter The Ripple, to get more info about Gray Area Thinking and her other trainings, and to buy her book Getting to Ellen: A Memoir about Love, Honesty, and Gender Change

You can pre-order Jenny’s new book Mad Honey now through Bookshop.org, Indie Bound, Barnes and Noble, Amazon, everywhere you get your books. Check out her website jenniferboylan.net for all the updates on Mad Honey, her upcoming projects, and her other books you should be reading. 

My conversation with ellie and Jenny reminded me of the memoir Me as Her Again: True Stories of an Armenian Daughter by Nancy Agabian. What got me thinking about it was when ellie mentioned the idea of pivoting and believing in your own ability to write your story. 

Nancy and I have lived very different lives and yet as Queer Armenians there were some distinct shared experiences. Using the internet as a foray to finding other Queer Armenians. The isolation of hardly meeting Queer Armenians growing up and then the feelings of insecurity, down to the anxiety of picking out what to wear, the first time you’re going to be in an actual space with Queer Armenians. 

I read Nancy’s book a couple of times before a pivotal “pivot” moment came for me. Instead of continuing my ambiguous and, frankly, kind of torturous relationship, navigating the intersection of queerness and Armenian-ness, I would dive in. Find everything written by anyone identifying as LGBTQ and Armenian. And then, remembering Nancy describing how she used the internet to find the community, just like I had, realized I couldn’t keep everything I found to myself. I wanted to create a digital space, so that everyone else after me searching Queer and Armenian would find a single place with nothing but books, films, and TV shows about them. For them.

Like ellie mentioned, it wasn’t just reading She’s Not There, but also having an excellent therapist helping you to process. I had a similar experience. My own deep commitment to therapy, specifically EMDR, with an invested and compassionate therapist.     

As I look back on it, it was that commitment to myself, to understand, and to be honest, admit I was worth the time to get to know myself, to process what happened to me navigating life. And then, coming across a book like Jenny’s, like Nancy’s, a pivotal moment arrives. And you have the strength, not just physically, but emotionally, to walk into it.  

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J.P. DER BOGHOSSIAN: Thanks everyone for listening to This Queer Book Saved My Life! Our new episodes drop every Tuesday. For all the updates follow us on Instagram, Twitter, and Facebook. Transcripts of this episode are available on our website. Please don’t forget to support our sponsors Robert Berdahl at Edina Realty, Bookshop.org, Alley Cat Antiques, and Quatrefoil Library. Please consider becoming a Patreon supporter. And most importantly, keep writing, and keep reading!