Imagine being designated at birth as being a boy but raised as a girl on the advice of doctors… And discovering at the age of 25, after the results of a chromosome test, to discover that you are in fact genetically male. My guest this week on the blog is Louise Chapman, ghostwriter of the book “She’s A Boy” – the autobiography of Joe Holliday – Joe suffered from cloacal extrophy, a severe and rare birth defect which meant that his abdominal region was catastrophically malformed and he had no penis. I caught up with Louise recently to find out more…. Hi Louise!
Hi, I’m Louise Chapman. I was a reporter on newspapers in Lincolnshire and Norfolk for more than a decade until 2015 when I switched to part time communications work, freelancing and my first book “She’s A Boy” was published. I’m married with a young son and teenage stepdaughter and, like so many others, constantly feel there aren’t enough hours in the day!
“She’s A Boy” is your first ghostwriting project and it has already been named in Amazon’s top ten non fiction bestseller list. What inspired you to become a ghostwriter?
The thing I loved most about being a local news reporter was the
people I met and the stories they had to tell. It’s a massive privilege to be able to talk to and write about inspiring and amazing people, what they have achieved, what motivates them – and to be paid to do it! The problem with news is it moves so fast. You scratch the surface of a story and you’re on to the next one. I wanted the chance to dig deep into a story and find out everything about what took someone from one point in their life to another, how they had reacted along the way and the feelings they’d had. When I first thought about being a ghostwriter I don’t think I’d heard the term. I just thought there must be people out there with fantastic stories to tell who might allow me to write them.
“She’s A Boy” is the autobiography of Joe Holliday – a lad who was born male but because he was suffering from cloacal extrophy, a severe and rare birth defect which meant that his abdominal region was catastrophically malformed – including the absence of a penis – doctors advised his mother to bring him up as a girl. Thus Joel became Joella. When he was 8, he attracted media attention as his family fought the right to change his birth certificate from male to female. It was only after a chromosome test at 25 that Joella finally discovered the truth that she was genetically male. I found the book very moving, sad in places, shocking and yet hope also radiated too. It must have been quite an emotional rollercoaster to write. What were the highlights and lowlights whilst working on the book alongside Joe and his family?
I think you just summarised Joe’s story perfectly! He lives locally to me and I had always been aware of him and his story even though I had never written about him myself. I looked him up in the phone book and asked if I could write his life story for him. At that stage he was still living as Joella and believed himself to be female. Joe had suffered with depression for years and although he had come through the worst of it he still felt little hope for the future. I found that heartbreaking and was also unconvinced having his life story thrown back into the public arena at that stage was going to be right for him. When he discovered he had male genetics and decided to live as a man it was the best moment because suddenly he seemed like a different person – hopeful and finally happy. The reaction to an extract of the book printed in the Daily Mail on the day of publication was also pretty amazing – there were more than 350 comments on the story and every one I read was so supportive of Joe.
For decades, doctors believed that baby boys born without a penis be classified as girls; and vice versa with girls. Did Joe at any point convince himself he was a girl or did he always have the underlying feeling he was a boy? Does Joe feel that all babies should be given the chromosome test if they are born of indiscriminate sex or at least have the “sex” part of the birth certificate postponed until a final diagnosis can be given?
I think to understand how Joe felt about himself you have to try to
imagine what it was like to be in his shoes. He had only ever known himself to be Joella – a girl. For him to think he was anything other than a girl was to him as complicated and difficult to comprehend as it would be for anyone else. He wanted to fit in, to be like everyone else, he completely convinced himself he was female but he was deeply unhappy and it is only on reflection that he can see much of that unhappiness was related to trying to be something he wasn’t. Joe is now building his own knowledge about intersex variations and working with organisations such as Intersex UK. Up to one in 1,000 babies and children do not have standard sexual characteristics. Sometimes a person can have typically male chromosomes but external sexual organs of female appearance and they may feel female. Chromosomes aren’t the only defining factor. I think most intersex campaigners want governments and doctors to recognise that sex isn’t as simple as people think. There may be male one end and female the other but there’s a lot in between and certainly babies and children should not be pushed into uninformed, non consensual surgery to ‘fix’ their bodies and make them conform to a male or female genital norm.
Joe has had to overcome unthinkable physical and emotional challenges. How have these challenges affected his relationships and friendships?
Joe had a rough time at school and after years of being left out and bullied he was home schooled from the age of 11. Then he struggled to be able to work due, in large part, to his ongoing health struggles. As most of us make our friendships through work and school it definitely limited his social circle. However, regardless of all he has faced, he is jaw-droppingly level headed, sensible and intelligent and now he is in a much better emotional place I think the world is opening up for him.
As a child what books did you enjoy reading? What genre of books do you enjoy reading now?
I wasn’t actually a huge reader as a child but George’s Marvellous Medicine was the first book I remember reading and I went on to love all of Roald Dahl’s books. Now, I don’t like to read or watch anything too dark. I can’t bear thrillers or anything that involves abuse or bullying of any kind. As a result for a long time I read lots of what was essentially chick lit – Louise Bagshawe was a favourite. I still admire Louise Bagshawe’s writing but I’ve tired of that genre now and am flailing to find the non-fiction genre/authors that really work for me. In recent years I have read a lot of autobiographies with a both personal and professional interest. My son is also now of an age where I am getting to read him things like Harry Potter which is great fun.
Hypothetically speaking, if you could pick to ghostwrite the life story of any historical figure, who would you pick and why?
There really isn’t one person I would desperately have wanted to write about. I really love the stories of ordinary people who have done extraordinary things. All tales of triumph over adversity appeal to me. It would be fascinating to get under the skin of any extreme or controversial character. Writing the book of someone like Margaret Thatcher would, no doubt, be totally absorbing, however can you imagine what it would be like trying to produce a manuscript that pleases them? I think ghostwriting could easily be a big nightmare working with the wrong person.
What, in your opinion, are the best bits of being a ghostwriter? And, dare I say it, the downside?
Being able to discover every aspect of someone’s story, their thoughts and reactions and have the opportunity to put that into print is amazing. The challenges surround trying to capture their voice – telling the story in their words as they would and in ensuring you are aware of everything. A little detail that didn’t seem important enough to mention may later prove crucial.
When you are not writing, what hobbies do you partake in?
I have a young son, a teenage stepdaughter and a husband and the
absolute best thing in the world is being with them, preferably somewhere hot and when none of us has anything else we have to be doing. I love to read in the sun – a pile of unread books and magazines is very exciting! Having days out with my little boy where we can run around, climb trees and explore somewhere new, going to the beach and roaming new cities preferably with my husband. There’s a whole list of hobbies I would love to take up but spare time seems the most elusive of things.
Personal now – what outfits and shoes would you normally be found wearing?
I’m afraid practicality comes first for me. I wear trousers and jeans, flat shoes except on special nights out and am rubbish at accessorising by day. I’m always looking at other people and thinking how put together they look and promising myself I will make more effort. I’ve always been fortunate in being slim and tend to wear nicely fitting clothes which hopefully makes up for some of my fashion failings!
Do you have any favourite shops or online sites?
I’m always amazed at people who can shop for clothes online. I try
everything on and discard 80 per cent of what I thought I was going to
like, often because it doesn’t fit even if I try two different sizes. Surely that’s the same for everyone?! I used to buy a lot of things from Jane Norman because their sizing did seem spot on for me.
What’s next on your clothes/shoe wishlist?
I’ve never been a follower of fashion and am more drawn to simple classic styles that last but I seem to always be replacing the basics and never get around to adding in the one or two seasonal items that would no doubt lift my wardrobe. I would love to get to a point where I had the ultimate capsule wardrobe – black, white and brown summer sandals for summer; black and brown boots and beautifully cut coats in a couple of colours for winter etc.
Boots or Shoes?
Both! How can you pick? I adore a towering, slim line heeled sandal despite wearing them very, very rarely and only on a night out. They give you instant elegance and confidence. In winter I never tire of my black, flat, lace up calf length bikerish boots. Boots with a heel can make you feel great but again, I have a couple of pairs at the back of the wardrobe but just can’t be bothered with daytime heels any more.
Links you would like to share so that readers of the blog can learn more about “She’s A Boy”, Joe Holliday and yourself.
You can buy She’s A Boy on Amazon in all territories including Amazon.co.uk and Amazon.com
You can find out more about me, my writing, She’s A Boy and Joe
at: www.bylouisechapman.com I’m also on Twitter (@bylouisechapman) and Facebook : ByLouiseChapman.com
Thank you for chatting to us today. Joe is one amazing person and I hope that his story helps others to understand the physical and emotional rollercoaster of being one of those 1000 babies whose gender isn’t completely clear cut. Any thoughts, dear readers? Do share!
Photography by Tony Jones. All photos published with kind permission of Louise Chapman.
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