Dan Clay is a writer and drag queen thrilled to be making his debut as a novelist with Becoming a Queen. Until now, he focused on spreading love and positivity online through his drag persona, “Carrie Dragshaw.” His writing as Carrie has been featured in hundreds of magazines, newspapers, and television shows–from Cosmo to People to Watch What Happens Live–and his TED Talk on being your “whole self” details his first-hand experience with the healing power of drag.
I had a chance to interview Dan, which you can read below.
First of all, welcome to Geeks OUT! Could you tell us a little about yourself?
It’s an honor to chat! Thank you so much. I love what you do and the beautiful community you’ve built!
I’m Dan, and I was cruising along in a relatively traditional business career until, long story short, I started doing drag! I’d post pictures and write captions as “Carrie Dragshaw,” and it was such a source of joy for me that it motivated me to explore even more creative pursuits, which led to longer-form writing, which eventually (after a lot of studying and learning!) led to this book.
What can you tell us about your debut book, Becoming a Queen? What was the inspiration for this book?
The inspiration was two-fold. The first I must warn you is a little heavy! I had this question rattling around in my head. The more life I lived, the more amazed I became at what people can get through. So many lives are hit hard, upended by unexpected pain and heartbreaking tragedy. It’s all around us. How on earth do we get through it? And often with so much love to spare? I wanted to zoom in on someone facing what felt like one of those insurmountable tragedies. And I wanted to try my very best–based on what I know, have experienced, have observed–to help him out of it.
The second inspiration is much lighter! The biggest surprise of my own life has been the healing power of drag. Maybe there’s something in the wigs, or perhaps it’s just the simple fact that everything gets better when you learn to love your entire self. On the heels of my own enlightenment, I wanted to write a book where LGBTQ identity was not a source of pain, but rather, the spring of salvation.
Put those two together, and bippity boppity boop, you’ve got Becoming a Queen!
Since so much of the book revolves around drag, I was wondering what drag as an element personally means to you, and how you would describe your connection to it?
Yes! Well, an unexpected thing happened for me when I started doing drag, which is that I started being more myself. It’s almost ironic that dressing up as a character made me more “me.” But it just pushed me toward authenticity, encouraged me to embrace parts of myself that I was still ashamed of, pushed me toward fuller self-expression (there are confessions “Carrie Dragshaw” makes that I could never dream of making! But they are, in fact, my confessions …)
And I learned, wow … authenticity can save you from a lot more than shame! It can be the force that propels connection, growth, healing, and most of all, love. Drag, and the authenticity that it compelled in me, has been the source of so much love in my life.
So in Becoming a Queen, I tried to capture a little bit of that broader role that drag can play. The book—while, yes, it’s a story about drag—is really more about taking masks off than putting them on. Exploring that gnarly truth underneath the masks we all wear, the parts we think make us broken but really allow us to heal.
What’s something you might want readers to take away from this book?
Oh gosh! It’s a beautiful thing to consider. I think a big part of the journey that Mark goes through is about trying to see others as fully as he sees himself. He starts out incredibly interior, and while he certainly doesn’t get to some enlightened state of non-self, he gets on the path. I do believe that striving to give joy is the best way to get it—even if you only make it halfway there—so I’d be delighted if someone took that away from this book!! See others more fully, see the weight that we’re all carrying, the grace that we all deserve.
As a writer, what drew you to the art of storytelling, specifically young adult fiction?
It really all started with the writing that I did as “Carrie Dragshaw.” I have always been absolutely obsessed and enamored with reading. I worship authors to the point of never even considering that I could be one! I thought books were born in the mind of genius and then dropped, fully formed, from the sky!
But when the Carrie Dragshaw writing started connecting with people, when people started playing the words back to me or sharing quotes, it was a level of fulfillment that I’d never experienced before. And I knew I absolutely had to at least try to pursue writing in what, to me, is its ultimate form: the novel!
What drew me to young adult fiction was partly functional … the story that I wanted to tell was of a teenager, and I wanted to tell it from his perspective. But it was also aspirational! I feel so very lucky that I’ve gotten to connect with folks through Carrie Dragshaw, and young adult was really exciting to me because, oh wow, maybe I could try to connect with people who’ve never even seen Sex and the City! Haha. Who don’t even know if they’re a Carrie, Miranda, Charlotte, or Samantha. And are maybe at an age where certain doubts and insecurities (that I personally have spent way too much of my life focusing on) haven’t fully set yet. The idea that I could help someone, in some small way, skip faster through some of that fear … that was a very rewarding prospect to me.
How would you describe your writing process?
A bizarre combination of diligence without structure!
When I first started attempting longer-form writing, I was very loose and limber with the ambition, but very diligent with the time. I told myself: you have to write every morning. What you write is up to you! But you have to write. And once the story started taking shape, it got a momentum of its own, and I became nothing less than obsessed! I knew there would be a lot of challenges on the way to publication, but I didn’t want something as controllable as “how hard I was willing to work” be the thing standing in the way.
I’d say the most rewarding part of the process was when I could carve out three full days over a long weekend, or take vacation time and fully immerse in the world of the book. The characters started to feel real then; my world started blending with theirs in this surreal and beautiful way.
Growing up, were there any stories in which you felt touched by/ or reflected in? Are there any like that now?
Oh gosh, hundreds and hundreds and hundreds! I have always absolutely loved reading. It is still a singular joy! Two particularly profound reading experiences come to mind from the “growing up” days, one I felt “reflected in” and one “touched by.” The first: Where the Red Fern Grows. The week before I read the ending to that book, my absolutely perfect family dog died. This dog was my whole entire little life! And then I read the ending of Where the Red Fern Grows (I assume we all know what happens!) and cried tears I didn’t even know I had. I was not a sobber but I sobbed on the floral couch of my childhood living room. The fact that a book could reflect, deepen, add color to something I was experiencing, help me understand my own emotions better. It was almost shocking! How did the book know? It changed my relationship with reading. Deepened it, for sure, because I felt so very seen.
But I’ve also been permanently moved by books where I didn’t necessarily see me in the book, but I grew to understand the world a bit better because of the book. Toni Morrison’s The Bluest Eye remains one of my most profound reading experiences. I read it around my junior year of high school. I have blue eyes, and until reading that book, I hadn’t really thought too much about them. But then I read about Pecola Breedlove, a young girl who wanted nothing more than to “see the world with blue eyes.” It took me a while to understand what she was saying, but once I started to—I shifted. It has done more than perhaps any other individual thing to influence how I look at the world and how I try to interact with it. Pecola Breedlove. One of the greatest teachers I will ever know.
As a writer, who or what would you say are some of your greatest creative influences and/or sources of inspiration in general?
Well, I do feel like every book I’ve ever read is rattling around in my head in some way or another, influencing the words that come out. I have particular heart for writers who bring humor to decidedly unhumorous scenarios. Edward St. Aubyn and the Patrick Melrose novels, Betty Smith in A Tree Grows in Brooklyn, Kurt Vonnegut, Maya Angelou, Gabriel Garcia Marquez—brilliant, evocative writers who also somehow make us laugh. Dostoevsky in Notes from Underground or Crime and Punishment—both a lot funnier than I thought they would be! This, to me, is the height.
When I’m writing, I read a lot of poetry and listen to a lot of lyric-driven rap music, because I find the precision of language required in those forms to be particularly inspiring!
And this sounds silly, but the biggest inspiration is the world!! Perhaps my favorite thing about writing is it makes the world more vivid. For example, when you know that you have to write a description of a tree, you start looking at trees a little more closely. And that has been very rewarding for me.
What are some of your favorite elements of writing? What do you consider some of the most frustrating and/or challenging?
Connecting one on one with readers is a gift beyond description. Much of what I write is quite personal, and a lot of it revolves around lessons that took me a rather long time to learn. When someone gets it, when it helps them in some way … well, it’s the reward of a lifetime. What a privilege to be a writer!
On the challenges side, I’d say, really trying to embody an alternate perspective or life experience from your own. I mean, this in some ways is simply the definition of fiction, but it’s not easy! I am me! We are us! What else do we know? Colum McCann has this great little book of writing advice, and he says, “Don’t write what you know, write toward what you want to know.” Your navel contains only lint. He advises you to step out of your own skin. Explore new lands—even if you don’t know if those lands exist yet. I absolutely love that sense of expansiveness, but it’s also a challenge because of course, you want to get it “right.” You want to be true to the experience, the land, the person you’re portraying. So that, to me, is a challenge. But one I embrace with passion and humility!
Aside from writing, what are some things you would want others to know about you?
Well! I have two other formal jobs, one at a climate change nonprofit and one at a branding agency here in New York, and I love both! I think my absolute favorite thing about growing up is realizing that the answer to “What do you want to be when you grow up?” can be more than one thing! I love different elements of the different jobs, and what a joy to get to work on all of these interesting/rewarding challenges.
What’s a question you haven’t been asked yet but that you wish you were asked (as well as the answer to that question)?
For fear of giving a long-winded answer to a self-created question, I will leave you in the driver’s seat …
What advice might you have to give for aspiring writers?
I would say, be sure to find joy (or some other fulfilling emotion!) in the process. If you’re pursuing publication, it can be a long time coming, and there are so many variables that influence that outcome. But if you can find joy in the process! Well, that no one can take from you! And even finding small, direct ways to connect to people with your writing. This can be the good side of online outlets, social media.
I made a list for myself, “Ten reasons I love writing that have nothing to do with getting published.” And it kept me going with it when the prospect of getting a book into the world seemed far-fetched to the point of delusional!
Are there any other projects you are working on and at liberty to speak about?
Well, Carrie Dragshaw is always prancin’ around! A drag/writing project that I thought might last a couple weeks has now gone on almost seven years! And I can’t imagine stopping. I will be in the retirement home in a tutu. And I’m also in the process of seeing if there’s another book up there. TBD! You’ll find out when I do 🙂
Finally, what LGBTQ+ books/authors would you recommend to the readers of Geeks OUT?
Oh gosh! Millions upon millions! What a gift it is to be a reader. Two that stick out: Maggie Nelson’s The Argonauts—the writing is so precise and fierce and the ideas of self-creation and individual freedom very powerful–and Carmen Machado’s short stories, Her Body and Other Parties—I found them surprising, even startling, and the writing is mysterious and brilliant. Oh, and for something a little back in time, Carson McCullers’ The Heart is a Lonely Hunter is something I revisit quite often! And we’ve talked a lot about writing, and Patricia Highsmith has an amazing book, Plotting and Writing Suspense Fiction, that I found incredibly valuable and would be useful regardless of your genre, as any story needs at least some suspense!
What a pleasure to be able to chat with you! And thank you for such thoughtful questions. It’s really been a treat!