'This Queer Book Saved my Life' podcast puts readers in conversation with their favorite authors

A man sits in a chair.
When J.P. Der Boghossian was searching for stories of other queer Armenians, he didn't have a library to consult. So he created one.
Jaida Grey Eagle | Sahan Journal

Have you ever had a book that meant a lot to you? Maybe it’s a book from your childhood. Or one that seems to grow up with you, revealing new truths every time you read it. Stories are powerful. They let us walk in someone else’s shoes — or in our own with a deeper understanding of who we are and who we want to be.

J.P Der Boghossian is a Minnesotan, founder of the Queer Armenian Library and a former broadcaster who has built a podcast around the power of stories. It's called ‘This Queer Book Saved My Life.’ He talked with MPR News producer Ellen Finn about the conversations he’s hosted in his podcast.

Use the audio player above to listen to the full conversation.

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Audio transcript

INTERVIEWER: So have you ever had a book that meant a lot to you? Maybe it's a book from your childhood, or one that seems to grow up with you, revealing new truths every time you read it. Stories are powerful. They let us walk in someone else's shoes, or in our own with a deeper understanding of who we are and who we want to be.

JP Der Boghossian is a Minnesotan, the founder of the Queer Armenian Library, and a former broadcaster who has built a podcast around the power of stories. It's called This Queer Book Saved My Life. And he talked with our producer, Ellen Finn.

ELLEN FINN: JP Der Boghossian, welcome to Minnesota Now.

JP DER BOGHOSSIAN: Thank you for having me.

ELLEN FINN: So when I listen to your podcast, it makes me remember being in the stacks of my local public library as a really young teenager and finding only a small handful of queer books, and reading all of them. And they really gave me a glimpse into a different world that I didn't feel that I myself was yet a part of. I'm wondering, is that why you wanted to start This Queer Book Saved My Life? Or can you tell me a little bit more about its origin story?

JP DER BOGHOSSIAN: The podcast was really about where can we find life-giving stories. We all at some point needed some story, whether it was in a book or a film, that gave us life, that helped teach us how to live and love in this world. I am obviously a book person.

ELLEN FINN: That's so great. There are other queer podcasts, obviously, and there are other book podcasts. What did you want to do that was maybe different than what you had heard on other podcasts?

JP DER BOGHOSSIAN: Queer guests only, queer books only, and queer authors, ideally, only, or those authors that are very connected to the queer community and are writing about us and our stories. That to me was really important, and also to have that dynamic of the conversation that can happen between the guest and the author.

For example, there was one episode where both the guest and the author ended up being writers, one of whom was Lara Lillibridge, who is a memoirist, and Alison Bechdel, who is a graphic memoirist, I guess you could say, does a lot in comics and whatnot. And they had both written stories about their families, their queer families. And Lara wrote hers after Fun Home had come out, Fun Home being this graphic memoir and nationally recognized bestseller, and eventually turned into a Tony Award-winning musical.

And Lara talked about how that book helped her process her own story. And she even talked about how at night, when she got really worried about writing about her moms, that she would be awake and looking at the ceiling and saying, you knkow. Alison Bechdel told her story and lived. Alison Bechdel told her story and lived.

And when they got into conversation with each other, Alison started on this conversation about what was it like writing this and sharing this in terms of your relationship with your mom? And so to have both of them then talking about how they dealt with their relationships with their mom, and in Lara's case, moms, and how that changed, how that shifted, who ended up reading the book, who didn't read the book. who chose not to see the musical or did see the musical.

So it was a really poignant conversation to have these two queer people first, and then two queer storytellers talking about what is that relationship with your parents and your moms as you're writing these very raw and honest stories that need to be out in the world.

ELLEN FINN: Wow. Yeah. That's so cool. We've had Alison Bechdel on our show before. So it's really cool to hear about her on your show as well.

JP DER BOGHOSSIAN: She's so amazing.

ELLEN FINN: She's very, very cool.

JP DER BOGHOSSIAN: I could not believe that she said yes. When I got the email from her agent, I was literally jumping up and down in the living room.

ELLEN FINN: That's amazing. Same. So your podcast is in its second season. Congratulations.

JP DER BOGHOSSIAN: Thank you.

ELLEN FINN: Tell me more about the author guests you've featured so far. You mentioned you had Alison Bechdel. Who else?

JP DER BOGHOSSIAN: We've had Carmen Maria Machado, National Book Award finalist. We've had national bestselling author Jennifer Finney Boylan, actually the first trans writer to have a bestselling book in the United States. We've had Greg Louganis, four time Olympic Gold Medal winner in the '84 and '88 Olympics, who had to have his coming out story on Oprah and Barbara Walters.

We've had also-- amazing-- four time Minnesota Book Award winner David Larochelle has been on the episode.

ELLEN FINN: I understand, as you mentioned earlier, you start each episode by asking your reader guest to talk about the book that saved their life. I am so curious, how do folks interpret that question? There are so many ways to interpret. I mean, do people interpret it literally?

JP DER BOGHOSSIAN: Yes. So we've had at least one guest say it literally saved their life. Every guest, though, we leave it up to them to decide what saved means. What are the life-giving, -saving features of the book?

And for one guest, it was giving them the tools to process an abusive relationship that they had survived. For one guest, it was about giving them a roadmap of what not to do and how they didn't want to end up as a queer person living and loving in the world. We've had some guests talk about how the book helped them to pivot to begin their gender affirmation.

And there was one guest, actually, who it was amazing how the book kept coming back to them at different points in their lives. So they read the book at 13 or 14 years old and how it helped them process some bullying that they were experience as a young queer kid. And at 16, how they revisited the book, and what it meant to them then. And then it came back to them again at 21 years old and helped them in how they were processing their career and who they wanted to be professionally in the world.

And we have an upcoming episode, actually, which I'm really looking forward to sharing, which was similar in the event that the guest talked about how the book helped them to recognize that they were trans, and they began their gender affirmation process. And then when they revisited the book about three-ish years later, they began to understand themselves as bisexual. And so both times, both on their gender identity and their sexual identity, they were saved by this particular book. So I'm really looking forward to sharing that with folks.

ELLEN FINN: That's exciting. I can't wait to hear that. Also, as you said, after you talk with the reader guest, you bring on the author guest, and the two of them get to talk to each other.

JP DER BOGHOSSIAN: For the reader, it really is an amazing moment for them to get to meet the author of this book that saved their lives. And for the authors, it presents a different kind of moment for them. You can meet a reader at a book signing or at a reading event, but this is a very contained, intimate environment where you really get to hear the reader's story. And I know that it's been very meaningful. I've had authors afterwards reach out to me and talk about how meaningful it was for them.

ELLEN FINN: I kind of want to turn to you, JP. When did you realize that books are really important to you?

JP DER BOGHOSSIAN: Ever since I could start reading. There are stories of me literally carrying books around with me wherever I would go. Books represented a opportunity for me to process what I was feeling and thinking about the world in a safe environment because I didn't have that when I was an adolescent and a teenager processing my own queer identity and my own faith tradition and my own cultural identities as an Armenian and an American in the world. So books presented that opportunity and that space for me to begin to do that. It's been part of my life from the minute I could read what those little squiggles were on a page.

ELLEN FINN: That's great. Compared to just 10 years ago, it feels like there are so many more queer books coming out in literally every genre, just so many more. And that feels so different to me compared to the options, for example, that I had when I was a kid.

JP DER BOGHOSSIAN: I think that there is way more. And I think that for me, the most exciting and the most revolutionary work is actually happening in YA, young adult fiction right now. It's absolutely mind-blowing. There are still barriers, however, that are baked in to the publishing system. And I think that queer authors, a trend that I have seen is that they still feel there are far more gatekeepers that will say, well, we already published a book like that three years ago. But then they're still publishing books by straight and cisgender authors that are the umpteenth time that we've read a book about a divorce, right?

I just recorded an episode two weeks ago with a author who said that what ended up becoming her most prominent book was rejected by every press in the United States. And she actually had a agent who identified as lesbian who told her, never show this to anyone, and found a publisher in Canada, and they got behind it. And when they put her on a book tour that was merging between Canada and the US, working starting on the eastern seaboard and working west, by the time she got out west the reading events and the speaking events were sold out.

ELLEN FINN: Well, I'll leave it there. JP, thank you so much for the conversation. It was a pleasure to talk to you.

JP DER BOGHOSSIAN: Perfect. Thank you.

ELLEN FINN: JP Der Boghossian is the host and creator of This Queer Book Saved My Life, which lives online at thisqueerbook.com

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