top of page
eliot_1_ (3) (1).jpg

Eliot Duncan

Longlisted for National Book Award 2023

The Wise Owl talks to Eliot Duncan, a poet and critically acclaimed writer. Eliot is a graduate of the Iowa Writers' Workshop where he was a Truman Capote Fellow. His debut novel, PONYBOY (Norton and Footnote) was published in June 2023 and is a National Book Award nominee. He lives in New York. 

The Interview : Eliot Duncan

The Wise Owl talks to Eliot Duncan, a poet and critically acclaimed writer. Eliot is a graduate of the Iowa Writers' Workshop where he was a Truman Capote Fellow. His debut novel, PONYBOY (Norton and Footnote) was published in June 2023 and is a National Book Award nominee. He lives in New York. 


Thank you so much Eliot, for taking time out to talk to The Wise Owl. We are delighted to talk to you.


RS: Your debut novel, Ponyboy, has received a lot of accolades and has been nominated for the National Book Award. Please tell us a little about the genesis of the novel.


ED: I started PONYBOY not really knowing what I was doing. It wasn’t clear to me that I was writing a novel. I just started collecting fragments of writing in a word document and it started taking the shape of a book-like thing. I think I wanted to write myself into the world, to make a trans-masculine character who was ruthlessly himself so that I could exist that way too. I started writing letters and conversations with historical figures that I felt similar to, that I wanted to hang out with, as a way to deepen my sense of the present.


RS: I recollect you saying in an interview that your first love is poetry and that you would like to be a poet. For the benefit of our readers please tell us what attracts you to poetry. Considering your love for poetry, what made you switch gears and write a novel?


ED: I usually write poems first and then try to bend them into prose. I want each sentence to be as spacious and deep as a poem. I’ve always lovingly got the feedback that my prose are stronger than my poetry and so I just lean into that. I don’t see it as a switch into prose, really. I just write the sentences. The punctuation and chapters are like line breaks. Enjambment happens the spaces between sentences. I think there’s a continuity in prose that poetry doesn’t have to fold into but I tend to read prose that feel really poemy and try to do that in my own work. I just write from feeling and then pour that into a longer narrative. I don’t think about plot or character development. I just collect what’s there and a narrative and characters emerge.


RS: What I found very intriguing about your novel, which spans themes of substance abuse and the experience of being a trans, is the manner in which you have focussed on the underbelly of addiction so to be speak. There is nothing cool about addiction. It is a tedious, even a traumatic process. You did not mind wading into the mess. Could you please enlarge upon this aspect of the novel.


ED: Wow, thank you for that generous question and deep reading! That’s exactly my hope: that PONYBOY offers a depiction of that monotonous hell that is active addiction. There’s no glamour there. It’s miserable. It’s boring and it’s lethal. I didn’t realise it at the time, but PONYBOY interjects the often grandiose and shallow addiction narratives with a kind of frankness: there’s nothing shimmering or appealing about active addiction. It’s hell but it’s a hell you can survive, you can recover.


RS: Your protagonist goes through the ‘high’ as well as ‘low’ of addiction and the trauma of overdose, before he limps back to recovery and a realisation of his true ‘self.’  I would like to believe that your protagonist is pushed into addiction because he is unable to admit to and embrace his true ‘self.’ So in a manner of speaking the themes of addiction and being a trans are interwoven. Could you please throw light on the thought process that made you meld these themes.


ED: I didn’t think about them as themes. Someone pointed out to me that books are studies of consciousness, of human experience. Being trans is a human experience. So is being an addict. I just wrote a book that depicts both of those very human experiences. Trans people make up something like 1% of the population here in the States. We are often villainized and misunderstood. There’s a maddening sensationalization that rides our daily lives. Often times, we aren’t given permission to simply live without explanation. My hope is that more trans narratives get to exist, and that we are read and metabolized as congruent expressions of being human. We write and have always written, we will always write, despite any legislation that tries to erase us. I dream of a world where transsexuals get to publish books that don’t have to hinge on their identity, that we can be writers first, not a collection of categories or projected ideas, that our human experience can be varied, celebrated and commonplace.


RS: I recollect you saying that a novel is about human experience and consciousness and although your book may be about a trans experience, you do not want a niche readership. Considering your book has been nominated for the National Book award, clearly your book has been welcomed by a global literary community. How does that make you feel?


ED: It’s gorgeous and it’s also none of my business, haha! I don’t write with readers in mind. I write the things that feel present leave the rest alone. It’s such a joy to have something I wrote be read and read widely—but I don’t think my work is for anyone in particular. I don’t think about how my work is packaged or positioned or sold, that’s beyond me. It’s more about minding my business, which is the writing. Anything that comes of it is extra. What a joy to have something I wrote be in the world at all. I try my best to both enjoy and let go of any outcome of my writing. I just take note of spirit as it moves through me. I think a lot of books are articulations of spirit. Spirit has no market. The value I find in reading and writing is physiological. That doesn’t really have anything to do with legibility in sales or awards. At the same time, I’m excited and grateful for the nomination because it affirms my writing, and gives me more space to keep going.


RS: Another thing I found very intriguing in your book is the two distinct narrative styles of the novel. The first half of the narrative focusses on the addiction of the protagonist and the narrative writing style is what has been called metaphorical. In the second half, the narrative style becomes simple & minimalistic. It does wonders for the book of course, because while the first one reflects the chaos of the protagonist’s life, the second reflects the recovery and evolution of the main character. What was your thought behind juxtaposing these widely different writing styles?


ED: Yeah, I wanted the book not to be about transsexuality or addiction but for the words to embody those lived experiences. When the words become the subject, the style inevitably varies, because language is just he medium to reflect sensation.


RS: Your book ‘Ponyboy’ has been called a ‘bildungsroman’ by critics. Do you agree with this categorisation? If so why & if not why not.


ED: Sure! A beautiful word.


RS: Our readers and viewers would love to know if you are working on a new novel or poetry collection.  Could you tell us a little about it?


ED: Yes, a several poems will be published in Tissue Mag and the Erotic Review in the coming months. I am also working on a second novel, which is about the spiritual condition people call Bipolar Disorder.


RS: Your debut novel has been so successful. Could you share some pointers about writing a good novel with our upcoming novelists.


ED: Ruthlessly find the work that deeply resonates with you. Live with the work that moves you, whatever it is. Find examples of work(any work) you cannot avoid adoring and situate your work in that lineage, however disperse it is. You get to create your own cannon. Then just focus on making work that reflects that, that lives amongst the minds you love. Just stay in your own gorgeous lane and make things you love. 


Thank you so much Eliot, for taking time out to speak with us about your novel and your creative journey as a novelist. Here is wishing you the best in all your literary pursuits and hoping that your next book also wins lots awards and accolades.

Books by Eliot Duncan

bottom of page