An interview with Marcus Tallberg

Your multimedia company Tallbergs Forlag is about championing not just LGBTQ identities, but also people of various ethnicities, religions, classes, and genders as well as autism spectrum disorders. Why all these different groups?

Well, I don’t really understand how I can fight for gay rights but not black rights or women’s rights. It’s human rights. And that’s my passion. I love learning about new things, and I love being able to help others get their voices heard. There is so much prejudice out there. And we need to start looking at each other as humans, as equals, rather than as something different and scary.

What spurred you to write your first book, the very autobiographical My Queer Teen Life, at 16?

I wrote My Queer Teen Life because I’d found an online competition. The winner was guaranteed a published book in Sweden, Norway, Denmark and Finland and the prize money was almost $30.000 U.S. To make the deadline, I wrote the book with my best friend Emma Björck, who is “Tove” the story. We moved the location to another small town in Sweden (we googled: “Sweden’s most boring town”) and changed the names of our friends and family. We finished one day before the deadline, but in the end, the jury didn’t think there was a book worth the prize. So, we did a huge edit, reworking of the book and it got published in Sweden in 2008. A new edition came in 2011, and then I republished it under the Tallbergs Forlag imprint in 2018, when I was 29. It was used in a high school literature class, which was nice.

Shattered Glass, published when you were 26 is also autobiographical. Is the story and characters Mikael, Eric, Bella, and Kasper based on real people? 

Yes. Mikael’s story is my story, from my point of view. Erik’s story is also based on mine. It’s the dark path I took without even fully realizing it after I was raped when I was 13 by an older man while my parents were away. The character Bella is based on Emma before she and I moved from our little town of Trollhättan to Stockholm, and then another girl after I moved to Stockholm, but her personality however is based on a third girl. Haha. And Kasper is loosely based on a close friend of mine.

How did you go about finding the trans people you interviewed for Being Alice, your novel about a trans girl’s coming out? Were they all trans women or did you also speak to trans men? 

Through Facebook, I did a post explaining I was writing a book, after being encouraged to do so by two of my trans friends, and that I wanted to interview everyone who thought they could contribute. I spoke to trans and intergendered people, regardless of how they identified. I wasn’t interested in how far along they were in their transition or if they had surgery or not, I was interested in their thoughts, feelings, and experiences because I wanted to have a full understanding of their lives.

There is a lot of important, refreshing, and encouraging information, facts, and interesting insights about being trans and gender expansive in Being Alice, most often dished out by the wise and witty Vincent/Ursula Undress. How did you go about gathering these nuggets? 

It’s all thanks to one of my friends who is genderfluid (and wants to remain anonymous). I met with them before “Being Alice” was a book, when it was just a bunch of ideas and interviews. Over red wine I expressed my concerns about how to pull everything together. When they started to talk, they began sharing so many amazing thoughts and ideas, I was like, “Wait!” I got my computer, opened a Word document and told them to continue. 90% of Vincent’s/Ursula Undress’s monologues are from these red wine evenings. 

Many of your books, particularly, My Queer Teen Life, Shattered Glass, and Being Alice are published not only as stories or entertainment but as a way of sharing experiences, especially with others who may be going through similar experiences. Is this the underlying mission of all your books?

Yes, absolutely. I don’t want anyone to feel alone. And I also want to teach others to think differently. To “walk in someone else’s shoes” so to speak. In retrospect, I know that it would have been far less painful for me to come to an understanding of my identity had I had natural role models in my everyday life, even if only in books.

All three titles were rejected by publishers who seem to have the attitude that if you’ve read one trans or LGBTQ book you’ve read them all, without even considering that the story comes first—the character’s sexuality or gender identity are secondary. Did you feel these publishers were uncomfortable with queer literature? Or that they just had no idea how many queer readers are out there?

For me, my sexuality isn’t the thing that defines who I am, but it’s still a big part of me. So yeah, I try to tell stories about people. What they look like, or identify as aren’t the most important things; it’s about their stories and experiences.  When I first created my publishing house, I met with cis white men to ask for funding. None of them took me seriously. They thought the target audience was too small, but that’s so wrong. Even if you go with 10% of the population of Sweden, that’s one million people, and that excludes many more potential readers. As we’ve seen, our books are read by a wide variety of people. Many of my readers are moms. 

You are also publishing a sci-fi fantasy trilogy, titled The Kraften Trilogy, the first book of which is The Orphan. (“Kraften” is Swedish for “Power”) What made you want to write sci-fi/fantasy? 

I have ALWAYS loved fantasy and all things magic. I grew up watching Charmed and playing things like Zelda. This isn’t the first trilogy I’ve written about the subject but it’s the first one I am really proud of. And after publishing three contemporary YA novels I felt like I wanted to do something different. And then this story came to me in a dream. It was about the “Big Brother”-concept about how the Government is watching more than we think and to mix it with magic and then combine it with the climate crisis everything fell into place. 

You will be publishing English language versions of your series of educational children’s books about trans kids, Perfectly Linus, Perfectly Bella, and Perfectly Charlie. Sweet coming out stories where each asserts their gender, which is then celebrated with a party at school for their new names.  How did this series come about?

The “Perfectly …” series was written by Camilla Gisslow, who was inspired to write the books by her own son’s journey to find his identity. They both had to fight the norms of society; he was a trans boy and she was the parent of a trans child. Camilla also directed our first documentary, Save Our Lives, which follows three Swedish families which have fully accepted their children’s chosen gender. The mothers in the film share the pain their children have experienced at the hands of others due to ignorance about people with transidenties. We are convinced that one way to improve the mental health of transgender people is to support them from a very young age. We hope these books and this film open people’s eyes and improve how young trans people are treated.

Lastly, another of your forthcoming English language version children’s books is Ty the Dinosaur and the Substitute Teacher, a beautifully illustrated story about a child with autism. How did you become interested in autism and what led to publishing the book?

Prior to establishing Tallbergs Forlag, I was Chief of Marketing for a sales company, where I burned myself out and quit. I couldn’t work or do anything for almost six months. When I was somewhat ready to start working again I began looking for a job as a personal assistant. In the meantime, I got a job as an “adult companion” for kids on the autism spectrum. 

Being with these children taught me about myself in ways I could not have predicted; to see the world differently. One of them is actually trans and I’ve been with her since she was a little kid. Now she’s almost an adult. She’s one of the bravest people I know, and she’s been through so much. They inspire me to do better.

I ended up taking a job as a personal assistant and worked my way up to coordinator for a company that helps clients get the right personal assistant or companion. There, I organized an education night where I invited a woman with autism named Jill Faulkner to come speak about her experience. After her lecture, I asked her why she hadn’t written a book about it. She said she couldn’t write. I said, “But I can write! Is it okay if I make a draft, have you read it, and then we will see how it goes?” She agreed and the result was Ty the Dinosaur and the Substitute Teacher, which we wrote together. The book is based on Jill.