Best of 2021 Q&A: Erica Lenti

Erica Lenti appears on our Best of 2021 list for the piece “Cases of missing trans people are rarely solved. A married pair of forensic genealogists is hoping to change that.” You can read it at Xtra.

GCL invited writers on the list to answer a questionnaire to give us further insight into their work. The following are Erica’s answers:

How did you start working on this story?

I found out about the Trans Doe Task Force on Reddit (yes, there are spots on there that aren’t a cesspool), after the Christine Jessop case was solved. The folks from TDTF, Anthony and Lee, were involved in the forensic genealogy that went into solving that case. I looked into their work and realized they were both trans and both doing some incredible work identifying cases in the community. So I reached out!

How long did it take to write this piece?

From initial pitch to publication, five months. In terms of the actual writing process: I wrote this story with the support and generosity of the Banff Centre’s Literary Journalism Program, so I had two weeks in July devoted to working on the piece. I usually never get that length of time to work on anything these days, so it was an absolute pleasure.

What was the most challenging part of writing it?

I had to do all of my reporting remotely and virtually, and that has its challenges, particularly when the story is as sensitive as this one. I had a lot of really tough conversations with all of my sources, and there’s only so much you can do to convey comfort to those sources on a Zoom or phone call. I tried to approach everyone with as much empathy as I could. Ultimately, I’d love to someday sit down in person with all the folks I interviewed for the piece. They were so open and generous with their time, and that means the world to me.

Do you have a particular writing ritual you follow?

Because I had those two devoted weeks to work on this, I found it really freeing to not have to think about other distractions. I usually write at my desk in my home office, but I actually finished my third draft at a nearby park while picnicking with my partner and my dog. It was wonderful.

What did you find different about writing during a global pandemic?

Aside from the logistical challenges, the one great thing about writing during a global pandemic is the freedom I have now that I’m working from home. When I’m stuck, I can take my dog for a walk and mull over the details of a scene in my head. When I’m feeling burnt, I can play some Super Mario Maker and go back to work at 8 p.m. My family and I have been privileged to have stayed healthy and safe this year, and I’m incredibly grateful for the opportunity to keep writing from home.

What was the most surprising thing you learned about your subject (or in the case of a personal essay, yourself) during the process?

For Anthony and Lee, working on a case means really throwing themselves into the work. When they feel they’re on the cusp of a discovery, they’ll work day and night to figure it out. They’ll forgo sleep to help these trans Does reclaim their identities. There are few people as selfless in their work as Anthony and Lee. Their devotion to the community really floored me. They’re really amazing people.

What sort of reaction has your piece received from readers?

It’s all been incredibly positive! A lot of readers had no idea this kind of work was being done to help identify trans Does. I hope that I can play a small part in raising the TDTF’s profile, and in turn help them solve more cases.

For any fellow non-fiction writers reading this, do you have a favourite writing tip to share?

This is kind of a rookie tip, but: read your stories aloud!

What writing projects are you working on currently?

Not much I can talk about, but expect more LGBTQ2S+-related features from me, as usual! You can keep up with my work on Twitter @ericalenti.

And lastly: If you know of any missing persons cases that have gone unresolved, please contact the folks at TDTF. The more cases they have to work with, the more likely they’ll be able to help identify folks who have gone without their name and story for so, so long. Please visit transdoetaskforce.org.

Find Erica on Twitter: @ericalenti

This Q&A may have been edited for clarity and length.

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