“Transparent” writer Ali Liebegott on queering television

Novelist Ali Liebegott has written some of the best queer fiction in the last 10 years. From The IHOP Papers to 2013’s Cha-Ching!, Ali is masterful at taking the LGBT experience and drawing readers into the daily lives of lesbian characters not often portrayed in pop culture. When Jill Soloway asked her to consider writing television, specifically for her show Transparent, Ali became part of a new kind of representation, from the page to the small screen, or even smaller screen, depending on how people have watched the Amazon Prime series.


We spoke with Ali about bringing her queer perspective to the writers’ room and how she came to play Tiffany, the security guard.

AfterEllen.com: The show is a huge hit, what have you been hearing from queer family and friends close to you? 

Ali Liebegott: Mostly everyone has been really excited about it. If they aren’t excited, they haven’t called me.

AE:  I know this is your first TV show that you’ve written on and you were careful about making sure that the trans element was going to be depicted correctly. How did your your experience in the queer community novelist help your work on this show?

AL: One of the reasons I got the job was probably based on a lot of my life experience and what I could bring to the room as far as being a writer, yes, but someone who has just lived in a queer community my whole adult life. So I don’t know, I kind of take that for granted. You know it’s your life so you don’t really think about it. But coming from San Francisco to Los Angelesit’s not a queer bubble. I thought oh everyone knows this! That’s not true ya know because people, everyone is not living in a queer community.

AE: How much life experience are you using? Are there things that when you watch the show are there things you contributed to the knowledge and inclusion of it in the show? 

AL: There’s tons and from everyone, that’s the beauty of the writers room is that youit’s weird. One thing that really surprised me a lot was the value of experience and how just living whatever life you live helps. And for me, I’ve lived a weird life in a lot of ways. Shitty jobs, and weird drunken hook-ups and all of the sudden that’s in, stuff from your own life and all of that stuff is weird and valuable because you’ve had those experiences. And all the writers, that’s the great thing about working collaboratively, everyone is mining from their lives and the fact that besides Faith, we were the only queer writers in the room everyday. We were the only queer people so it was interesting to see what all of everyone brought. I’m not Jewish but the the show is so Jewish and just like looking at the writers who in some ways that was second nature to them in the way that queer stuff was second nature to me ya know? It was an interesting way to collaborate. 

AE: So do you like TV do you watch TV regularly? 

AL: I didn’t have a TV until Jill called. I bought a TV when Jill reached out to me to work for this. It had been so long since I owned a TV that when I went to Best Buy I didn’t understand that TVs were all flat now. I thought that was just the kind of TV at a Hampton Inn Breakfast Nook, I didn’t understand that TVs looked like that. So I bought a TV to prepare working on this because I hadn’t watched a lot of TV a lot at all. I still probably don’t watch a lot of TV but I’m trying to catch up on shows that people say are shows that are important them, or shows they recommend I check out. So I’m watching more TV that I did before. I don’t have some moral thing against TV or anything, I usually work nights, and I’d watch baseball on TV. Because of my schedule, I don’t know, even as a child, TV was never a big deal. I owned a TV shortly and mostly it was just to watch baseball.

AE: So now, having done this show, is that something you want to keep doing? Other kind of shows or just Transparent

AL: I would like to continue writing. I think I was very surprised that it didn’t feel, as a novelist, it didn’t feel–like I had done other writing for money, like writing articles for papers and I just hated that so much. It was a particular kind of writing that made me feel depressed and almost lazy–like I don’t have to organize thoughts or think linearly or things like that. So I wasn’t sure exactly what to expect with writing but in some ways I feel like TV writing is going to make me a better novelist because it makes me think about story structure in a way. That’s probably the thing that is the most difficult for me and TV writing is the actual structure, like a kind of particular structure and it has to do with organized thought. Which like I said, I have a really hard time, I just like to be tangential, on the floor, eat shit and make jokes. So bringing it all together, that’s been really, like I’ve learned a lot. It’s like someone sent me to film school for free. I’m learning a lot. It feels creative. We’re really lucky because with this show, the content and the characters, it feels really easy for me to be invested in. Especially the queer stuff. The queer and family stuff is fun and interesting to write about. 

AE: So if you went to work on another show and it didn’t have queer components, would you enjoy that or do you want to keep working on things to bring your queer experiences to? 

AL: I don’t think it matters as long as there’s emotional truth. It’s hard for me to answer questions because I realize that my first TV job was in this very special experience, and Jill runs a very noncompetitive feminist room, so it’s easy for me to say yeah, I’m open to another show! Because I haven’t had that experience yet where I’m the one queer woman among fifty straight dudes. So it’s a little bit hard to say without knowing, but yeah, I really enjoy the process of collaboration. It’s amazing to have six brains instead of one trying to secure the story. 

AE: So in approaching writing your episode can you tell me how you attacked it, because it was your first time?

AL: Well the process of the room is you work together for months figuring out who the characters are and what their journeys are going to be. When its time to sit down and write the script, you have an outline. You know there’s going to be this many scenes and you have a basic idea as to what the suggestion is for each scene, and I had five which was smack in the middle of the season. It was challenging because it’s an episode where Ed goes missing, so that story line was fixed, but Maura’s wasn’t. So we probably decided about 13 different things that could happen to Maura on that day and so her storyline was just, I can’t even tell you how many times I rewrote her storyline. Like whole storylines that get into characters that are nowhere to be found. It was really good for me because it was at times really frustrating because I’m not used to the idea of just–well, in some ways I’m used to throwing away a lot of work, but to think of the process as a part of the process and not just the end result. It was pretty funny.