“There is no Frigate like a Book to take us Lands away.” ~ Emily Dickinson
If what Ms. Dickinson says is true, get ready to set sail with this week’s Portrait.
Ray Toy is a writer and artist who debuted their first published novel, “Creep Sex” at Spoonbill & Sugartown Books in New York. The book reflects Toy’s comedic voice that first came to light in a series of funny art performances at The Cavendish Arms and The Fox and Firkin in London and Good Good Comedy Theatre in Philadelphia. Toy currently performs regularly at various venues around Philadelphia, including Headlong Dance Theater and Plays & Players Theatre.
They have also written and produced video art in collaboration with filmmaker and actress, Amy Frear. According to Frear’s website, “They like working together because Amy’s interest in silliness undercutting aggression goes well with Ray’s interest in neuroticisms in a capitalist culture. They like talking softly into their microphones and depicting jokes with large scale drawings.” The duo was featured in a curated video art exhibition at Philadelphia’s Institute of Contemporary Art (ICA). Toy has given artist talks at the ICA, the Maryland Institute College of Art (MICA), and the Pennsylvania Academy of the Fine Arts (PAFA).
I spoke to Ray on a recent night where they were game enough to stand outside in the freezing cold to talk to me when the event they were calling from became too loud. I’ve taken out the sounds of teeth chattering.
Where do you hail from?
I’m originally from the suburbs of Philadelphia — Media, PA.
Give me the rundown on the family.
I have a mom and dad. They were both psychiatric nurses, which was interesting, and I have a sister who works in community outreach in a synagogue.
You know they say that the wildest kids are usually the children of psychiatrists and preachers!
[Laughing] Is that true? I don’t know. I was a good kid. Yeah, I got good grades and always wanted to be well behaved. I didn’t do drugs. I didn’t even date around very much. I was very sheltered for a long time. I guess that counteracts the stereotype!
There’s always the exception to the rule! And your parents weren’t full-blown psychiatrists so we’ll let it slide.
That’s true. They were both psychiatric nurses, but my mom acts like a psychiatrist!
What was a best birthday when you were a kid?
That’s an interesting question. As a kid, I had some pretty nice parties growing up, but for some reason, I’m remembering one where we had these parachutes — the kind where you get everyone in a circle and everyone holds a piece of it and you toss things up into the air with the parachute.
We did that in gym class. It’s fun and colorful. What kinds of things were you into as a kid?
So many things… Well, you know what, I had a best friend — Chris Monaco — and we wrote books together and we’d write plays and put on little skits and make movies. We were extremely prolific as children!
Yeah, and now he’s a theater director here in Philadelphia.
Bravo. What were some of the topics your young brains grappled with?
We wrote a series of books called “The Children’s Family” and it was about a group of children who lived together as a family with no adults, and their adventures.
It sounds like it foreshadowed your future a little.
I think so, definitely! I’ve had to find my own tribe.
What did you do after high school?
I went to MICA [Maryland Institute College of Art] in Baltimore and then I took a break and worked for a while and then I got my Masters degree in London at the Royal College of Art.
Well, excuse me!
[Laughing] Oh that sounds really… yeah, I usually just say the RCA because it sounds so elitist when you say the whole name!
You should be proud of it. Don’t hide your shine! What did you study? Fine art? Theater?
I changed my major every year. I couldn’t figure out what I really wanted to do. At MICA, I started with painting, then switched to architecture, then switched to interactive arts. I wanted to switch to sculpture but I graduated, and then at the RCA in London, I studied Contemporary Art practice-public sphere, meaning political and socially engaged art.
Wow, that’s a lot. Describe your artistry now. What are you up to? What’s your main focus?
Definitely writing. I’ve been definitely leaning very hard into novel writing. I feel like it’s my life’s passion. I’m really feeling it in a way that I never felt about any previous medium that I’ve done.
What was the first thing you wrote that was more on the professional side?
It’s hard to say what that might be, but I led the student newspaper at the RCA. I don’t know if that counts.
What really got me into writing was when I started writing material for comedy performances. When I was in grad school, there was a bar inside the school and I performed some comedy routines there and they were successful. That’s when I realized that I could make people laugh. I got deeper into it in Philly at places like Good Good Comedy Theatre. That material morphed into the novels.
I looked at some of your videos online, and I noticed that you seem to like using props in your material.
Yes, so when I perform, my priority is to 1) have good written material to base the performance off of and 2) have some kind of visual element because when I’m writing my visual, I guess my visual vortex is very active. I’m writing in my mind and visually seeing my ideas and I want there to be something for the audience to look at. I’m aware that I have a very monotone voice, which can be good for some comedy, but I like to complement it with other elements.
What was an early sign you were queer?
I don’t think I realized this at the time but in hindsight, I had crushes in elementary school and didn’t really realize what it was. It wasn’t until high school when I had a really big crush on someone. And I didn’t want anyone to know! We moved to Lancaster for high school, so it was very conservative. I think there were only two out students in the whole school.
Ha! Were you out there eyeing the Amish girls? Trying to have a Harrison Ford/Kelly McGillis connection like in the movie “Witness”?
[Laughing] No! That’s funny though. The Amish students went to different schools or maybe I would have!
When did you come out more formally with family and friends?
Very late, and I came out in a very bashful way. In my freshman year of college, I just kind of came out when I was really feeling sad one day and just felt like I had to say something. I had been holding it in too much and I just couldn’t help it. So I just told my mother and it was awkward! My mom didn’t say very much. My parents are a little emotionally distant, so they really didn’t say anything.
I know that you identify as nonbinary. When did you start figuring out that identity as well?
That’s a good question. Well, funnily enough, what happened was that three years ago, I found out that top surgery was covered by my insurance. I was like, “Oh, that’s amazing. I’ve always wanted to cut my boobs off. Let’s do it!” I didn’t even think of it as related to gender or anything at all. It was more like, now’s my chance while it’s paid for and [laughing] then after I did it, I was like, “Oh, I guess that means that I’m genderqueer.” I just thought I was tricking the system!
I love that. So tell me about your book “Love Rain.” What’s it about? How long have you been working on it?
It took me about 6-7 months to write. It’s my second book. Well, technically it’s what you’d call a novella. It’s about the search for romance. What does romantic love mean? At the time I wrote it, I had been with someone and was falling in love for the first time in my life and it was an unsuccessful relationship. It’s about my mind imagining this fantastical world with creatures and strangers that I run into. I ask them, ‘What does love mean?” The first book was in a similar universe where the main character is meandering around and they befriend an alien who takes them to different planets. They go clubbing together and it’s very silly. “Love Rain” centers around two silly druggies, Nell and Trust, who witness the murder of a local menace named Tow Man. Fleeing the scene, Nell embarks on a soul-searching journey to trim their threads of misery and unlock the secret to romantic love. Along the way, Nell encounters a geriatric bear and an experimental exhibitionist privy to the world of trolls and a whole lot more. It’s available right now at https://store.bookbaby.com/book/love-rain1 and it will be available on Amazon, at Barnes & Noble and a number of major retailers on March 21 but if you buy it through the link, I get more of the royalties!
How did you get that kind of distribution? Do you have an agent?
I do not have an agent. What I did was I paid the printer a flat fee to distribute copies of the book to wholesalers who supply it to Barnes & Noble, Amazon and other retailers. The wholesalers are like Ingram and Baker & Taylor — and what I found is that most of the independent bookstores use the same wholesalers so it’s not as mysterious of a process as I thought it would be. There are some major connecting nodes where everybody gets their books.
I assume you’ll be selling in Giovanni’s Room?
Oh, I should reach out to them. The wholesalers don’t even have it yet but I’m compiling a list of stores I want to personally reach out to.
You should talk to them about a book reading or signing.
I’ll do that! That’s a great idea.
OK, let’s do some random questions. Actually, my first question isn’t totally random. What’s the origin of your last name, Toy? It’s pretty unusual.
I just made it up!
Ah! It’s your nom de plume…
Yeah, I came up with the name when I wrote the first book. Ray I came up with a little bit earlier when I realized that I wanted a gender-neutral name or a masc-leaning name and then Toy I came up with when I was writing the first book and I wanted a good author name and it just resonated with me and stuck. I really like single syllable names and I’m physically small. I’m playful, so it seemed to fit.
OK, now actual random questions: Someone you’d like to be stuck in an elevator with?
Miranda July. She’s a director, screenwriter, actress and author. She sings. She does performance art. She started the Joanie 4 Jackie project — just an all-around amazing person.
You might not know this from looking at me but I’m really good at…
Walking absurdly long distances. I will randomly walk for three hours and be totally fine.
What’s a favorite piece of clothing?
I love T-shirts. Ever since I got my top surgery, I’m like, “T-shirts are the best invention ever!” They fit perfectly.
Your house is on fire — what do you take with you?
My passport so I could leave the country. I would take the insurance money and buy the grimiest flat in London, as that’s all I could afford in that city.
Your first/favorite childhood book.
I have always liked books about food, like “The Muffin Muncher,” which is about a dragon who loves muffins, and “Cloudy with a Chance of Meatballs,” which more people are familiar with. The illustrations in that one are incredible.
Any famous or noble relatives or ancestors?
My grandfather, Irving Yalisove, was a trailblazer in the field of dental prosthetics. He taught at the University of Pennsylvania. I remember visiting him at home after he retired. He would sit around and create mobile sculptures in a style similar to Alexander Calder’s.
What was your favorite childhood snack or candy?
Hershey’s Milk Chocolate. My family visited Hershey’s Chocolate World many times. They have an amusement ride that teaches you about the manufacturing process. It smells richly of chocolate the whole time. You see vats of churning, glistening chocolate. And then they take you through an “oven” or a warm tunnel lined with red neon lights.
Ooh, I think I went on that when my nephew was young! Who do you want to read this interview?
Beautiful, funny, intelligent people who will hit on me at my next reading event (I’m reading my new book at Studio 34 on March 1 at 7:30 p.m., by the way), or a publishing agent who wants to make me a millionaire!