Paul Takes the Form of a Mortal Girl

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Jordy Rosenberg and Andrea Lawlor on Exploding Narrative Structure and Theory Posturing

The way I usually tell it is that I met Jordy Rosenberg outside Cafe Express in Provincetown in 1994, we immediately got into a fight about queer theory versus Marxism, we didn’t speak again until the following summer, and we’ve been friends ever since. Now, in a startling and barely believable plot twist, we’ve both come out with debut novels in the past year: Jordy’s Confessions of the Fox (One World, 2018) and my Paul Takes the Form of a Mortal Girl (Rescue, 2017), each of which has been described as “picaresque,” each of which is as queer and trans as possible. At the time of this conversation, we lived in the same apartment building in Northampton, Massachusetts, but by the time you read this, we will have moved into what we have been calling the “queer commune.” Below, we attempt to make sense of this trajectory. —Andrea Lawlor

Andrea Lawlor: When we first met—maybe 25 years ago?—we were students (well, you were a grad student) and we talked about science fiction and queer books constantly. Now you’re a scholar, a tenured professor with a monograph about capitalism and religious passion in 18th-century literature. But of course, that whole time, you were also writing fiction … I remember an early novel draft that had lesbian ghosts, is that right? Can you talk about your path to writing this novel, Confessions of the Fox, while also having another career?

Jordy Rosenberg: It was 24 years ago, and we were both working food service jobs in Provincetown for the summer. Actually, you were working food service while also party-promoting at the Crown and Anchor. What was your night called? Was it called Boots? I remember one flyer for it which had the word “BOOTS” written in bold, and lots of xeroxed cutout photos of boots.

AL: The night was called Pussy Galore. I am tempted to go through boxes and send you that exact flyer.

JR: No need. I have that flyer committed to memory. That flyer really, really spoke to me.

But the main point here is that I will go to any Lawlor parties I’m invited to—then and now, whether it involves boots or science fiction or being novelists or … whatever. When we met I was just applying to graduate school and I was really in love with critical theory and philosophy. I wanted to write fiction too, but novel-writing felt to me like a comparatively tremendous gamble compared to academia. A large part of that had to do with queerness and having a difficult relationship with my family where I didn’t receive a lot of support. It was a different time, and the tenure system was more intact then, so I just gravitated toward prioritizing academia, while also writing novels on the side. I also think maybe I had developed a kind of asceticism that I associate with my relationship to queerness at that time—like I was allowed to have my queerness, but I would have to give up some other pleasure or gratification maybe? I think fiction writing is what I decided I had to sacrifice for the sake of sex, if that makes sense.

AL: Oof. Yes. That actually makes total sense.

JR: Anyway, over the course of 18 or so years, I was writing and then throwing away novels for not being good enough. Being a published author of fiction just didn’t seem like a dream I was allowed to have (or keep). Finally I committed to Confessions. But wow it took a while.

To go back to you and the party-promoting and our mutual love of science fiction, can you talk a bit about your own path to writing Paul Takes the Form of a Mortal Girl? I’ve known you through all of it, but we haven’t really talked much about the journey itself, which maybe makes sense because these things only seem to take on a narrative arc once there is the arrival of a kind of endpoint.

AL: I know! We know everything and nothing about each other’s writing life. It was ages before you let me read Confessions, and then when I finally read a draft, what was so surprising and compelling is how much of yourself you’d brought to it—in the footnotes of course but also in the form of the novel, and in Jack’s character. It’s funny to read a roman à clef when you maybe have the clef.

JR: Good one. You do have the clef.

AL: To answer your question, though, as you well know, I didn’t start writing in earnest until I was 30. I’d made zines and written a little Chandler/Joey slash (did you ever read that?) but nothing else up to that point. My girlfriend, who was in film school at the time, basically said, “Why are you in that soul-crushing job? You’re a writer.” And I thought, if she can go to film school, I can at least try writing a story. I took a night class at Gotham with Carter Sickels and, not long after, took an unpaid leave of absence from the soul-crushing job, got laid off, and got on unemployment—the second-most important thing that happened to me as a writer (the first being my girlfriend’s encouragement). I had a story I wanted to tell about young queers with slightly boring superpowers but had no idea how to start. I began to re-write Greek myths for practice, just stealing the plots, and in my attempt to retell the story of Tiresias, I wrote what became the opening section of Paul.

Later I was in grad school, and Samuel R. Delany, my teacher, said, “I think you’re not done with Paul.” So again, I listened to good advice, and I began to try to figure out what Paul would do next. The Tiresias story fell away fairly quickly, and then I was adrift. I tried outlining, tried to understand three-act structure, tried to impose a plot, but kept coming back to my sense that I just needed to follow Paul, that my structure was going to have to be a little queer as well. I finished a draft of the novel as my MFA thesis at UMass (and you were down the hall, professing!) and then sent that out to some very kind agents, one of whom suggested I try to amp up the tension, find more conflicts. I dutifully excavated what I thought was pretty solid three-act structure, but wasn’t able, ultimately, to write a book in which Paul “learns a lesson.” This agent was really sweet about it and said to send him my next book. I ended up doubling down on a more episodic structure because I realized my reluctance had to do with my understanding of how people change, how I’ve changed—really slowly, recursively, making the same mistakes over and over. I was incredibly lucky to know the wonderful Hilary Plum and Zach Savich, who edit the Open Prose series at Rescue Press and encouraged me to submit. Hilary is a phenomenal editor—gentle but incisive—and she pushed me many times but always in order to help me make the book I was trying to write. And now it’s out! Hard to believe. You also have worked with an amazing editor, to whom you’ve dedicated your book! What’s that relationship been like?

JR: First of all, I did not read the Chandler/Joey slash. I’m sorry about that. Are you mad? Do you still have it? I’ll totally read it now.
Anyway. I totally get what you’re saying about the ways in which sometimes the process of trying to get literary representation can reinforce certain conventions about what a novel is “supposed” to look like. I, too, find this a kind of baffling and often artificial directive. In my case, it wasn’t so much the departure from genre that posed challenges but the way in which I was maybe trying to combine and multiply genres. Confessions is based in research I did on primary source documents about the 18th century’s most notorious prison-break artist: a real person named Jack Sheppard. What I’d noticed about that archival material was that it repeatedly presented Jack as very genderqueer—he was generally described as very lithe and effeminate and impossibly sexy. I came to feel that this genderqueer sexiness was a way for writers at the time to conceptualize the appeal of a life lived outside of the regular rhythms of the capitalist workday. So for example, because Jack was so irresistible, he’d recruit others into a life of crime. Or, his gender queerness was a way to account for how his prison breaks were possible: He was just so flexible and tiny that he was able to wriggle free of prison walls. I wanted to run with this connection I found in the archives between gender queerness and hatred of/escape from capitalism, and sort of literalize it as an explicitly fictional—actually almost science fictional—trans origin story.

My amazing editors, Victory Matsui and Chris Jackson, were really essential to all of this. The book is a thriller, but an experimental kind of thriller with a number of parallel plotlines intersecting and weaving through each other. Victory and Chris were a genius team at not only exploding and recomposing these elements of narrative structure, voice, and tone, but also thinking through all of this alongside a number of other questions around trans representation, writing queer and trans sex, and the histories of racialization, imperialism, and the prison system. My relationship to One World became easily the most important and most intimate working relationship of my life.

I have a question for you about formal experimentation along these lines. One of the most fascinating elements of your novel, to me, has to do with its incorporation and remixing of what has become a really dominant trend in contemporary writing—the blending of theory and fiction. You can think of Maggie Nelson’s Argonauts as a good example of this, but there are others. Paul Preciado’s Testo-Junkie is another that people may be familiar with, but this practice is perhaps best exemplified in Gloria Anzaldúa’s Borderlands. I see Paul as a new twist on what has been a very queer and feminist genre of blending theory and fiction. But rather than annotating your own text with theoretical elements that lie outside of the plot structure of the novel, you incorporate them into the plot of the text in a way that highlights the characters’ (and the author’s?) desire for theory—and at the same time, you destabilize the authority of that theory.

So for example, there’s this moment where Paul and Jane are talking, and Paul tunes out for a second to think about some questions to do with gender and femininity, and when he tunes back in he’s missed something Jane was saying: “He had not been paying attention to the correct thing, in this case Jane’s disquisition on wanting-to-be vs. wanting-to-do, which as it turned out when he made her repeat her point had something to do with Barthes’ distinction between a readerly and a writerly text.” So you’re incorporating theory into the narrative flow of the novel and kind of (could we say?) performing this readerly vs. writerly text distinction (or confounding it) by withholding the actual Barthes quote and surrounding it with the characters’ desire for and disregard of the theory in itself. Do you want to talk a little more about how you felt the book engaged with this scene of queer theory in the ’90s, and how you thought about writing about that?

AL: I haven’t thought about this at all, and yet when you explain myself to me, I think you must be right—I did do that smart thing you said I did! As you can see, Paul did not fall far from this tree. OK, but seriously—I don’t think of myself as writing with the intention of engaging with critical theory. Critical theory was a hugely formative part of my life, starting in the early ’90s. I had many questions for which I thought critical theory, specifically queer theory, had the answers. Like many young people encountering such thought, I read in a frenzy of excitement and despair. I tried so hard to read Gender Trouble on my own, for instance (if only I’d had your beautiful essay “Reading Gender Trouble on Mother’s Day” way back then!). I understood maybe a 10th of the Butler or Barthes or Foucault I was reading, but it didn’t matter. I wanted always to be around other queers and other seekers, and the world of queer theory was a world of queer seekers. My heroes were academics—as you may remember, I went so far as to make a Judith Butler fanzine, which I then left laying around casually to impress girls. That was what I knew of being young and queer in 1993, and so that’s what I gave to Paul. It’s been a huge relief to me in my life to realize I don’t have to produce theory—that I can be grateful for the work of scholars and critics without having to participate in that work. I’ve been procrastinating this very email exchange (written from one floor above you) because I forget I don’t have to write like an academic. And because I’ve been excited about the way you think for almost 25 years of friendship and always want to live up to that.

JR: Well speaking of living up to, I remember that Judith Butler fanzine (titled Judy! for those readers who want to peek at this magnificence) took my breath away back in 1993. You saw something about the way that queer theory was becoming this object of desire—and also the way that queer street politics were taking shape as a theoretical field that got disciplined in and by and through the academy. I had just graduated from all those years of college where I was supposed to meet people I connected with intellectually, but I didn’t meet anyone whose brain compelled me as much as yours did until that year we were both working in P-town.

A Year in Reading: Heather Scott Partington

A few days after the 2016 presidential election, I did a weird, sobbing thing. I copied Walt Whitman’s “A Noiseless Patient Spider” onto a card and posted it in my office. “And you, O my Soul, where you stand,/ Surrounded, surrounded, in measureless oceans of space,” I wrote. 2017 began, and that space had become everything; I just sat alone in the middle of it, swaddling myself in anxiety. I blocked myself from reading social media because I was afraid to feel angry about my friends and family. Every day was another national crisis; my husband and I started redirecting our money and attention to newspapers, charities, and organizations that protect —we’ve deemed these civic tithes. But I felt scattered and incapable of sustaining a thought, let alone a life of critical reading, or engagement with my government. I wanted to slip into a dark crack and hide there, unnoticed. I didn’t want to read. I didn’t want to move.

To borrow from Whitman, my 2017 in reading was about the bridge I needed out of that dark space; the tentative, then hopeful casting of webs until something caught. Two books I read early in the year were bridges for different reasons. Courtney Maum’s novel Touch celebrates a future where the latest trends are freedom from technology, and physical human connection. That thought was a balm. The second was David McCullough’s collection of speeches, The American Spirit. Frankly, it gave me hope because it reminded me that America has been in dire straits before—awful messes—but is built on imperfection and persistence.

I was reminded that books are products both of when they are written, and the world they are born into. I read Viet Thanh Nguyen’s phenomenal short story collection, The Refugees, the same week the president first cruelly called for a ban on all refugees entering the country. Many books I read—both fiction and nonfiction—in 2017 started to coalesce around the same idea: we don’t believe each other. Whether we’re talking about political needs, or allowing immigration, or honoring the story of someone who has been abused, belief is the central tenet of the conversation. Nguyen’s stories, like Roxane Gay’s memoir, Hunger, Hillary Clinton’s post-election memoir, What Happened, Mohsin Hamid’s magical novel Exit West, and Jesús Carrasco’s novel, Out in the Open, all deal in some way with the questioning of personal truth. This makes sense to me, given how we’ve treated truth like a toy for the last 10 years. I find that exhausting.

I caught up on titles I’ve missed from years past, finally immersing myself in things like Phil Klay’s Redeployment, Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie’s Americanah, Colson Whitehead’s Underground Railroad. I read George Saunders’s Lincoln in the Bardo like everyone else and, like everyone else, was amazed. Two books from 2017 that stood out were Attica Locke’s smart thriller Bluebird, Bluebird, which moves beyond easy tropes of good guy/bad guy to tackle real issues of race in East Texas, and Andrea Lawlor’s gutsy, hopeful, gender- and shapeshifting novel, Paul Takes the Form of a Mortal Girl.

I read wonderful books by people I adore: Liska Jacobs’s novel, Catalina, Tod Goldberg’s sequel to Gangsterland, Gangster Nation, JoAnn Chaney’s thriller, What You Don’t Know, Natashia Deón’s novel, Grace, Deanne Stillman’s historical nonfiction Blood Brothers, and Elizabeth Crane’s short story collection Turf. I read a funny memoir about a brain tumor: Mike Scalise’s The Brand New Catastrophe. I read Joan Acocella’s Twenty-Eight Artists and Two Saints and wondered if I’ll ever be the kind of critic I want to be. But all of these books were daring, moving, life affirming. And when I couldn’t handle the all-conflict-no-resolution scroll of social media, these words brought me back to myself and back to a sense of my place in the world. If there’s a slow words movement, like slow food, I want to join it.

Most importantly: This summer I attended a teacher institute at the Library of Congress, and worked on a research project about the WPA Federal Writers’ Project—a time when our government prioritized putting writers to work by having them collect personal histories and write regional guides—writers like Ralph Ellison, Richard Wright, and Zora Neale Hurston. I knew that the Library has a vast array of online and physical resources, but what I didn’t know is that it relies on an almost parallel network of human historians. As I navigated my way through the various reading rooms, I was guided by experts in American Folklife who showed me slides of Hurston in Florida and played recordings of her singing; I was handed boxes of photographs of Federal Writers’ Project Book Fairs by WPA experts in the Prints and Photographs room, and in Manuscripts, an excited WPA expert pulled four boxes of FWP minutes, hand-written notes, and records for me to read. I kept wondering why they were letting me look at all of that stuff. (What if I sneezed on something?) But all I needed was my library card. My most powerful moment in reading was sitting in those quiet, beige rooms in D.C. with American history in my hands. Libraries are still a beautiful democracy of ideas. Despite the sky falling every day in 2017, we have that. It was the thread of connection I needed. O my soul.

More from A Year in Reading 2017

Do you love Year in Reading and the amazing books and arts content that The Millions produces year round? We are asking readers for support to ensure that The Millions can stay vibrant for years to come. Please click here to learn about several simple ways you can support The Millions now.

Don’t miss: A Year in Reading 2016, 2015, 2014, 2013, 2012, 2011, 2010, 2009, 2008, 2007, 2006, 2005

A Year in Reading: Carmen Maria Machado

I’ve read some stunning short story collections in 2017: Bennett Sims’s cerebral, unsettling White Dialogues; Jenny Zhang’s lush and visceral Sour Heart; Lesley Nneka Arimah’s liminal, searing What It Means When a Man Falls from the Sky; and Amy Parker’s beautiful and devastating Beasts and Children. The novels that took off the top of my head were Andrea Lawlor’s sexy, picaresque Paul Takes the Form of a Mortal Girl: Alissa Nutting’s hilarious Made for Love; Kathryn Davis’s uncategorizable Duplex; and Jeff VanderMeer’s inventive, disconcerting Borne. I didn’t have a lot of bandwidth for nonfiction, but when I did, I was unmade by Roxane Gay’s heartbreaking memoir Hunger; Samantha Irby’s tremendously funny essay collection We Are Never Meeting in Real Life; and Brian Blanchfield’s brilliant, singular Proxies.

I’ve also gotten a sneak peek at a couple of unreleased books I can’t wait for: Rebekah Frumkin’s The Comedown, Mark Mayer’s Aerialists, and Mallory Ortberg’s The Merry Spinster. 2018 can’t come soon enough.

More from A Year in Reading 2017

Do you love Year in Reading and the amazing books and arts content that The Millions produces year round? We are asking readers for support to ensure that The Millions can stay vibrant for years to come. Please click here to learn about several simple ways you can support The Millions now.

Don’t miss: A Year in Reading 2016, 2015, 2014, 2013, 2012, 2011, 2010, 2009, 2008, 2007, 2006, 2005

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