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.
They say imitation is the sincerest form of flattery. It’s a writer’s rite of passage and also her curse. Gabriel Garcia Marquez admitted to copping from Kafka when he began writing short stories. Zadie Smith borrowed the structure of On Beauty from Forster’s Howard’s End. Most writers try on the voices of writers they admire, at least until they carve out their own. William Faulkner famously said that a novelist “is completely amoral in that he will rob, borrow, beg, or steal from anybody and everybody to get the work done.” While it seems that Faulkner was speaking of a writer’s resources, this also applies to the work on the page — stealing material from other sources, be it books, writers, lives.
This year, as I embarked on a novel, I became a kind of kleptomaniac, with all of the ghosts and voices and ideas from the books I’d just read haunting my attempts to put words on the page. Adoring a book meant that some aspect of it either influenced or turned up in my own writing, often catabolized and not in flattering ways. And I learned that while I’m good at stealing, I’m not very good at covering my tracks.
That being said, what follows is a list of the books that occupied my mental space this year, a list that I borrowed from mindfully or unconsciously, and a few that I’d still like to steal from (but will try to withhold from), a list beginning with books by two Brazilian female authors who were also friends, Clarice Lispector and Hilda Hilst. Both Lispector’s Passion According to G.H. and Hilst’s The Obscene Madame D are intense, sprawling fictions whose action, paradoxically, is extremely limited. In Lispector’s book, G.H. crosses the room to kill a cockroach and in Hilst’s, a dead husband sits atop the stairs while speaking with his wife, hidden below. This physical stillness opens an intimacy and interiority that lets them transcend time, and leads to an interrogation of the nature of the big questions, identity, existence, language, death, and life.
I reread and recommend Kelly Link’s collection Magic For Beginners, and I specifically adore one story, “The Faery Handbag.” It’s an incredible mash-up of fairytale and conventional story of love and loss, with a speculative element and other disparate items jammed in, too, including and most importantly, a grandmother’s lost handbag that literally contains a village. Herta Müller’s The Passport sits on this list for its haunting imagery and simple beauty that builds an ominous village landscape, with flies buzzing and a tree that eats its own apples. Even cutting a melon is a menacing act. Dodie Bellamy’s Cunt-Ups is all sex and sharp edges. She borrowed from William Burroughs’s cut-up method, taking scissors to her erotic poetry and laying them out in lusty and violent (re)configurations Joanna Ruocco’s stories in Man’s Companions are concise gems, playful and linguistically surprising, evoking a synesthesia of ideas. Veronica Gonzalez Peña’s The Sad Passions is told in six distinct voices that reveal facets of a shared family history — a mother’s mental illness, a sister sent away, and another born very late. Blood connects the characters but the cities they inhabit are also organisms, spaces where each person becomes “a cell within its system.” Heidi Julavits’s The Vanishers won me over with its intricate plotting, exquisite language, and fantastical premise (its protagonist Julia Severn is enrolled at an institute for parapsychology). I would likely be smitten with any book that connects elements of parapsychology, experimental French film, performance art, and characters who wear the guise of another. The stories in Amina Cain’s Creatures are intricate structures, with sentences like lattice work that create open spaces that breathe and become like living organisms themselves. Beatriz Preciado’s Testo Junkie is a mélange of manifesto, memoir, novel, and social critique — a book that actively attacks divisions of genre and gender as the genderhacking author documents her experiments with testosterone gel. Matias Viegener reappropriates the status update in his 2500 Random Things About Me Too. Originally published piecemeal on Facebook, the collected lists tuck online voyeurism into a book that’s just as addictive and binge-worthy and beautiful. It’s also charming, gossipy, thoughtful, and intelligent — a memoir distilled to its essence. Agnes Denes’s Book of Dust is another book of lists that ends this list. Denes is a land artist with a poetic sensibility. In Book of Dust she uses dust as a metaphor for human life in order to explore the scope of the universe, including the powders that give life and the ones that kill (meteoric, radioactive, and happy dusts included); it begins with the birth of the universe and stretches to speculate on potential catastrophic futures that seem relevant today, despite having been written over 40 years ago. Denes said of an earlier artwork, a time capsule that she made and buried, “It was about communication with the earth and communicating with the future.” The same intent and preoccupation applies here.
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