In a historical moment where the news itself feels like it’s cribbed from dystopian fiction, what is needed more than ever is the spark of a literary utopia – and in Jordy Rosenberg’s stunning debut novel, Confessions of the Fox readers get one. But we don’t catch a glimpse of a potentially brighter future, without first plunging into a darkly familiar past. Confessions tells the story of real life 18th century thief and jail-breaker Jack Sheppard and his partner in crime and lover, Bess Edgeworth. In Rosenberg’s re-imagining of these two figures, Sheppard is trans and Bess is of South Asian descent — which makes the risks they take to be together and to organize against the imperialist forces that terrorize the minority populations in London, all the more dangerous and resonant. While we are reading Jack and Bess’ tale we are interrupted by the story of another narrator, Dr. Voth. Voth is a present day academic working at an institution that, like many of today’s public colleges, is more interested in turning a profit than teaching its students. Through footnotes, he contextualizes the main story and inserts his own unraveling relationship with the college and the pressures he faces there as a trans man to explain and expose trans history.
Confessions of the Fox is at once a sweeping love story, a mad-cap thriller, and an activist’s toolkit. The fact that Rosenberg is a trans man, writing a work of fiction that contains the perspectives of multiple trans characters, who not only survive but experience pleasure and love as much as they do pain and heartache, should not be a revolutionary thing. But it is. Trans writers are so often expected to write confessional works of personal tragedy: the imagination, humor, and storytelling scope of Confessions flies in the face of those prescriptions, leaving the reader expanded, uplifted, and freed. It is a singular work but one that will undoubtedly pave the way for many more.
I spoke with Jordy about the collective nature of book making, our debts to history, and of course the challenges of writing 18th century sex scenes.-Amy Gall
The Barnes & Noble Review: What was the impetus for this book? Originally it just contained the narrative about Jack and Bess, right?
Jordy Rosenberg: I was doing research for a scholarly manuscript and working out of an archive at UCLA and I started reading about Jack Sheppard. There’s a lot of primary source material from that time on him, though there is nothing that was actually written by him. Print culture was developing at this time so newspaper broadsides and letters to the editor were new and people of the period focused in on Sheppard as this folk hero. There were so many reports and rumors when he was still alive of where he was seen and what had been robbed. Women who were caught and accused of property crimes would say, “Oh Jack Sheppard gave it to me.” Even after he was executed it didn’t let up. All these hack writers would be writing in to newspapers as if they were Jack Sheppard from beyond the grave. So I was really interested in him as this sexy, roguish character who hated capitalism and hated prison but whose own story was missing.
Bess was represented less in papers but when she was it was in a very unkind way — a vixen who seduced Jack into a life of crime. One of the stories that’s recounted the most, however, is about Bess. The first of Jack’s prison breaks was not his own escape from Newgate prison- – which he escaped from several times – but his helping Bess escape from prison. As cheesy as it sounds, I realized there was obviously a love story there and I started fixating on that as well.
BNR: I find, with any historical accounts that contain queerness or trans-ness, you have to do so much filling in and reimagining in order to build a whole story, which you do in this book in a breathtaking way. What were you re-imagining for Jack and Bess?
JR: It’s mostly re-imagining. I think the book is really staking a claim of the right of trans and gender non-conforming people to write speculative fiction. To fictionalize instead of being subjected to certain kinds of demands that intersect with a very bad history of treating trans people like case histories. The “official archives” on us are very often archives of terror. The early sexology theories of what sex and gender is are based in medical experimentation on and non-consensual observation of the bodies of women of color and captured and enslaved people. So a lot of this book came out of re-imagining character who were responding to the violence of the dominant frame their bodies were put in.
Much of the material at the time described Sheppard in a way that we might now call “complexly gendered.” He was called “effeminate and beautiful” and that’s part of what makes him very attractive and also what makes him able to break out of spaces, his femme-ness, his smallness. Sometime he’s even described as almost an apparition. So I wanted to literalize that supernaturalness and also make Sheppard’s trans-ness very explicit and centered.
BNR: How did you decide to layer in the present day narrative with Dr. Voth and the college and the footnoting?
JR: That was a multistage process. I think one answer is, I was compelled to create several different trans narratorial voices. It’s really hard to write 18th century humor so I wanted to let Dr. Voth be unhinged and humorous. I love schtick and there was this schticky part of me that just kept coming in and wanting to say something through that character. I also wanted to show different trans relationships to the body. While Voth is kind of a jerk and really obsessed with and explicit about his body, Sheppard has a less in your face and more metaphorical relationship to his body. In the 18th century, writing about the body was very literal and very un-metaphorical and so I actually kind of exchanged properties where Voth talks about his body in a more 18th century way while Sheppard is using a more modern way to talk about his. A cliched example of what I mean by modern metaphor – that we maybe all writers fall into writing but don’t really like when we read – is: a scene where a woman is baking muffins and the sun hits the muffins through her kitchen window and for no reason at all she’s suddenly transported to the moment where she lost her virginity. There’s an entirely stream of consciousness internal launch from this everyday moment to this moment of total, heightened beauty. I think Sheppard’s concept of his body is more like that.
BNR: I loved how Dr. Voth began to understand that some of Jack Sheppard “original” manuscript might have been written at different times by different authors. Even artists can get caught up in that myth of individualism and this book does such a good job of showing how, not only across communities but also across time we are all so linked to each other. Was that something you set out to do intentionally?
JR: The book came out a question I had about my debts to history, in all ways, but especially around trans-ness. I’m aware on such a bodily level that people fought for this before I even existed and they didn’t do it so that I could just sit around with it. Certainly writing a book does not exhaust that historical debt in any way. I think our debts are towards political activism in the present, but I wanted to write a book that comes out of those questions what is our history, who did this work before us, and what do I owe?
The other thing, that I think all writers know, that I really wanted to make explicit, is that any one book is not the product of a singular person but all the conversations you get in with people and their writing. For instance, I was having a lot of conversations with my friend, the writer Tisa Bryant about fiction and what it can do without which I never would have taken the risks I took in this book. So at some point that conversation filtered into the novel itself in a metafictional way where Voth turns to a character named ‘Prof Bryant’ at a crucial point in the plot, who helps him more deeply understand the significance of the Sheppard manuscript.
Some of the structure around collective authorship also came out of this very intense, emotional conversation I had with Victory Matsui, one of my editors. We had this very emotional meeting at a Le Pain Quotidien where I cried, I think it was the only time I had cried the entire year, because I had thrown this curve ball into the text right in the middle of the editing process. You know when you’re like, “I’m going to give you this book” and then you give your editor something completely different and your editor is like, “What the fuck?!” and you’re like, “I’m doing it anyway!”? It meant reworking the whole book and part of the way we reworked it was bringing in this idea of collective authorship.
BNR: Your relationship with Victory is quite touching. You dedicated the book to them and have said many times how much you love them. What was the process of working on the book with them like?
JR: I didn’t know anything about mainstream publishing, but after I talked to Chris Jackson and Victory Matsui at One World for the first time, I remember telling my agent “I will work with them for free,” because I just so wanted to make a book with them and I think that is a very rare feeling to get to have. Victory is an incredibly hands on editor, from really minute line editing to giant re-conceptualizations and mapping out over and over the thriller structure and the plot line of both the footnotes and the Sheppard text. I truly don’t feel like I wrote the book alone in that way. I’m told that Victory does a kind of old world style editing where they are just really in there. I don’t really have anyone to compare them to because I’ve never worked with another editor, but, I can’t believe they found me, I feel like it’s the best thing that ever happened to me.
BNR: Were there times, at the beginning of the writing process when you did feel alone?
JR: I think there’s a kind of writing that happens early on in the writing of a book where you feel very covetous of it, and it’s secret nature. You feel like you’re having an affair. It’s great and woe-inducing at the same time. I don’t think you could ever have that feeling again once you begin to put the book into production because you’re never alone with it like that again. And then, you start to get nostalgic for that particular erotic charge when it was just you and the work, but there’s also an entirely whole different type of intensity when you are working with other people. It’s endlessly profound to realize that books are so deeply collective. By the time they come out that just really aren’t yours anymore in an objectively true way.
BNR: The sex scenes in this book were so fun to read. Were they fun to write?
JR: I think writing historical sex scenes is really hard because our understanding of sex now involves forms of interiority that 18th century literature really hadn’t developed yet and most people find sex writing from that time very odd or boring. No one’s like, “Oh my god, that sex scene that Daniel Defoe wrote!” Even the writing about sex that did exist in porn from the 18th century were very straight forward narratives about this going into that hole, etc. Our writing about sex now isn’t even necessarily about bodies at all, it’s writing about a subject’s experience of themselves, their sensations and thoughts and memories. So, when I wrote the sex scenes in the Sheppard manuscript I knew, in order to make them good, I had to write them with that kind of modern interiority. That being said, there were also a lot of really bad sex scenes that were cut.
BNR: Who has most influenced your work?
JR: A lot of my writing comes out of working with activists, not even famous ones, just people I know. There are so many contemporary trans activists who are formulating work around both the complexity and the importance of imagining a future utopia. In Cece McDonald’s forward to Captive Genders she’s talking about the horrors of the prison system but also, what’s she’s calling this “transtopia”. It’s so important to have this ability to hold the contradictions of the horrors of the present and the latent possibilities of the future. I was also following Chelsea Manning’s prison battle throughout the writing process. Her getting free right as I finished the book was hugely influential since the book is about a trans prison escape artist. Samuel Delaney’s writing — and his writing about writing — has also had a huge effect on me. The way he moves between thinking cosmic, space opera level thoughts to like describing the stench of a fart is incredible. He has such a simultaneous deep love for bodies and for outer space. This book isn’t science fiction but it has a crush on science fiction, in the way that it’s about this movement out and in from the body to the world and back again.
BNR: What is your favorite thing about language?
JR: There this great line of Roland Barthes that I’m paraphrasing where he says, “It really doesn’t matter what the author says, all that matters is the way the reader brings their own neurosis and desire to bear upon the text.” Basically, it’s the reader who imparts meaning, all the author does is create a “minor disaster of static.” I think that’s what I like most about language — where it fails.
Photo of Jordy Rosenberg (c) Beowulf Sheehan