The first-time author discusses his ambitious novel 'Confessions of the Fox'

By David Canfield
June 27, 2018 at 06:45 PM EDT
Beowulf Sheehan

Jordy Rosenberg’s debut novel is an ambitious work of metafiction, a sexy queer love story, and a rigorously researched and argued piece of scholarship, all rolled into one.

This is partly by design: Confessions of the Fox is nothing if not ambitious, moving back and forth in time over hundreds of years and increasingly stuffed with footnotes which complicate the narrative. The novel reimagines the myth of Jack Sheppard, a notorious 18th-century thief with a checkered past. In the present day, an academic named Dr. Voth (who strongly resembles Rosenberg himself) discovers a manuscript about Sheppard and his lover, Edgeworth Bess, that chronicles their adventures: moving through queer subcultures, defying gender norms, and coming up against a newly established police force.

Voth begins digging through the manuscript intensely, looking for clues and context as to whether it is autobiography, fiction, or something else entirely. It’s reflective of Rosenberg’s own experience writing the novel: He too became obsessed with Sheppard’s story the more he learned about it. Indeed, it’s not far off from his area of expertise: Rosenberg, who is trans, is an associate professor at the University of Massachusetts Amherst, where he teaches 18th-century literature and queer/trans theory.

Confessions of the Fox is a bold first novel, unwieldy but accessible, and layered but thrilling. It’s already been lavished with praise by the likes of NPR and The New Yorker, an especially notable trend given that the book is the first work of fiction from a new imprint: Chris Jackson’s One World, of Random House, whose mission is to elevate marginalized voices.

Prior to publication, Rosenberg spoke with EW about the motivation behind the book, balancing academic intrigue with literary storytelling, and bolstering trans visibility. Read on for our conversation below, and purchase your copy of Confessions of the Fox here.

One World

ENTERTAINMENT WEEKLY: This is your world that you’re writing about, in terms of your research. But what drew you to the story of Jack Sheppard for a novel, and telling it in such a layered way?
JORDY ROSENBERG: I was heading out on a fellowship at UCLA in the archive — they have a little archive off-campus, of 18th-century and 17th-century primary documents — to do research there. I had the year to do research, and I’d become a little bit fixated on what I knew about Sheppard. In addition to [John] Gay’s [The Beggar’s] Opera, there was a a lot of random material written about him that is often quoted or referenced in the book: newspaper broadsides, a lot of speculation about him at the time — what you could call tabloid coverage now — and then even after he died, there were fictional things written as if he’d written from the afterlife. From all of this material, in so much of it he was represented in a very genderqueer way — very feminized. I became obsessed with this idea of literalizing the way that he’s been represented as genderqueer — it was represented as very integral to his ability to be a great countercultural hero, preternaturally able to get into and out of spaces. At one point, I describe him as an artist of transgression. He was really represented that way. I just became obsessed with this idea of writing his story and really taking seriously the extent to which he was loved as this genderqueer hero.

Dr. Voth seems modeled on you to some extent. Is there any element of autobiography or metafiction there, in terms of what he’s trying to do here?
That character is very close to my heart. He’s a transgender scholar, obviously, and he’s working at a university feeling the pinch of the politics of austerity in the 21st century. Obviously there are things that are very fictionalized about Voth, and I felt very free to make Voth’s voice as unhinged as I wanted to. That was something that I was really supported in by Chris Jackson, the publisher of One World. I had gone back and forth about Voth a lot; earlier iterations of the manuscript featured very little of his voice in the footnotes. Halfway through the editing process, I had a long night of the soul where I realized all these great works of metafiction — where you have an editor character in the footnotes, like Pale Fire or Patrick Chamoiseau’s Texaco, which Tisa Bryant, the chair of the MFA writing program at CalArts [and] a queer author with her own new book coming out in the fall, Residual, [helped] direct me to. In these books, you have to know who this editor character is; you can’t just really have an editorial voice that isn’t a character. So I had to think about who he really was. I just wrote him in an intense burst.

A core element of this novel is this idea of Jack’s story “belonging” to the queer community.
There’s got to be a winking element to it, right? It’s not like you need a password to read a novel. I’ve obviously written it in a way where I want anyone to enter it. This is something I’ve struggled with and thought a lot about — I’ll just be honest, I wanted to write a sexy novel, a sexy work of transgender historical fiction. But there’s something you really have to think through, around, how do you write sexy trans fiction without tipping over into writing for a prurient reader? At first, I was trying to write in a way that protected trans embodiment and our bodies. Then I started to think about the intimacy of novels in general, and the intimacy of language. At a certain point, I just thought, “I need to write toward my most generous reader — whoever that reader is.” If they’re trans, genderqueer, identify as cis, whoever they are, I wanted to be able to write to them. At certain points, the novel obviously says, “I’m just talking to you.” But I don’t really know who that “you” is. That’s the thing about fiction. You leap into an unknown space, in the reader, and speak to that. I have some confidence and hope that trans readers and queer readers will feel spoken to and feel the intimacy that I was trying to generate in the writing. But you can’t control who the reader is. I wanted to make that form of intimacy open to whoever.

It’s interesting, because you mentioned the way Voth comes up against austerity, and there’s also commentary here on mass incarceration, radicalization. There’s a balance between fun, sexy queer storytelling and something that’s more polemical too.
There’s this phrase that I kept thinking about while I was writing the book; it has to do with speculative myth. Something like, “Some unrealities we fight for, and some we fight against.” There are certain forms of unreality that are forced upon marginalized groups — the unreality of our lives, the unreality of our ability to have self-determined identities. Not just for trans people, but across ranges of oppression. I wanted to metabolize some of that painful unreality. Instead of insisting on a realistic counterpoint to go deeper into experience, I wanted to think about the relationship between pain and struggle — does pain have a friendly demon that keeps you company? [Laughs]

I was interested, in this book, to look at the very long history of unequal distribution of visibility and violence [among trans people]. For me, it was impossible to write a transgender novel that wasn’t rooted in the historical intersection of embodiment, and transgender embodiment more specifically. In 18th-century Britain, you get the birth of London’s first municipal police force, the birth of British imperialism. These things are all interconnected. I set myself the goal of trying to write a novel that was about that. And also was about forms of resistance to those interconnections.

This is one of the first novels by a transgender author to be published by a major company. Given the early positive reception, what’s the feeling for you right now?
I have absolutely no idea what to expect, and I’m just trying to be completely open toward whatever. I think it might sound kind of corny, but to me, the most exciting thing is finding this imprint, One World, which is all about raising marginalized voices and finding a place in publishing for them. I just can’t believe what’s happening to me. Whatever happens with the reception of the book, the fact that I got to work with One World just blew my mind. My agent is probably still getting over the hardships I gave her. When I found out they were interested, I think at one point I said to her, “Oh my God, I would do this for them for free.” She just was like, “Don’t…” [Laughs] But that was truly my feeling, to have a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to work with editors in this larger collective effort was so exciting. An amazing experience. And to be a part of an existing world of trans literature — maybe not previously among major U.S. publishers — is very exciting too.

This interview has been edited and condensed.