The New York Times called Jordy Rosenberg's debut novel, Confessions of the Fox, "[a] mind-bending romp through a gender-fluid, 18th-century London … a joyous mash-up of literary genres shot through with queer theory and awash in sex, crime, and revolution."
If the book sounds unusual, it is.
Confessions is a work of speculative historical fiction about a real-life thief named Jack Sheppard, notorious for prison breaks, who may or may not have been genderqueer. Author Rosenberg is a transgender professor at University of Massachusetts who teaches and researches 18th century history and queer/trans theory. "I was interested in exploring a retelling of his life, which had to do with this idea of him as a gender outlaw," Rosenberg said via phone.
The novel is a narrative of Sheppard's adventures running parallel with that of a transgender scholar who is researching the famous thief. "The scholar finds a manuscript and thinks it might be the only official memoir of Sheppard," Rosenberg said. "He begins to footnote it throughout, because most of it is told in underworld slang. So he starts footnoting to translate some of these terms, and these footnotes begin going off the rails."
Rosenberg continued, "You start to realize the person who's footnoting is maybe not as trustworthy as a narrator, and their interventions in the text become another sort of plot. The scholar's footnotes become an obsessive diary of his struggle at a corporate university, his woes of the breakup he's gone through and at a certain point, he decides to steal the manuscript and disappear. He's obsessed with authenticating whether or not Sheppard was trans."
Art imitates life: In researching and writing Confessions, Rosenberg "became obsessed with the way [Sheppard]'s genderqueerness was really central to the way he was represented as a kind of outlaw figure." He said, "Often people would write that he was small and lithe, and very attractive to women and could escape from small spaces. He was an object of desire and a beacon of resistance, and also crucial to people as a figure [fighting] the systems increasing intensification of early police forces and institutions of confinement."
Is Rosenberg trying to argue that Sheppard was, in fact, genderqueer? Not even close.
"I was interested in intensifying these connections in a fictional way: this intersection of resistance to the prison system and police, and gender nonconformity," he said.
Privatized prisons. Daring escapes. ( Possibly ) genderqueer criminals. All told through the lens of an unreliable narrator with plenty of baggage of his own. To put it mildly, Confessions of the Fox is an ambitious novel.
And for a trans author like Rosenberg, getting anything published that's not a memoir, is a feat in itself.
"There isn't as extensive of a record with big mainstream publishing houses, of publishing fiction by trans authors," Rosenberg said. "A lot of editors my agent and I spoke to were much more comfortable with the idea of publishing a trans memoir because they have models for it. They know how to sell it."
Rosenberg and his agent persisted and won out, not only signing a deal with Random House's One World imprint, but collaborating with book editor Victory Matsui, who is nonbinary.
"I was so moved after talking with them, both Victory and [One World publisher and editor-in-chief] Chris Jackson," Rosenberg said. "Trans people are often expected to subject themselves as case histories. But Chris and Victory had a very powerful orientation to supporting fiction and the capacity to speculate."
"It was very important for me to work with Victory," Rosenberg continued, "not just because they got the genderqueer [subject matter], but also because Victory is amazing at thinking editorially. We were trying to do a complex thriller structure in both the body text of the novel and the footnotes. Both Victory and Chris got the gender and sexuality stuff. It really freed us up not to ask questions of transness and just get into details about the plot unfolding. Sometimes working with a genderqueer editor means you can focus on other aspects of the work."
Confessions was indeed a lot of work, but that didn't deter Rosenberg. In fact, the speculation about Sheppard inspired and motivated the author. As a professor and historian, he had access to both primary source research about Sheppard and a lot of "anonymous hack work from people who were obsessed with him at the time." In the latter, Rosenberg discovered that Sheppard "was described as what we would now think of as genderqueer."
Sheppard was infamous in his day as a criminal who broke out of prison at least four times. After Sheppard was executed for a minor property crime in 1728Rosenberg said, "he was such a folk hero…they wanted to make a spectacle of getting rid of him"John Gay wrote The Beggar's Opera, about Sheppard's life. Two hundred years later, Bertolt Brecht penned The Threepenny Opera, about Sheppard's conflict with John Wilde, the head of what Rosenberg described as "London's biggest thief-catching ring at the time."
However, according to Rosenberg, "in neither of those do you really see that part of Sheppard's folk hero [status] was his possible genderqueerness. That was more in anonymous material from the period." Rosenberg said, "the whole time I had been experimenting with fiction writing on the side. At a certain point, once I'd published an academic book, I made a decision to take a chance with fiction."
Rosenberg's risks paid off: not only was Confessions a New York Times critics' pick, the novel has garnered raves from Kirkus, Publishers Weekly and acclaimed queer authors like Alexander Chee.
Meredith Talusan's review in online literary journal The Rumpus, however, stands out to Rosenberg as significant for the novel and trans authors as a whole.
"Meredith wrote a review as part of The Rumpus's queer service project," Rosenberg said. "She was talking about the way in which our dominant narratives about what constitutes gender and transgender can be very Western and imperialist, and deliberately obscure the way gender has been constructed in other cultures and other times.
"Sometimes, we tie transness to narratives about surgical transition," he continued. "Her review pushed home to me that…it's important to strike a balance between research and speculation. It's really important for trans people to be able to encounter history and see what falls out of the dominant narrative.
"Let's license ourselves to do forms of resistance-speculating about what's gotten covered over. The process of writing is as much about freeing yourself as it is about being faithful."
Confessions of the Fox is available through Amazon and Barnes & Noble, and wherever books are sold.
For more about the author, visit jordy-rosenberg.com .