Smash Pages Q&A: Stephanie Burt and Rachel Gold

The literary critic and novelist discuss their collaboration on a story for Decoded, the daily anthology of comics and fiction celebrating Pride Month.

Stephanie Burt is one of the nation’s best literary critics. A professor at Harvard University, and the author of multiple nonfiction books including The Art of the Sonnet and Don’t Read Poetry, Burt is also the author of multiple books of poetry like Belmont and Advice from the Lights. Burt is also a notable nerd who has written extensively about the X-Men, Squirrel Girl, Astro City and perhaps most famously, an entertaining review of the film X-Men: Days of Future Past written in the voice of Kitty Pryde titled “Why Is Wolverine Doing All the Stuff I Already Did?”

Rachel Gold is the award-winning novelist behind an incredible run of books like Being Emily, Just Girls, My Year Zero, Nico & Tucker, and In the Silences, which have been pioneering, inventive and wonderfully written books that have explored gender, gender identity, sexuality and growing up in ways that are both familiar and strikingly new.

The two have been friends, and this year as part of Decoded, the daily online anthology of comics and fiction coming out during Pride month, they’ve collaborated on a new project. Battlement of Straw comes out tomorrow, and they were kind enough to answer a few questions about the project.

How do the two of you know each other?

Rachel Gold:  We met at the 2013 Twin Cities Book Festival because Stephanie was moderating a panel I was on. She came up to me holding a copy of my novel Being Emily and said, “This is me!” We’ve been friends since.

Stephanie Burt:  That and one order of crispy fries later and I really felt like you had known me for most of the time that I’d been alive. It was great! Since then we progressed from corresponding and hanging out when I’m in the Twin Cities (about once a year, pre-Covid), to corresponding frequently, to me reading early drafts of Rachel’s novels and asking them to name and describe the trees. Also I ended up writing the introduction to the new and improved—and awesome, and in fact super-heroic—second edition of Being Emily. Which still feels like a novel about me.

Gold:  You also helped a ton with the edits and additions to the new Being Emily! We should also add that you’ve taught me a ton about poetry—and that after having me talk to your classes a few times, you got to talk to my LGBTQ Lit class this spring.

Burt:  We should add that. I think we just did. I liked meeting your students a lot.

Gold:  They loved meeting you!

So how did you end up co-writing the story? How did it work?

Gold:  For the first draft, we took turns writing scenes—but not in a strict way, more that one of us would have an idea and run with it and then the other would read that and have an idea. We wrote it in a Word doc that we emailed back and forth. It’s gone through a number of edits since then, so we’ve both worked on all the scenes. In general when we’re co-writing, we talk about ideas, toss them back and forth, try them out on the page. I tend to obsess about the narrative arc and Stephanie focuses on the details—and we’re both deeply invested in the characters.

Burt:  The more I write fiction with Rachel the more I want to write fiction with Rachel. Both of us got to know these characters from the inside early on—at least that’s how it felt to me. Then we would write scenes and talk them through and change what happened until it felt right. Then I would describe all the trees, and then Rachel would un-describe them so the plot wouldn’t slow to a crawl, and then I would put about half the descriptions back in. Isn’t that how all co-authors do it?

Gold:  We should add that describing trees is a running joke with us from Stephanie beta reading many of my novels and asking more than once for me to name the kinds of trees in a scene. The beauty of writing together is that now I can ask her to name the trees, or any kind of significant detail, and she does it beautifully.

Burt: I’ve never published prose fiction under my own name alone and probably never will: I don’t have a strong enough sense of plot, unless I’m writing together with Rachel. Both of us want to know how it feels to be a certain character, how their world works, on the inside and on the outside, but only when I’m working together with Rachel am I able to ask, not just “how does it feel?” but also “what happens next?”

Burt:  Rachel, I have a question for you—you’ve written both science fiction and fantasy and realism. What’s the difference in process for you – if there is one? What’s the difference in available queer and trans resonance?

Gold:  In science fiction and fantasy there are so many opportunities for huge, elaborate metaphors about queerness and transness—like our dragons. In realism, I’m a lot more confined but what I’ve found is that this pushes me to go deeper into the psychology of the characters, which I really enjoy. In SFF more of that psychology can play out in the world-building (though it doesn’t have to). In terms of process, this means I’m spending a lot more time thinking about and creating a world in SFF and more time doing research on this world for realism, but I’m generally using the same techniques, habits and skills for the drafting and editing.

Stephanie, most people likely know you for your scholarship, though you are also a poet. Have you written fiction before?

Burt:  Not under my own name! [blushes] Seriously, I can only think usefully about plot when I’m collaborating with Rachel. As far as I know. It’s like being hooked up to a generator, except without the wires and the polarities and the unpleasant sense that electricity is passing directly through your body. OK, it’s not like being hooked up to a generator at all. But it is empirically true that when I am writing with Rachel I can think about plot; when I am writing, but not with Rachel, I analyze, interpret, emote for the characters, and describe trees.

How much does what the story is reflect what you like to read – or similar to what you like to read but not what you can find?

Gold:  We are both substantial SFF nerds with strong feelings about dragons. Did we start this by saying “trans dragons?” Or did that happen in the middle?

Burt:  I think you figured out what young people might want to be taken by dragons, and why, and why their society might make the experience look scary and undesirable, and then we realized we didn’t just have a short fable: we had a story with characters and we could write it. That is: yes, trans dragons.

Gold:  Oh right! We started with the idea “a maiden is sacrificed to a dragon to be eaten but that’s not what’s going on at all, what’s really happening is …”

Burt:  These particular dragons have something in common with the dragons in Ursula K. Le Guin. We are fans. I’m also a fan of the innovative musical instruments in Samuel Delany’s NOVA, an extremely queer and somewhat trans book from my favorite phase of his career (it’s Moby Dick, but even more gay, and a lot shorter, and in space).

You’ve both been writing and dealing with publishing and editors. What’s the difference in working with queer editors and with other queer creators on a queer project like this? Is there a way in which it felt like people were on the same page in a way that’s not always the case?

Gold:  Yes. And also I think there are always editors, creators, audiences that we’ll resonate with more than others, sometimes for queer and trans reasons and sometimes for other reasons. With queer editors there can definitely be a shorthand, plus they’re more likely to get our jokes. They’re more likely to see the point we’re making if it’s an inherently queer/trans point.

Burt:  What they said. I have no real basis for comparison in terms of having my fiction edited, but I have had nonfiction edited in several ways for several audiences, and this process felt great: like working with people who get it. The editors seem to be publishing work they actually want to read, and we are happy that our work fits in that frame.

How many of the projects have you seen and how do you think of your piece in conversation with them? Or do you see connections between your and other works?

Gold:  I’m passing this to Stephanie because I finished edits on a manuscript and am behind on my reading!

Burt:  I’ve been catching up! As I write, it’s June 15. Everything in a collection of queer and trans SFF can connect itself to everything else, if you like, but some connections are stronger than others. I absolutely see our trans dragons in conversation with the mermaid-siren figures in S.K. Brownell’s Greyling and Lamprey, possibly because (as Rachel will tell you) I have a thing about mermaids. Sarena Tien’s rewrite of the Sleeping Beauty story is a delight as well.

And we’re only halfway through…

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