Picture of Hellman standing amid archival boxes, with the cover of his book superimposed
Isaac Fellman, author of "Dead Collections," at the GLBT Historical Society in San Francisco.

In new vampire novel, trans writer Isaac Fellman sinks teeth into identity and desire

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In his pre-transition life, Isaac Fellman worked as a paralegal, freelance proofreader and secretary at a car dealership. He was unhappily married. And he published a well-received novel, “The Breath of the Sun,” under his birth name.

“I truly feel sometimes like a different person that all those things happened to,” Fellman, a transgender man who lives in San Francisco, said in a recent interview. “A different person is creating the narrative now.”

Fellman’s provocative second novel, published in February, draws upon his life experiences while also diverging from them in significant ways. Like Fellman, the protagonist of “Dead Collections,” Solomon Katz, is a Jewish, trans male archivist. (Fellman works at the GLBT Historical Society in San Francisco.) Unlike Fellman, Katz avoids the sun and relies on blood transfusions exclusively from male donors — because he is a vampire.

While vampirism as an allegory for lust or repressed homosexuality crops up throughout literature, in “Dead Collections” Fellman presents it in a more literal way: as an illness that prevents Sol from completing his gender transition.

“He’s arrested in this awkward, halfway place where he doesn’t look or feel as masculine as he wants to,” Fellman, 39, explained. Meanwhile, he meets and falls in love with Elsie, the widow of a 1990s sci-fi television show writer.

This is not the first time fictional creatures of the night seek to evolve beyond their unchanging bodies: 10-year-old Claudia never grew up in Anne Rice’s 1976 novel “Interview with the Vampire,” and Jessica in the HBO series “True Blood” became immortal while still a virgin, leaving her one forever. But “Dead Collections” uses the vampire trope to broach a larger conversation about trans identity.

Calvin Kasulke, a close friend of Fellman’s and a fellow trans writer (“Several People Are Typing”), said, “I think Isaac knows that representation is not liberation. But I also think it’s really, really important that a person who I sincerely believe is one of the most talented writers that we have, particularly in speculative fiction, is trans and is interested in writing trans stories.”

Fellman, who will speak about the novel during a hybrid event presented by the Department of Jewish Studies at San Francisco State University on April 14, said he wrote “Dead Collections” “to care for myself and also to care for other people who might identify with the same story.”

He added: “I keep trying to distance myself from this book, saying how it’s not about me. But I’m in the book in that it expresses a desire for connection in a way that’s embarrassing for me as a reserved person. Before I transitioned, I was not good at relationships. Living in a state of disembodiment is not conducive to that.” (He is now divorced.)

I truly feel sometimes like a different person that all those things happened to. A different person is creating the narrative now.

Sol, too, experiences a fear of intimacy in the novel. “I’m always a little terrified by desire,” Sol confesses. “For so many years I did not know what to do with it; the bubble of heat embarrassed me at best, panicked me at worst. How do you feel desire with a body that you can’t bear to have touched?”

Born in Syracuse, New York, Fellman briefly lived in Pennsylvania before moving to California at age 14. He had a “casually religious” upbringing — his father is Jewish and his mother is Catholic — and said he does not believe in God. However, in 2017, he was drawn to a Torah study class at Congregation Ner Shalom in Cotati. The fact that the class was taught by a now-retired drag queen, Rabbi Irwin Keller, made Fellman, who identified at the time as a “nominally queer woman,” feel welcomed.

“I wasn’t figuring out any deep understanding of my Jewishness,” Fellman said about the class. “Just that I was a guy who wanted to be called Isaac.”

Fellman graduated from Scripps College in Southern California with a degree in English and started a Ph.D program at the University of Oregon but decided he didn’t want to become a professor, so he left after completing a master’s degree. He said he gained an appreciation for archives while conducting research at UO on the correspondence between science fiction writers Joanna Russ and James Tiptree. “I couldn’t believe they just let me read these very personal and passionate letters from historical people — sometimes I still can’t,” he said.

He has worked at several archives, including the Charles M. Schulz Museum and Research Center in Santa Rosa and the California Historical Society. In 2019, he joined the staff of the GLBT Historical Society. He described his job as peeling back layers in order to figure out why people save a photograph, letter or other memento, and how those keepsakes become a collection. One project he worked on involved photos taken by Crawford Barton, who documented the LGBTQ+ community in San Francisco from the 1960s through the 1980s.

“At some point during a Pride event, he just got distracted by a guy’s ass,” Fellman said with a laugh. “Now all of his creep shots are in our collection.”

Fellman wrote “Dead Collections” in about five months at the beginning of the pandemic. “I didn’t have to do intensive research because it’s about archives, so I just sort of plunged in and then quarantine started and I had nothing else to do,” he said.

Sol’s Judaism is incidental to his personal journey, as it is for other Jewish characters in Fellman’s work. “Those characters are there to help understand myself better or my family history better,” he said. “It is a way for me to feel connected to Judaism. I very often don’t feel connected to it, even though I want to be.”

“Dead Collections” by Isaac Fellman (Penguin Books, 256 pages). Available to order from Afikomen Judaica in Berkeley and online retailers.

Fellman will speak about “Dead Collections” as part of the S.F. State University Jewish Studies Department’s “Jewish Writer in the World” series. 3:30-5 p.m. Thursday, April 15 at the SFSU Humanities Building. Also streaming online.

Saul Sugarman contributed to this article.

Andrew Esensten
Andrew Esensten

Andrew Esensten is the culture editor of J. Previously, he was a staff writer for the English-language edition of Haaretz based in Tel Aviv. Follow him on Twitter @esensten.