Gabrielle Korn first popped up on my very queer Instagram feed in early 2021. Her first book, Everybody (Else) Is Perfect (Atria, 2021), had just been published, and the gays were raving. Everybody (Else) Is Perfect is a collection of essays recounting Gabrielle’s time moving up the ranks in online media to become the youngest Editor-in-Chief at Nylon — and the first out lesbian to hold the title. I eagerly devoured it that winter. The book was about fashion and exclusivity and the struggle with disordered eating having grown up with the flat exposed stomachs and jutting hip bones of the early aughts. But it was also about being young and gay and femme in New York City — a camp I fully placed myself within. One ex was referred to only by their astrology sign, and Gabrielle detailed her many years marshaling with the NYC Dyke March, an organization and annual protest in celebration of dyke joy that is very close to my heart.
Like any other avid reader with a roster of favorite authors, I was ecstatic to learn about Gabrielle debut novel, Yours for the Taking (St. Martin’s Press, 2023). Set in New York City twenty-seven years in the future, it depicts a world in which climate change has made most of the United States unlivable. Humans are migrating north into Canada. As a partial solution, governments have begun to create cities that have been completely enclosed to protect humans from the onslaught of disasters. A millennial billionaire, Jacqueline —whose family fortune has ties to fracking— funds the New York City “Inside” in order to have complete control on the society within, as well as who is approved to enter. The book follows three women over the course of nearly thirty years —Shelby, who is Jacqueline’s assistant, Ava who is one of the few in New York whose application to Inside was accepted, and Olympia, the head of the health department at the New York Inside. Decades pass by and the three women become more closely entwined as they begin to feel more and more skeptical about Inside, and whether its purpose is truly for the greater good.
Brooklyn dyke connections landed me one degree away from Gabrielle and I was thrilled to get the chance to sit down with her this fall to discuss Yours for the Taking, her writing process, and what makes fiction most interesting.
Kim Narby: You started your career in online journalism and media, and your first book, Everybody (Else) Is Perfect, was a collection of essays about your time as editor-in-chief at Nylon. How was it transitioning from non-fiction to fiction for this project?
Gabrielle Korn: I found writing fiction to be a lot more vulnerable than writing nonfiction. Writing nonfiction didn’t feel dissimilar to what I had been doing my entire career. As an editor and as a journalist, you assess the totality of events and find the narrative in the truth of things that really happened. And with fiction, it’s like, here’s the darkest, weirdest corner of my brain, and if I didn’t write it down, it wouldn’t exist. So it feels a lot more like exposing my inner life than non-fiction did. But I also love doing it. It’s why I started writing in the first place; I wanted to write fiction and then after college I was so concerned with having a job and making money that I forgot that if you don’t just write the book you want to write, it doesn’t get written. I put off doing what I had wanted to do for a really long time and then decided to try to get back to it.
KN: What was the journey from the idea for this book to getting it sold and now finally having it out in the world
GK: It was fall of 2019. It was a really specific period of time in my life because I had left Nylon, which came really suddenly. It was a job I had wanted to be in for a long time, and then it kind of all went away. I went to Refinery29 to be the fashion director. And I was just in this rut of feeling like the things I was doing professionally didn’t feel authentic to me. And so when I thought about what I wanted to write, I kept thinking it had to be science fiction because that’s always been my favorite genre. Around the same time, these two separate but connected facts made their way to me. The first was that climate change is happening faster than we can adapt to it. And the second was that climate change will be here before women have equal rights. And I couldn’t stop thinking about these two things because it was like, what do you mean it will be here before we can adapt to it? What will that look like? And I really couldn’t find anything in the climate reports I was reading that talked about what life would look like other than a worsening of all the things we’re already experiencing. So at that point I thought, okay, maybe it is the stuff of science fiction to start to imagine life after climate change. There was this idea that I had many years ago about sealing up New York City and living inside.
It was the end of the Trump presidency. I think we were all feeling this kind of nihilism, like can we please just end it all? Can a comet just take us all out? And in that line of thinking, I started to imagine, what if we just kind of deny climate change while also having this nihilism and we enter this doom spiral and women still don’t have equal rights? It kind of felt like the world and the central characters came to me all at once. And then the pandemic started and it was really weird because I had already started writing this story about being “Inside” and then we were inside. Refinery29 cut our pay by 25% and gave us Fridays off, so I spent Fridays, Saturdays, Sundays, and then mornings and evenings for the first year of the pandemic writing it.
I sent it to my agent and she was like, this is not a book.
KN: Helpful feedback.
GK: Yeah. She was like, I love you but not yet. So then I worked on it for a few more months and then she took it out again and you know, you only need one yes. We got 20 nos and then one yes. And that’s how I found my perfect editor at St. Martin’s Press, Hannah O’Grady. She saw something in it that nobody else did. And then everything happened pretty quickly after that.
KN: I wanted to ask you a little bit about your world building. There are a lot of blurb comments that mention the world building in your book, and I do think it is so strong. What kind of tools did you use to go about building a dystopian society?
GK: I don’t know if I used tools. I think that I saw it all really clearly. And every time I went back and revised, I tried to add in more details about the place because I think the thing that comes most naturally to me is writing about relationships. I think originally [the details] had been pretty sparse. But that was the thing that people were most curious about when I had my friends read it. So I feel like because I went back and layered in details so many different times, it became a lot more robustly conceived than it originally was. It was a learning for me. Just because you can picture something clearly does not mean you’ve communicated it on the page. It was hard for me because as a journalist you make everything as tight as possible and in fiction it’s like, no, you actually do have permission to explain things lyrically and have details just for the sake of details. But I think a lot of the world Inside was inspired by working in women’s media honestly. A lot of the things that are said and the things that happen and just the general vibe of what it means to have a space that’s mostly women and what it actually looks like was pulled directly from real experiences.
KN: I was really intrigued by one of your primary protagonists, Jacqueline. She’s set up to be kind of the primary villain of the novel. But there is a moment towards the end of the book where she gives another character a hug and references her double mastectomy, and I found myself feeling so much empathy for her because of how lonely she seems even though she has this profound financial and professional success. What was your thought process while creating that character?
GK: She had to be three-dimensional. It’s really fun to make a villain who is pure evil, but I don’t think it reads as real and this belief system that she has this kind of core gender essentialism had to come from somewhere and so I think it does have to come from being betrayed by and let down by men first and foremost. And then she has to project that onto everybody. The excerpt from Shelby’s book towards the beginning [of the novel] really tells you all of the biographical details you need to know. That is kind of a guide to Jacqueline because she did fall in love with somebody and did have this whole life with him and then got sick and he just absolutely failed her. And I think a healthy person’s reaction to that would not be to globalize that and think it’s indicative of an entire gender, but she’s not necessarily a healthy person. And so that’s kind of what she does with it.
KN: I’m working on a very sapphic novel myself and I’ve had a lot of conversations with other queer authors about how as a manuscript becomes something for commercial consumption, you might have to widen the circle a bit so that it not only appeals directly to your core audience. Is that something you considered while in the writing or editing process?
GK: It came up a few times. I had one reader who didn’t understand the sex scene and I made the choice to not clarify because, you know, Google exists, and I also think that people are curious about queer stories at this point. I think there definitely was a large period of time when a queer story meant a niche book, but I don’t necessarily think we’re in that time anymore. If you think about the sapphic booktok community, not all of those women are actually queer. They just appreciate the genre. When you think about representation and diversity and relatability, I think what’s true is that the more specific you get with a story, the more relatable it is because I think if you can highlight a universal truth that connects us all, no matter who we are, that that’s just so much more successful than something that’s trying to be everything for everyone.
KN: On the topic of diversity, I know that while working at Nylon one of your core goals was to ensure the brand was as diverse as possible. I was curious how that was going to translate to fiction because as you said, the best fiction is very specific. But I found it really interesting how that carried over into your novel. Not all of your protagonists are cis, not all of your protagonists are white. The ones that are white are clearly called out as such, so it’s not just assumed. Can you talk to me a little about this?
GK: I just don’t think that it makes for interesting fiction when you only write characters who have the same identities as you. It’s ultimately a story about people who come together to take down this woman who turns out to be a TERF or a white supremacist. You can’t really tell that story without having a character who’s Black and a character who’s trans because it just doesn’t make sense. And I was so much more interested in what the experiences of working for Jacqueline would be for these Black and trans characters —they were always there. This story doesn’t exist without them. You just kind of have to take a leap of faith with it because I think it’s also a scary time to write anything that has a point of view because people love to take your work out of context and do bad faith reads. But it felt like a risk worth taking because in honor of these characters and the integrity of the story, they just needed to be there.
KN: Did you have sensitivity readers in light of that?
GK: Yeah, we had a handful of authenticity readers. They were incredible and had some really interesting points that I learned a lot from.
KN: I know we talked a little bit about the first pages of the novel. It starts off with an excerpt from Shelby’s memoir [Jacqueline’s assistant], 35 years after the novel takes place. I listen to this podcast called the Seven AM Novelist. It’s hosted by a writer named Michelle Hoover and she recently did a series on first pages. Every episode an author came on and spoke with Michelle about their first pages and the process for getting there. I want to borrow one of her questions and ask you: Were these always your first pages, and if not how did you get to these final first pages?
GK: I love this question. It was not the [original] first pages. In the first few versions of this, I didn’t separate out points of view into different chapters. And I think this is a journalist hangup. When you report a story, you’re pulling in a lot of different points of view and you’re weaving them together to make one narrative. And so that’s what I tried to do with this. And then it just kind of became unreadable. You can’t have all of these voices. So I started separating them out and then what I realized was there had been this omniscient narrator who had been doing world building and describing Inside and describing the point of it and describing Jacqueline’s life woven throughout everything. And once the points of view were separated out there was no one character who could possibly speak to these things unless it was in the form of someone else’s research.
So I just went through and pulled out all of the world building I had done and repackaged it into a prologue. And that’s when I had the idea oh, Shelby has written a book and her book is how this is explained to us. But the first line that I wrote ended up being in the middle of the book. It’s when you finally catch up to Orchid who has been living up north. And the line is: “The strangest part about living through the beginning of the end of the world was that she began to fantasize a bit about it finally just happening already.” That was the first line of the book.
KN: That was a beautiful line.
GK: That was to me where the story started. But it just didn’t make any sense at the beginning of the book.
KN: I know there are a lot of heavy topics in the book —the fallacies of a non-male run utopia, climate change, the dangers of white feminism. Do you find that you still have hope for the future after immersing yourself in this world?
GK: Sometimes. I think it’s important to note that I didn’t write this book to feel realistic. And so the fact that a lot of the blurbs ended up saying how frighteningly real it feels, that was very shocking to me. I wrote it to be kind of ridiculous and insane and you know, I don’t think this is a world that is possible, [the one] I created. I do have a lot of fear around climate change. Especially because I broke my algorithm and now the only news I get is climate change news. But I also think that more people than ever are paying attention to it and the smartest people in the world are working on it. And I think every day there are new discoveries and I think what’s unfortunate is that it is not on individuals at this point.
The people responsible for climate change are the corporations, it’s the richest people in the world, it’s the governments. And so I think what I struggle with after living in this book is a feeling of powerlessness and a feeling like nothing I do matters because the impact that I make is kind of nothing compared to the changes that need to happen. But at the same time I feel that if every single person took responsibility for their own footprint, then we actually could make a difference. And there are certain statistics that drive me insane. Like if everybody in America stopped eating beef, we would stop climate change.
Overall, I think we’re gonna be okay. I think life is gonna look different and certain things will be more expensive. A friend who knows a lot more about this than me was like, look coffee beans are gonna be more expensive, but otherwise you’re gonna be okay.
Gabrielle Korn is the author of Everybody (Else) Is Perfect, Yours for the Taking, and its forthcoming sequel, The Shutouts. She’s the former Editor-in-Chief of Nylon. She recently led LGBTQ+ strategy at Netflix, and her writing has been published across the internet since 2011. Originally from New York, she now lives in Los Angeles with her wife, and together they run The Pink Door artist and writer residency.