One Question Quiz
Olive Nuttall and Sylvan Spring (Image: Tina Tiller)
Olive Nuttall and Sylvan Spring (Image: Tina Tiller)

BooksMarch 13, 2024

‘So gay, thank you for noticing!’: Olive Nuttall and Sylvan Spring in conversation

Olive Nuttall and Sylvan Spring (Image: Tina Tiller)
Olive Nuttall and Sylvan Spring (Image: Tina Tiller)

Sylvan Spring (the author of poetry collection Killer Rack) and Olive Nuttall (the author of the novel kitten) discuss their books, special interests and the trans experience.

Olive Nuttall’s novel kitten is an immersive experience. From the first page the reader is swept into the life of Rosemary, a character so alive that you’re quickly travelling right alongside her, like a ghost on her shoulder, as she navigates love, sex, death, pain and pleasure. Killer Rack by Sylvan Spring is a poetry collection presented like an album, with an A side and a B side, with songs for “for the sad bitches, the silly billys, the divine transsexuals, the girls who were first to get piercings not in their ears, the ones who dream of dissolving into a river, the Cocteau Twins obsessives, the average bros, the immaculate twinks, the retired popstars turned chicken farmers, and fans of 2001 masterpiece Charlie’s Angels.”

Here, the pair talk to each other about their books, their special interests, the trans experience and more.

Olive: You’ve made a book of poetry that writes into and out of the pop music canon. Obviously, this is an extremely gay manoeuvre. How has pop music shaped your writing? Why does it feel like I’m listening to a Sony CD Walkman — minus the skips — when I read Killer Rack? 

Sylvan: So gay, thank you for noticing! Honestly, I think I lack the attention span for poetry a lot of the time. Like I find you do have to engage with it intensively to get fulfilment out of it, which is the beauty of it as well, but as someone who struggles to jam my laundry in the machine and turn it on, I’m not always up for that level of commitment. It refuses to hold your hand like fiction does, you just sort of have to watch it trip along the path way ahead of you and hope you can catch up. Which is so fkn cool but also hard fkn work. 

But music has those three dimensions of words, melody and rhythm, and the last two really do something to your body that you can’t quite explain in your brain. I guess that’s part of why I made an album to go alongside the book. I wanted to bring poetry back to being an embodied experience, as it was when I wrote it, or when it was marinating inside me while I was pressed in on all sides by obnoxious twinks on the Ivy dancefloor, sweaty and hating everyone. 

I feel like we’ve gotten to a cultural moment where we’ve moved away from the snobbery around pop music, and the kind of dudes who have every Bob Dylan album on vinyl don’t run the conversation anymore, so people appreciate the artistry and massive technical precision in pop music. Yeah, it’s all driven by consumer capitalism, formulaic and full of clichés, but I feel like on that embodied and emotional level it’s no different from any other music in terms of what it does to you. That’s where the true poetry is for me, when music really hits you in the chest. And honestly, nothing does that for me quite like pop songs like ‘Honey’ by Robyn or ‘Pure Shores’ by All Saints. 

I love that the book gives you Walkman vibes – that gives me flashbacks to when I would walk around with my Discman as an angsty pre-teen but I hadn’t discovered, like, PJ Harvey yet so I would stomp around to these R&B compilations I’d burned off of Limewire. And the CD would skip because I was stomping too hard. Killer Rack is as much shaped by that time as it is by the now.

Sylvan Spring, author of Killer Rack (Photo: Ebony Lamb)

Sylvan: While we’re calling each other out, how very trans of you to write a book that’s simultaneously dealing with stuff that’s so emotionally intense and also manages to be so horny and gentle and silly. I often feel like trans people really know what it’s like to live at the end of those spectrums, and are able to swing back and forth very quickly. And I feel like that writing right along the spectrum of experience, almost all at once, is part of what fosters such a sense of trust in you as a writer as Pip Adam alluded to in her beautiful review of kitten, because there’s such honesty to it. Like there’s complexity and balance and nuance that’s just woven in, and doesn’t need to be talked about directly. Even when there’s heavy stuff coming up, the overwhelming experience of reading the book is just so fun. I guess I don’t even really have a question here. I just wanted to honey roast you. You smashed it, and I’m sure dolls everywhere are gonna feel so seen by this book. But to ask an actual question, did you have fun while writing this book?

Olive: I’m really glad you had fun reading kitten. I did have fun writing it. 

Writing can be a bit of a chore sometimes, but also a total luxury. I have ADHD, and part of managing that is making sure I am excited, surprised, and interested in what I’m writing. I really need that sweet sweet dopamine to keep me going.

With that said, sometimes you have to write, even when you don’t want to. My workaround for the hard writing times is fairly niche. I’m in a full time dominant/submissive relationship with one of my partners. They set up daily word count targets, and managed my deadlines. Even when I wasn’t intrinsically motivated to write for writing’s sake, I still wanted to be a good girl! When the writing was torturous, the torture was being inflicted by someone that I WANTED to suffer for. That helped a lot.

Olive: Trans people are closer to God than cis people: Y/N?  

Sylvan: I mean, how could we not be? 

For real though, being put in a position where you sort of have to fake it ‘til you make it with your gender, and (self-)consciously perform it in the early days of feeling out your own identity really helps it hit home how camp and ridiculous this whole gender thing really is, don’t you reckon? Isn’t it so funny to watch people put bows on bald babies, or watch dudes at the gym grunt and eye themselves up in the mirror as they pump their silly little arms? No hate to these people, I think it’s kind of cute at this point. Like, yeah, we all are truly just all creating these constellations of weird and misguided little acts to get people to really see us, aren’t we?

I still often feel like I’m playacting at masculinity, and everyone’s just humouring me. I’m the kid in the dinosaur suit, and everyone’s pretending to cower in terror. Writing Killer Rack helped me process a lot of those feels and get to a place where I get to not really think about gender nearly as much as I used to, like I just don’t care about it or where I fit in it. And that’s so nice. I think being trans masc helps with that though, in that it’s easier to pass and hormones tend to give us more of what we want more quickly. That’s given me a sort of mundane sense of safety that gives me more space to think about other things. That’s overstating it, though. I’m still scared of cis people half the time.

Anyway, we were talking about god. To me, god is just the great web of connection, infused with that mauri, that life force that bonds everything. We’re all just one big heaving organism. If trans people are able to cut through some of these bullshit capitalist/essentialist concepts we’ve constructed that push us further away from the complexity of what we really are, into our separate individuality and away from everything else, then surely we’re closer to god? And even if we can’t do that, we’re hot, most of us are having way better sex than the cis-hets, and we always have the best little special interest fixations.

Olive Nuttall, with fencing sword. (Photo: Ebony Lamb)

Sylvan: Speaking of special interests, I’d like to talk about swords. Sadly, fencing is not a part of kitten (I will be holding out for a trans fencing epic in the near future), but it is a big part of your life. You’re even holding a sword in most of your author photos for the book. Do you wanna talk a bit about your love of swords and why wielding them makes your heart go boom boom?


I train in Historical Fencing (also known as HEMA). The sport looks a lot like Olympic fencing, but with longswords, rapiers, and other kinds of historical weapons. 

Basically, we read historical fencing manuals — the earliest I study is a sword and buckler manual dated circa 1300, and the latest I study is a sabre manual from 1908 — and then we try and use the stuff that is taught in those manuals to win matches played with those weapons. Part of the hobby is about being a huge history nerd, the other part is about being a massive jock. You can do both parts of the hobby, or just one part — whatever works for you.

For me, the dopamine is released when the tip of my longsword hits someone’s fencing jacket and I watch the sword bend nearly in half as I fly at and then past them. Winning feels really good, lol.

Also, combat sports are really good for helping my body process fear and anxiety. I am in a near constant state of fear. It’s never been safe for trans folk out there, but since the election I’ve experienced a palpable upswing in on-the-street harassment and threats etc. Also, there is A LOT of bad things happening in the world ALL THE TIME, so like, I’m pretty fxcking adrenalised basically 24/7. 

After training I feel a lot better. Simulating violence means my body can let go of the tension — like, FINALLY, the “bad thing” happened. The bruises are really cute too :3

ALSO, sword fighting is hella gay. There’s just no two ways about it. Every dyke deserves a sword of their own. Giving weapons to transsexuals is a holy and sanctified act. These are self-evident truths.

The historical record is packed with queer swords-folk! Most sapphic nerds will already know the legendary exploits of Julie d’Aubigny — also known as “La Maupin”. d’Aubigny is a bisexual icon who famously rescued her girlfriend from a nunnery by digging up the corpse of a freshly buried nun, placing the corpse of that nun in her lover’s sleeping quarters, and then setting the nunnery aflame before escaping with her girl. 

La Maupin regularly bested men in duels — once wounding three men in one night after seducing their girlfriends at a royal ball. Another time, she viciously injured a man in a duel, nursed him back to health, and later married him.

Julie is ICONIC.

Also! One of the greatest smallsword fencers was a trans woman, The Chevalière d’Éon. She was a spy, a duellist, and the editor of a particularly famous and influential treatise on smallsword fencing.

Historical fencing is my special interest, so I COULD go on.

Bisexual icon, Julie d’Aubigny. 

Olive: Your poem ‘Hell is a teenage girl’ hits haaaaaard. It’s really uneasy. There’s a bit that goes: 

–a transplant among/ the cluster of girls at the sleepover, tense/ on my mattress on the floor, heart/ violent with the knowledge/ that someday I’d be discovered” 

I’m hearing those bars spoken by a secret trans-masc, at a girls’ sleepover. But they’re hitting me now — as a trans girl, post-eggcrack, on HRT, and everything. It’s kind of crack-up (read: heartbreaking) that we’ve both had/have this experience of terror — terror that we’ll be exposed as fake girls. Like, wtf?

Sylvan: A small part of me kind of loves that we have this communal experience! I feel like there’s often a focus on the differences between trans-feminine and trans-masculine people, and not enough recognition that we do have many of the same experiences and feelings, spiralling in and out of each other as we move through time in different directions.

Most parts of me do not love that we’ve both dealt with this feeling. You’ve actually made me think with this, like I come to masculinity with a certain sense of confidence in who I am apart from it already, but my experience has been that if you look vaguely masc and say “bro” every few sentences, most dudes won’t have a problem with you. This is in adulthood though, and if I’d grown up as the faggy boy I’ve now become instead of a masc girl, I’m sure I’d be saying something else. My point is that girlhood and womanhood felt to me then like something of a broad church, but with Berghain security guards on all the doors, and the sacred jewels of femininity locked away in the crypt, unfit for “transgressive” eyes. And this is from someone who doesn’t even want to be a girl anymore. I can imagine it’s all the more gutting to be locked out when you actually really want in.

That sort of pearl-clutching desire to protect femininity and push out those who don’t conform that will be so annoyingly familiar to trans fems is where much of that sleepover terror came from for me. And I guess my Catholic upbringing, hence the big church metaphor. So repression was the primary m.o. for that part of my life, to fit into what everyone around me was telling me it took to be a girl. Because how could I be anything else? Transness, in my mind, only morphed from the butt of the joke to a viable life path in my mid-20s. 

Sylvan: I love the horniness of kitten. And the book so deftly balances dealing with past sexual assault and rampant and joyous horniness in the now. I especially loved seeing the tenderness and all the non-sex parts of the relationship between Rosemary and Thorn, given that’s such a feature of many people’s relationships of domination and submission that heaps of us don’t see, along with the euphoria that submission can bring. Also I am obviously living for the T4T energy!

I feel like the kind of sex writing many of us have seen a lot of tends to either try to titillate or convey something ineffable about the embodied gorgeousness of having it. But kitten has such a full range of emotions that accompany sexy stuff, an overwhelming sense of being safe, and the feeling that Rosemary has very real agency in her encounters. I’m going on a honey roast tangent again, but I think I just want to ask, what’s the importance of the kinds of sex that are in this book to you?

Olive: t4t 4eva! Hehe I’m really happy you enjoyed that stuff. Honestly, the types of sex in the book are really important to me. Saying exactly why they’re important is really really challenging. It’s a really hard question to answer. It’s the kind of question that made me write kitten. Like, if I could answer this question succinctly, I wouldn’t have had to write that book, you know? It’s a very good question. 

Olive: Are you a girlfag or a boydyke?

Sylvan: All of the above. None of the above. I’m a goyfyke. And a tiny little Thumbelina-sized fairy and a divine void and also sometimes a bro in a basketball singlet putting petrol in his car.

Sylvan: What would the playlist of kitten have on it?

Olive: I love it when my friends make me playlists, but left to my own devices, I tend to listen to albums. Nerd alert: I wrote kitten with 12 chapters for the number of tracks on a 45 minute LP. I think Survival by Wares and Peaceful as Hell by Black Dresses are two albums with HUGE kitten vibes. 

kitten by Olive Nuttall (Te Herenga Waka University Press, $30) can be purchased from Unity Books Wellington and Auckland. Killer Rack by Sylvan Sprint (Te Herenga Waka University Press, $30) can also be purchased from Unity Books Wellington and Auckland

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