The ancient Greek myth of Orpheus and Eurydice has taken many forms. The tragic story of true love and unspeakable loss transcends the Classics, whether through soaring, song-filled theatrics in post-apocalyptic New Orleans or a glittering cabaret in 1890s France. This time, the tale — which centers on Eurydice, a fatal snakebite, and Orpheus’s epic journey to attempt to get her back from the dead — travels to a place even scarier than the Underworld: middle school.
Kate Fussner’s “The Song of Us,” released May 30, is a middle-grade, queer retelling told through the eyes of Olivia and Eden, two artistic seventh-graders in present-day Boston. Following a love-at-first-sight meet-cute at poetry club, the pair is quickly thrust into the tender triumphs and tumults of blossoming emotions, mental health, and identity. She was loosely inspired by her own love story (Fussner moved to the Boston area in 2010 to live with her then-partner now-wife), as well as her time teaching in the Boston Public Schools system.
The Roslindale resident and Lesley University alumna will be at Brookline Booksmith on June 7 to read from her book and take questions with author Rebecca Podos (”From Dust, A Flame”). Before her event, Fussner discussed her debut novel, the decision to write in-verse, and the real-life Greek tragedy that is middle school years.
Q. Was being an author something you’ve always wanted to do?
A. Growing up, I loved writing stories. I got more serious about [writing] in middle school, which sounds funny to say. When I started teaching in Boston [and] got my feet on the ground, I started taking creative nonfiction classes at GrubStreet. I always thought I was going to write memoirs and essays, but it wasn’t until I became an English teacher and saw the [books] that were coming out in children’s lit that it occurred to me that maybe I could be telling those kinds of stories.
Q. “The Song of Us resonates” with a unique age group — Olivia and Eden encounter some of the most real parts of middle school. The emotions and stakes feel so high.
A. [Middle school] is an interesting space, and when you’re 12, it’s a hard space to be in; I have a lot of compassion for 12-year-olds trying to navigate varying levels of maturity. I definitely felt inspired by my time as a middle school teacher. There is something wild and wonderful at that age that changes as you get older.
Q. It’s a significant age to have validating literature.
A. As a teacher, I saw so many kids entering [school] saying, “The last book I loved reading was five years ago,” because often, as adults, we give books to young people that they don’t see themselves in. I’m grateful that the publishing industry is trying to fill in those spaces because that’s a long time to go through life without finding a story that [makes] you feel seen and understood. I’m hopeful that there will be more books in that space because kids deserve to see themselves in stories.
Q. What made you choose Orpheus and Eurydice — and how did you make their story into your own?
A. For me, the story of Orpheus and Eurydice is so important because it’s about trust and the almost out-of-body lengths we will go to for love. And because trust and that intense longing felt so middle school to me. It felt like the perfect opportunity to connect students to a myth, but to see it in a really different way. I changed a lot, but I wanted to think about the pieces that could be fully modernized while retaining the integrity of the story.
Q. Why did you decide to structure the story as a novel in verse?
A. I had never written in verse before. I had not written poetry since I was my own emotional high-schooler self, and yet, as soon as I sat down, I knew it had to be in poems. As a kid, I loved word puzzles, and in some ways, trying to write this book as a verse novel allowed me to connect with the childhood parts of me that saw language as an opportunity to play.
Q. A central source of tension building toward the book’s climax originates from a character being delayed by the T. Why did you choose to set your story in Boston?
A. A big part is my time as a Boston Public Schools teacher. I felt really connected to the city and to the experiences of young people, specifically in Boston. There are so many opportunities for young people to explore different neighborhoods. It made sense to me that it would be here. And I wanted it to be based somewhere real, so why not connect it to the place I wrote it in?
This interview has been edited and condensed for clarity and length.
Kate Fussner with Rebecca Podos, June 7 at 7 p.m. Brookline Booksmith, 279 Harvard St., Brookline, brooklinebooksmith.com.