Justin Taylor is the author of the short story collection Everything Here is the Best Thing Ever (2010) and the novel The Gospel of Anarchy (2011). His latest collectionFlings is forthcoming from HarperCollins in August. Melody Nixon caught up with him in Brooklyn, New York, to discuss the progression of his work, fiction like a warm bath, and riding reindeer into rivers.
Melody Nixon (MN): Your short story, “After Ellen,“ was published in The New Yorker in 2012 and is collected in your forthcoming collection, Flings. The writing is so crisp, the dialog so sharp, and the story’s such a pleasure to read. But the main character, Scott, has views of women that verge on at best sexist, at worst misogynistic, and he acts in some despicable ways. What’s your intention with creating this sort of character?
Justin Taylor (JT): That story starts with the character taking a cowardly action, but I don’t know if he’s that despicable. I don’t think he’s a bad guy. He just has a fair amount of growing up to do and the story charts that attempt. It hinges at the end on the question of whether any growth has been achieved.
MN: I don’t see “despicable” as a judgment call. I’m quite drawn to awful characters. What draws you to them?
JT: It’s interesting and it’s compelling when people are in trouble. When people are uncertain. It can be even more interesting when those troubles are self-created, rather than externally imposed.
MN: “After Ellen” made a lot more sense to me in the context of your latest collection. Many of the characters are confused and just trying not to fail at life. They’re battling patterns of the past.
JT: One of the things about Scott is that he is not a victim of circumstance. All his problems are entirely self-generated, either as a result of things he’s done, or things he’s been unable to do. So he’s constantly struggling against himself.
MN: There’s something about a character externalizing their inner drama that appeals to you?
JT: Yes, absolutely.
MN: Why should we be on Scott’s side, though? Why should we root for him at the end of the story when he decides to love again?
JT: I don’t think the story asks you to be on Scott’s side, necessarily—he’s not the “hero” of anything—but I don’t see the point of rooting against him either. At no point is he acting out of malice.
MN: Any change in his character seems tied to his movement from Oregon to California—hinting at the ways changing one’s geographical situation can catalyze reflection. Can you talk about the role of place in your work?
JT: Place to me is crucial, no matter what I’m writing. Almost everything I write starts with a sense of place, where it’s set. Cities, neighborhoods, sometimes even specific houses—they’re really characters in a sense. It would have been impossible for me to write my novel [The Gospel of Anarchy] without my own sense of the place in which it’s set—Gainesville, Florida—as the point of departure.
MN: How does place factor in your new collection?
JT: The same is true of a lot of the stories in Flings. The title story is very much a Portland, Oregon story. That’s a place I’d spent some time, and I’d written about it a little bit in my first book, but I wanted the chance to dig back in. The earliest versions of “After Ellen” were really notes about San Francisco. I think I went there three or four times in 2010 and 2011—doing readings for my first book, and then for the novel, and also to give a talk at the Northern California Independent Booksellers Association. The hotel Scott stays at just happens to be where HarperCollins put me up on one of those visits. I love Chinatowns, so I was thrilled to be in one and did a lot of exploring there.
MN: And the collection also takes us back to Florida, where you grew up.
JT: “Carol, Alone” is very much about a part of South Florida, an area a bit north of Miami—Boynton Beach, Del Ray, West Palm. “The Happy Valley” is set in Hong Kong, and born out of years of spending time in that city, for usually a month at a time, of trying to get a feel for its rhythms and what life was like there—at least for a certain class of people, namely American Ex-Pats. My cousin Caryn and her husband lived there from ’07 to ’11 or so, and since as a teacher I’m cyclically unemployed I would sublet my room and go out there to hang out with them and their daughters.
MN: The places that find their way into your work—Oregon, Florida, California, Hong Kong—are they always places you’ve lived in or visited?
JT: By and large. When you’re writing about places you’ve only briefly visited, you can run pretty quickly into the wall of what you don’t know. I’m certainly not above picking up a book or going on Google Maps to figure out where roads connect to each other, but I would probably be inclined to go to a new place I wanted to write about before making stuff up.
MN: So your work is realist fiction, then. No riding of reindeer like magical porpoises? (To paraphrase your own description of a scene in Halldór Laxness’Independent People.)
JT: No reindeer riding, though there is one maybe-real-maybe-hallucinated alligator. Most of these stories fall within the boundaries of what you’d call the realist tradition. Some push at those boundaries but less in terms of content than in terms of scope or form. There is a fantastical element to the compression or acceleration of time, which is something I was preoccupied with while working on these stories. But no dragons.
MN: How does time factor in your stories? Several of the pieces in Flings span years.
JT: Revisiting Barry Hannah’s late stories got me really interested in how time is handled in the short story. There are stories in High Lonesome and Bats Out of Hellthat fit whole lives into short fiction. I wanted to see what my version of that would look like. Plenty of writers do this—Alice Munro, certainly with her endings, and Saul Bellow in his story “The Old System,” which is a sort of miniature epic—although it’s a very maximalist story too. Miniature for an epic. Maximalist for short fiction. It’s a work of genius.
MN: How do stories come to you? Do you always visualize or imagine them in a setting?
JT: It’s all tied together. You have that first itch that you want to sit down and write something, and you’re not even sure what it’s about, but you let it begin to spool itself out. As you get to know the characters you start to see where they are.
MN: How does that “itch,” as you describe it, manifest? For me, I’m always visualizing something—an image or an interaction—that’s my starting point.
JT: Probably the same way. It usually starts with a scene, or a sentence. A half-formed idea. Maybe you have an idea for a sentence. You repeat the sentence in your head until you know it by heart, then you want to write it down. Or you have half an idea for a scene—it’s in the distance, it’s a little foggy, but you can see it’s there. You aim for it. You start making your way down the road towards it. You either eventually arrive there, or, you get sidetracked and end up somewhere else entirely.
MN: You find yourself in a new place.
JT: Yes. I’ll have an idea for a scene or a moment, but it’s not usually an opening moment. So I try to imagine what beginning would lead to that point. In the course of trying to get there, I’ll send myself off in a thousand other directions. Sometimes the original thing I was shooting for turns out to be an ending, other times it lands somewhere in the middle—or disappears entirely.
MN: At the Center for Fiction recently Jenny Offill described the experience of reading fiction as either “plunging into an ice-cold pool” or as “sliding into a nice, warm bath.” I think of your fiction as, generally, the ‘warm bath’ kind. I chuckled aloud all over NYC reading Flings. There’s so much of our zeitgeist that I can identify with—maybe because I’m the same age as you. What do you think, is your work of a specific time?
JT: That’s well put by Jenny, which is unsurprising, since she’s such a great writer and teacher. I really enjoyed and admired her Dept. of Speculation. I’ll take the warm bath thing as a compliment—there is pleasure to be had in a bracing plunge as well.
I believe that all work is necessarily of its specific time. There’s just no getting around that, even if you’re consciously writing historical or speculative fiction. I’m not interested in zeitgeists, but I am interested in the way that people live, think, and speak; the technologies we use; our experience of ourselves and each other in everyday life. I think that when people say great books are “timeless” they don’t—or they shouldn’t—mean that the book is unmoored from its own moment or shot like a rocket beyond the orbit of history, or whatever. It’s rather that the work is so firmly rooted that it continues to grow and live with the world as it changes. Leaves of Grass, Moby-Dick, Middlemarch, Independent People, Housekeeping: these books aren’t rockets, they’re trees.
MN: Do you consciously try to make humor a part of your writing?
JT: Yeah, sometimes. I wouldn’t say it’s a major preoccupation, but in real life I find that the comic and the tragic are rarely as discreetly packaged as I might wish them to be, and so my work reflects that. Of course some stories, like “Sungold” in the new book, or “The Jealousy of Angels” in my first one, are written in an obviously comedic-satiric mode, whereas in some others—”A Talking Cure,” for example—the reader has to decide for herself how seriously to take the characters and their predicament, or whether her laughter—if she does laugh—is perhaps nervous laughter. But there are many kinds of comedy: there’s a comedy of accidents, of absurdity, of recognition, of hubris, of discomfort, of dismay. And of course you can laugh at characters or with them.
MN: The voices you explore in this collection are by and large older than your first, and you write from more perspectives than last time—female, male, older, younger. Does this increase in scope reflect how you’re changing as a person? As you’re maturing?
JT: One hopes that one is maturing. But one also hopes that one is not maturing too much. I was 27 when Everything Here came out, and the stories in it mostly date from the five or so years before. I’m 32 now. If I hadn’t changed at all during that half-decade, or taken notice of the changes going on around me—in terms of pop- and political- culture, but also in terms of getting older, friends getting married and having kids, etc.—I’d be a fool.
MN: I appreciated the movement to write female characters.
JT: There was some conscious effort on my part to make the stories in Flings more varied in terms of who I chose for a narrator or protagonist. This wasn’t a political decision (though it does square with my politics) so much as it was an effort to expand the range of my own attention, try new things, lessen the risk of repeating myself.
MN: In “Sungold” you touch on issues of race and gender—racial segregation in South Florida, and the objectification of women. The main character describes himself as “Typhoid Whitey.” Black teenage boys cross the street to try to avoid his whiteness, he says, as though it’s a contagious disease. Writing about these issues from a privileged position can be challenging. How did you feel bringing in this element?
JT: The narrator of “Sungold” is incredibly intelligent and perceptive, in certain ways, but he’s also a thief and an ignorant fuck. Like a lot of people who are loud about their prejudices, his bravado derives largely from ignorance and a relative lack of options in his own life. I mean, he spends the first third of the story wearing a giant mushroom costume to promote a hippie pizza franchise. But it was a truly fun story to write. I let myself go wild with the story and with the language. I just thought, however fucked up this wants to get, I’m gonna let it. But then, weirdly, it wound up being one of the most optimistic, even redemptive stories in the book.
MN: It was my favorite in the collection. Who were you reading while you were writing Flings?
JT: As I mentioned before, Barry Hannah is a writer I really love, and his influence certainly shows throughout, at the sentence level—if it’s not self-flattery to say so—and also in terms of the thing about time that I talked about before. Saul Bellow and Virginia Woolf, certainly. I’ve loved Woolf since I was a college student, but only came to Bellow in the past few years. I’ve fallen quite hard for him. He provides one of the epigraphs to the collection—it’s a line from his novel Herzog. And the title story is a Virginia Woolf homage, a kind of very loose re-write of The Waves.
MN: What are you reading now?
JT: I’m spending a lot of time with Alan Ziegler’s new anthology Short for a class I’m teaching this summer at Columbia on short prose forms. Flash fiction, prose-poetry, epigrams, lyric essays, fragments—we’re doing all of that and more. And I should mention that Alan designed this class, has been thinking about these forms for twenty years or more, so nobody forced me to use his book but it would have been insane not to take advantage of the fact that all his careful and capacious attention to this stuff has been collected and released in paperback. My own addition to the syllabus was Elisa Gabbert’s The Self Unstable and Dennis Cooper’s God Jr.
MN: Amy Hampel, Lydia Davis, Gary Lutz? I love all of them.
JT: They’re all in Alan’s book.
MN: And who else?
JT: I’ve been reading this Halldór Laxness book called Independent People, which is an amazing, amazing novel about Iceland. It’s very beautiful, it’s very funny. The protagonist, Bjartur, is a crofter, and forces all kinds of deprivations of his family. There’s a lot about mowing hay and feeding sheep, but it manages to be fascinating. It’s also very strange—there’s a scene in which Bjartur tries to hunt a reindeer but doesn’t have a way to kill it so he tries to grab it by the horns and walk it home, but ends up riding on its back and it jumps in a river and he rides it down the river like a dolphin-trainer. It’s incredible. I’d been hearing about Independent People for years. It’s one of those books that comes so highly recommended you’re almost afraid to pick it up.
MN: Any particular reason you’re reading it now?
JT: It’s somewhere between research and pleasure. I’m working on a novel now that’s set partially in Iceland. I visited for the first time last year and fell in love with the place. I’m going back this November. In the interim I’ve been familiarizing myself with, that is I guess to say “researching,” Icelandic literature. This is the second of Laxness’ novels I’ve read. I’m also reading Auden’s Letters from Iceland, which is a weird, goofy book. I’ve been working my way through the Sagas.
MN: Speaking of writers from that general part of the world, have you read Karl Knausgaard’s My Struggle series? They’re sort of the Scandinavian It books right now.
JT: I’m interested in My Struggle, but I think when so much gets written about something it can be healthy to take a step back. On the one hand, I believe all the people who are recommending the works, but on the other hand it’s hard for me to imagine how I could read those books at this moment without reading my own reaction against all that criticism. Which can be a totally valid and interesting way to read a book, but in this case I think I’ll wait till the fuss has died down a bit, and I can take it on on my own terms.
MN: But would you want your own readers to say the same thing?
JT: That’s the rub, right?!
MN: You’d want people to be writing about your work. And also reading it.
JT: I guess the only thing I can say about that is, I should be lucky to have such troubles.
Photography: Devils Milhopper State Park outside Gainesville, Florida; Hong Kong at night; Coast road at Snaefellsnes Peninsula, Iceland; all copyright Justin Taylor.