Fish Tanks on the Same River: A Conversation with Brandon Taylor

Brandon Taylor is the senior editor of Electric Literature’s Recommended Reading and a staff writer at Literary Hub. His writing has earned him fellowships from Lambda Literary Foundation, Kimbilio Fiction, and the Tin House Summer Writer’s Workshop. He holds graduate degrees from the University of Wisconsin-Madison and the University of Iowa, where he was an Iowa Arts Fellow at the Iowa Writers’ Workshop in fiction.


Miller, Yngve, and Cole looked like a trio of pale, upright deer, like they belonged to their own particular species, and you could be forgiven, if you were in a hurry, for thinking them related. Like Wallace and their other friends, they had all come to this Midwestern city to pursue graduate studies in biochemistry. Their class had been the first small one in quite some time, and the first in more than three decades to include a black person.

So opens Real Life, Brandon Taylor’s much-anticipated debut novel about a graduate student named Wallace and his group of friends, set in a Madison, Wisconsin, summer. “I really love campus novels, but they’re always about straight people or white people,” Taylor said. “I get tired of having to do the work of imagining myself across difference into these books. Sometimes they do this thing of including a black person or a queer person at a party scene, off to the side, and they don’t get to talk.”

“What if,” Taylor said of the novel’s origin, “I just make that person the center of the story? What if I don’t allow anyone else to have a point of view in the book, and I push all of them to the side and for once, write a campus novel about a black gay person? And that’s what I decided I wanted to do.”

Told in an intimate voice, Real Life explores the difference between fitting in and belonging, the inevitable biases of humans and the consequences of our failures to that end.

This is why Wallace never tells anyone anything. This is why he keeps the truth to himself, because other people don’t know what to do with your shit, with the reality of other people’s feelings. They don’t know what to do when they’ve heard something that does not align with their own perception of things.

I spoke with Taylor via phone, he at his home in Iowa, where he writes and teaches. We talked about why we make ourselves small, the one piece of advice that helped him most in revision, and dinner parties that go horribly wrong.


Amy Reardon: In Real Life, is Wallace grappling with who is entitled to take up space?

Brandon Taylor: I think so. In many ways, to me it’s a novel about realizing at a certain point in your life that you’ve made certain concessions, and you’ve made yourself smaller to survive your circumstances, and upon realizing that, deciding, Oh, actually, this is not enough for me. It’s about the difficulty of honoring that realization and doing something about it. Working through all the negotiations and concessions you’ve had to make in your life. Figuring out how I’m going to then take up the space that I now feel entitled to. So yes, it’s definitely a novel about working through the realization that I’ve made myself small to get by and realizing this is no longer a viable strategy: I can’t keep doing this.

AR: Can you talk about Wallace’s experience of bias in the novel?

BT: I think it’s true of any group you find yourself in, that people are, on the one hand, being oppressed, and on the other hand, they’re oppressing someone else. Something that I always want to avoid as a writer is taking one character’s side over another’s side and letting that stand as a moral indictment. The thing that I’m after is true moral complexity and showing the ways that we’re all both angels of history and also people who are doing horrible things to each other. I’m always trying to reveal both the ways that we support each other and are cruel to each other, and the way that even kind people can be responsible for some toxic destructive behavior. I was really interested in digging down into this group and showing that, actually, the people that you think of as being liberal and progressive and really loving are, in fact, liberal and progressive and very loving, but they also do these horrible things. Even Wallace doesn’t escape this. He does things that are hair-raising. There are no perfect people, and I wanted the novel to speak to the shifting, constantly changing complexities of any given human situation.

AR: Craft-wise, how do you execute on that?

BT: Any time Wallace does something, I try to think very deeply about the consequence of the action, not just in his life, but upon the person who is receiving the action. I’m always writing, and then running around to the other end of the table and playing that role, then running back around to Wallace’s side. You’re always trying to make sure that you’re not writing one-dimensionally, that you’re thinking very deeply about the ramifications that actions have, because every character in a story is your responsibility. On a craft level, I would think, am I being honest here? Am I being truthful or am I being protective of these characters and Wallace, trying to insulate him or someone else from being revealed as the fully complicit person that they are in these horrible systems? It was a lot of trying to face up to the most difficult version of events.

AR: You wrote an essay about protecting your characters.

BT: I did, indeed. It was something that I got dinged for a lot in workshops. My teachers would say you’re being so protective of these characters, and it was something I had to think through. I often would try to insulate them because I often write about black queer characters, and I just feel like we’ve got enough in life.

AR: By enough, you mean…?

BT: In the real world, like in actual life, black queer people experience lives that are highly potentiated by violence and political inequalities. That, to me, is heinous enough that I didn’t want to have to inflict it upon my characters in fiction just so that someone who was not within that community could say it’s authentic. I didn’t want to be torturing my characters so that some sort of external gaze could validate me as a writer. I didn’t want to do that. So I had to find a way into this idea of emotional honesty that would let me feel like I was telling the truth in a way that wasn’t just recreating these horrible systems and violences. It was a difficult thing, to take this idea that yes, I’m being protective, but what is the root of that impulse? And how can I get around it in a way that allows me to stick to my principles?

AR: Wallace almost always seems to be holding two conflicting desires at the same time. Is that by design?

BT: Yes, it is by design. Part of it is that’s how I view the world, and that’s how I view people. Things that interest me are always complicated and contradictory. In creative writing classes, you’re often told no, this character needs to be consistent so the reader knows when they change that it means something. I always found that really boring, because people change their minds all the time. I set out to go to the cafe and halfway there I’m like, I actually don’t want do that, I want to do something else. Characters need to be free to be contradictory. I just think that if a character doesn’t experience ambivalence or contradiction, they aren’t real. I hope it’s not just Wallace. I hope all of the characters in the novel to some degree exhibit behaviors that betray their intentions and behave in ways that are antithetical to those hopes because that is the nature of life.

AR: Are there other authors’ works with which the novel is in conversation, about characters that contradict themselves?

BT: Yes. I think most directly André Aciman. When I read Call Me By Your Name as a 17- or 18-year-old, I was just blown away. Elio in that novel changes his mind ten times a page, sometimes, it seems. I think Mavis Gallant’s characters in her short stories are always changing their minds about things they want, or they’re always saying things that they don’t really feel in a moment because someone hurt their feelings. They’re incredibly capricious. I think Garth Greenwell is our great bard of ambivalence. His characters are always turning over their feelings, trying to understand what it is they really feel and going through various contradictory phases of feeling and thought.

AR: How did this novel come to be?

BT: This novel, unlike some novels, has a very clear and obvious genesis. I was living in Madison, Wisconsin, and I had this literary agent who I had told I wanted to be a short story writer, and he said, sure, sounds great, that’s what we’ll do. And then after a few months working together, he asked me how my novel was going, and I had this feeling that—and I don’t think this is true but I felt it—that he is not going to take me seriously until I write a novel. So I made a list of all the reasons I had failed to write a novel before. I made a list of all my strengths as a writer, all my weaknesses a writer, and I came up with a plan to enhance my strengths, get around my weaknesses. Then I set out to write a novel. From writing the first line to the last line of the book took five weeks. I wrote it in one straight shot.

AR: How did you settle on the novel’s structure?

BT: When I was making all of these lists, I hit upon this idea that in order to finish this book, I needed to finish it quickly because I’m not a person who can take years and years and years on something that I actually hope to finish, I’m a person who just needs to get in and get out. So I made a list of scenes that excited me creatively. I knew that I wanted there to be a dinner party, a lake, a lab. I knew that I wanted to have a formal break in the middle of the book. I wanted the beginning and the ending to speak to each other across the whole book. Structure-wise, I landed on ten parts with the beginning and the ending as kind of sliding doors, and the middle would be this hyper-lyric formal break from the rest of the book. That’s the plan. I literally wrote those things down, and I did it.

AR: How was the revision process?

BT: Something that was really important, and I got this tip from a friend of mine, Pam Zhang, who I think got it from someone else. She said that, at a certain point, she prints out the whole thing and then re-types it by hand. When I had finished the big picture and moving around the blocks, I printed out the whole thing and typed it back into the computer by hand. That was to pay attention, word by word, line by line, to make sure it sounded right and moved properly. That was really important.

AR: You recently shared a link to an interview on NPR’s “Fresh Air” between Terry Gross and Reese Witherspoon.

BT: I did.

AR: In it, they talk about how sharing our sexual assault stories can open a new level of trauma, in being asked about these personal experiences in interviews. Terry asks Reese if she wants to tell her own story, and the conversation falters. Reese basically says, Look, I’m not interested in telling my story today, I’m saving it for when I can use it to really help promote change. Terry asks how it was to be asked. Reese says, To be honest Terry, it was a surprise. That being said, in the novel, Wallace tells his sexual assault story. Can we talk about that scene, and how would you like to be asked about it?

BT: Directly is perfectly fine, thank you for asking. Yes, that makes me feel very held and taken care of in the moment.

AR: Is it one of the big questions the novel is asking then, how do we talk about trauma?

BT: Yes, I mean, writing the moment where Wallace makes that disclosure, the lyric break in the middle of the book in section five was the single hardest thing that I did in writing the book. I say I wrote the book in five weeks, but really two of those weeks were not being able to write that section and then not being able to write after I had written it. It was just so brutal, because the truth is that when someone makes a disclosure, the way that Wallace does in that moment, there is no right way to respond. It deforms the rules of polite society by its very existence. There is no polite way to hear about someone’s experience of assault. There is no polite way to respond to it. There is no script for it because it is such a disgusting destruction of the order of things. So it’s like, how do you write what is essentially a pause, that awkward moment that happens when you make a disclosure to someone, and they just don’t know what to say to you, and you have to do the work of coaxing them back into the conversation? That was just so, so, so difficult because I’ve had moments like that in my own life where it’s like, Oh, now I’ve got to do the thing of helping you feel better about the thing that I just told you, even though you asked me to tell you.

AR: Alexander Chee writes about blaming victims for being complicit in their own assaults in How to Write an Autobiographical Novel. This is an important layer in Wallace’s trauma, too. Is there anything you want to say about this?

BT:  I think it’s one of those things culturally that we don’t talk about because it’s really difficult. It felt really important for me to write that section because I think that happens in so many instances that the way that people make themselves comfortable with their complicity is that they shift the blame to the to the victim. As though by saying that you wanted it, that they can transmute what is essentially an assault that is violence into something that is okay and permissible. It’s how they sit with it. It’s a form of insidious magical thinking, and it’s the way that we silence people by enlisting them in their own silencing—saying that they wanted it.

Sometimes we feel as though we don’t have control over our own narrative, because we’ve been told something, often by a trusted person, often by the person who’s most interested in silencing us, that we wanted it, and so we give that control over to them, and it’s a second violation. You’re stripped of agency yet again. You know, it’s a really difficult, messy space, but it felt necessary to it inhabit in this story, to unfold all of the dimensions about what was so harmful and dangerous about that moment in Wallace’s life. It’s something that I think about all the time: what are the ways that we silence people by making them complicit in their silence? It’s something that I’m still thinking through. It’s endlessly insidious.

AR: The lyric section is an important turning point in the novel. How did it develop?

BT: It’s like every fool’s errand: you think it’s going to be easy, and then you get there, and it’s like, Oh no, now I’ve got to do the thing. From the very beginning of the novel project, I knew that I wanted the three geographical guideposts of the book—the beginning, the middle, and the end—to be these somatic sounding points. I wanted them to serve as a virtual space for the story to process and to turn up meaning. I knew I wanted the middle to be this hyper-lyric monologue. I knew I wanted it to be formally very distinct. I wrote the first draft of this book with no backstory in the first half. I was like, I’m going to save it at all for the middle. Part of that was just borrowing from this long tradition of the block paragraph as emotional compression. Garth Greenwell does it in What Belongs To You, Thomas Bernhard does it. Sebald invented it, perhaps. I was working with this tradition of the formal block paragraph, so I knew I wanted the middle of the book to contain the reason why Wallace is the way that he is. I knew it was going to be a powder keg. I knew that I wanted it to be in this super lyrical language, and the book would need the whole first half to achieve velocity in order to reach this register.

I had a very clear blueprint in mind about what it would be and how I would get into it. Then I got there and couldn’t write it. Because I was like, If I don’t do this, the book fails. There is no book if I don’t do this, it’s all for nothing. So there’s all this pressure to write it, but then there’s this horrible, queasy anxiety because it was like touching on things that I had never directly written about before. My whole ethos as a writer is austerity. I’m a very conservative stylist, and so I was like I’ve got to just do it. I’ve got to just psych myself up and do it.

AR: How did you do it?

BT: I was riding home from a friend’s house in an Uber and there were fireworks in Madison, and I thought, That’s it. That’s the thing. That’s what I’ve got to do: pick one thing, one image, one sound and let it go, just let it go. And that’s how I got into the section. I wrote it in 10-15 minutes. But then I thought it would be longer. Is this okay? But then I was like, well, I’m free of it, so if it’s not good I’ll come back to it later. I couldn’t write for a week after I wrote it because it was just so exhausting. I sort of knew, always, what the architecture of that section would be, and I kind of knew what it would sound like, but you know, it’s like building yourself a stage to dance on and realizing you’ve got to then do the dance in front of everybody. The worst stage fright.

AR: You mentioned one image that got you out of the gate?

BT: It was the weather. I grew up in Alabama, and in Alabama in the summertime, the thunderstorms are so violent, and they’re so common. They happen every single day. Trees get torn down, and the wind is brutal, and the thunderstorms cause tornadoes that kill dozens of people, and we just accept it. When I heard those fireworks, I thought, Oh, it’s the thunder. I can begin with the weather, because the weather is everything in Alabama. I grew up on a farm, and weather is all consuming. It’s all we think about. Will there be rain for the peas? If I can get the weather, then I have the section because it all goes together there. The weather and God and the body and violence and trauma and pain, for Wallace it’s all inextricably linked. So, once I had the thunder, I had the rest of it.

AR: Wallace’s body is in a lot of pain through the whole novel. And at the same time, he’s always thinking about how to make things easy on everyone else. Why?

BT: I think very simply, one of the ways that people like Wallace survive —people who find themselves in a space that typically excludes people like him—is by making yourself small and learning to read the room and learning to read the needs in the room, and if you can satisfy those needs, then you’re permitted to stay. So for Wallace, making it easy for other people is very much a strategy of survival, and it’s also just his way of understanding the world. And as far as his body being in pain, it’s true, he’s just constantly uncomfortable. He’s always so uneasy in himself. Something that is really important to me in fiction is the body. I read so many books and stories where the characters don’t have bodies, and where their bodies don’t put any pressure on the narrative. Bodies that don’t have any history. I find that troubling, and so it was really important for me to have Wallace’s body not only be in the story, but to be one of the engines of the story. Because part of why he receives the treatment he does is because of his queer black body, to use a tired phrase. Part of the reason he’s treated so poorly is because people have a lot of feelings about bodies like his. But also, on a craft level, I don’t like fiction where the body isn’t in play. The body has to be in play for me to be really invested in the narrative.

AR: In the novel, Wallace never seems to feel love, warmth, intimacy—all those things we have come to imagine we should expect from sex—without also feeling fear, shame and pain. Can you talk about this and maybe some influences or permissions to write about sex this way?

BT: The first novels I read were romance novels, and they always they had a lot of steamy sex in them. I think that anyone who grows up in American popular culture is inundated with images and narratives of sex. Sex is something that you should really want to do, and it should be fun, and for a long time that is how I thought about sex. All the sex scenes I wrote were these glorious, rapturous things. But my own history with sex is incredibly difficult. Sex is not something that I necessarily even really wanted to be a part of my life. It felt like something that I was forced into and conscripted into. So my entire life, I’ve had these two dueling narratives about sex. From popular culture, the best thing a person can ever do is have sex. It’s like the pinnacle of human experience, and also this violent, destructive, horrible thing that is dehumanizing and painful. But in my art, I would always choose the really positive with none of the negative until I wrote this book. I was like, actually, for once, I’m going to listen to myself. I’m going to write about the real difficulty of having sex, the physicality of it, both how that can make you feel like you are in your body, but also the great difficulty of it, particularly for people with histories of sexual trauma and sexual violence.

It felt really crucial to me, if Wallace was going to be someone who did have a history of sexual trauma and sexual violence, then it felt just absolutely necessary to me to write sex in a way that honored the complexity of his attitude toward sex. It couldn’t just be fun romps with this very tall, straight man. Everything had to be happening at the same time. Everything had to be true at the same time, and I couldn’t just turn my back on the negative because it made people feel uncomfortable. It all had to be there.

Garth Greenwell is one of my dear, dear friends, and we talk about this all the time. We talk about queerness and sex in particular, and how sex for queer people for a long time has been how queerness was gate-kept. How it would define our sexual proclivities and sexual behaviors, and also how that was used to punish us and to persecute us. Queer people have always had this very curious relationship to our sex lives in which they haven’t just belonged to us, but to some larger meta-narrative that society uses to police and control us. Garth is someone who thinks about sex and all of its interesting dimensions, maybe better than anyone. Just getting to talk to him about sex helps me think about my own ideas about sex more clearly. In terms of Real Life, the novel felt like I was for once writing about the real human complication that is sex. As far as inspiration, Alexander Chee’s novel Edinburgh is about a person who undergoes a sexual trauma and an assault and the effects it has throughout the rest of his life, including complicating his relationship to sex. It’s a novel about the echoes of a violence. The way it holds that complexity is breathtaking.

AR: You read a lot of women writers—Joan Didion, George Eliot, Alice Munro—why?

BT: Oh yeah. I studied chemistry all of high school and college. Even my first graduate degree is in chemistry, and I came to reading books fairly late in life. It wasn’t till around 2013 or so that I really began to read deeply. I didn’t discover Jane Austen until I was in Madison studying science. I’m also a person who re-reads a lot, and some of the people I re-read most often are Joan Didion, Jane Austen, Mavis Gallant, and Alice Munro. The reason I love their work so much is that they write about people who change their mind a lot. They write about people who are forced to construct a life out of materials that have been given to them, but which are sort of ultimately, insufficient to their needs. Or their wants, you know? And I just really relate to that. But I also do think that they write so beautifully about feeling and about the complexity of the inner life and the complexity of lives that to other people seem very small and insubstantial. I come to them for that. They just write so brilliantly about lives that we consider minor. I could read them forever and be satisfied.

AR: Would you like to talk about the transition from science to writing? Was there a transition?

BT: There was a pretty substantial one. I had been writing my entire life, but I didn’t know that one could become a writer. I thought that all the writers had been born and died, and all there were now were literary scholars going over the text that had been left by this one great breed of human. But then I got to Madison, and I was in a PhD program in biochemistry, and I decided I was going to just quit writing and really focus on science. I did that for about a year. I was so miserable, and my life was exploding, and I was like, You know what made me happy? Writing. Let’s just try to do that. I came across an opportunity to study in Los Angeles for a week at Lambda Literary. They have a retreat every year for emerging writers. I applied to that, and I got in. I studied with Justin Torres for a week, along with eleven other fantastic writers. At the end of it, Justin said, You could be a real writer. That felt really affirming.

When I got home, I sent out a story, and it got accepted immediately, and then another, and it got accepted, and I was like, Oh yeah, this is what I’m going to do. I didn’t get another accepted for a year, but right around that time I started being active on Twitter. Then I got this great job at Electric Lit as an editor that let me be a part of the larger literary community, and I was still doing science. Around that time, the science was going well, and my PhD adviser suggested I put writing aside for two years and focus on science, but by then I had a literary agent, and I had written this novel, and a book of stories, and I got into the world’s best MFA program, and I thought: I can’t stop now. If I stop now, I may never get this moment again. It was really hard. I decided that I would leave the lab because I could survive without science, but I could not survive losing writing because it felt somehow slightly more fundamental to my being in the world. And so, I left…and went to Iowa.

AR: There’s a dinner party scene in the novel. The character Roman is talking about Wallace, very much taking away Wallace’s power, in front of all their friends. The line reads, “Wallace can only taste ashes in his mouth. And the deficiency Roman was referring to was the deficiency of whiteness.” We see how this lands in Wallace’s body, how the others are silent, and how Wallace is not fine. Can you talk about that scene?

BT: I should say that I start every dinner party scene with good intentions. It wasn’t supposed to go quite so horribly wrong. I think that one of the unfortunate truths is that oftentimes when people think they’re being really, helpful, they’re being kind of racist and offensive. And sometimes they know they’re being racist and offensive, but they also think that because they’re telling what to them feels like the truth, it’s important that they get it out anyway.

I wanted to write about that moment because it’s a complicated moment with many different things at play. In some ways Roman is confirming Wallace’s worst fears. That he’s not worthy of being there. In his less charitable moments, it’s something he grapples with, and his worst fear is that other people think it too. When horrible things happen that tear up our very polite script, the thing that people do is nothing. They just freeze. So it was important to me to let Roman have his say, because his opinion is his opinion and he’s entitled to it, but to also not rush in and defend Wallace or have everybody be like, That’s not okay to say. Because this is a group of people who certainly do not have the tools to have that kind of conversation. I wanted very much to write that moment honestly. It’s a difficult moment to hold. But did I start out knowing that it would be like that? No. I wanted to write a dinner party. I thought it would be fun to have all the characters together. One of my favorite things to do in writing is to get everybody together in a room and get them talking. Then I know something really chaotic is going to happen. I knew if I could get all the characters together with their various competing agendas, and if I watched long enough, something was going to come out.

AR: Both Toni Morrison and Virginia Woolf have given advice along the lines of, Do not write about your own life. How do you interpret this?

BT: You know, I think that writing is useful in that it provides a virtual space for us to take the material of life and to process it. Either as fiction, or as non-fiction, it’s a space to think through and revisit some things that you just can’t hold in the moment they happen. And so for me, it was really interesting to write this novel about a similar situation to mine. Wallace and I have a great many things in common, but we are also quite different. There are moments in this novel where Wallace does one thing where I would do the opposite. I don’t have to live my life to create an interesting story the way Wallace has to in the novel. I think that writing about your own life can—it’s not always cathartic and it’s not always helpful—but it can provide a layer of processing to go back and revisit and think through, and to deepen your own knowledge of yourself, and the players in your life. This novel revealed to me things about myself, and it gave me an opportunity to think through some things that have been said and done to me from all ends of the table, from every angle.

Writing about your life can be helpful but it also can be incredibly dangerous and brutal and devastating. It can be like crossing a bridge and destroying it as you go. You’re constantly putting yourself in danger. I think Toni Morrison, if I recall the quote correctly, was telling her students to write not about their own experiences, but to write into other lives. The world is broader than you can imagine it, and I do think that is true. I think that sometimes people take stuff from their lives and they feel beholden to what happened, and so they end up getting stopped at some critical juncture. Alexander Chee once told me, when I asked him a very similar question, how do you write from personal experience and at the same time do what the story demands? He said when you write from real experience you cannot be beholden to things as they happened. Once you put them into fiction, you can’t half-fictionalize it, you’ve got to give it over once you put it into a story. It can’t sit like a lump in the middle of the story. You’ve got to really activate the material, and that’s something that I think about all the time. Oftentimes in a workshop, writers will say, but it happened. And it might have happened, but it doesn’t mean the story is good. I think there are the demands of life, and there are the demands of the story, and you can’t serve two masters. You’ve got to think carefully about what you’re doing and why.

AR: What’s the central obsession of your work?

BT: I’m obsessed with how people are in relationship to other people. I’m obsessed with bodies. I’m obsessed with the toll that intimacy takes on a person and the unknowability of others, the enigma of being known. Everything I write is about being a weird outsider among people you have a lot in common with, and yet no one knows you. [Laughs] I really think life is like that. We’re all just in fish tanks on the same river.


Amy Reardon

Amy Reardon’s work has been featured in The Adroit Journal, The Rumpus, Glamour and The Coachella Review. She is at work on a novel.

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