A Conversation with Brandon Taylor
BY CAMPBELL CAMPBELL & THOMAS WEE
Brandon Taylor is the author of the novel Real Life, which was a New York Times Editors’ Choice and shortlisted for the 2020 Booker Prize, as well as The National Book Critics Circle John Leonard Prize and the 2021 Young Lions Fiction Award. His work has appeared in Guernica, American Short Fiction, Gulf Coast, Buzzfeed Reader, O: The Oprah Magazine, Gay Mag, The New Yorker online, The Literary Review, and elsewhere. He holds graduate degrees from the University of Wisconsin-Madison and the Iowa Writers’ Workshop, where he was an Iowa Arts Fellow.
Thomas Wee: I thought that I would start by asking you about the differences between the forms of the short story and the novel. You had your spectacular debut novel, Real Life, and now you’re following that with Filthy Animals, a short story collection. I’m curious if you think that you can achieve things in the short story that you can’t in the novel, and if there’s one you feel more at home with?
Brandon Taylor: I think that there are some writers who are able to work on a story at a time. They are able to follow their impulses down into the morass of storytelling. Then they look up, and years have gone by, and they have written thirteen stories, and they all just so happen to go together. I am not one of those kinds of writers. I can’t start writing a story until I know the shape of the manuscript into which it’s going to fit, because the characters don’t just show up. Characters always come with constellations of relationships. I sometimes won’t start a story until I can feel out the four or five stories down the road from it.
Sometimes those connections are narrative, and sometimes they’re thematic, or sometimes they’re connected by location, or sometimes they’re connected by time periods in a person’s life. But I am always writing in constellations of stories, and I’m always thinking about the manuscripts. I’ve got what you could call “manuscript brain.” I can never just write a one-off. Even my stories that are not narratively connected are resonating with other stories in a larger system. My process is that I walk through the world and wait until I can feel a sufficient weight to power three or four stories, and then I’ll sit down and write them.
As for the difference in form, I think because I’m always thinking in terms of superstructure and thinking in groups of stories there’s maybe not much difference in my approach to the novel or the short story. I do think that the short story is my base narrative unit. That’s the form I feel most comfortable in, and that I’ve read the most of, and that I think about the most. I do think that there are certain things that you can do in a short story because they’re shorter. You can do experiments in voice in a story that you can’t do in a novel. The commitment isn’t as high for a story as a novel in terms of structural, or formal play, or voice work. There are things that you can do in a novel that you cannot do in a story. You can really tease out a character’s whole life in a novel. You can do that in a story, but it’s hard to do that in a story without cheating. [laughs] It’s hard to do that without having mastery over the techniques.
I think that they’re different. They have different rhythms. They have different impulses. They demand different things from the reader and from the writer.
TW: The point you made about constellations brings me to my next question on the recurring characters in your collection. Why did you choose to separate the Lionel stories and intersperse them throughout Filthy Animals?
BT: I wrote those stories in 2016, and I wrote them at a time when my understanding of what you could do with a story was very narrow because I was still learning. When I was writing these stories, I felt like I hadn’t exhausted everything I wanted to say about this character, but I didn’t have a pattern or a blueprint. I didn’t know you were allowed to do it, back when I still believed in rules.
Then, I came across the stories of the Canadian short story writer Mavis Gallant, who wrote hundreds of stories in the New Yorker and a collection called Varieties of Exile. She has recurring characters in her stories, and NYRB Classics published two sets of her stories in one volume. It blew my mind. I thought, you can do that? You can tell one bigger story across different stories?
As a clingy reader, I get attached to these characters and don’t want to let them go, so I knew I wanted to do that. I wrote until I had written what felt like the full breadth of the stories of Lionel, Charles, Sophie, Alec, and the rest of the characters. I could keep going, but then it’s just a novel.
I felt that part of why they had to be stories was that with a story you could just cut out all the boring plot with stories—you don’t have to explain all of the backstory or include transitions to get to the big important moments. You can pick the parts that are interesting to you, and you can change point of view, mood, and tone. There is so much to do with that ellipse and white space that happens between stories, and that can be where you compress the boring material and leave it up to the reader.
I wanted to follow these characters but not write a whole book. By putting the stories together, I used them as the central organizing column with interstitial stories that had different modalities and registers that expand the book and enrich it.
Campbell Campbell: I want to turn to your use of interiority. Your books focus on interiority to the point where I feel like I have access to thoughts that I shouldn’t have access to. Could you speak about your interest in pursuing interiority? And what cannot be said in the fiction form? And how is this connected to your larger goals for Filthy Animals?
BT: I used to not know what interiority was. I considered myself a naturalist and a disciple of Ibsen, and I was trying to compress everything to gestures and not give the reader any interior thoughts. Then, I went to Iowa University and was told that you need interiority because Iowa is the paragon of the fiction that descends from Henry James and Jamesian psychological acuity. I internalized this idea that every story should have interiority to the point where my stories would get so long and bloated with interiority.
I found a nice middle ground, and I learned a lot from reading Jean Stafford and Mavis Gallant. I always try to make interiority flow from the natural context of the narrative, and I do not want interiority to be so overwhelming that it dissolves into abstraction. We have all read books, some of which were very good and very moving, that follow as, “We are having thoughts about thoughts about thoughts about thoughts.” There are no bodies anywhere, and the interior state is the whole of the thing.
I think that interiority is important, but I try to locate the primacy of the story in the body. The more interesting part of a character’s interiority isn’t even the thing that the author says; the more interesting part is often what is underneath the interiority. The subtext of the interiority that the author is evoking. The pulses that grant access to the character. It’s like being in a plane and going over a body of water and looking down to see sometimes a flat surface and sometimes a dark surface, but there are sometimes flashes of light that you can see at the right angle. That is a well functioning interiority—moments of insight and illuminated patches of consciousness.
When I’m writing about interiority, I always think that we have been inside for so long. Where are we? Where is the body?
TW: I know that the terms of genre may not be useful, but where do you see your fiction in the lineages of modernism, postmodernism, and naturalism?
BT: When I was a younger writer I thought, why is it so hard to understand postmodernism? Then, I read the modernists and thought that it was so bizarre. Now, I have read more literary theory and literary criticism and realize that it can be so much more confusing. I think that contemporary fiction is dominated by what I call “character vapor,” the disembodied and psychologically alienated narrator of Ben Lerner and Rachel Cusk, the roaming Sebaldian “all-seeing-eye” consciousness that I do not want to do.
I hope that my work is embodied. The theme that I come back to again and again is, I want to capture, not the pulse of consciousness, but the pulses of embodiment. What it is like to live in a body and move through our three-dimensional world and come up against various systems that act upon the body. I think that there was this split in fiction like 10 years ago, where some people went the Sebaldian route and some people went the historical realist route. I consider myself more on the embodied side of things and try to think deeply about the paradox of being a consciousness and a body who’s moving through space.
Sometimes I think, “Oh, I want to write Black fiction with Black people being in their bodies,” and then I read Ann Petry and Richard Wright and know that they have already done it sixty years ago. Finito. I have a vocabulary for myself because of them, and that’s why I locate myself as an embodied naturalist.
TW: How do you feel about the label of “realism”? Do you consider yourself a realist, and do you consider that word to still be a valid description of fiction today?
BT: I consider myself a realist. I think that realism is an acceptable term, if we acknowledge that there are a variety of realisms. One moment that frustrated me was writing a realism essay and having my classmate claim that it was not realism. It is real to me, and they were reacting against certain impulses in my writing that come from being a Black queer person.
In my work, for example, there are people who believe in the devil and ghosts and coincidences. My classmates in my MFA would push back against some of these stylistic impulses of my work, and I said that we have different realisms. I’m from Alabama where everybody believes in ghosts. Then, some people would ask, “But you’re a scientist?” Yes, I am a scientist and an atheist and still believe in ghosts. I think that realism is any internally coherent system that represents a more or less legible relation to an agreed-upon reality, and that reality can look different depending on who is looking at it.
People are silly when they insist that realism looks one particular way, as opposed to thinking of realism as a relation to some exterior reality that we move through in different phases and modes. But, yes, according to my definition, I am such a hard-coded realist that it looks naturalistic.
CC: I want to turn to the running theme of language as a limited medium for communication. The characters often speak in references to which the main character does not have access, and the main character’s thoughts are not accessible to any of the other characters. Could you talk about your interest in limited communication and what is unsaid?
BT: I grew up in a family that did not talk, so I had no access to the thoughts of people around me. When I went to college, I asked my friends, “Do other people have thoughts and feelings?” And they said, “Brandon? Yes.” Such was the extremity of my deprivation from the interior states of other humans. That is my experience with the world, and I was frustrated when I read a novel or short story and the characters would know what to say to each other. They have access to the same references, and the dialogue is so slick and smooth with no misapprehension or misunderstanding.
I realized that one thing that characterizes my work is that I write characters who do not have access to collective social knowledge, social paradigm, or a set of references. They are trying to figure out the games that are being played around them. I think that this is such a dominant part of my social experience that I do not see in fiction: nobody is talking about the impenetrable set of references that coheres between people who do not have access to the same references. As someone who has difficulty in settings like that, I want to capture the absurdity and beauty of it. People are able to communicate in a way that goes beyond what they are saying, and there is extra-materiality that is real social communion.
In Filthy Animals, Lionel is unable to communicate with others and is aware that they are doing it around him. That’s another element I am deeply interested in—the unknowability of others and the way that we are never fully privy to other people or their motives or their intentions. How do I know that people won’t hurt me? Do I have to take their word for it? You have to have faith that people who connect with you do not want to hurt you, and that can be a harrowing prospect if you have been on the outside your whole life.
In my writing, I hope to capture the tensions, impulses, fears that a person brings to a social situation and to see social encounters as a site of inquiry and curiosity rather than a place to rehash received paradigms or scripts.
CC: Do you think that this is an inevitable condition of the world? Or do you think that this is one condition that perhaps the character Lionel can overcome?
BT: I think that in the context of the book, Lionel’s condition is unique. But I do think that we all have moments, especially in a capitalist society, that one finds oneself in situations where you don’t have access to the references that signify belonging to that particular context. One example where people often experience this situation is when you do a class migration. I grew up working class, and then I went to college and I was suddenly among all these people whose parents had graduate degrees. They’re all talking in this very particular way, and they had a set of references that signified belonging to their class which was different from the set of references I had access to. This also happened when I moved out of science and went into writing creatively, with the people who had done MFAs and who had done English classes. I took two English classes in undergrad. Suddenly, I was among these people who had access to a whole set of idioms and references that I didn’t have access to.
I think that one of the things that signifies the particular contemporary condition of alienation, be it migrating across class or moving from one context to another, is the fact that you’re moving into a context that has references that you perhaps don’t have access to. There’s a particular kind of alienation and loneliness that comes from that. I don’t think that is an inevitable condition for everyone, but I do think it defines our contemporary condition.
TW: On a similar note, I enjoyed how you describe academia in a satirical but honest manner. Campbell and I are both steeped in this culture and were intrigued by how academia can seem like a performance, like birds signaling at each other. How do you think you’re expanding the campus novel tradition with Filthy Animals and Real Life?
BT: I find academia funny because I belong to it and am outside of it. I spent most of my life in academic settings, and I thought to myself, “What do I know enough about to fill an entire book? Being a student. That is the thing that I know best in the world.” It is why Real Life and Filthy Animals are centered around students. I love books about students and books set in schools. I cannot get enough of it. You would think that I had been traumatized enough. [Laughs]
But campus novels are often about people in the humanities, or white people, or straight people, or people who don’t have to work or worry about money or worry about what they’re going to do after they graduate. One of the elements that campus fiction lacks is the feeling of precarity that students contend with and characterized my own undergraduate experience. How am I going to eat today? Also, tomorrow? How am I going to afford coffee and make my scholarship stretch a whole semester? Even in an exam, I would be thinking, do I have enough money in my bank account for X, Y, and Z?
Part of what makes that experience so urgent for many people is a sense of precarity. In the reception to Real Life, a lot of people focused on—and I think rightfully so—that I was trying to rewrite the campus novel from the position of a Black, queer lens. I think that’s true, but embedded in that was also an attempt to bring a sense of precarity back to campus fiction.
TW: I wonder if this precarity is a historical phenomenon because going to college is now such a financial investment. College has always cost money, but I think that we are witnessing an inflation of college and a lot of pressure on students to make something of this risky financial investment.
BT: It’s horrifying…I recently read an article on the rise of adjunct fiction on over-educated characters who work at universities and experience precarity at all times. It was a review of Want by Lynn Steger Strong and The Life of the Mind by Christine Smallwood and looked at the experience of many MFA students who work as adjuncts, make little money, and write about probing the system. It is so horrifying to get a college degree, get access to some middle-class cachet, and have huge amounts of debt and not receive the job you want. But that’s America.
CC: Could we discuss the repetition of character dynamics throughout the book? I was interested in the multiple stories of someone alienated from an intellectual circle, or of someone estranged from their family, or of someone isolated from their sexual partner. How did returning to these scenes give you a new understanding of the anatomy of these dynamics?
BT: When Roxane Gay was promoting her short story collection Difficult Women, she said that when writers find themselves returning to the same scenes, they should not worry because that means they’ve found their voice. I thought, ah, yes, thank you for validating this habit of mine. [Laughs]
I think that it comes from a lifetime of being an outsider. Looking back at my early writing, I was always writing about displacement and exile and what it is like to be a satellite in a place where your “real life” should be but leaves you feeling displaced. The tension between the South and the collective. That theme animates all of my work. The idea of the forced return or one’s past being a country that you cannot repatriate.
In my stories, I start at the same place—a character, a collective, and the gap between the character and the collective—and follow a character’s singular relation to that sense of the whole. It is sometimes a relation of resolution, it is sometimes a relation of continued alienation, and it is sometimes a moment of connection and the realization that they want to be on their own. I wish that I could say it changes over my next two books, but it is still me figuring out how one lives in relation to other humans. How does one figure that out? I don’t know how one does that! [Laughs]
CC: We are reaching the end of the hour, so I want to discuss why you think critics and editors are choosing to read your books through an autobiographical lens. How do you feel about this reading, and why do you think this is a pattern in the industry with many authors, including Rachel Cusk, Ocean Vuong, and you?
BT: My attitude is that this is fair play since I did title the book Real Life. I can see why you may be tempted. Writers of color, writers who are female, writers who are not straight white males, write books on, not their direct experience, but what it is like to move through the world in their mode, and readers think that this is harrowing and ripped directly from their lives. I wrote in a recent blog post that every Black writer is an auto-fictionist even if he doesn’t want to be and even if he isn’t writing about people like himself.
I think that it’s a lens problem. White readers may consume literature about people of color from a sociological lens and assume that the greatest value of literature can be that it derives how a Black person lives rather than tells a singular account of one consciousness.
In my case, it happened because I wrote a book about a Black gay student from Alabama and in a science program in the Midwest and I was a Black gay student from Alabama and in a science program in the Midwest. There are obvious topological similarities between me and the central character of the novel. Sometimes, editors and critics think that that is the most important part and stop thinking about other impulses in the book. It is unfortunate that the autobiographical mode becomes the main mode of the reading and narrowest mode of reading, and it is unfortunate that Real Life is not directly about me at all. Filthy Animals is a more personal book but not directly about me, so I am curious to see how readers approach the new book.
I am working on a new novel that is directly from my life. Some authors play with that tension between the author and themselves, and they are autofictionists. Some do not, and they are assumed to be autofictionists. As a reader, I often do not know that a person wrote a book. [Laughs] I’ll think, ah, yes, this book that I am reading and that just came from the sky and that has no history. Then, I will read about the book and be surprised. I feel really lucky coming to the book in a childlike manner where I care most about the book and hear the context later.
CC: Could you talk about your goals and your intentions with the blog Sweater Weather? What are you hoping to pursue in the blog that you cannot pursue in your other writing?
BT: Thank you for calling it a blog rather than a newsletter! I love that I have a blog!
I thought about taking a break from the noise of Twitter, but I like that I can talk to people on Twitter. I revived the newsletter to have a continued dialogue with the world, and I started reading literary criticism and literary theory and having ideas on the contemporary literature that I was reading. I was developing a vocabulary for the content that I was reading, so I use the newsletter as a way to think through what I am learning in a way that is longer form than a Tweet. This lets me synthesize my ideas on contemporary aesthetics and literature and transform it into an essay form. I am writing these essays for myself and sending them out into the world. I am shocked that people are reading my newsletter and referencing me in criticism. [Laughs]
I resisted writing essays for so long because a friend of mine, Alexander Chee, warned me that you have to be careful because white readers love brown people’s essays but they don’t love their fiction and that if you want to be known as a fiction writer you have to be intentional about the nonfiction you’re publishing. It is easy to make a name for yourself writing think-pieces as a writer of color. That being said, I try to write essays that interest me and on my own terms so that I am not a race prophet, and I try to capture the tensions and paradoxes and nuances on what it is like to move through the world.