An Interview with Justin Taylor, by Celia Johnson
August 19, 2014
I met with Justin Taylor at the Housing Works Bookstore Café in Soho. It’s a renowned literary hot spot, by day a used bookstore with a vast selection that runs floor to ceiling, and most nights an event space jam-packed with exciting talent. The café is at the back of the store, and on this unusually quiet afternoon, it was only half full.
We were there to discuss Flings, Taylor’s latest short story collection. There’s no one place that binds these stories, nor one character. They take place on both coasts of the United States and as far away as Hong Kong. They are about the old and the young, men and women, parents, children, and widows. Under Taylor’s masterful hand, these characters are unified not by circumstance but by different manifestations of desire, grief, or regret. It’s unsurprising, then, that you’re just as likely to laugh at the horny young man wearing a mushroom suit in one story as to cry over the excruciating grief that follows the death of a boy in another.
As we spoke, I lost track of the questions I’d written down because, as you’ll see, Taylor is full of marvelous surprises, like setting a solid framework for a story with a real place, but finding inspiration far beyond those geographic boundaries. Or quoting Ernest Hemingway in an epigraph, not simply to align one story with another, but as a nod to the painstaking process of creation and rejection.
What’s the inspiration behind your collection?
I guess it started in 2010. I had been working on a novel, The Gospel of Anarchy, on and off for years, but I had spent the last year working on it exclusively to get it finished and turned in. Around the same time I turned the manuscript in, my story collection Everything Here Is the Best Thing Ever was published, so I was suddenly talking and thinking about stories again. One thing I love about the short story form is being able to hold the entire story in my head at once, to revise a whole draft over the course of an afternoon. You just can’t do that with a novel; however comprehensive your sense of it, you’re going to end up dealing with it in fragments and chunks. I wrote very early drafts of what became “Flings” and “Poets” around that time, and I think the sense of liberation or reunion I felt is evident in the prose even in the final drafts. Those stories are fast moving, kind of overstuffed, and they cover vast passages of time.
Anyway, sometime in 2012 I realized that I had what looked like somewhere between half and two-thirds of a story collection. When I did Everything Here, I had no sense of what made a collection. My agent and my editor and many generous friends helped me figure out how to make that manuscript into an actual book. With the second collection I had the advantage of that experience. I was able to look at the material I had and think, well, if this is half to two-thirds of a book, then what might the other half or third of it look like? I tried to see what was missing as well as what was there.
So it’s not surprising that many of these stories seem like they could be consumed as disparate complements, like a culinary pairing. “Adon Olam” and “Mike’s Song” come immediately to mind, with those shadows of grief in both. What stories would you recommend pairing for interesting commonalities?
“Adon Olam” and “Mike’s Song” are set in the same town at different points in time, and a main character from each story makes a small cameo in the other one. There are a number of instances of that happening in this book. I didn’t want to write a novel-in-stories or even necessarily a “linked” collection, but I did want to suggest that these people occupy a common reality, so sometimes they pop up in each other’s stories. “Flings” and “After Ellen” are the most directly linked. To me, they’re part of a trilogy that culminates in “The Happy Valley,” even though the connection of the latter to the first two is highly tenuous, at least if you think about it exclusively in terms of character. But there are other ways to think about how stories connect or speak to each other. Resonance can be enough.
A couple of these stories were inspired by your family: “Carol, alone” and “Happy Valley.” How did they evolve? And when did they find their way into the collection?
I don’t know that I’d say the stories were inspired by the family, though there’s a lot of family history in them. “The Happy Valley” is set in Hong Kong. My cousin Caryn and her husband, Andrew—who are close friends, as well as family—moved there in 2007 and were there for several years. I would go visit them and their kids every summer and usually stay for three or four weeks, since I didn’t have summer teaching work. I wrote part of The Gospel of Anarchy there. I started researching the cemetery because I thought I could make some easy money writing a piece on the Jewish history of Hong Kong, but I’m kind of a bad journalist, so I never figured out what the hook was. At some point that material became enmeshed with my experience of the place itself, and when I made the turn toward fiction, I no longer had to use magazine-stand or click-through logic to justify that sense of connection. Once the story revealed itself as being to some degree about family, it made further sense to give a bit of my own family history to my character. It was also convenient, because I’d been soliciting family histories and stories in the course of writing “Carol, Alone,” and I had more than I could use. So there was an economy there.
“Carol, Alone” came from a couple of specific places. One was going down to South Florida to spend time with my grandparents and my great aunt, and just becoming interested in their lives and asking them about my family history and seeing what memories and stories stuck out for them. That went on for a period of years and continues to go on when I see them. It’s a sad story, but part of it started in kind of a funny way. Like many families of writers, they’re always asking me, “Why don’t you ever write about us?” or “Don’t talk in front of him, he’ll put it in a book.” You know? And I started to think, well, maybe I should. It seems to be something they really want, though I suspect they didn’t know just what they were asking for. But I also thought that maybe there was something to the idea. The elderly are, as a group and as individuals, under-represented as protagonists. They’re usually written as ATM machines of wisdom or repositories of prejudice, or people are fighting to claim their money. I tried to see if I could do better than that.
Have you had any reaction to either story from your family?
My cousins liked “The Happy Valley.” I think it amused them to revisit those places and that time. Nobody’s seen “Carol, Alone” yet, and I have to admit I’m apprehensive about how they’ll take it. I mean, it’s in no way a straight portrait of any one or even any several of them. It’s a composite of all my grandparents, my great aunts, my great uncle, memories of my great grandparents, and also friends of theirs and other folks one encounters when spending time in Boynton Beach. But Carol’s experience is based in large part on my great aunt’s experience after my great uncle died. And I don’t know how she’ll feel about my depiction of her or of that time. It’s a hard thing that she went through. I would hope that she—or anyone else who perceives themselves as depicted—would feel like an attempt had been made to do them a kind of justice or witness. But in the end you never really know, and in the end it’s not nonfiction anyway. I mean, if my intention had been accuracy, a completist representation of something that actually happened, the whole thing would read differently. Like in that story all the stuff about Macau. That’s my own experience of visiting Hong Kong. My partner, Amanda, and I went to Macau and visited that cathedral, and it was just something I really wanted to write about. It didn’t fit into “The Happy Valley,” so I found another place to stick it. These are examples of the kind of resonance I was talking about earlier. The stories do not share characters, setting, or even too much in the way of theme. But you can feel there’s kinship there. You can trace the DNA.
In terms of your creative process, there are so many different and fully realized narrative voices, and that’s something I really gravitated toward in this book. I often found myself wanting to read aloud; the prose feels so personal and immediate. Do you revise out loud?
I do a huge amount of revision by ear, to make sure the rhythm on the page is matching the rhythm in my head. Because I can hear it in my head, and if I can’t speak it the way I hear it, then something’s wrong with it. Part of it is I go back a lot when I’m drafting between first person and third person in a number of those stories. For me that’s a very useful part of the process.
Some of the episodes in these stories felt very real to me, like being in a mushroom suit in “Sungold.” Did you ever have to wear a suit like that? Or are there any moments of real-life inspiration that come to mind?
The things I tend to lift from reality are very rarely actual experiences. They tend to be places. I’ve worked in some fast-food-type environments. And in “Adon Olam,” that neighborhood is my neighborhood and that summer camp is a fictionalized version of a place where I worked. I find it much easier to make up characters and events if I don’t also have to make up where things are taking place and deal with figuring out where streets intersect and where stoplights are and how far things are from each other. It’s always easier for me to just dump a bunch of pretend people in a real place and then let them run around on the map. And part of it, too, may just be the way that I respond to places, I don’t know.
To me, a big part of the story “Flings” is Portland, Oregon, itself, where I lived for a little while. I wanted to revisit the places that I had occupied and the feelings that I’d had around that time. Some of the events and relation- ships depicted in that story are completely nonfictional, and some are nonfiction edited and recontextualized to the point where the term “nonfiction” becomes highly suspect. And some shit I just made up. But those distinctions seem to me like the least interesting part of the story. When I think back on living in Portland, what I remember was living across the street from the pioneer cemetery. In the story, the character remembers it’s there and then on a whim goes over there and climbs the fence, but I actually lived across the street from it for a couple of months and spent a lot of time looking at it and thinking about it. Seven or eight years later it was still knocking around in my brain, so it ended up in the story. I don’t think about it that much anymore.
Did you go back to visit as you were working on the stories? Did everything come from memory?
It all pretty much came from memory, though I’ve been to Portland many times since I lived there. I have a very good friend there. And Powell’s Books is there, so I’ve been back to read as well as to visit. But it’s funny how as the time goes by you can go back to the same place and it feels like a different place. My friend and I are in our early thirties now. The demands of her day job, the part of the city she lives in, our idea of what makes a good night out on the town—it’s all different. Other than having a couple of the same restaurants and the same street grid, it might as well be a different city from the one I describe in my story, where a bunch of early-twentysomethings are all puppy-piled in this shitty apartment in a part of town that hasn’t become too gentrified yet. You couldn’t get that apartment today for what those characters paid for it in the early-mid-aughts. Even the same place isn’t the same place anymore.
*Taylor will also take part in our upcoming conference as a panelist (details about registrations/tickets here)and will read from Flings at a Slice reading at powerHouse Arena on 9/6, open to the public (details here).
Photo credit: David Benhaim
Justin Taylor is the author of the story collections Flings and Everything Here Is the Best Thing Ever and the novel The Gospel of Anarchy. His work has appeared in the New Yorker, the Believer, Tablet, Tin House, and the New York Times Book Review. He lives in Brooklyn and at justindtaylor.net.
Celia Johnson is the Creative Director of Slice and author of two books, most recently Odd Type Writers.