Saturday, July 27, 2013

12 or 20 (second series) questions with Justin Taylor

Justin Taylor is the author of the story collection Everything Here Is the Best Thing Ever, and the novel The Gospel of Anarchy. His next collection, Flings, will be published in the summer of 2014. He lives in Brooklyn, NY and on the internet at .

1 - How did your first book or chapbook change your life? How does your most recent work compare to your previous? How does it feel different?
When Everything Here Is the Best Thing Ever came out it meant I had achieved something I’d been after since I was a little kid—to publish a book of fiction. It wasn’t exactly the book I’d expected to write—little kid-me wanted to write a Stephen King novel; college-age me wanted to write the great avant-whatever—but it was a book, all right. I don’t know if that counts as a “change” so much as a “fact”, but over the next year or so my daily life began to respond to that fact in a variety of ways. I don’t know what you mean by “compare” exactly, but my newer stories have been longer, and in some cases denser, than the stories in Everything Here. Plus there was my novel (The Gospel of Anarchy, 2011) but that was just kind of its own thing.

2 - How did you come to fiction first, as opposed to, say, poetry or non-fiction?
I didn’t. I mean unless you want to go back to like age 10 and the aforementioned Mr. King. But skipping over the early juvenilia (and ahead to the late juvenilia), I read and wrote poetry all throughout college and graduate school and even after; I was very committed to the idea of writing and publishing in both forms. Technically speaking, my “first book” was a collection of poems, kind of on the fence lengthwise between a chapbook and a full-length, called More Perfect Depictions of Noise, which came out in 2008. That was the high point of my poetry career. After that I stopped sending poems out, and eventually I stopped writing them. That creative energy goes elsewhere now: into my fiction mostly, but also into my teaching. Maybe once a year I’ll write a few lines or even a whole poem, but I never try to publish the result. The last thing the poetry world needs is one more mediocre poet trying to elbow his way into the journals. I figured out that there are other ways to be part of that community, as a consumer and a critic, for example, and by producing The Agriculture Reader, an arts annual I co-edit with my friend Jeremy Schmall.

3 - How long does it take to start any particular writing project? Does your writing initially come quickly, or is it a slow process? Do first drafts appear looking close to their final shape, or does your work come out of copious notes?
Depends on the project. I usually write long early on and then whittle down. I don’t really do outlines—I just can’t, or maybe haven’t had to yet. I guess if I wrote something plot-heavy enough I’d need some way of keeping track, but there’s little enough risk of that happening.

4 - Where does fiction usually begin for you? Are you an author of short pieces that end up combining into a larger project, or are you working on a "book" from the very beginning?

Again it depends. The first collection was just everything I’d ever written in my life that was good enough to go in a book. The novel tried to be a short story but it had to be a novel. The new stories were just one-offs until one day I looked at them together and thought, “This is about half or two-thirds of a book right here,” so then I suddenly saw a shape for it and was able to write the rest of the stories to fit that plan.

5 - Are public readings part of or counter to your creative process? Are you the sort of writer who enjoys doing readings?
I like giving readings. I like talking, and I can get loud when I feel like it. I like reading works in progress (once they’re out of their infancy, of course, but well before they’re “finished”) and seeing what people react to, or what they think the whole is about based on the part they heard.

6 - Do you have any theoretical concerns behind your writing? What kinds of questions are you trying to answer with your work? What do you even think the current questions are?
I don’t know what *the* current questions are. I have some sense of what *my* current questions are, but I think these are articulated in the work itself, and if they don’t then they’re not worth stating baldly, though my novel occasionally breaks this rule, though that in turn is because the characters in the book are capital-q Questioners, so their “theoretical concerns”, as you put it, are legitimately their own.

7 – What do you see the current role of the writer being in larger culture? Does s/he even have one? What do you think the role of the writer should be?
Depends on the writer. Marilynne Robinson is the quiet but insistent voice of Christian conscience for a country that largely insists being a Christian means having no conscience to speak of. E.L. James, meanwhile, is up to something else.

8 - Do you find the process of working with an outside editor difficult or essential (or both)?

I don’t mind being read, critiqued, or edited. It’s one of the reasons I think that, as a student, I never found workshops repressive or stultifying. It is a great gift to receive the careful attention of people who share your dedication to a given art form. But I also have no problem saying, “Thank you for your input but no, I’m doing it this way and that’s that.” Advice can only affect you if you actually follow it. The writer always has the option of staying true to his original vision, however good or bad it might be.

9 - What is the best piece of advice you've heard (not necessarily given to you directly)?
I've gotten lots of good advice and taken some of it. Nothing, however, is springing to mind just now.

10 - How easy has it been for you to move between genres (novels to short stories)? What do you see as the appeal?
Short stories come more naturally to me, which makes the prospect of a novel quite challenging. But challenge has its own appeal, as does counterinuition.

11 - What kind of writing routine do you tend to keep, or do you even have one? How does a typical day (for you) begin?
None. I try to write more days than not, but not every day. If I’m working on a project it’s easier because there’s something to jump into. Lately I’ve been doing a lot of reading, some of it for “research” and some of it aimless, i.e. for pleasure. I consider these activities part of the writing process.

12 - When your writing gets stalled, where do you turn or return for (for lack of a better word) inspiration?
Once I’m off and running with something, I don’t usually get stalled. I mean it takes a while to work out certain problems that arise, but that’s different.

13 - What fragrance reminds you of home?
Oranges. The beach. That weird coppery smell after rain when it’s hot out. I’m from South Florida.

14 - David W. McFadden once said that books come from books, but are there any other forms that influence your work, whether nature, music, science or visual art?
Sure. Music is a big one for me. It shows up in my work a lot so it’s pretty easy to find my sources, though sometimes I’ll try to pull a fast one by writing about music I love from the perspective of a character who doesn’t necessarily feel that way. The Grateful Dead have come in for this treatment, perhaps unfairly, more than once. But it really is coming from a place of love, and at a guess I’d say my body of work contains the highest percentage of references per capita to the Grateful Dead in contemporary literary fiction. Maybe that’s my “role” as a writer. One group I’ve never name-checked in my work but who have had a huge influence on me in the past few years is the band Low. I rarely write to music, but I will write to Low, or just blast them for a while to get into a certain kind of emotional space. I try to catch them every time they come to New York. I’m listening to them now actually, a bootleg of the show I saw the last time they were here. Plus yeah, nature and art and the golden ratio as it expressed in the curve of a sea shell. All that shit.

15 - What other writers or writings are important for your work, or simply your life outside of your work?

Barry Hannah’s a big one for me. He’s just so funny and wild and makes you feel like you can do or say anything on the page. Denis Johnson. I recently read Fiskadoro for the first time and it’s just amazing. Every page of it. Virginia Woolf’s big three: Lighthouse, Dalloway, Waves. A lot of Kierkegaard and other Christian writings when I was working on the novel. Since then some books about Jewish philosophy: A.J. Heschel, Gershom Scholem. I got this great book called Tales of the Hasidim that’s a collection of legends and parables from the early Hasidic communities—hundreds of them. I keep it on my desk and dip into it now and then. Oh and I’m finally getting around to Zadie Smith.

16 - What would you like to do that you haven't yet done?
I’d like to write another novel.

17 - If you could pick any other occupation to attempt, what would it be? Or, alternately, what do you think you would have ended up doing had you not been a writer?
My mom always said I’d have been a good cult leader. Instead I wrote a novel about a cult. My dad, I think, would have liked to see me try my hand at law. But my sister’s in law school now so I’m off the hook. Also, and not for nothing, I DO have another occupation. It is called “college teacher” and even though it is related to (and correlated with) my being a writer, it nonetheless requires its own distinct skills, approaches, and forms of attention.

18 - What made you write, as opposed to doing something else?
We didn’t have the space for the drum set I wanted, and the one guitar lesson I ever took went poorly. We had a piano but I wouldn’t touch it. In retrospect it turned out that I never had any rhythm or ear. I’ve got decent fine motor skills, but they’re better suited to a Nintendo controller than, say, drawing a straight line or my own name legibly. I learned to type very young.

19 - What was the last great book you read? What was the last great film?
The Autograph Man by Zadie Smith.

Badlands by Terence Malick. My favorite movie, probably; I showed it to my fiction class at the end of the semester and basically told them it was more “literary” than 90% of what passes for novels.

20 - What are you currently working on?
In research mode for a novel that may or may not ever get beyond research mode.

12 or 20 (second series) questions;

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