Free-Range Characters: 7 Questions With Author Justin Taylor

Justin Taylor

Justin Taylor

By Sean Tuohy

Justin Taylor’s short story collection Flings was named an Amazon Best Book of the Month in August 2014 and praised by the likes of The Daily Beast, Booklist, and Publisher’s Weekly.

Taylor talked to me recently about the authors he worshiped growing up, how he allows his characters to roam freely, and his short story collections. 

Sean Tuohy: When did you know you wanted to be a writer?

Justin Taylor: From when I was very young. I filled notebooks with stories almost as soon as I learned to write. Later, in early high school, I got into writing poetry, though they don’t really teach poetry in my high school so I didn’t have much to go by other than song lyrics, a vague notion of Beat ethos, and at least one volume of Jim Morrison’s verse. Oy. It really wasn’t until college that I discovered craft, line-editing, revision, etc. But putting aside questions of skill, the fundamental ass-in-chair-pen-in-hand urge was always there in me, as close to instinct as such a thing could possibly be.

ST: What authors did you worship growing up?

JT: Stephen King throughout most of adolescence, which I’ve discussed in some detail elsewhere. Some other genre stuff that came through him one way or the other; he recommended it somewhere, or it was next to him on the shelf. Since most YA writing is designed to encourage binge consumption, writers like R.L. Stine and Christopher Pike—both of whom I actually came to after King, probably because my folks thought it was more age-appropriate for a 10-year-old—primed me for series in general, so I remember reading most of the Anne Rice vampire books, and many of Laurel K. Hamilton’s Anita Blake Vampire Hunter series—though both of these gradually dissolved into weird housewife pornography.

Or maybe that was always what they were and it just took me a while to catch on. Where I grew up there wasn’t much “literary” reading going on, so it took me until about halfway through high school to start looking beyond the horror shelf at the bookstore, and then what I found—or didn’t find—was as close to pure chance as these things get. I read Darcey Steinke’s Jesus Saves, The Human Stain, and Our Gang by Philip Roth, a book called The Quartzsite Trip by a guy named William Hogan, which I actually found in the high school’s library, and mostly remember for its weird tone and an abortive sex scene. Those books, and a few others like them, must have been my introduction to the idea that a book didn’t need to live or die by its plot—though Darcey’s book at least had a kidnapping in it. I ended up studying with her when I went to grad school. I think I’ve read all her books. Other than that, there was typical druggie high school stuff: the Morrison, which I mentioned, and Robert Hunter’s collected lyrics, Box of Rain. Nietzsche’s Zarathustra, which I am 100 percent certain I read on account of Strauss’s tone poem’s having been repurposed by Stanley Kubrick for “2001: A Space Odyssey,” which itself I had only come around to because Phish used to cover it, though it turned out later that they were mostly riffing on the Deodato remix from “Being There.” A lot of Hunter S. Thompson, Ken Kesey, William Burroughs. I could never deal with Kerouac—he just bored me—but I tried.

Of the books they made us read in school, I remember loving Frankenstein, and Tale of Two Cities. I remember reading and hating Their Eyes Were Watching God, a hatred I now understand as a product of ignorance and fear. All the awful cultural programming of snotty white kids, of middle-class “gifted” students… I complained about that book every minute that we spent on it—have many mortifying memories about mocking the way the characters spoke: black English, hayseed English, whatever sin we were so sure they had committed—but I have never, ever forgotten it. The moment we finished the unit, and I didn’t have anyone to perform my ignorance for anymore, I realized I had actually loved the novel, and more than that, was drawn to it, as one is drawn to a great and mysterious power whose purpose and depth one can sense but not comprehend. It planted itself like a tree in my mind, perhaps like Rilke’s “tall tree in the ear.”

ST: What type of writer are you: outline before you start or just write and see what happens?

JT: I don’t make outlines because I don’t care what happens. I’m interested in language, and in people—who they are and the choices they make, which necessarily at a certain point translates to “the things that they do.” But that’s the least compelling part of it for me. I am an anarchist in my heart, still and always. The characters should go forth and do whatever they want to do, or do nothing. Eventually the author is obliged to impose some kind of structure, even if it’s just a beginning and ending, but within the space of the story the characters are awarded as much freedom as I can possibly grant them. Or rather their freedom is assumed by me to be inherent, and paramount. I honor it as much as I am able given the limits imposed by the form that I am working in and the fact that they are not real.

ST: The characters in Everything Here Is the Best Thing Ever pop off the page. How long do you develop a character before putting them on the page?

JT: Thank you. Characters develop by being allowed to roam freely. They do not gestate like babies, but rise like the sun. You hear a sentence or a phrase and wonder who is saying it. To find this out you let him talk some more. You imagine a scene, an event or a landscape, and wonder who is looking at it or standing in its foreground—and go from there. This is less mystical than I am making it sound now. It’s just about—as per my previous answer—being open to surprising yourself, and being willing to write a lot of scratch pages. That’s it.

ST: The paperback edition of “Flings” is coming out at the end of the month. What can readers expect in this new work?

JT: Well the hardback came out last year, so the short answer is a new cover, some nice quotes, and nothing else. Though as NBC used to say during reruns season, “If you haven’t seen it, it’s new to you.” My hope is that this will be a second chance for me to connect with new readers, maybe court some folks who were on the fence about the hardcover, but will prove more temptable now that the price is down and the reviews are in.

ST: What does the future hold for Justin Taylor?

JT: Death and taxes? A couple bigger magazine pieces (nonfiction) over the course of the fall, and a new issue of The Agriculture Reader, the tiny arts magazine that I co-edit with my buddy, the poet Jeremy Schmall. Not sure what the release date is for it yet, but we’ve got all the material in and it’s going to be crazy-good—lots of work in translation, several short stories by debut authors, and a small book of haikus included as part of the issue.

ST: Can you tell us one random fact about yourself?

JT: I’m listening to Bob Mould’s "Beauty and Ruin" right now. The record store where he shot the video for “I Don’t Know You Anymore” is like twelve blocks from my apartment. My cat is stretched out on the dining room table, on top of my wife’s laptop. I thought she was asleep but I just looked up and she’s staring at me, kind of intently, which makes sense since it’s a little past her dinnertime, so.

To learn more about Justin Taylor, visit his official website or follow him on Twitter @my19thcentury.