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.


The Importance of Pacing: 8 Questions With Thriller Author Ben Coes

Ben Coes

Ben Coes

By Sean Tuohy

Many writers haven tried to bring the halls of power to life. Few have actually worked within them. Best-selling author Ben Coes began his career a political speechwriter in Washington D.C. before focusing his attention on thrillers.

David Morrell, the creator of Rambo and Writer’s Bone podcast guest, called his first novel, Power Down, “a fresh, exciting thriller” with action scenes that were “big, vivid, and authentic.” Coes has now written four novels in total and shows no signs of slowing down any time soon.

Coes took a few minutes to sit down and talk about his career, his process, the importance of pacing, and why writing is like building a house.

Sean Tuohy: When did you decide to write a thriller?

Ben Coes: In 2007, on New Year’s Day, I woke up and looked at my wife, Shannon.

By way of background, I had been thinking of writing a thriller for several years. I love thrillers and thought I could use my background in finance, politics, and the energy industry as part of a book about terror coming to American soil. But as much as I thought about it, I never actually started writing. So on this particular morning, I told Shannon for the first time how I wanted to write a book.

“Then get up and start writing,” she said. And I did. That morning, I wrote what became the first chapter of my first book, Power Down.

ST: How long did it take you to complete your first novel?

BC: Oh, man, just answering this question brings back horrible memories. It took about two years, maybe a little more. The actual first draft took about six months. The editing process took much longer.

I’ve always known how to write, but the construction of a novel isn’t just about words. It’s about pace, plot, character development, tension, and a million other things. My first stab at Power Down was a well-written mess. So I sought out help in the form of an experienced editor, a veteran of the publishing industry who’d worked with a number of authors. Using an analogy he took from the worked of architecture, he politely explained to me that I’d built a house but placed the kitchen on the third floor, the garage in the basement, and that I was missing a roof. In other words, I had to learn how to build a real novel.

If I’m a successful author, it’s because I listen to advice and guidance. It’s a very important quality to have as a novelist. I learned that skill working as a White House-appointed speechwriter. My boss, Betty, was a tough critic, and thank God for that. A writer needs tough critics. Most people don’t like to have their work torn apart and criticized. But it’s absolutely essential if you want to be a novelist.

ST: Your characters feel so real, are they based on any real people you have met while working with the government?

BC: Well, first of all, thanks for saying that. The most important thing I’m trying to create in my books is authenticity. My characters are a mixture of people I know and people I imagine. I like to take qualities I like in some of my favorite people, or dislike in some of the people I don’t like, and embed them in the characters in my books. Sometimes, as in the case of Teddy Marks, from Power Down, the character is based entirely on someone real. The real life Teddy was my godfather. He was a Navy SEAL who fought in Vietnam. He was a very important part of my life until his death from cancer a couple years ago. Teddy helped me understand certain key operational aspects to covert war, and certain experiences he had are re-created in my books, including the final battle scene in Coup d’État, my second book.

The hardest challenge to making a character feel real is how you do it with characters that are not based on real people. Dewey Andreas, my hero, is a good example. He’s made up, and yet for my readers, and for me, he feels real. Why? I think it’s because I endeavor to show him in his raw light, with his flaws and his strengths, and to show those little moments that we all have, the unglamorous moments. At the end of The Last Refuge, Dewey plays a game of quarters with a buddy. It’s one of my favorite scenes.

ST: Your thrillers stand apart from the rest because they are ground very much in the real world. Do you believe this enhances the experience for the reader?

BC: Thanks for saying that. I believe very strongly that the best thrillers use current events as a foundational element to the plot. I want current dangers and threats to play an actual role in my books versus simply using current events as ornamentation or backdrop. The reason I do this is because, for the reader, hopefully the feeling they get is that what they’re reading could in fact happen.

Power Down is about terrorists attacking a U.S. energy company. Coup d’État is about India and Pakistan and their ongoing conflict, a conflict which is especially perilous today due to the fact that both countries possess nuclear weapons, and one of the countries, Pakistan, is 98 percent Muslim and filled with jihadists. The Last Refuge is about Iran and Israel, and Iran’s ongoing surreptitious work to develop a nuclear bomb. Eye for an Eye, my fourth book, involves China’s ongoing technological war against America, a war which U.S. policy makers are only beginning to do something about. My next book, Independence Day, is about nuclear weapons that were formerly in the possession of the Soviet Union; it features an attack on the U.S. that one source of mine, a former high-ranking Pentagon official, told me was the number one terror threat facing America.

ST: What affect did your background have on your writing?

BC: My background is important in two ways. First, I worked at the White House and on several political campaigns. I think I understand that world where politics and national security intersect.

More important than the experiences I’ve had, however, was the training I had as a speechwriter. That’s when I learned how to have my work edited; to welcome feedback no matter how harsh.

ST: What is your writing process? Do you outline?

BC: I wake up very early – usually around 5:00 a.m. – and start writing. I am almost never psyched to start but I do it anyway because, if you are a writer, you write. No matter what you feel like, you write. Writing for me is a blue-collar job, like laying bricks or hammering nails. Writers write, not because they feel like it, because oftentimes you don’t. Writers write because they have to.

I don’t outline because I think it robs a thriller of the spontaneity a thriller needs. My best scenes invariably are the result of in-the-moment ideas I have while writing a scene; unplanned and therefore unpredictable, the way actual ops unfold.

ST: What advice do you give to new writers? 

BC: If you want to be a writer, you must write. Writers write. If you don’t write, you’re not a writer.

To write every day, there are steps you can take to help make it easier. Establish a routine. I like early in the day because you get it out of the way, and also because I don’t like writing at night, though I often do write at night. Set an operational goal for your writing—either word count or page count. I need to write five pages a day. That’s my minimum. Sometimes I can do that in an hour, sometimes it takes 18 hours. But if I don’t produce those five pages, I feel like I’ve failed that day.

Keep writing until you have a completed book. Don’t give up. When you do finish, then it’s time to get help. Be patient. Find the right people to help you. Don’t just start firing off a completed manuscript until you know it’s good. The process of finding an agent and ultimately a publisher is the last mile of a 26.2 mile marathon. You want to go into that final mile with your best possible work.

ST: Can you please give us one random fact about yourself?

BC: I go through about a bottle of Sriracha a week.

To learn more about Ben Coes, check out his official website, like his Facebook page, or follow him on Twitter @authorbencoes.

The Writer's Bone Interviews Archive