JUSTIN TAYLOR

Interviewed by Lee Bob Black

Discussed in this interview with author Justin Taylor: not thinking about writing, choosing whether to embrace or erase literary influence, the nonexistence of rules of writing, becoming a stronger reader, avoiding shooting your literary load on cryptic notes, writing about music, what an editor’s job really should be about, and how writing isn’t always a choice.

Justin Taylor is the author of the short story collection, Everything Here is the Best Thing Ever, which The New York Times says, “documents a deep authority on the unavoidable confusion of being young, disaffected and human.” Taylor’s fiction and nonfiction have been widely published in journals, magazines, and websites, including The Believer, The Nation, The New York Tyrant, Canteen, The Brooklyn Rail, Flaunt, and NPR.

He edited The Apocalypse Reader and Come Back, Donald Barthelme. With Jeremy Schmall he co-edits The Agriculture Reader. A book he and Eva Talmadge are working on, The Word Made Flesh: Literary Tattoos, will be published in late 2010. A contributor to HTMLGIANT, Taylor lives in Brooklyn and at JustinDTaylor.net.

(Interviewed on 5.30.2009)

INTERVIEWER

How do you come up with new ideas or new associations?

JUSTIN TAYLOR

I don’t think you “come up” with associations so much as stumble on them. Ideas come … I don’t know. Where does any idea come from? You read something. You do something. You hear something. You wonder, what if? And hopefully one thing leads to another.

INTERVIEWER

So you conduct research in order to find topics to write about?

JUSTIN TAYLOR

I don’t research, really, at least not in the sense I think that you mean. I don’t decide to set a story at the Battle of Waterloo and then go read up on it. That’s just not the kind of fiction I write, at least not right now. With my nonfiction, it’s different. I mean obviously for an essay or an article, you have to research. Even for a book review, if you want it to be a decent piece of criticism, you want to familiarize yourself with a writer’s body of work, their so-called “project” if any, and so on. But in fiction sometimes there are things you just need to know. For example, there’s a story in my collection [Everything Here is the Best Thing Ever] called “Weekend Away.” It’s about a woman who drives from Portland, Oregon to the Oregon coast. Now I lived in Portland briefly, and I have a vague familiarity with the region, but at some point I needed to look up stuff like street names, the route she took, the particular beach town where she went. I don’t know if it was “research” exactly, but, well I guess it was. I used Google Maps. I plotted her route. But that’s not the same as setting out to write a “Portland” story, like in the [James] Michener sense.

INTERVIEWER

How do you go about being original in your work?

JUSTIN TAYLOR

By not thinking about it too much. You sit down and write what needs to be written. It’s going to be unique, more or less, because nobody has ever been you or written your story before. At the same time, your work is probably not going to be a complete break with everything that came before it. How could it possibly be? The greatest strides forward in any art form have almost always been made by people who understood well what came before them. The idea is to be the next link on the chain, not some absolute break, which is impossible anyway. I’m a big fan of Harold Bloom’s theories of influence, and ideas of misreading. I think a lot of my stories are directly influenced by things, especially other writers. At the first draft stage, I often don’t even bother to try and contain that. Later on, once you’ve started to revise or perfect the thing, you can work on erasing the parts of your work where the influence shows through. It’s like a kid trying to assert independence from a parent. Or you don’t erase them, and just say, Hey man, this is a story I wrote because Dennis Cooper showed me it was possible to write this way. Or I wrote this story to see how close I could get to Virginia Woolf’s voice in The Waves.

INTERVIEWER

What are your thoughts on obeying established/classical literary rules, or breaking them? For instance, you earned your MFA, and learned rules, now do you break them?

JUSTIN TAYLOR

Well you haven’t asked me anything about my time as an MFA, so it’s pretty presumptuous to assert that some particular “curriculum” exists, either in general or at [New York’s] New School in particular. Nobody ever gave me that fabled list of “rules” I’m always hearing about. Not even as a graduation present. Consequently, it’s not on my desk when I write, so I never read it. But I’m being a bit hard on you right now, because obviously I do know what you’re talking about. I think this idea of there being rules in the first place is basically a canard. People want this to-do list to be out there, so they can thumb their noses at it. What I learned in school was how to be a stronger reader, a better editor, and more attentive to the things I was doing. It made me aware of the content of my own work in a way I hadn’t been before. Awareness is really the key here. If you understand what you are doing, you can choose to do anything. The biggest problem writers have is not with the choices they make, but the ones they don’t know they are making. I don’t know that all schools teach that, or that all the teachers at the school I went to teach that, but that was my big take-away from the New School.

INTERVIEWER

What do you think about creative destruction?

JUSTIN TAYLOR

I’m in favor.

INTERVIEWER

How is the editing process for you?

JUSTIN TAYLOR

I love editing—my own work, and other people’s. I tend to write everything first in as few sittings as possible, then go back and see what I’ve actually got there, and start to figure out what needs to be done.

INTERVIEWER

How many drafts do you go through?

JUSTIN TAYLOR

Depends on the project. Also, how do you know when “a draft” has been done? We’re talking about computer files. You mess with them. How much messing do you have to do before it’s a new draft?

INTERVIEWER

When do you know you’re done?

JUSTIN TAYLOR

I can’t really answer that question. If these questions had answers, someone smarter and more talented than me would have answered them already—in like 1625 or something.

INTERVIEWER

What’s an editor’s role?

JUSTIN TAYLOR

Depends on what kind of editor we’re talking about. If you’re referring to the kind of editorial work I’ve done—editing the Apocalypse anthology and the [Donald] Barthelme tribute, and now working on The Agriculture Reader, well it’s a lot of roles at once. Curating is a large part of it. Who do we want in this thing? Now that we’ve got these three things, what else would go well with those? And so on. Sometimes it means actually editing a piece—suggesting revisions or doing line-edits or whatever. With the Barthelme tribute [Come Back, Donald Barthelme] for example, I was dealing mostly with professional writers, who were remembering their friend, and even though he’s a hero of mine, I didn’t know Barthelme myself. So you don’t ask someone to write a tribute to their old friend or teacher or whatever the relationship is, and then turn around and tell them they did it wrong. You’re asking them for their feelings—and that’s what you get. With The Apocalypse Reader, it was a mix of new and selected stories. Some of the new stories needed a little editing, maybe just a once-over because I was the first person seeing it other than the writer. But that’s all production-side stuff. Once the actual book, or magazine, is out, the editor’s job is simple. Champion your authors. Be relentless. Believe the thing you made is the best thing there is, not because you organized it, but because of who is in it. And then make sure everyone in the world knows. Also, when you’re claiming to have edited the best thing there is—try to be right. It helps. An editor’s job is not to be modest. An author should ideally display some modesty, or at least restraint, but if as an editor you pull that same sheepish “not a big deal” attitude, you’re really betraying all of the people who gave you their work and trusted you with it. If you don’t have absolute conviction in the work you’ve published, then you should have published better work. And if you do, then you need to say so. People are counting on you.

INTERVIEWER

When you signed my copy of The Apocalypse Reader, you crossed through your name on the title page. What was that about? Is that a common author practice?

JUSTIN TAYLOR

I don’t know why people do that. We could Google it I guess. It’s just—standard? I’ve asked a few authors, and they don’t know. So I don’t know. Maybe it’s a sort of way of authenticating your signature? Negating the mass-produced name in the presence of the singular hand-written one. Creating aura—like in the Walter Benjamin sense.

INTERVIEWER

How is working with an editor?

JUSTIN TAYLOR

If you mean my editor at Harper Perennial, and editing the story collection, it was great. Michael Signorelli is a great editor and he caught all kinds of little things that made my book better. I like feedback. I’m very interested in how people are reading my work, what they think of it, if they’re getting out of it what I feel like I’ve put in. That’s not to say I’m aiming to please—sometimes quite the opposite, or else I’m indifferent—but the feedback itself is valuable. It shows you the difference, and there’s always a difference, between what you were shooting for and what you actually wind up with. A lot of times you’re better off for having your shot go wide.

INTERVIEWER

Do you usually know how your stories are going to end when you start them?

JUSTIN TAYLOR

Not usually, no.

INTERVIEWER

Why does planning and outlining your writing seem to work for you, or not seem to work for you?

JUSTIN TAYLOR

Well, you keep giving me these binary sets of options, but it’s never just one or the other. I mean, if I start free-writing, and three or four pages in I have the inkling of a story and a sense of where it could end up, is that an outline? If you’re asking, do I sit down before writing and make up notes or a chart, then the answer is no—at least not with short stories. With a novel, I find it harder to avoid keeping some kind of notes, just about chapter order and other little things. At one point I made some diagrams of the characters’ inter-relationships, but I don’t think that was very effective. I think that you often only have one shot to get an idea down. That first fresh shot is what counts, later edits notwithstanding. So if you write it down as a series of cryptic notes that are useless in and of themselves, then that’s what you’ve got. Notes. You spent your chance. But I don’t want to try and speak with anything like authority on this, because I’m speaking from all the experience of one story collection [Everything Here is the Best Thing Ever], and one novel that isn’t yet even finished. You go with what feels right, you know?

INTERVIEWER

What do you want to write about in the future?

JUSTIN TAYLOR

I don’t have a list of ideas for stories or novels. But I would like to write a non-fiction book at some point, and I have ideas about that. For the last two years I’ve submitted book proposals to the 33 1/3 series. They’re this series Continuum [Books] does of short books that are each about one album. I’ve proposed two different books on the Grateful Dead—one on Reckoning, and the other on 12/31/78, which is actually a bootleg and not an “album.” This year I made it into the top 20-something, out of like 400 proposals, so the final round. But I didn’t get picked. So that’s one idea. Also, I’d like to publish books of poems at some point. My friend Bill Hayward is an amazing photographer, and we collaborated on a book-length poetry/photo project. I erased a [W. G.] Sebald novel down to four long poems, and then he illustrated the poems, sort of mimicking what Sebald does in his books, but the tone is very different. That project is done, but it needs a publisher. We haven’t really started to shop it yet, but we’d love for that to happen.

INTERVIEWER

Do you daydream about writing your autobiography or a memoir? What would the first chapter be?

JUSTIN TAYLOR

I daydream about the angry letters to the editor I’ll write in response to the bad reviews of the novel I’m working on. See, it’s a degrading fantasy about being a Franz Wright-esque wanker, but folded into it is the deeper fantasy of having actually finished the book and its having gotten lots of attention.

INTERVIEWER

Do you visualize an imagined audience while writing?

JUSTIN TAYLOR

No.

INTERVIEWER

Do you read your work aloud when writing/editing?

JUSTIN TAYLOR

Hell yes! More when I’m editing. And also, I didn’t always do this. I do it more than I used to, especially since having discovered Gordon Lish and the various “schools” of writing he fostered. There are several, and they’re not all alike. You wouldn’t mistake Dawn Raffel for Barry Hannah, and you wouldn’t mistake either of those two for Amy Hempel, or any of those three for Gary Lutz. But the one thing they all have in common is a profound understanding of the acoustical and aesthetic and—if this makes any sense—emotional properties of sound. Also, to really edit, you want to keep the work fresh. I print my stuff out to read, and I’ll often adjust the typeface or size or margins before I do, so that the words are in a physically different place than I’ve come to expect them. It gives you a fresh reading. And moving to the auditory medium is part of that. You literally hear yourself, the same way you hear a person who speaks to you. And when someone is talking right to you—you tend to pay attention, right? You actually listen to yourself. It’s not just for fiction writing. I teach my English 101 students to read their essays out loud when they’re drafting them. The ones who do it tend to make vast improvements.

INTERVIEWER

What’s your writing routine? What are some of your writing habits?

JUSTIN TAYLOR

I don’t deal well with routines. Habits … yeah, that’s probably more like it. I try to wake up by 8 or so, usually go for coffee and read for an hour or two at the coffee shop, then come back here and spend a few hours writing or editing fiction. But a lot of things might upset that routine—I may have taken on book review work, or decided to throw an HTMLGiant post together, or if it’s just a nice day and I may decide to gather some rosebuds while I may. Or during the semester, there might be papers to grade, and at midterm and finals this part-time job will suddenly rear up and become full-time for a week or two. But it still beats a day job, hands down. At least I think so. A lot of people tell me I’m nuts—they couldn’t live without the security, insurance, etc. And it’s not like this is some posturing thing. I’m not against being insured and having a little money in the bank. But the idea that I could do what they do is probably as ludicrous as the idea that they could do what I do. I can imagine the string of shitty office jobs, and my getting fired from all of them. What I mean is that this doesn’t feel like a choice to me, anymore than waking up and being the height that I am is a choice.

INTERVIEWER

You mentioned wanting to write a book on the Grateful Dead, what music do you listen to while writing?

JUSTIN TAYLOR

I don’t usually listen to music while writing, unless I’m writing about some particular band or record, and trying to hear something to write about it. I don’t want any outside input while I’m writing fiction. But I do like writing about music, which is funny since I don’t understand it at all. I don’t play, I can’t sing, I have zero technical vocabulary for it. It might as well be magic, as far as I’m concerned. And to tell you the truth, I’m a little bit protective of my ignorance, because I like feeling that way about music, the magic feeling. But again, nonfiction is different. I just finished a big piece about David Berman, for The Believer, and so that required listening to a lot of Silver Jews—not to say that I wouldn’t have listened to them just as much anyway. I usually only write about music I’m passionate about or even obsessed with. It’s a fan’s voice, first and foremost. Or rather, a fan’s motives.

INTERVIEWER

What are your fears about writing?

JUSTIN TAYLOR

I don’t know how to answer that. For better or for worse, or for far worse, I’ve basically staked my whole life—including livelihood, but also at some more fundamental level—on my writing, so there’s no way to separate the two. I hope my writing doesn’t get swine flu, or hit by a bus.

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