Nearly four years ago, I was reviewing Justin Taylor’s novel The Gospel of Anarchy for the Brooklyn Rail and was so enamored by the book, and Taylor’s debut collection Everything Here is the Best Thing Ever, that I met and interviewed him for The L Magazine. Since then I’ve been Justin Taylor fan, publishing his story “A Talking Cure” in issue two of The Coffin Factory, a poem he made by erasing Sebald’s The Emigrants in issue three, and the story “Adon Olam” in the first issue of Tweed’s. Now that these stories have been collected in Taylor’s new book Flings, I had to talk to him about it. On a warm October evening we met for a beer at a bar near Taylor’s home in Brooklyn, and below is part of the conversation we had.
Tweed’s: How is Flings different from your other two books, in terms of content?
Justin Taylor: I like to think of all three books as being in conversation with each other, but my novel The Gospel of Anarchy is so hermetic, in its focus as well as its structure, that it’s kind of off in its own world. So thinking then mostly about the two collections in relation to each other, I guess the first thing you’d notice about the new book is that the characters are on average a bit older—some are significantly older. In Flings I’m writing for the first time about parents and children, families. There’s a lot about aging itself, even in a story like “Mike’s Song,” which is arguably about these twenty-somethings, although it’s narrated by their fifty-something year old father. That story is the sequel to a story in Everything Here Is the Best Thing Ever called “The New Life,” where they were all thirteen to sixteen years old. So for me to check in with these characters ten years later was necessarily to think about them in terms of aging and change over time—even though in the grand scheme of things, they are relatively young. Or in a story like “Sungold,” where the narrator, Brian, is living in a college town and getting himself into pointless trouble, which is arguably on the same spectrum of behavior explored in both Everything Here and Gospel of Anarchy, but a big part of what informs Brian’s attitude and eventually his behavior is he knows he’s a bit old to be doing what he’s doing, and when he looks at his boss who’s a few years older than him, he can see how much worse it’s going to be when he’s in his thirties if he’s still doing the same thing. And so a lot of his anger and a lot of his desperation comes from that sense, even for a relatively young person, of feeling the pressure of the world and of growing up and failing to grow up. Maybe that’s the best way to put it. If the first two books told stories about people refusing to grow up, this book is more concerned with people who actually do want to grow up, but may or may not succeed in the attempt.
Tweed’s: What do you think would be failing at trying to grow up? What is being adult?
Justin Taylor: I don’t have a good answer for that question. I certainly don’t want to promote some sort of normative bourgeois view of adulthood. I don’t think that people are childish or slackers simply because they are refusing trappings of wealth, or conformity. That’s not it at all. I think one of the things that is important to adulthood is having a sense of responsibility for oneself and for the things one puts in the world. Being able to form commitments and have relationships, romantic or otherwise—those things are big concerns in this book. The first collection had a lot of relationships that were undefinable: they existed in gray areas. Whereas almost all the romantic entanglements in this book are fairly clearly defined. People are trying to be with each other and to be good enough to hold up their ends of the bargains they’ve made. They just don’t always know how to do that or what that means.
Tweed’s: Do you think this is a reflection of your own growth and maturity?
Justin Taylor: I wouldn’t want to overstate that correlation for fear of suggesting that the fiction is some sort of veiled autobiography, which it’s really not, but at the same time, your point is exactly right. I was twenty-seven when my first book came out and most of it was written between the ages of twenty and twenty-five. I’m thirty-two now. It would be shocking, even embarrassing, to think that no emotional or intellectual or perspectival development had occurred between the ages of twenty and thirty-two. And there’s no question that my life is vastly different now than it was when the first book was written and when the second book was written, let alone published. Again, without going so far as to invite the claim that there’s a one-to-one correlation there, I think that those things have absolutely had an effect on the way that I think about the world and that’s reflected in the work. Which is very much as it should be.
Tweed’s: With Flings, you’re changing the framework and perspective for each story, even though there’s some crossover, but it seems like you’re still trying to get at the same thing. What are you trying to get at? What’s the theme that you’re trying to address from different perspectives?
Justin Taylor: I don’t know that that’s for me to say. Speaking broadly, a lot of it is probably stuff that I mentioned before. Ideas about aging, questions of responsibility or maturity. Also to a certain degree, actually representing the world as experienced. I really enjoy writing about technology, bands—the stuff that’s going on. Eventually that may—or really, will—date the work in a certain way, maybe turn it into a period artifact, but I don’t mind if that’s the case. When you think about great books from the past—the classics or the canon or whatever—part of what makes them alive to us now are the very things that you would have thought would have periodized or dated them. Because they give us access to something that otherwise we’d have no idea about.
Tweed’s: Some of the stories in Flings are really localized. For example, in “A Night Out” the main character is taking a cab and thinks, “Why is this guy trying to go through Union Square? He should have gone west on Houston and taken 6th.” That’s such a New York thing. Often when I’m in a cab, I’m like, “Where’s this guy going? Dude should have gone right on Houston.” But if I didn’t live here, maybe I wouldn’t get that.
Justin Taylor: It’s not meant to be exclusionary, or an inside joke or something. Obviously if you get the reference, you get it, but hopefully even if you’ve never set foot in New York in your life and you have no interest in coming here, the character’s familiarity with the environment tells you something about him, that he’s a person who knows that you go this way and not that way, and that is an idea that’s translatable to Youngstown, Ohio, to Santiago, Chile—the local knows the way to go and takes note when one is going the wrong way. That’s how you achieve the reality effect. You try to write to the degree of specificity and realism that your characters would have because of who they are.
Tweed’s: This reminds me of Ben Lerner’s recent 10:04, because it is the most localized, Brooklyn-specific book I’ve read in a very long time. A lot of it was: “We walked down Atlantic passed the mosque next to the post office.” Or “We walked down Union Street, past Prospect Park, and we were at the Park Slope Food Co-op.” All these places I’m very familiar with because I live in Brooklyn, but will people in the rest of the country know what the hell he’s talking about? And is such specificity a strength or is it a fault?
Justin Taylor: But the people who “don’t get it” from personal experience are the ones who really need that specificity—they’re the exact people you’re putting all that stuff in there for. If you’ve never been to the Park Slope Food Co-op, 10:04 gives you enough information about it that you get a sense of what it is, how it functions, and what a person does when he goes there. I really believe strongly that’s the value and not the limitation. One example I can think of is over the summer I was reading Mavis Gallant, Varieties of Exile, and those stories are set in mid-century Montreal. But I don’t know anything about mid-century Montreal. I’ve never crossed the Canadian border, and Varieties is hyper-specific to that place and time. It’s as narrow a point of view as could possibly be in terms of place, setting, everything—but that’s what brings it to life. By the time you get through those stories, you feel like you know everything about these people, and you understand why to them this is a good street to live on and that’s a bad one, and you understand why the mother sends the kids to convent school, and you know what they eat on this holiday and how they behave at a funeral. That’s what’s so amazing about fiction. That’s what makes it work.
For Lerner, it’s the hyper-specificity of it that makes the character and his world real. The novel insists, constantly, on its particularity rather than its universality, even as the narrator yearns—desperately yearns—for what he calls the “Whitmanic” forms of the universal: the “you” and the “we” of rapturous democracy that’s always imminent but somehow never arrives. Of course the narrator—like his author—is a specific political subject who exists at a very specific place and time. It’s his awareness of that that I think in a way is the most powerful political message the novel has, especially when he connects it to—in the scene with the Park Slope Co-op—his own privilege. I would have to look the quote up to get it exactly right, but he writes about the kind of deeply unethical new bio-racial politics, where the new language of racism is encoded in this idea that non-white people don’t get good food as children and so they have all these cognitive problems that lead to crime, etc. That is a form of racism no less specific to our cultural moment than phrenology was to its own heyday. And Lerner is really laying that bare in a way that I think is pivotally important. It comes up over and over again in that book. When he goes to donate the sperm and finds all the pornography organized by race of performer—on and on.
Tweed’s: I’m glad you brought this up, because besides the specific locality, another thing I noticed that Flings shares with Lerner’s book, and which I didn’t see in your earlier books, and is that both authors seem very aware that they are privileged, heterosexual, white males. Where’s this coming from?
Justin Taylor: It’s coming from me! I mean I’m a pretty far-left guy, was even a gender studies minor in college, and while I don’t always write explicitly politicized fiction I do think that awareness of these issues is reflected to a greater or lesser degree throughout all of my work. I think we are at a cultural moment where a lot of conversations that have been a long time coming to the public sphere have finally arrived there, and I think that’s really important and good.
You know HTMLGiant just closed down? I was a contributor there from its launch in ’07 to the end of 2010 so I’ve been thinking about it a lot—what it meant to me, what the loss of it means, our greatest hits and misses over the years. I’m thinking about it especially in light of some of the things that have been happening just in these last couple months with these blow-ups on social media, specifically in the literary world, which affects me mostly directly, but also elsewhere in the culture: among gamers, among journalists and celebrities. All over. People are being called out for saying and doing things that in the past maybe they could have gotten away with (or did get away with). Absorbing all this over the last couple weeks or months (and it’s ongoing), it occurred to me that the kinds of fights and conversations I’m seeing happening in the public sphere among very mainstream writers and commentators are a lot of the same things that we used to fight about on the HTMLGiant threads. That’s where those battles—or some small piece of them—used to be waged. I’m not making a claim to give full credit to HTMLGiant for “shaping the conversation” at a national level, within the literary community or beyond it—and it has to be admitted that we always had a bit of a reputation as a boys’ club—but I can say with confidence that we were way ahead of the curve on a lot of this stuff. We weren’t 100% right 100% of the time, but we sensed that these things mattered and were worth the investment of energy and passion to try and hash out what the right thing was in a given situation. So we do deserve some credit for that. And the point of all this is that now I see those sorts of conversations all over the mainstream—and again, I mean the mainstream literary culture, but also the culture at large.
HTMLGiant always, always styled itself as an open forum, and it was supposed to be anarchic but it was also supposed to be really inviting and inclusive. The hope was not just that anyone and everyone could show up there, but that anyone and everyone would. But one problem we had from the get-go, which we never fully resolved, was that we could not keep women as contributors, or even really as readers, for very long. They would get involved, and then they would just get worn out. Most—though not all—didn’t have the same appetite for combat that became the default mode of engagement there. And they certainly didn’t have the stomach for the specifically gendered and sexualized tone that attacks on them would take that were rarely if ever used when male contributors were attacked. (Which I can’t blame them for, and will add that since I graduated middle school, roughly 99% of the people who have ever felt that the best way to express their dislike for me was to call me a faggot, did so in comment threads on that site.)
For us—and when I say us I mean of course founder Gene Morgan and editor Blake Butler, but also the original group of contributors and the many others who joined up and made themselves indispensable over the years—it was a long process of realizing that you can’t just will a space to be open and safe, that you have to actively facilitate equality, freedom, safety, liberty: all those things. Which means drawing some kind of line somewhere, which unfortunately has to mean a limit, however thin or provisional, on speech. Or, as was more often the case there, crossing that line and then trying to figure out whether and how to beat the hastiest retreat possible. Very often we would run aground—as young people will—on the question of where free expression ends and censorship begins and what constitutes your right to say, “Fuck you,” versus my right to not have someone say “Fuck you” to me. We weren’t always right—we didn’t always agree on what “right” meant—but we were always trying, and that, to me, is what matters in the end. Again without claiming any specific credit for myself or for HTMLGiant, I want to say that it is immensely satisfying to see these debates and struggles at the very center of the mainstream literary and general-cultural conversation. It feels like the site had a job to do—facilitate community, bring a lot of attention to the independent and small presses, throw some truly raging parties at AWP, help launch a few careers—and now that job is done. It’s somebody else’s turn.
Tweed’s: What are you interested in right now? What’s motivating your work?
Justin Taylor: I’m interested in the next kind of imaginative challenge. I don’t want to say much about the novel I’m working on, but I will say that I think it is very different from my last novel, which was very hermetic and, at times, deliberately obtuse—both by design. I think I’m trying to write a novel now that will function very differently, that pays very different kinds of attention in terms of its characters, its interests, but also in terms of structure. I’m curious to see whether I can write, for lack of a better term, a more novel-shaped novel. I honestly don’t know if I can. If I thought I could, I might not bother. Or I might write ten and sell them all. But anyway, that’s the big challenge right now.
Tweed’s: Sounds like an aesthetic challenge.
Justin Taylor: Everything is ultimately an aesthetic challenge. You can have all the big ideas in the world but ultimately the thing has to take a form, which means that choices have to be made and structure has to be built and characters have to be able to drive within something. So it’s been a couple years now of trying to find a form that is big enough to hold what I’m trying to do. It’s an ongoing thing.
What’s motivating me? The motivation is to try the thing that I’ve never tried before, to try and do something bigger than I’ve done before, and hopefully to get paid. That’s the motivation.