If you’re in even the remotest vicinity of queer book Twitter or literary Twitter or any of the good corners of Twitter, really, this month’s author needs no introduction, but I’m gonna give him one anyway.
Brandon L.G. Taylor is one of those literary citizens who makes you feel like you’re getting a little smarter every time you ingest a single one of his mindgrapes. (You know, I realized that sounded gross as soon as I typed it out, but I’m leaving it.) You can find his incredible essays and short fiction all over the internet, but lucky us, there’s so much more to come (thanks to a two-book deal and the fact that he’s a staff writer at Literary Hub and an Associate Editor at Electric Lit, all while studying at the Iowa Writers’ Workshop, and by the way, he also Sciences) and I’m here to ask about alllll of it. Join us!
Q: I’m so excited to pick your brain on things that I barely know where to begin, but oh, I know a good place: YOUR UPCOMING NOVEL. What can you tell us about it?
A: I have been looking forward to this Q&A for a long time! I’m so thrilled to finally get a chance to do it. As for my novel, it’s called Real Life, and it’s about a queer black PhD student in the Midwest who finds himself grappling with the difficulties of relationships and also with what it means to live a real life. I really wanted to write a campus novel because I love them so much, but I also wanted to address the fact that as a genre, that kind of novel tends to exclude black people and queer people.
Q: You’re so well known for your short stories and essays, I have to admit that seeing you sell a full-length novel was the most delightful surprise. How did you find the experience of writing a novel as compared to shorter forms?
A: I was worried that people would feel like I had played a trick on them given all the slander I’ve made about novels over the years. But I’m so glad that wasn’t the case. Writing Real Life was not too different from writing the stories. I was very strict with myself because I can be lazy and unmotivated. So I was in butt-in-the-chair every day for about five weeks. It’s different, of course, in all the ways that writing a longer form is different from a short form. You have more room for character development and the kinds of details you can use are different. Also, the construction of scenes is different. But I think anyone who has read my stories will definitely not be too surprised by the novel in terms of voice or interest or anything like that. It definitely felt to me like I was writing the sort of novel that only I could write, and also the only kind of novel that I was capable of writing. So expect lots of sweaters and great décor!
Q: Speaking of your short-form work, is there a short story of yours you wish got more eyes on it? An essay? Please share any and all!
A: I think maybe like five people read this essay when it came out, but it’s one I love so so much. It’s an essay about masculinity, wounded art men, and queer desire. I was really trying to grapple with a lot of my own complicity in toxic masculinity which all along I thought I had been subverting.
Q: You put a magnificent amount of yourself on the page, which is something even the most privileged of people struggle with, let alone those most frequently silenced by the margins. Does it get less scary with time? Has the reception to your work surprised you? What’s the best thing you’ve heard in response to it?
A: I think because of some of the trauma in my past, I have a very difficult time with secrecy or withholding things. I don’t like to feel like I’m holding things back or like I’m being elusive. I like to just get things out up front and just say them and put them on the page. I think in many ways my honesty in writing is a coping mechanism because if I write it down and if I’m honest, then no one can tell me that I wasn’t honest? Or that something didn’t happen. So I’ve always tried to be really honest and really truthful, even if that means saying that I don’t know something or remember it or understand why something happened. And I think people respond to that. Because of the nature of my work, it would be a little irresponsible to give details about things people have shared with me in private in response to my work. But someone recently wrote me and said that reading an essay of mine in passing had given them the courage they needed to confront someone they hadn’t previously been able to. And that was just incredible. You know. Having that kind of effect on someone, giving them space to do something they felt the need to do. That to me is the best thing. I’m always trying to hold space for myself and by extension, for others.
Q: YA is where I’m most knowledgeable, so I’m particularly grateful that you’re generous with your literary fiction recs. What are some of your favorite titles you’d really love to see more people reading and discussing?
A: I’d love if more people read Donald Windham’s Two People, Garth Greenwell’s What Belongs to You, Darryl Pinckney’s Black Deutschland, Nick White’s How to Survive a Summer and his collection Sweet and Low, No One Can Pronounce My Name by Rakesh Satyal, and honestly a book that I think everybody needs to be reading right this very moment is Alexander Chee’s Edinburgh.
Q: You’ve spoken about being from the South, and you’re currently living in the Midwest. How would you say your personal settings inform your work?
A: This is such a fantastic question. I’ve been thinking about it a lot more in the last few months especially. I always struggle to write about the South. It’s really such a difficult place to capture. I’m especially aware of all the different ways people speak there, and as a writer, I feel this tremendous burden to try to capture the breadth of the sonic landscape. It’s just really hard for me because I’m from there and yet have always felt like an outsider so I’m aware of all of the false moves I make when trying to write about the South. And I’m not a born Midwesterner, so I don’t feel comfortable writing about them, but the landscape is so familiar to me now and I don’t have quite the same baggage as with the South. So what I’ve ended up doing is writing about Southern people who find themselves displaced to the Midwest. That to me feels like the one experience I know the most about. It’s always the perspective of the outsider, in a way. And so what I find is that in my work, my characters have a kind of visceral awareness of their surroundings—nature is so important in the South, and also humor and darkness—and yet they’re amongst all of these strange people and their strange Midwestern customs.
Q: I love when your Curious Cat answers pop up on my Twitter timeline. What’s your favorite question you’ve ever gotten over there?
A: Curious Cat is so much fun. It’s WILD. I don’t know if I have a favorite question, but my favorite genre of question is any time someone asks me to dreamcast a Jane Austen adaptation. Because WHAT A TREASURE. There’s one I’ve been sitting for like 6 months about dream casting an adaptation of Middlemarch, and every time I think I’m ready to answer that one, I realize I’m not. It’s quite stressful.
Q: You’re currently a student at Iowa Writers’ Workshop, which I suspect is a great dream of many writers. For those of us who’ve never done any sort of residency, what’s a typical day like?
A: Iowa is…yes, a dream come true, and also kind of boring? Which I know is a tremendous privilege. Essentially, I wake up at noon, drink some coffee, browse Twitter, and then write for a few hours. We don’t have a lot of demands on our time, which is nice. We go to Workshop every Tuesday. And some students have seminars to attend, but really, it’s just hours and hours of you and your own ideas and trying to not bore yourself half to death with your own bad writing. It’s kind of like year-round summer camp. The workshops are sometimes good and sometimes bad, but it’s been a year of really thinking very deeply about what I want to do in my art and how I want to…push it forward or not. It’s a lot of me time. Which isn’t always great.
Q: Swinging back to your book deal, in addition to the novel, you’ve also got a book of short stories coming. What can you share about it? Will it be all new work we’ve never seen before, or are some old favorites creeping in?
A: It’s called Filthy Animals. There will definitely be some old favorites. Expect stories about ballet and open relationships and math nerds and mental illness and caregiving and desire. There are no straight people in any of the stories. And what I hope is that readers feel like they’re finally getting stories about people they’ve always wanted to read about. There are fat queer bodies in the stories. There are black and brown queer people in the stories. They are the center of the stories, not just side characters. I tried to write a book that felt unapologetically interested in the interior lives of people who often aren’t allowed to rise above the level of mere backdrop. And as an artist, I was trying to lay claim to material that is often not seen as the rightful material of black and queer writers. But, at the end of the day, I just wanted to write really elegant stories about the kinds of people I know and love and am curious about.
Q: Where do you feel like queer lit could still strongly use growth? What would you like to see that you haven’t yet?
A: I think that queer lit could stand to be more interested in the lives of black people and fat people and fat black people. I think that queer lit could be more interested in our lives outside of desirability, if that makes sense. So much of the current discourse is around proving queer worth by virtue of our being desired by normative gazes. And I just think, yes, that is an important narrative to tell, but also, there is more to our lives than just desire and sex. There are more problems. And ultimately, our relationships to one another are so complicated and nuanced, and I really think that queer lit could stand to grow in order to accommodate that complexity. It feels like literary queer novels are novels of malaise and sadness or tremendous violence and more genre novels are novels of speculative futures and evolving body discourse. But I wonder if we aren’t missing the everyday mundane lives of queer people. It feels like there’s more work to be done there, in a mode that isn’t just stately and suburban. So, I guess, my answer to this question is that I think queer lit could become a bit more boring. I’d love to read more novels about fat black queer museum docents in cardigans who do not want to be touched and have meaningful relationships with their best friends. I don’t want to see that kind of story replace current queer narratives. I’d just like to see the range of options expand. There’s room for everyone.
Q: What’s the first queer rep you saw or read that really resonated with you?
A: The first queer rep I saw that really resonated with me that I can recall is probably Call Me by Your Name. I read that novel back in 2007 as a recent high school graduate who was just starting to identify as gay, like, in a real, concerted way. It blew me away. It gave me a reason to think that being gay, whatever that meant, could also mean being a person in the world. I hadn’t thought of that before.
Q: What upcoming releases are you most looking forward to?
A: Alexia Arthurs has a short story collection called How to Love a Jamaican which I am very stoked about. David Chariandy’s new novel Brother is also on my list. It’s sure to be beautiful. History of Violence by Édouard Louis, which comes out quite soon. And most of all, Ben Marcus has a new collection of stories called Notes from the Fog this fall which is definitely going to be good and weird.
Brandon Taylor is the associate editor of Electric Literature’s Recommended Reading and a staff writer at Literary Hub. His writing has received fellowships from Lambda Literary, Kimbilio Fiction, and the Tin House Summer Writer’s workshop. He currently lives in Iowa City, where he is a student at the Iowa Writers’ Workshop in fiction. His debut novel is forthcoming from Riverhead Books.