I’m a fan of bold claims, and I’m a fan of Justin Taylor. So, to preface this interview with him, I’m going to say one thing: when the book is closed on this decade, I get the feeling that Justin Taylor will be remembered as one of the generation’s finest writers. His new book of short stories, Everything Here is the Best Thing Ever (Harper Perennial), is out, and to be honest, if I attempted to write some long-winded introduction, I wouldn’t be able to do him justice. He paints pictures of boredom, alienation, joy, sorrow, and the downright odd, like an old master. If Donald Barthelme wrote Goodbye Columbus in a different time and place, or if Leonard Michaels had been influenced by Aaron Cometbus, Taylor’s book would be the end result.
You hear a lot of writers say that their work is, at often times, auto-biographical, especially in their early work. While reading through Everything… I got the distinct feeling that might be the case with some of your stories. Is that assumption correct?
Sometimes an event that really happened inspired a story-such as "Go Down Swinging." I really did know a guy who broke his ankle jumping off a roof, then considered undertaking the insane DIY medical care described in that story, but I don’t think it counts as "autobiographical" in the sense that you seem to mean. My character, Roger, is not a cipher for that guy I knew, and that guy is not answerable for anything that my fictional character is or does. If he-the guy-even ever sees the story, I hope he gets a kick out of it. If not, well that’s just part of the price you pay knowing a writer: we’re like explorers with old-timey cameras, and sometimes the natives are going to wind up getting a bit of soul stolen. But the final word on these stories is that they are emphatically not reportage. You can’t find Andrea from "Jewels Flashing in the Night of Time" among my Facebook friends. She has no reality independent of the short story she appears in.
You talk about (Silver Jews) David Berman an awful lot, and you contributed a pretty extensive playlist over at Largehearted Boy: How much influence does music have on your writing?
I don’t understand how music works on a technical level well enough to be able to steal ideas from it. And even in terms of the prose itself, while I do hope my work has a strong auditory dimension, I’m more interested in the aesthetics and poetics of the voice, and the rigorous play of language. But I’m definitely predisposed toward name-checking artists or particular works of music, and toward characters for whom music is a large part of how they relate to the world and to themselves. That last part is definitely my fully conscious attempt to reproduce on the page a sense of the role that music plays in my own day-to-day life.
Berman is off in his own whole category, as far as I’m concerned. He just hits me in a way that’s not like anything else. There’s not a single Silver Jews song I would skip if it came on my stereo, and his poetry collection, Actual Air, is one of my favorite books of poems. (I wrote a big piece about it for The Believer last year.) Just a major, major artist, in my opinion. If my protracted exposure to his work has shaped my own at all, so much the better.
In the New York Times review of your book, Todd Pruzan describes the story "Tennessee" as "a classic Jews-out-of-water tale". Beyond your fiction, is the label "Jew-out-of water" something you relate to?
All Jews are out of water all the time. Isn’t that like our whole thing?
That’s the joke answer-except I’m not really kidding. The truth is, I’ve always been more likely to feel out of water within Judaism than out of water on account of being a Jew. It kind of amazes me how much attention the "Jewish angle" of this book has gotten. "Tennessee" notwithstanding, it felt to me like I had almost completely sidelined any notion of Jews or Judaism, but that’s coming from someone who grew up in an enormous Jewish community-the descriptions of Jewish life in South Florida in "Tennessee" are more or less nonfiction-so my sense of what counts as a lot versus a little is probably way off.
And actually, my family was consistently involved in synagogue life when I was growing up. Both my parents sat on various boards, volunteered time, and so on. I did Hebrew school, Bar Mitzvah lessons, plus of course the thing itself, and later on something called Thursday Night School, which I never really understood the point of-but of course my understanding it was at best incidental to my having to do it. That’s how it is with kids: you sign them up; they go. In any case, my family was actually a good deal less derelict in their participation in Jewish life than the family depicted in "Tennessee." But I did always have-and to some degree, retain-a sense of unease about that involvement, like everyone else actually belongs there but I’m only faking, or something. Which leads us nicely into your next question, does it not?
I feel like outsiders play pretty important roles in many of your stories, did you feel like an outsider growing up?
Yeah, absolutely. In retrospect, though, I often wonder if that perception of being an outsider was really as accurate as I thought/felt at the time or times. I was never one of the super-popular kids, but I also never really wanted to be. I had some pretty lonely stretches, and all the usual struggles that kids have, but generally speaking I was always good at finding or creating communities, circles of friends, etc. I definitely didn’t experience anything like the isolation that, say, Brad from "The New Life" feels after he ditches his only real friend in the world. There were times when it felt that way, though, and so irrespective of whether younger-me’s perceptions really corresponded to any given reality on the ground, or whether it was more of a self-romanticizing angst thing, the emotions generated by those perceptions were real, and were true, and in a certain sense still are true and always will be. Because emotional memory is like pangs in a phantom limb-you’re staring at this empty space, and you know there’s nothing there, but damn if it isn’t aching. Personally, though, I think that what a lot of these stories are concerned with-more than being an outsider-is that attempt to forge communities or connections, pairs and trios and small groups that are based on an intimate affinity of some kind, and then to negotiate the terms and conditions of existence within that world, which is of course no less difficult or fraught a proposition than doing so in the larger world.
do you feel like one now?
Oh, I don’t know. A writer, like a Jew, is a kind of eternal outsider, not least of all among his own people or in his own skin. That’s a kind of breathless, bumper-stickery answer, and you’d be right to be suspicious of it, but for whatever it’s worth I really do believe it to be the truth. That said, I certainly can’t complain about the way this book has been received-people have been very supportive, and they seem to be reading it and "getting" it. And I feel very lucky to be part of several communities of artists-I’m thinking specifically here of the scene that’s coalesced around HTMLGiant.com, and also of working with Jeremy Schmall, Mark Wagner, and Amy Mees on our arts annual, the Agriculture Reader. So in every practical, pragmatic or, you know, real sense, I’d be delusional to try and claim "outsider" status. But the heart is a strange place with its own rules or lack thereof, and so in the deeply irrational and emotional senses of the word "feel"- yeah, definitely, an outsider always and forever.
You know when I don’t feel like an outsider? When I’m writing. Sitting at the desk, not warming up or editing drafts, but actually in the act of producing words in a new order they’ve never been in before, telling a story that’s never before been told. That’s when I feel like the best incarnation of myself; that’s me being who and what and where and how I’m meant to be.
What does the future hold for you?
The next few months will see a bit of touring to support the collection, and the completion of an anthology of photographs that I’m co-editing with my friend Eva Talmadge. And I’m working on revisions and additions to my first novel, with an eye toward finishing the manuscript sometime this year and putting it out sometime in 2011. I’ve been very lucky to have this semester off from teaching, but I assume I’ll be back in the classroom this fall, and I’m looking forward to that-to all of it, actually. I mean, why not?