“Real Pretend People”: An Interview with Justin Taylor

Image of author courtesy of David Benhaim

There’s a moment in Justin Taylor’s new story collection, Flings, when a narrator gets the sense that she’s watching herself from somewhere else: “not like the God’s eye view from the ceiling but maybe like a pervert on the fire escape, peeping in.” It’s an apt description of the reader’s position: granted glimpses of unusual insight into lives as ordinary and real as a neighbor’s. Taylor’s characters live in worlds of precise geography and uncertain shape, anchored by specific dates and street names at hazy personal crossroads, and by startling, pitch-perfect sentences in fragmentary narratives. Observing early-twenty-first-century life with compassion and humor—and engaging with sources as diverse as The Waves and the band Phish—he strikes a delicate balance in tone between intimacy and distance.

Flings (HarperCollins, 2014) is Taylor’s second story collection. His previous books—the collection Everything Here Is the Best Thing Ever, 2010, and the novel The Gospel of Anarchy, 2011—have been praised as “beautiful, searching, […] brutally funny” and “literally fizzing with potential,” earning him the reputation of “a new literary beast.” A self-described “sentence nerd,” he cites among his influences Barry Hannah, Flannery O’Connor, and Donald Barthelme, to whom he has been compared. He lives and teaches in New York City, where the Grateful Dead, he says, are “always on in my head, and more often than not in my house.” He talks like he writes, with a focus on practicalities and specifics; over Skype and email, he told me about the process of writing a story collection as a “real book” and the key to a perfect ending.

—Rosa Inocencio Smith


Rosa Inocencio Smith: You write so vividly about placeI was wondering how you choose the places you write about. What do you notice when you go somewhere new?

Justin Taylor: I mostly write about places that I’ve spent some significant amount of time. I like to know where I’m writing about. Sometimes I attribute it to when I was in college and trying to figure out how to write realist fiction, which did not come naturally to me. I was always getting hung up on how to move the people through the room or how to get them across the town. Where are the traffic lights? How far are these houses from each other? And so I started writing about the town I grew up in, mostly because I just didn’t have to think about where any of those things were and I could accurately draw the map in my head, which made it easier to move away from the off-the-wall shit I was doing and focus on real people—real pretend people, of course, but you know what I mean. So I guess it came initially out of that, and it became ingrained in my practice.

Often it’s with time, too. I can get a little bit obsessive about pinpointing exactly when things are set. “Mike’s Song”is set at a Phish show that took place December 28, 2009—at that concert, at that moment. The same way it makes more sense to me to use Google Maps to figure out all the street names of a place than to make them up, it made more sense to me to send my characters to a real concert. That part was fun, albeit a bit crazy-making, because I had to find a show, first, that had “Mike’s Song” appearing in the right place in the set list, and, second, that had happened in a place that these people would actually be. And that was in a way the most challenging part, because Phish doesn’t really play South Florida that much.


RIS: Parts of The Happy Valley actually feel almost like journalism to me. Have you ever thought about writing nonfiction?

JT: The earliest versions of that story were nonfiction. I had gotten the idea at some point that I should write a nonfiction piece on the Jewish history of Hong Kong. I thought that I would sell it to a Jewish culture magazine or website, like Tablet. I pitched them and they were open to the idea, but the thing was, they wanted to know what the angle was—above and beyond, like, “this exists and I just learned about it”—and that’s the place in journalism or culture-writing where I usually get hung up. I had nothing to offer them in terms of how it related to anything—because it didn’t, is the real answer.

Not to get too deep about it, but in a way the story—in my own mind, anyway—sort of recapitulates the failed attempt at journalism, because what they kept asking me was, “What is it about this other than the fact that you see it and you know it?” That was the question I couldn’t answer, and in the end that’s kind of the moral of the story. Danielle, the protagonist, is trying to marshal all this information to connect with her father, and he cannot or will not bring himself to do it, so in the end all she’s left with is that she’s standing in a Jewish cemetery reading all these graves. The information can’t be put to its intended use, so if there’s going to be any meaning recovered from it, it will have to be a personal, essentially private meaning.


RIS: That brings me to another question. I think its sometimes hard, as a reader, to see characters as having lives that extend beyond the events of the story, but thats not so with your characters. I kept getting the sense that Id bumped into someone for just a moment, maybe a random moment, and theyd go on without me. Events in their lives are decisive, but not always in a way thats obviously significant; its as if the story takes pains to avoid a climax, to assert that something is both more meaningful than the protagonist understands and less meaningful than the reader might expect it to be. No dramatic revelations. So why choose these particular moments to encounter these characters, and how much of those continuous lives do you imagine, beyond what you put on the page?

JT: I don’t know how these moments get chosen. One thing I can say is that in this book I tried to write a few stories that spanned larger amounts of time, and so I got interested in maybe a more flexible idea of what constitutes a moment. A story like “Flings”covers about ten or twelve years of those people’s lives, and “Gregory’s Year” covers exactly one year but it uses the idea of the year almost like a formal constraint. In the earliest drafts of that story, each month had to be its own paragraph. I was thinking of the year as a moment, a unit that could then be subdivided, but everything had to be contained within it.

I like the idea of the non-climax. Not in the sense of anticlimax—I hope the stories aren’t disappointing—but in the sense that things that feel momentous happen to characters, and they have high and low points, but the story itself is not necessarily pegged to the Freytag triangle. I like stories that give the sense of the larger life into which a revelation or crucial moment fits. And I’m glad you felt that the characters extend beyond their stories and go on. I don’t imagine much about any individual character outside of the story they’re in, but I do like to leave open the possibility of returning to a given character later on. Not necessarily because I want it to be a tightly linked collection, but because it feels like these people all occupy more or less the same reality, or that they could.

That’s why the couple in “Flings” has a cameo at the end of “The Happy Valley.” There’s a few other kind of half-buried or briefly-glimpsed linkages spread throughout. I don’t know if there’s any greater purpose to it. At first it was pretty much random, but once I caught on to what I was doing, I went back and looked for opportunities to very lightly tie these things to each other. Maybe it’s a sign that I should have written a novel instead, but I don’t think so.


RIS: Well, youll be teaching a class at Columbia this fall about the art of the short story collection, and I was really tempted to steal interview questions from your course descriptionyou ask how writing a loosely linked collection is different from writing a novel, how to manage recurring themes, things like that. But what was the process of assembling Flings like? Did you have any particular organizing principles in mind?

JT: Not at the beginning. It was the first time I’d ever sat down to write a collection as though it were a quote-unquote “real book”rather than just an accumulation of eight or ten years’worth of short stories. I looked at what had been written already and I thought, “what stories am I still trying to write that would kind of round this out?” The title story had been written fairly early, and it has that little glimpse of Hong Kong at the end, but I thought, I would love for the book to fully arrive there, spend some time in that place. So “Flings”and “The Happy Valley” set the poles, or defined the boundaries or whatever. And then “After Ellen”was an offshoot story from “Flings”—I mean, the character Scott in “Flings”is practically a plot device. He takes one action and his interiority doesn’t matter; his job is to set a lot of other things in motion. So I said, well, what if I went back to his exact point of departure from “Flings”and just stuck with him? “After Ellen” became the middle. So the book had a beginning, a middle, and an end, and everything else got kind of filled in around that. Certain preoccupations come back again and again. There are a lot of relationships in this book, between lovers, sure, but also between parents and children, and between friends. There are both older and younger people, I think, than there were in the first book—it felt good to get that broader range of places in life, and without saying I planned it that way, once I noticed that pattern, it was something I was happy to write toward.


RIS: I was thinking about After Ellen”—one thing I love about that story is that its built on this premise that Scott has done something really catastrophic and then he just moves on, because thats what people do.

JT: Some people really hate him. But I don’t know, I take a maybe more sanguine view. He has done something terrible, and he is not exactly made to pay for it, but at the same time, the story isn’t about the thing he did. I mean, he screws someone over very badly, but he throws his own existence into utter turmoil in the process, so it’s not like he doesn’t go through anything. I don’t know. He gets a dog.

RIS: Nine dogs!

JT: Yeah, he ends up with nine dogs. That is something that actually happened—the last summer I lived in Gainesville, Florida, when I’d finished college but hadn’t moved away yet, we had a quasi-roommate, this guy who owned an RV that he parked in our yard, and he adopted a dog off the street. She turned out to be pregnant and so he planned for the dog to give birth in the RV. He had set up a sanitary space and done this whole thing and read all these books, and then we came home one day and she had let herself into the living room of the house and was giving birth on the couch. That’s an image that is just so fucking indelible in my mind, and I’ve been waiting ten years to find a story that would be a proper vessel for it.


RIS: That indelible scene is the ending scene. And in general, I love the endings in this collection. Whats a perfect ending for you?

JT: Oh, man. I don’t know. I can think of stories that I love that have great endings. The ending of Saul Bellow’s “The Old System”—I love that whole story but I think the ending is just incredible. Flannery O’Connor has some wonderful endings—“Greenleaf,” certainly, and “Parker’s Back.”  The ending of Denis Johnson’s novel, Resuscitation of a Hanged Man—it’s one of the most wildly original and strange novels I’ve ever read, and the last few pages are mind-blowing. Another one I would cite is Home, Marilynne Robinson’s most recent, the second in her Gilead, Iowa trilogy. Line by line it’s great, but I wasn’t always sure where it was going or what it was building towards, and then it has this ending that all of a sudden moves forward several decades and culminates, not just in a scene but in a sentence, with an astonishing affirmation of faith and a sense of the scale of Godly time. What that truly means to a person who believes in it. You sort of have to believe it or not believe it, and someone who rejects that idea might be very turned off by it—quite understandable if you were. But in terms of the spiritual argument the book is making, it felt like the whole book had snapped into place. It’s kind of the same effect as the Johnson ending, but inside out. Robinson affirms what Martin Luther King called the long arc of the moral universe. Johnson affirms failure, Kierkegaard’s challenge to be a Knight of Faith and what it means to accept that challenge and then fail utterly in the face of it. But they’re both masterpieces of materialist spirituality, a term I just made up, but which I think makes sense, and is in any case not to be confused with “spiritual materialism,”which Google tells me is already a thing.

One hopes to write endings like those. You can’t be sure if you have or not. But for me, when I’m writing endings, usually there’s an ending I’m shooting for and I can’t quite get to it. Sometimes I’ll have to replace the original planned ending. Other times I’ll choose to keep it as a kind of inevitability, but cut at the moment before it happens. The moment when a course of action becomes inevitable is often more intense, emotionally, than the moment when the action itself is taken. Because by the time you do it, you’ve probably reconciled yourself to it, and that risks a kind of tension-deflating fatalism. It’s often better to end on the sharply drawn breath. And someone must have told me all this, taught it to me or helped me learn it. I can’t imagine I came up with it all on my own.

What that all means to me, in practical terms, is a lot of overwriting and then cutting back. The ending of “Saint Wade” [from Flings] feels a lot like that. There’s a lot of different ways that he could have confronted the situation he’s in. He has this girlfriend that he’s getting serious with but doesn’t know if he’s committed to; he has a semi-step-child that he feels very fatherly toward but doesn’t have a legitimate claim on. And I tried a lot of ways of writing the moment where everything comes to a head. But in a way I feel like it’s more interesting to watch that character come to that realization of this spot that he’s caught in than it is to say—what? “I broke up with her but I always sent postcards,”or “I married her anyway for the kid’s sake and in the long run it did/didn’t work out.”I guess the perfect ending is when I feel like I can’t take a thing any further; that it’s at its ultimate point, where the possibility of what can be done with the characters has been exhausted.


RIS: What do you mean when you say the possibility of what can be done with the characters has been exhausted?

JT: It’s hard to put into words. It has to do with knowing when a story is finished, that you’ve done all you can with it, and the little world you’ve created is complete. The characters are products of that world but they are also the justification for its existence (which I recognize is itself a thoroughly religious notion), so the characters and their world have a necessarily symbiotic relationship, which means that in order to get the story to a point of completion the characters must feel completed too. If anything else could be done with them then the story would simply not be over.

But of course nothing is final, least of all completion. That’s just a noble(ish) lie we tell ourselves so we know when to turn the printer on. It’s always possible that some time down the line you’ll find some loose end, a nagging lack or a new possibility, some way back in, that brings you back to a place or a character, or even a theme or image, anything really, that you thought you were finished with.


RIS: That last statement, describing the characters in religious terms, makes me think. Spirituality, thwarted or otherwise, shows up a few times in Flings—“Adon Olam” being maybe the best example—and I know you’ve also written about religion in The Gospel of Anarchy. And of course you’ve also just coined the term “materialist spirituality” to describe Robinson and Johnson. Is that materialist spiritual tradition one that you’d place yourself in? And do you see your writing—or writing in general—as a kind of religious or spiritual project?

JT: I think and write a lot about religion—mostly Judaism and Christianity and their attendant heresies. I can’t say why that is—to look too closely at it would be something like self-psychologizing or writing my own origin myth—but it is an abiding concern. What I think Johnson and Robinson do so incredibly well, in the books I mentioned and their bodies of work in general, is not so much to describe or depict faith as characters practice it—though they do that, too—as it is to translate faith into reality, into action in the world and/or the fabric of the world itself. The world here being the fictional world of the story. That fascinates and astounds me. I’d love to think of myself—if I’ve earned, or if I ever earn, the comparison to these true, true giants—as being part of their tradition, or at least in conversation with it, since the books I mentioned are the work of professed believers, which I am not. 

But it may be the case that I write about these things because writing demands belief in that which is to be written, so to write faith is to have it, at least as long as the writing lasts. Then if it recedes you’re left with what—an artifact? A memory? Some kind of proof? I’m getting pretty heady here so I should cut myself off, but I’ll end by saying I feel the same way about music, or think about it in terms of music—materialism dissolving into metaphor here, but what the hell. We’re all true believers when we’re singing a gospel song. Then the song ends and we go back to being heathens like everyone else. You can complain about the fact that the song ends, or you can be grateful it lasted as long as it did. You can also sing it again.

Justin Taylor’s Flings was published on August 19th by HarperCollins, and is available for purchase here.

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