The Gospel of Justin Taylor

Justin Taylor’s short story collection, Everything Here is the Best Thing Ever was released in 2010 to an almost universally warm reception. Since then, Taylor, 28, has joined the ranks of other hot young Brooklyn authors like Joshua Cohen, Emily St. John Mandel and Tao Lin. His much-anticipated novel, The Gospel of Anarchy, which Taylor described as the story of “a group of self-styled anarchists who form a religion based on the abandoned diary of a hobo who used to live in a tent in their backyard,” in a New York Times interview last year, comes out today.

Brooklyn Based: Do you have personal experience as an anarchist–as many of the main characters in this book identify themselves?

Justin Taylor: Yeah, well the book is set in Gainesville, Florida where I went to college. The book is set mostly in 1999, which is before I moved there. So, the characters in the book are just a little bit older than I am and that’s because I was interested in catching the millennium shift and getting the best of the dregs of late 90s culture. Even with just the difference of a year or two it puts them that much closer to the kind of world in Douglas Coupland’s Generation X and a lot of the kind of stuff that happened around the millennium and certainly 9/11.

BB: Like the Seattle riots.

JT: Yeah, that’s right, one of the characters talks about how he’s looking forward to the Seattle riots. I think it was a time of really great hope, people really thought that there was a new movement to be built and a kind of world to be won.

But, yes, when I was in college I was deeply involved in all kinds of activism, the anti-sweatshop movement was a big one for us, trying to get the university to divest from certain contracts and also I was involved in community activism and the punk rock scene down there.

I think that religious devotion and political devotion have a lot in common and they do overlap in many ways, which we obviously see in our world all the time, whether it’s the Israel/Palestine conflict, or Muslim extremists, or Christian evangelicals. So I really wanted a way to think about that without having to commit myself to any one of the positions that already exists. I didn’t want to take on any of those examples I just gave you because I didn’t want to write the book about the young Muslim who has to decide, “I am going to be an extremist, I’m not going to become an extremist” or “I am going to picket the abortion clinic, I’m not going to picket the abortion clinic.” I feel like that stuff is just so polarized and just…dead in a sense.

So, the anarchists are just so much fun and they’re so wonderful, because they’ve just rejected everything outright. On a certain level they’re imminently practical, because they’re living this gut-level hand-to-mouth existence, but at the same time they dream so big and their ideas are so sweeping because they’re really utopian and their perception of the world is so fundamentally different than anything you or I could come up with.

BB: You write about being Jewish at times. Would you say that your upbringing was grounded in Judaism?

JT: Yes and no. I mean, culturally most definitely. My mother was very involved with synagogue when I was growing up and I certainly went to Hebrew school, not Hebrew day school but Mondays and Wednesday afternoons. I was Bar Mitzvahd. I went to Thursday Night School, do you know what that is? It’s sort of like a vague parallel to confirmation for high school kids…like special topics in Judaism. So, we were involved, we were members of a conservative synagogue, although we were probably closer to reform if we ever thought about it, but we didn’t. I would say though that my upbringing was really secular.

Judaism kind of presents this very special case among religions in that people can be really interested in it and deeply invested in it on a cultural level and as a matter of heritage and tradition but still be completely divorced from any kind of notion of real religion or spirituality.  I don’t know if it would be possible to be a “cultural Presbyterian.”

So, I was raised very much with American Jewish culture as a small, but real part of my life, but not religion in any real sense of that word, not in the sense of theology or in the sense that the characters in the novel take it on. That’s what made it so interesting to me, it required throwing off a lot of the way that I’ve been taught to see the world, and really take it seriously and think about what it means to actually try and live righteously.

BB: Do you watch television?

JT: I didn’t for a really long time. I went years and years without it, and I still don’t watch broadcast television, because I’m not really around when things I’d want to watch are on. Plus, I don’t really like the way they spoon feed it to you, 20 minutes this week, 20 minutes next week. I prefer to wait for a show to go off the air, and buy or rent the DVD. I’ll watch an entire series in a week, the same way I would read a Dickens novel.

BB: I ask because a lot people talk about how TV writing is at this high point. Would you ever be interested in dramatic writing of any kind, say for film or TV? Do you think you can be a writer and still watch a lot TV?

JT: Yeah, it’s not going to kill you. I think there is a lot of great television being produced and some of it is definitely what I would qualify as real art. But if you want to write you’ve got to read. So when people start talking about, “Oh, I learned everything I needed to know to write a novel by watching The Wire.” It’s like, “Fuck you, no you didn’t. You might have gotten something from it.” And it’s a great show. If you look at the screen credits, it’s George Pelecanos, it’s Richard Price, it’s Dennis Lehane. These guys are real writers, they write real books, there’s no question. But watching a Richard Price episode of The Wire is not the same as reading Lush Life, it’s just not. There’s no reason not to do both, but what gets me is when people create that false equivalence to justify doing the one thing instead of the other. But, it’s a cool show.

I also have a big soft spot for geeky sci-fi stuff, weird fantasy stuff. I watched Battlestar Galactica, the whole series and I thought it was great. I used to be a Buffy the Vampire Slayer guy. Not a like a “go to the conventions guy,” but I watched it.

BB: You’ve lived in Brooklyn, in Gainesville, Miami Beach, you’ve been out west. Do you find it important to be here in New York in order to be a writer?

JT: I think that I’m a writer anywhere I go. Some writers really prefer to be off on their own, lone wolves, like Cormac McCarthy hiding out in the Southwest or wherever. But I like to feel like I’m part of a community. I like to be in place where there are a dozen bookstores within 40 minutes from my apartment. I like to have events to go to and camaraderie with other writers. I appreciate it very much and I think being happy with your life can only benefit your writing. Actually that’s definitely not true, many of the best books are about being extremely unhappy with your life.

Be that as it may, I’ve been living here five years, four of those in Brooklyn. I’ve become very committed to this little corner of Bushwick, where I’m at. I love it. I love not having to own a car, just getting on a subway or in a cab. I love having more events to go to than I could possibly go to in a given time, and to go hear writers read, to go give readings. I don’t do as much of it as I used to, because you know, your life takes over, it happens to everyone, but I like to know that it’s out there and Brooklyn is definitely the center of that energy because most writers can’t afford to live in the city.

BB: Say for some reason you had to leave here and were move back to Florida, but you could take any two or three artifacts from Brooklyn with you, be it a dish from some restaurant or a bar, or just someplace where you just like to sit, what would you take?

JT: Can I take the L train? I don’t know how that would go over in Gainesville. It sucks when it’s canceled, but when it’s running, it runs right.

There’s the burrito place across the street from me, which is called The Pita Place, so it’s actually a falafel/burrito place. It’s not the very best falafel I’ve ever eaten or the very best burrito, but it is the very most across the street from me and I spend a lot of time there. It’s not the best, but it won’t kill you and it’s open until 3 in the morning.

You know the pinball bar? It’s called Satellite Lounge. Me and Jeremy Schmall do The Agricultural Reader, we go there all the time because it’s dirt cheap and it’s always completely empty and there’s like five pinball machines. We can’t figure out how it stays open. We always play this game where we try to figure out what it’s a front for. There’s this one bartender who’s always there and he’s a really nice guy but he won’t let you run a tab even if you’re always there and are the only person in the bar — it’s all pay as you go. But a High Life plus a shot of whiskey is like five bucks. It’s like one of the last places around to go play pinball because nobody wants to give the space to the machines and they’re a bitch to maintain, but this place has got five of them, so I would re-locate that curious place to wherever I went.

This interview was edited and condensed from a longer series of questions. Read more on our blog.

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