Did you read our interview with Justin Taylor, whose new novel, Gospel of Anarchy was released today? Here are the questions, and answers, that didn’t make it into that condensed Q&A.
Brooklyn Based: Were you a bookish kid? If someone you went to grade school with heard that Justin Taylor is now an author, would they be surprised?
JT: No, they would not. It was always what I wanted to do from earliest childhood. My parents always read to me a ton and I was reading to myself at a really early age and writing probably as early as second grade, little stories and such. So no, it was absolutely always the stated goal.
BB: How did you do in school? Would you say you were overachiever?
JT: I wouldn’t say I was an overachiever but I was a pretty good student. English, history, anything humanities or language arts came pretty easily to me, but math and science I had a little harder time with. You know, I was like an A, B student basically. I did honors classes and AP and that kind of stuff. I should say that I know people who grew up in places where if you did that kind of stuff, that was a very kind of overachiever thing to do, but where I grew up, in my neighborhood and with who my friends were, that was what everybody did, so it might have felt more normal than it maybe was.
BB: Have you watched Californication? This is a show that purports to be about the life of a writer wherein you get laid constantly and everyone you meet will perceive you as a literary badass.
JT: I’ve seen a bunch of that show and it’s funny, Hank Moody never seems to get around to writing anything. And whenever he does speak or you see a bit of his writing or he quotes something that he’s supposedly written, it’s always this aphoristic bullshit which on the one hand you’re wondering, aren’t there writers writing this show? How can they be so stupid to think this is real? I mean they managed to get Frank O’Hara on Mad Men, you’re telling me that no one can get Hank Moody a copy of William Gaddis or Don DeLillo or anything? On the one hand it’s like total fucking nonsense but then on the other hand I guess the show exists to be a satire of itself. I don’t even know, the degrees of meta that the show is working on…every character is such a cartoon. When they said he’d written a book called God Hates Us All, I thought that was kind of funny. It’s such a legitimately terrible show that I think I’ve watched two or three seasons of it.
BB: You’ve done a lot for someone so young and you’ve done it in a unique and interesting way. I guess I’d like to try and glean from you, for myself and other aspiring writers who are reading this interview, how you did it. Tell me about your path from college to now.
JT: It’s a funny question because for better or worse, and I’m not saying it’s unequivocally better, but either way, I’ve always regarded myself as a writer and I’ve always been writing and looking to publish. So, the question has always been how to go about doing that. I graduated college and I moved to New York for the first time and was an intern at a magazine here for about four months. I learned an enormous amount doing that and that my first real taste of how publishing worked. I worked at The Nation. I did fact checking on the magazine and I helped out at their publishing imprint.
I think one of the things I learned at that time was that, despite a healthy interest in politics, I’m not a political journalist. In fact, I’m not really a journalist at all. I can write book reviews, I can write essays, but I’m not a reporter, I’m not a muckraker, I’m not any of those things. So, that was a big eye opener because when you want to be a novelist the first thing you need to do is figure out what the hell you’re going to do in the meantime because that door doesn’t open right away. After that, I went out to the West Coast for a few months, sleeping on a friend’s couch and trying to live as cheaply as possible so that I could write full time. Then I got into grad school at The New School, so I moved back to New York to do the MFA.
I mean it’s hard to give a blow a blow, but the best way I can sum it up I suppose is that I wake up every day and just do something, something that’s related to my larger goal, which is to be able to write fiction and publish it. I think along the way I wasted a lot of time. I spent a lot of time publishing things before they were ready on websites and in journals. I wanted it so bad that I’d give it to anyone who would take me without really thinking about what it was and if it needed to be out there. So probably part of it would be trying to learn to go slower and deliberate more.
BB: Did you work any shitty jobs along the way?
JT: Yeah, I’ve worked some shitty, jobs, nothing like some people’s stories, not like Faulkner writing at the firehouse or anything. In college, I worked at a pizza place and at a sandwich shop. I worked in phone sales. Because I moved to New York to go to school it was important to me to treat that time sacredly. So I lived as a full-time student when a lot of people were choosing to work. I took a much different approach, which was that I borrowed a lot of money that I didn’t have to live on, and then I really just pretended for the whole two years that I was already living the kind of life I imagined for myself where I was a full-time writer. Only time will tell if that was that a good decision or a bad one. I don’t know. I’m certainly paying for it. The money is due in the form of crippling loans.
But given two years to live that way, I was able to do a lot of things that I don’t think I could have done otherwise: I edited a couple of anthologies, The Apocalypse Reader and then I guest-edited an issue of McSweeny’s. I placed a couple of serious pieces, bigger things that I was proud of, one at The Believer and a couple of other things that kind of showed me what the next level would look like. I don’t know how many years that would have taken if I’d been working a nine-to-five job or become an assistant in publishing somewhere. It might have burned me out and I would have moved back to my mom’s house by now, or I might have become very successful and worked at someone’s hedge fund and not been writing at all. I have no idea.
BB: Your agent Eva Talmadge has also become somewhat well known for being young and successful in the literary world. Do you have any advice about getting an agent or a book deal, or just getting your work seen?
JT: Eva and I have known each other for a couple of years. We were both undergraduates together, we weren’t close friends, but we knew each other and we re-connected in New York. I had an agent before her who I got basically through a cold call, a very well known guy and he was very supportive and he did a lot for me over the course of about a year but he ultimately didn’t want to bring the collection to market. So I left him and I kept looking around for agents and about a year, year-and-a-half went by and while this was happening Eva was becoming an agent. Her career was developing irrespective of what I was doing, and it just happened at the time that it made sense for us to work together. She’s a good friend, I trust her completely. If she were agenting when I was looking the first time around, it would have been her to begin with.
She did a great job getting me together with my editor, Michael Signorelli and Harper Perennial. We also had so much fun together doing the tattoo book (Word Made Flesh), which was a chance for her and I to do something as partners not as agent, client.
So, I don’t have great advice for younger writers looking to create a profile and attract attention. The only thing that I would say is that it takes a lot less than you would think. You don’t have to connect with every single person in the world. You need one agent, you need one editor who’s seen something you’ve done and is interested in it. I thought that a lot of things I had done, in particular editing the anthology, made me uniquely suited to publish my own writing. What I learned was that people were interested in that and it kind of proved that I was capable of meeting a deadline and had some good ideas but ultimately they wanted to actually read the writing itself. At the end of the day it didn’t matter. “Okay you’ve published 10 book reviews, you’ve written poems, you’ve edited this thing, but you’re trying to sell me a fiction book, show me the fiction.” The proof is right there in the story collection. About half of those stories were published in various magazines, journals, websites, but there’s no New Yorker story in there, there’s no New American Voices, no Best of Whatever 2007, none of that. On paper, the collection’s pedigree is fairly modest without question, but my editor liked the stories, he didn’t give a shit that one had been in New York Tyrant, or whatever, none of that was a mark against me, he just wanted to read the words that were on the page.
BB: You make this totally obscure reference to old school AOL hacking programs in the novel, but ultimately your characters are the kind of people that reject technology. For you as a writer, how do you find yourself dealing with technology?
JT: When I’m writing, I don’t have the internet on. Typically, I don’t have any music on. I think when you’re seriously working then you need to concentrate. I do some rough drafting and kind of free writing in coffee shops sometimes, but most of the real work gets done in my house. I work out of my office at home, which is to say my bedroom. Other writers feel that they cannot write at home, and some like to write to music, but that’s what works for me.
I do almost all of my first draft by hand, as much has I can. I write on legal pads. I like to be off the computer and just kind of sitting at a table or whatever. Then I type up the material that winds up becoming really the first edit. I’m looking to see: Am I constantly re-writing it as I’m typing it? Was it pretty good the way that I laid it down? Does this idea even interest me anymore? Do I not care anymore, am I even going to bother finishing typing the thing? As I’m typing it, do I find myself adding details, does it kind of grow in my hands? So that winds up becoming the first test. From there on out it’s a lot of repeating that cycle. Then I’ll work with it on the computer for a while, then I’ll print it, and then I’ll edit a hard copy.
I do a lot of editing by ear also, I want to hear how it sounds, what kind of rhythm I think it should have. In those ways, related to the writing itself in terms of composition, technology just isn’t a factor. The phone is off, internet’s off, music’s off. The computer itself may or may not be in use, but it’s basically being used just as a typewriter.
As far as research goes though, technology is incredibly useful, obviously. Those programs, AoHell and FateX are perfect examples. I have very vague memories from the mid-90s, being a middle school kid. I didn’t have any of those programs on my computer, my father would have skinned me if I’d have put that shit on his computer. But I had a lot of friends who had computers whose parents didn’t really touch them and they had a lot of that stuff on there. So, I remember messing around with those things, and obviously back in those years I was probably in at least one or two of those AOL chat rooms that are described. As an adolescent I had some first-hand exposure to that stuff but to write the scenes and make sure the names and the dates were accurate I used a lot of internet research. I looked up their Wikipedia entries and the other details and recollections that people had of that era and tried to reconstruct what it actually was like at the time.
BB: How do you feel about workshopping? Do you think there’s a value, or necessity in reading your work out loud to someone?
JT: I mean I’ve been in and out of a lot of school-run workshops in my life. I took plenty as an undergraduate and obviously workshops are the cornerstone of graduate writing instruction. Now as a teacher of writing, I run them for my students. I’m not a part of any kind of private writing-workshop. I certainly have people that I show my writing to, I have my close readers. Eva is certainly someone who, anything that’s gone to print she’s probably read 40 drafts of over the years, and certainly my editor, but there’s definitely two or three other friends whose opinions I trust. But nothing formal or codified.
This is the thing about workshops: I think they’re great, but I think people misunderstand what they’re for. The purpose of workshop is very simple–to get five or 10 reasonably intelligent people who are reasonably interested in you as a writer, to give you their full attention. That’s it. That’s all you’re looking for. What does this group of people make of what I’ve produced? They might totally get what you’re laying down. They might read it properly and get just what you’re saying to them, or they might misunderstand you completely. I think when they misunderstand is when things actually get interesting, because it raises a lot of questions.
If I thought this story was about x, but eight out of the 11 people in this workshop came away with the impression that it was about y, they didn’t all conspire to play a joke on me, and they can’t all be idiots. Therefore there’s something I’m doing in this story that is pulling the attention away from x and over towards y. This puts me in an interesting position as a writer because I can say “Okay, I need to make these changes to get the thing back focused on x.” I can say, “Fuck you, I didn’t write this story for the 11, I wrote it for the three” Or, I can say, “Shit man, y is pretty interesting too, the old sub-conscious there has something to be said for it, maybe I’ll leave things the way they are, maybe I’ll play up y and drop x all together.” You know, it’s about giving you feedback and more options.
You always hear that complaint, “These stories have been workshopped to death.” I don’t really know what that means. If people feel so imposed upon by a workshop that 10 strangers’ opinions can shut them down and cause them to turn their own work inside out, you know, I feel bad for them, but I don’t have a whole lot of time for that. The workshop is not about, “Okay Tim and Jim both said that Bill is a weak character, I guess that means I must have done something wrong.” For me, that may tell me as much about Tim and Jim as it does about anything I wrote, but it puts me in a position to gauge how my work might be read by an audience. That’s kind of what you’re always trying to do. You’re writing for yourself and you’re pursuing your own vision but assuming you want to be published and read, you ought to be at least mildly curious about what people are going to make of this thing and the workshop makes a good focus group in that sense. But in then end it’s up to you–I want to be more of a crowd pleaser, I want to be more of a pain in the ass. People were outraged by the violence, I should tone it down, or people weren’t outraged enough, it needs more dead babies, it’s totally up to you.
BB: You’ve done a fair amount of interviewers as the interviewer and now you’re being interviewed. Do you find one more stressful or enriching than the other?
JT: Being interviewed is really fun, I really like it, probably more than I should. As you’ve probably noticed, I’m a talker, and not just a talker about myself, but I like riffing and I can go on about pretty much anything. So when you get me going on a subject that I’m especially invested in, such as myself, you’re going to get really long windy answers like you’ve been getting. So that’s really fun to do, it’s not as much fun to read them back. But I think that has more to do with me as person than me as a writer. Some writers, some people are just very closed off and not very forthcoming and they speak quietly and in very short sentences. I have that part of me, but I’m also not above banging my beer glass on the table and shouting when the occasion suits me. I think being interviewed plays into the best and worst of that trait.
Interviewing other people is stressful because you want to make a good impression on them. Presumably, if you’re speaking to them it’s because you’re interested in their work, you like them, but then to get them going and kind of disappear yourself out of it, it’s very strange. I think I’ve done some good interviews with writers. I like talking to writers a lot and it’s usually writers who’ve just written a book that I’ve admired. I feel good about those. I’ve interviewed a handful of musicians and I feel like those are always tougher. I feel like I don’t really know how to talk to musicians about their work, I always either sound like a fanboy or an inquisitor. I don’t know if this is true but I have this theory that every musician I’ve ever interviewed has come away annoyed with me.
BB: How has being a writer compared to how you’d imagined it to be?
I’m pretty happy with the way it’s looking, I’ve got to say. It doesn’t pay as well as I’d dreamed, but I suppose nobody’s job ever does. Being a grown up in practice never quite looks like what you thought it would when you were a kid. But it’s been fun, at least as fun as I’d hoped. It’s hard to say what I thought it would look like, just because it seemed so inevitable. Whether I was going to be like a Stephen King super best seller or living in a trailer writing and putting the book in my drawer and never looking at it again. Whatever it was going to mean, it was going to be mine.