Brandon Taylor Turns Life’s Ordinary Cruelties into Literature
The short story collection "Filthy Animals" threads longing, desire, and violence among a group of young adults in the Midwest
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Anyone on Dionne Warwick’s internet in the year of our Lord 2021 is familiar with the ubiquity of infographic jargon like, “No thoughts, just vibes.” That’s exactly how I feel when I read this author’s work: “No thoughts, just Brandon Taylor.” Except the only thing is my head is not empty when I read this Booker Prize finalist’s words—quite the opposite. Every sense is accounted for. Every word is deliberate. It is a feast. Few can capture the ennui of the ordinary and overlooked and turn it into a prismatic oeuvre like Taylor. And while his critically lauded New York Times Notable Book, Real Life, marked his debut last year, his collection of short stories, Filthy Animals, is, as he puts it, a truer introduction.
It was never a question of if, but when Taylor would release a collection of short stories. At long last, it’s here. Teeming with the same tenderness and sophistication that’s deemed Taylor a writer-to-watch last year, Filthy Animals threads longing, desire, and violence among a group of young adults set against the backdrop of the Midwest. In one story, a potluck serves as the impetus to the main character’s panic attack in the bathroom, begetting a turbulent love triangle with two dancers in an open relationship. In another, the title story, a young man, weeks away from being sent to an “enrichment program” by his parents, contends with feelings for his best friend. “What Made Them Made You” offers an intimate portrayal of a family fractured by a young woman’s battle with cancer.
It is vivacious as much as it is delicate, enigmatic as it is exposed. And it is sure to be one of many opuses born from the mind of a writer whose craft continues to carve its indelible mark on the world.
Editor’s note: Brandon Taylor is the editor-at-large at Electric Literature’s Recommended Reading.
Greg Mania: In our last interview, we talked about your love for the short story, and you shared that your publisher bought a collection of your own along with Real Life. How does it feel now that your debut collection is about to be released into the world?
Brandon Taylor: I feel nervous but also really excited to share this book with readers. In many ways, this book feels like a truer introduction than the novel, and so I’m just nervous and excited to be sharing these stories with the world.
GM: How so?
BT: Mostly because the short story is where I feel that I have something to say. I’ve given a lot of thought to what the story is and what it can be. I’ve read very deeply into the tradition of the American short story, and I’ve had a lot of arguments and discussions and rich conversations about the short story in a way that I simply haven’t had with the novel.
My education in the story feels more complete than in the novel, and so when I say it feels like a truer introduction, I just mean that I feel a degree of freedom and openness and fluency in the short story that I simply do not have in the novel form. I believe in my craft and my artistry in the story in a way that I don’t in the novel, and also, these stories in particular feel like a deeper, truer reflection of my life than the novel. I mean, much was made of the autobiographical content of Real Life, but it also felt like there was very little of my actual feelings in that book. It was an autobiographical novel, but it wasn’t a personal novel, I don’t think. Whereas, the stories in Filthy Animals are so much closer to the bone for me. They’re much more personal. So that’s what I mean by truer introduction. There’s more of myself and my art and my thoughts on display in this book than in my first novel.
GM: What was the short story—or writer—that made you fall in love with the genre?
BT: The first short story I remember loving most was Annie Proulx’s legendary story “Brokeback Mountain.” I bought it as an original standalone CD and I listened to it for basically a year. That story and its language just really got inside of me. As for the short story writer who I revere the most and who I turn to at almost every corner, I’d say it’s the Canadian writer Mavis Gallant.
GM: What impact does it (short stories) have on you that other genres don’t?
BT: I think that the short story is just such a capacious form, and it’s the form of narrative prose literature that has the closest relation to revelation and epiphany. I think a short story is so good at drawing the disparate elements of a life, of a moment, into relation and working via that juxtaposition to create networks of meaning. I think sometimes the novel can feel a bit dubious or it can become a victim of its own structures and inertia whereas a story is just alive at every point. And my own feeling is simply that short stories feel truer than novels. Not in the case of literal fact or things that can be proven. But in terms of human feeling, the story feels truer, closer to the bone than the novel. I think novels as a form can be very insincere in a way that can be difficult to suss out. But in a story, you know the moment something becomes phony.
GM: You mentioned, on Twitter, when the title story “Filthy Animals” went up on Electric Literature, that this story started out as a joke, and that it’s taught you a lot about the kind of fiction you want to write. What did you learn from writing this story?
BT: This story was where I learned not to be so protective of my characters. It forced me to face up to the fact that fiction could have a moral vision and that the moral vision was this complicated texture that allows a reader to make sense of the characters’ actions and thoughts. I learned that you can’t write a good story without attending—in some way—to the moral universe of a story. That it has to feel internally coherent in terms of the choices you make. Letting characters do harm to themselves or others, being honest about the kinds of things people do and say and have done to them. Being rigorous in terms of tracing out consequences for things. Not just muting explosions or cutting away during the difficult parts, but really hanging in there making sure that you’re writing honestly, deeply into the human situations you’ve created for your characters. I learned a lot about sustained, moral imagination from this story, and how one can write difficult, painful things but not do so in a manipulative or exploitative way.
GM: Since you’re part of the Electric Literature family, I have to ask you this: how has being an editor at Recommended Reading shaped your short story collection and writing in general?
BT: When I first became an editor at Electric Literature, I had very little experience. I had never even edited a story before, if we’re being honest. But it was immediately an education. First and foremost, when you edit a literary magazine, you learn so much about what the other writers out there are doing. You get to ask questions about what is working, what is less successful, and why. You really get to kick the tires on stories. And then you bring them to an editorial call, and subject the story to intense, readerly scrutiny. It’s like you develop X-ray vision. One of my teachers at Iowa, Charlie D’Ambrosio, says that you learn the most about your own writing when you are discussing someone else’s writing. And maybe that’s true, maybe it’s not. But I learned so much from being an editor. I learned a lot about the standards to which I can hold my writing and the kinds of things one needs to look out for in writing stories. It was just a really powerful education. I got more from that than my MFA, for sure.
GM: What other disciplines inform your writing and how?
BT: I don’t know about disciplines. But I learned to think and write critically in my Ph.D. program in biochem. And I learned how to do research and how to synthesize information and put together arguments, how to structure ideas so that there is flow and coherence and so that a larger idea emerges across the span of a text. So that’s one thing, for sure.
Another is drama. There was this moment in undergrad when I took a theater course, and we studied plays and talked about Stanislavski and Brecht and Ionesco and Chekhov, and etc. And there was just something so…foundational in that education. I think I started to understand drama and narrative, and how to construct scenes and how to access mystery. So I think a lot about that.
And, maybe the thing that most influences my writing is simply growing up on a farm. It taught me not to be precious about work. It taught me how to work hard and diligently and without complaining. And it informs a lot of my work in that I don’t think I tend toward the sentimental or the coy or the precious or anything like that because I grew up doing farm chores and watching my mom go to work in a factory and later cleaning hotels. And I just don’t have a single sentimental bone in my body because of it, and I think it likely informs my worldview. I’m not a romantic, and I think if I hadn’t grown up on a farm in a rural working poor family and if I hadn’t seen that kind of life up close, I think I’d be pretty pretentious and useless as a writer.
GM: There are obviously themes—intimacy, desire, pain— binding this collection. Why is it important for you to consider a story’s place in the larger picture?
BT: I touched on this earlier, but I don’t write stories just for the sake of writing stories. I don’t have a pile of uncollected stories lying around needing a reason to exist. I just don’t work that way. And so, I don’t sit down to write a story until I have a sense of where it will fit within a manuscript. And that means I spend a lot of time not writing until the overarching, operating logic of the thing clicks into place, and then I begin to write stories one after another until the book feels filled. So the interconnectedness—be it narrative, thematic, character, etc.—is very much the driving force of my stories. I tend to linger in the worlds of the stories and take my cue for the next story from some unresolved note in the one I’m wrapping up. The stories lead me to where I need to go. It’s associative, but it all begins with that first trigger shot, the glimpse of the larger associative constellation and network that’s hidden behind the shape of that first story.
GM: The Midwest remains central, almost a character in and of itself, in this book. Has your intention for retaining its prominence remained the same since Real Life?
BT: It’s where I learned how to write about people, and it’s where I was a real adult, mature, observational, intelligent for the first time. So I am familiar with its rhythms and customs, and the like. So I write about it because I know it. Because it’s at hand. I used to try to write about New York, but I’ve never lived there. I don’t know what the light is like there. Not really. So to write about any other place would feel kind of flat and false and dishonest. My relationship to the Midwest is basically unchanged these last several years.
My next two books are also set in the Midwest, though, it’s more granular in those books. Closer. There is a growing confidence in the texts to name specific places, specific things, and that’s probably the biggest way my relationship to writing about the Midwest has changed. From a vague, unnamed generality in Real Life to an almost full-scale recreation of Madison in my novel Group Show.
GM: Your ability to bring out the beauty in the ordinary is one of my favorite things about your work. How did you develop that keen sense of observation?
BT: I’m drawn to the mundane because that is what most of life is. I’m not particularly interested in glory or the exceptional. I think we have enough bards of exceptional lives and exceptional circumstances. I had a really hard life. And I watched horrifying and banal things strike myself and others almost daily. And it just seems like, why should I write about people who are running into burning buildings and doing amazing things when for the most part, life’s cruelest moments are so proximal to its most boring.
I’ve spent most of my life just watching things happen and paying attention to stuff that other people overlook, and I guess I’m sensitive to the things people overlook because I come from a long line of the terminally overlooked. Factory workers and hotel maids and people on disability and drunks and the working rural poor where no one has phones and the electricity might get turned off tomorrow, who knows. I didn’t have a working bathtub until I was like nine or something. So, to me, the ordinary is always charged with something. There’s always something to say about life’s ordinary cruelties. So I try not to shy away from that in my work.
GM: What are some things you want to explore in your next collection? Will there be a next collection?
BT: I’ve finished two other collections of stories, Other Years and something I’m tentatively calling Race and Class, and I think of them as being uniquely Black responses to my first four books. The stories are, I think, more philosophical in a Ben Lerner-y/Rachel Cusk-y way. So, yes, maybe one day, those two collections will find their way into the world. We’ll see.