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Photography by Bill Adams

Brandon Taylor Doesn’t Want to Write About Race and Trauma Anymore

After the runaway success of his Booker-shortlisted debut novel, Real Life, the author is back with a new short story collection. He talks us through his inspirations, as well as his problems with identity politics and social media activism

Lead ImagePhotography by Bill Adams

Brandon Taylor spent much of 2020 between two worlds. The first, for many writers, would be considered a paradise: a land of accolades, glowing reviews and clamouring offers of film adaptations. Here, his debut novel Real Life – which tells the story of a queer Black student negotiating his identity in a majority white collegewas released to rapturous acclaim and shortlisted for the Booker Prize. The book was also swiftly snapped up by Kid Cudi, who is currently working on its upcoming movie adaptation.

At the same time, Taylor’s internal life was falling apart. His second world was one of hospital ER visits, 911 calls and anxiety-induced tachycardia (during the pandemic, his heart rate would randomly start accelerating to over 100BPM). “I was in the lowest of the lows,” Taylor says today, with a hint of embarrassment. “The pandemic, and my mental health stuff, happened at the same time that a lifelong dream was coming true, was a bit surreal.”

Thankfully, a year on, the Alabama-born author is in much better (“stronger and more secure”) spirits. Now labouring quietly on his second novel, Taylor is also doing interviews for a 2021 release: a new short story collection, titled Filthy Animals, released in the UK at the end of last month. The book is a series of interrelated tales, following a group of young adults as they “come of age” in the American Midwest. Each story is its own subtle, psychological study: an expertly observed examination of our interior urges, and how we adjust, accentuate and repress them for our exterior worlds. Like Real Life, it has been met with widespread critical acclaim. I caught up with Taylor on Zoom from his home in Iowa City to find out more about the themes that inspired it.

Dominique Sisley: When did you fall in love with writing and storytelling?

Brandon Taylor: When I think back to my childhood, I was always reading things. Mostly romance novels, because those were the only books we had around – romance novels and nurse home manuals because my aunt was a nurse practitioner. I also had a lot of cousins, but I was a very lonely kid because I was very different from them. They would go into the woods and pointedly not invite me, so I was left alone a lot and would make up these stories to amuse myself. So words and storytelling have always been part of my life. But I didn’t know that writers existed. Like, I thought all the books we had in the world were just handed down to us from the “before time” and that there were no more living writers. I thought books were things that people dug up out of the ground and photocopied and passed around. It didn’t occur to me that literature was this ongoing living conversation until I was much older. It’s so embarrassing to admit, but I think I was in college when I realised that people were still writing. I had no idea. No clue.

DS: Was that partly to do with your upbringing? You're from a very religious, conservative town in rural Alabama, right? And your parents were illiterate.

BT: Yeah. My mom dropped out of school in eighth grade because she got pregnant with my brother when she was quite young. She could read, sort of, but when it came time to do the paperwork for school or for the government or even to get prescriptions, I was the one who had to read. I had no idea what any of it meant, but anytime there was a bill that needed to be paid or a form to be signed, I was the one who had to do it.

DS: What about oral storytelling?

BT: Yeah, there was a lot of telling of tales for sure; a lot of sitting around the house and telling stories that had everybody slapping their knees and gripping their sides. In my family, you would often hear the same story five times a day, but each time it was slightly different because people would just lie and embellish. I come from a family of illiterate people and also liars. [Laughs.]. It’s kind of excellent training for a fiction writer.

“It’s so embarrassing to admit, but I think I was in college when I realised that people were still writing. It did not occur to me that people alive in the world today were writing literature” – Brandon Taylor 

DS: Do you ever think about how your upbringing – in that hyper-religious, conservative, rural environment – shaped you as a writer, and as a person? 

BT: I think about it all the time. I have this inside joke with friends that I was raised by wolves, as I just don’t trust anything. I’m very slow to become intimate with people, and it has made me a very guarded, cautious, sceptical person. It makes me suspicious of groupthink, because growing up in a very religious, near-culty rural Baptist family, you can’t question your relationship to God. I remember very vividly, at a family barbecue, I said that I was agnostic and they all surrounded me and tried to exorcise a demon from me.

As a writer, I think that sometimes people assume that I come from an elite background, because that’s the world I write about. But I don’t. I write about this stuff because I had a very weird, very violent life, and I want to understand the rules of polite society. There are all these received ideas about the way that we behave in society and in culture, but as an outsider I’m always like: how do you know what to say at a party? How do you know how to make small talk? It’s something that I’ve had to learn over the years, so I’m always trying to write characters who are deeply aware of the artifice of society, and who feel like they’re always out of sync with it. But because of my interest in that, people tend to think that I come from a very elite urbane background when, like, I grew up on a farm.

DS: Have you have felt, as a Black queer writer, that you need to be writing about your trauma in a more explicit way?

BT: That was something that I really grappled with as a much younger writer. I decided that I didn’t want to do that because I had lived it, and I didn’t see a reason why I should go back to it. I started writing about my trauma in other ways, in ways that weren’t boring or obvious to me. I decided early on that I wasn’t going to write about being abused. I wasn’t going to write about it in ways that catered to someone else’s received idea about Blackness or queerness in the South. 

I think we live in a media environment that has set a real premium on certain experiences related to diversity, inclusion and equity. I’m in a position to be able to say no to stuff now, and I think that a lot of young writers feel they don’t have the ability to, because maybe they see it as their way in. Like, we recently had the one-year anniversary of George Floyd and all these editors were in my inbox asking me to write about it. I told my agent, it’s a blanket no. It’s a blanket no on all race and trauma-related things, just because I have other things to write about. I don’t have to write an essay about race: I am Black, I have no more things to process about that. But everybody has their own metrics and I think people change their minds about this stuff all the time. Like if you’d asked me five years ago I’d be like, “Yes representation! Yes, it matters!” And now I’m just like, “oh who cares?” [Laughs.].

DS: Yeah, it does feel like, if you’re a less established writer, you have to really wield your identity and personal trauma to become a success.

BT: Honestly we all do it. But now I just have no interest in straight-up identitarian writing. Because it’s like, yeah, you are Black and queer, OK. What thoughts do you have? Like, do you have thoughts? [Laughs.]. Not to sort of labour this point but I also feel like I have nothing to say about being Black and queer in America that James Baldwin did not say earlier and better, so like, just read James Baldwin. I’m not a political theorist. I write stories about people at dinner parties. Why would you listen to me? Go read people with real thoughts.

“I just have no interest in straight-up identitarian writing. Because it’s like, yeah, you are Black and queer, OK. What thoughts do you have?”

DS: You wrote Real Life in five weeks, and you’ve since said that the novel-writing process can ruin your life. What did you mean by that?

BT: It was a really intense five-week span. I was working in a research lab at the time, so I was spending 15 hours a day – once even 24 hours a day – in the lab. And I was always there alone at night, trying to write this thing as fast as humanly possible. And so I set myself a really ridiculous daily word count goal of 10,000 every time I sat down. I just pipetted, slept, and wrote Real Life. And it did kind of ruin my life. I didn’t write for nine months after I wrote that novel, which was soul-destroying. I had never experienced that before, not being able to write. It felt like a spiritual death, I thought I was never going to write again. But after every big project, there is a fallow period.

DS: What about your new book, Filthy Animals? Can you tell me a little about the themes that tie it all together?

BT: I decided that I wanted to really try to write about depression and suicidal ideation and a lot of my frustrations with that, with the treatment of those things in literature, but I wanted to write about them in a way that felt really honest and direct, and not gauzy and metaphorical. I wanted to write about suicide in a way that mirrors my own feelings: a story about a character who was kind of ambivalent about it.

DS: It does deal with heavy themes, and the bleak realities of human nature, in such a detached way. Does that mirror your own style of thinking?

BT: Yeah, probably. It’s more just like an aloof, observational attachment because I think sometimes when people write about a character who’s thinking about suicide, they put all this very freighted, charged language around it, when in fact it is possible to feel totally lucid. You can be like, ‘I thought about killing myself today, and now I’m gonna have some toast.’ It is possible to be an affectless person while going through a suicidal fugue, and so I was trying to capture some of that.

“I wanted to write about suicide in a way that mirrors my own feelings: a story about a character who was kind of ambivalent about it”

DS: It also feels more accurate to this current moment, how we are all living in a state of detachment because it’s the only way to cope.

BT: We can’t all be ripping at our shirts in despair every five minutes. I mean, we probably all should be. But we move through the world, constantly bombarded by horrible news. You become so accustomed to extremity that things that appear extreme to others don’t really feel that extreme to you.

DS: But your social media is so pure. I had a scroll through and it was just messages of support to Andy Murray and 17th-century British civil war memes. How do you float above the discourse?

BT: I feel like not a lot of people know this, but I used to go viral every day with some screed about how terrible white people were or how important representation was. And I noticed that I was getting into a lot of fights the more I went viral, which made me feel like I was doing “the work”. I would go and pick a fight with somebody so that I could go viral again. I just really hated it. I used to be one of those people who would discourse daily but I didn’t like what it was doing to my brain. Everyone’s always performing to the collective consciousness, and I don’t want to live that way. I don’t want to live beholden to the collective ethos or whatever. I try to avoid these ready-made, quick-dry conversations that are constructed solely so that people can get retweeted so that we can reaffirm the social hierarchies in these various digital communities.

DS: I’ve noticed some reviewers classify your novels as “coming-of-age.” Have you come of age yet?

BT: You come of age when you work through some anxiety about your place in the world, and I think that you can have several moments like that in your life. When I was 18 I came of age because I went away to college. When I was 25 I came of age because I moved to Madison, Wisconsin for graduate school. And I think that I came of age last year when my dream [of publishing a novel] came true, so I realised that I had to find other dreams. I think I’ll probably come of age again in like five or six years from now. I think anytime you reach a point of existential crisis that you have to resolve, I think your resolution of that crisis causes you to come of age. I think that we’re always coming of age. I can’t wait for my 40-year crisis, it’s gonna be so juicy. 

Filthy Animals, published by Daunt Books, is out now.