For the second installment of Q&A, I’m thrilled to have landed Justin Taylor, blogger, editor, and author of the new short story collection Everything Here is the Best Thing Ever, which the New York Times called a signal of ”a new voice that readers—and writers, too—might be seeking out for decades to come.” You can also read my review of the book here.
As you can see, Taylor was incredibly generous with his answers, which include a refreshingly sober and eye-opening assessment of the state of today’s literary marketplace. I really recommend you stick around to the end and give him a few minutes of your undivided attention; you might even learn a thing or two about the Grateful Dead.
What was the gestation period like for these stories? Have some of them been sitting around for years, or did you write them all at once with a collection specifically in mind?
JT: They were written and revised over many years. Some were first drafted as far back as seven or eight years ago, but the bulk were written during my time in the MFA program at The New School and in the two years following, so we’re really talking about 2005-2009. And even the oldest material—which is mostly the shorter stuff, like “Tetris”, “Jealousy of Angels”, “Amber…”—was rigorously re-drafted, re-invented, really, over the years. So I wouldn’t say that they’ve been “sitting around” in the sense of them existing in a state of completion, but they definitely were not written to be part of this particular collection. That kind of organizing and choosing happened later. Happened last.
There are a lot of musical references throughout the book, from a guy who plays in a Grateful Dead cover band, to the character who hums the chorus to “Debaser,” to an epigraph from David Berman of the Silver Jews. Was music a big factor for you while writing the book? What kinds of songs were you listening to?
JT: When I was younger I used to listen to music while I wrote—it seemed like a very “artist” thing to do, like, to be inspired by music. And it was, you know, stuff that a kid in the ’90s would listen to—Nirvana, mostly—and I took it very seriously. I definitely don’t listen to music while I’m actually writing anymore—haven’t in a long, long time. I listen to the characters, or else I am listening quite literally to myself: speaking the words aloud, revising and improvising by ear. I write about music a lot because I love it (though I don’t—can’t—play) and for the most part I write about the music that I love, though my characters don’t necessarily share my enthusiasms.
The Grateful Dead are the clearest case of this—in both stories where their music figures prominently, they take some shit from characters who are far more skeptical about their merit than I am. I actually wrote a whole essay specifically about the music in this book for Large-hearted Boy. It’s pretty in-depth and covers just about every band or song that’s mentioned in the stories.
A lot of the coverage you’ve received has at least glancingly mentioned that while you’re far from a novice, you are only 27 years old. (Disclaimer: I did too, though in fairness I’m even younger than you are.) Does that bother you? Do you think being a young writer does more to help or hinder your work?
JT: It’s not something I spend much time thinking about, but it certainly doesn’t bother me. I’m not sure how much “cache” you get from being identified as a “young writer”, but if there is some then I’m glad to have it. I already spend too much of my life fighting against obstacles and challenges; I’m not going to waste a drop of energy fighting against a lucky break—being relatively young in a culture that places a premium on youth—especially since it’s one with a shelf-life. All questions pertaining to youth and youthfulness will be answered once and for all on June 29, 2012.
Most good pieces of fiction do roughly 80 things at once, and short stories are particularly deceptive in their simplicity. What do you think is the single most important quality you try to imbibe your stories with?
JT: I’m not sure I’m following your meaning there with “imbibe.” Do you mean “infuse”? [Sure, that’ll work.] In any case, these is no single quality. I am trying to write good fiction; trying, therefore, to do, as you put it, roughly 80 things at once. Everything that stays in is important, and the relationships between all those things are important too. Anything excessive is, hopefully, gone from the final draft. So maybe that’s the answer: the quality I strive for is the essence of essentiality, if that’s not too windy and bullshit a thing to say—which it absolutely is, so let me go back to the original assertion: there is no single quality. I wouldn’t want to prioritize the individual components of a story, because the 80 things don’t exist in isolation from each other. The story is the story of their co-existence.
You have a better understanding than most of the state of independent writing these days—through your work with websites like HTMLGIANT, literary journals and magazines, etc. Personally, I’m hopeless when it comes to this stuff. I can’t seem to commit to fiction unless it’s in book form. In your view, how are things looking for these kinds of media? And if there is a crisis looming, is it financial or creative (ie. ‘the novel is dead’ / ‘people just don’t read anymore’) in nature?
JT: No, the novel isn’t dead, and people definitely still read, but the financial crisis is very real, and it’s not just looming: it is here. It has been here. Writing, like anything else, takes massive amounts of time if it is to be done well, and time (again, like anything else in this world) is only acquired one way: it’s cash on the barrelhead and feel free to buy as much as you can afford.
Writers are not getting paid, and that’s a problem. It’s the problem. We don’t have the musician’s option of touring—or our “tours” are adjunct teaching gigs. It’s not the same. Readers want to read, but they don’t want to pay for their pleasure. Editors want to publish, but they don’t want to pay for the content they’re publishing; they all want to “pay” you in the cultural currency that comes from the publication itself. And that’s all well and good, to a point, but there’s something being lost here, and it’s this: part of the way a publication generates cultural currency is by paying writers for their work. The publication is making an assertion about what is important to them, and just how important it is.
That’s one reason why so much power is now concentrated in venues like Harper’s, The New Yorker, the Paris Review; because being in there means “somebody thought that ten pages of my prose was worth two and a half thousand dollars.” And that makes everyone else go Wowwww… Well, why shouldn’t it? That’s a bold statement to have someone make about you and your work.
What’s really astounding is how little it takes to become a power-player in a literary landscape as denuded as our own, and how even in light of that, so few people make the effort. If you want a positive example—ie. people who actually have made the effort, and done a stellar job thus far—look at a journal like Electric Literature. They came out of nowhere, and with nothing more than a pretty sweet banner-ad campaign, an iPhone app, and the promise of a grand per accepted story, have taken the literary world by storm. The cream of the crop is lined up around the block to be in that magazine. And everyone else, too. Well, why not? Don’t you want to be able to say, “This story I wrote was worth a cool G to somebody”? I sure do.
So let’s run some numbers. Say they do six issues a year, five stories per issue, so we’re talking what—thirty grand per year just to pay the writers? That’s not chump change, but for an organization that’s going to do some fundraising, that’s going to register as an LLC or as a 501(c)3 and have some donors and a budget and really strive to be a “real outfit”—which is what the EL guys seem to have done—it basically is chump change, in the scheme of things, when you’re operating at that level. It’s a great thing that they’re doing. I don’t understand why more people and publications—print and/or digital—aren’t doing the same.
The jacket copy hints at a novel-in-progress. How’s that coming? What can you tell me about it?
JT: A draft of the novel is finished, and my editor is reading it now. I know there’s more work to be done, and I’m sure he’ll have his own ideas too, so we’re probably looking at a few more months at least of revisions. But my general feeling about it is positive; I’m very satisfied with what’s there, but also looking forward to the work ahead. The novel is set in Northern Florida during the summer of 1999. It’s about a group of anarchists who form a religion—a kind of mystery cult—based around the abandoned diary of a hobo who used to live in their backyard.
And stay tuned for more Q&As, just as soon as I can find and exploit some other authors’ personal email addresses. Hooray!