Brandon Taylor: “The story can’t be so loyal to one character that it betrays another”
On a snowy morning this March, I picked up Brandon Taylor from his apartment in Hell's Kitchen, in New York City, and we drove up the Hudson Valley to Art Omi, an artist residency and cultural community where Guernica hosted "Back Draft Live," a writing workshop on revision. Our conversation with the workshop's fifteen writers focused on Brandon's new book, The Late Americans, which is set in and around the MFA program in poetry at the University of Iowa. The book — a sectional, multi-character take on a campus novel — contains a spectacular examination of the challenges of making art. Our conversation turned toward when art-making demands saying no — to conventions, to manuscript feedback, to writing itself.
— Adam Dalva, Guernica senior fiction editor
Guernica: Your latest novel, The Late Americans, had an extreme process of revision. I know that it almost blew up your relationship with writing. Will you tell us about that?
Brandon Taylor: I finished the first draft in 2019, and it ruined my life for three years. I stopped writing in 2021 because the book was giving me so much trouble, and I didn't write another piece of fiction for a year. So this book has taught me many things about revision — within the narrative and also within my soul. This book is about a period in your life that doesn't feel up for revision — when you have to make those first seemingly permanent decisions about what you’re going to do when school ends, and suddenly you have to make a choice about where to live, how to live, who to live with, in ways that feel permanent.
Guernica: One character in the novel goes through a week of despair trying to write a poem for a workshop. And as we just heard, when you wrote this, you were going through your own kind of despair. I’m wondering if you could share what happened that let you finally gain access to The Late Americans?
Taylor: I was sure I was never going to write again, so I needed a different creative outlet, because I missed being creative. I took up film photography. And that just created a lot of space in my mind. I made peace with the idea that I was letting go of writing forever.
Then I had a conversation with a friend, Lee Pace, where I was talking about this book, and he asked me, what is giving you so much trouble? And I said that I just feel that I don't understand this character. I’m so afraid that readers won't care about him because he's a poet. And my friend said, well, does anybody care about him? Does he care about himself?
I was like: Oh! Does he? Do I? Am I worried about the reader because I don't care about him? Why don't I care about him? And I realized it's because he feels like a fictional character. He doesn't feel like a person. So what would make him feel like a person? I’m like, I need to give that boy a job — so I was very Protestant, but I love when characters have jobs. That changed the whole tenor of the book. His concerns around art and commerce went from being an abstract thing to being a material reality.
Guernica: Is it common in your work that the texture and wholeness of your characters changes from first draft to later drafts? Or was that unique to The Late Americans?
Taylor: My characters come to me as outfits first — like, literal clothing outfits. An Oxford under a denim jacket, black jeans, scuffed boots. And I ask myself, who's wearing this? And where are they wearing it? So, in the first drafts, the characters tend to be quite full in terms of their personalities. In the second or third, I start layering. Let's say a character, in my first draft, goes to a bar and meets somebody and then they go rob a bank together. That's the first draft. The second draft, he goes to the bar and then he has a conversation. It's not just a conversation with the guy he's going to rob a bank with, but with the bartender who tells him this weird story about a donkey he knew when he was a child. Then a third draft would be the story about that donkey, which comes back again at the end in some way. I like to treat my drafts like an improv machine — what if this, also?
I also try to do a thing that Colm Tóibín talks about —if you think you know where the scene is going, choose to go in the opposite direction. This forces you to be more reactive, and it forces the scene to feel more alive. I think sometimes we don't do that because we’re afraid for the beautiful balance of the story. But that is your job, to disturb it. You are really writing when you’re afraid that you’re going to ruin the thing.
Guernica: One thing Lorrie Moore taught me once —I had written an MFA workshop story where characters get in a car and then they drive somewhere else and they get out of the car and she said, "Adam, you can just skip the whole car ride. You can just say, they drove there." And I was like, what? It was totally shocking. That is something that still happens a lot in my story drafts —I write two pages, then realize I could have just said: "later."
Taylor: I call it "trite physicality" — physical details that do nothing for a story at all.
Guernica: Do you have examples?
Taylor: There are some things that, if you find yourself describing them, just take them out. Take them out! Like drinking, the experience of drinking. Unless it's going to burn their mouth so badly that they’ll never forget it. Sweat. Even sweat dripping down a cold glass of water — any sweat. Sex sweat — we don't need to know, unless it's doing something. Like, if the sweat has an odor, that's cool. Descriptions of light.
Guernica: Any light? Not any light at all?
Taylor: No. Unless you’re recreating a Hopper painting in your work. Light dancing on a lake? No. What else? Place settings. "He lifted the fork…" No. Rummaging in bags, fishing things out of pockets, padding across floors. Never going upstairs, never going downstairs, unless the person is falling to their death from the stairs.
Guernica: Has your work as an acquiring editor at Unnamed Press affected your approach to revising things like stairs and light?
Taylor: I often think my revision process as an editor is to help the writer be brave enough to make the choice that they know they need to make when they don't yet feel courageous enough to do it. And a lot of my own revision work is just that — "you know what you need to do. It's staring you, staring at you from the corner. How can we work our way up to being brave enough to face it?"
Guernica: Has there been a time when you had to be courageous about a big scary thing?
Taylor: In one of my stories, the guy who the main character is in love with sexually assaulted someone. And I just kept sort of circling that — maybe he did something. Maybe not. And I realized: I’m trying to protect that character. But the girl he assaults is also a character, and I’m not protecting her. I’m not doing her story any favors. Like, the story can't be so loyal to one character that it betrays another. The characters can betray each other all they want, but the story itself has to be truthful. Otherwise, I’m just exploiting a gross harm done to a young woman character. I can't just be out here trafficking in really horrible ideas about violence. So I had to pull up my big boy pants and say, okay, he assaulted that girl. And I have to be honest about that. I have to be as honest and clear about that as I am honest and clear about the other kinds of violence that happened in the story.
So that took a lot of — shadow work, is what my friend calls it. The shadow work of confronting yourself. A lot of the revision for that story was just realizing the ways that I was being dishonest and trying to wring out all the dishonesty I could. You have to say: okay, I’m afraid of that. Why am I afraid of it? The question that always helps me defeat that villain is: am I being truthful? Dishonesty is not kindness. It's not generosity; it's not moral. You just confront the thing and let it be the thing. It's what Trilling calls moral realism and what D.H. Lawrence calls moral fiction: fiction that preserves the true relation between things and doesn't put its finger on the scale.
Guernica: Where else does fear interfere with good writing?
Taylor: I think about it with dialogue. Dialogue is this rare moment where a character is able to say to another person exactly what they’re thinking, without the trappings of narrative. It's the one true relation between characters. The one irrefutable act. They said that thing they said, and they can't take it back. And I think that irrevocability leads us to write bad dialogue, because we’re afraid that the character can't take it back.
One of my teachers said that good dialogue is like two characters standing on other sides of a field blasting cannons past each other. That's the way it should feel. Like people shooting cannon balls that are just missing and landing off to the side and blowing up the world behind you. So one thing I like to do is go back and pick out random lines of dialogue and delete them and then see what is changed about the contour. By plucking out these three random lines of dialogue from anywhere in the scene, from any character, have I destabilized the meaning of the scene? And very often what you’ll find in the first draft is that you haven't, because you haven't written any actual dialogue. You just put stuff between quotes.
Guernica: I’ve been thinking about how The Late Americans also explores the difficulties of writing while taking writing classes. What advice do you give to writers to try to withstand that intensity?
Taylor: In my most dire moments at Iowa, I would always ask myself: Why am I upset? Nobody gets to tell you what your work is. Nobody gets to tell you what to do. MFA workshops can be really helpful. All workshops can be helpful, but at the end of the day, it's you and the page. That is the thing that matters the most. I would leave my MFA workshops and throw the feedback into the trash. I wouldn't even let it into my house. Because it was not helpful to me. You get to decide what's helpful to you. You’re a grownup. You have agency. I have agency. I can just ignore this. And so I would doodle while I was being workshopped; I would just make these anxiety doodles. Be present. Be respectful. But if there's something that doesn't feel useful, it's okay. This too shall pass.
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