An Interview with Justin Taylor - Believer Magazine
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An Interview with Justin Taylor

by Adalena Kavanagh
October 21st, 2020

In Spring 2019, Justin Taylor published a memoir in Harper’s titled “What it Means to Be Alive,” about his father’s almost-suicide. In it, Taylor receives a concerned telephone call from his sister and tells the reader that the lyrics, “When I was summoned to the phone / I knew in my bones that you had died alone” from Silver Jews’ song “Death of an Heir of Sorrows” comes to mind, he is so sure that his father’s death is a forgone conclusion. It’s not.

At the time I was in the middle of a long interview correspondence with Silver Jews’ David Berman. Throughout our communication Berman expressed doubt and insecurity about the lasting influence of his work and I thought he’d be pleased to see his music play an integral part in Taylor’s piece. Berman’s response was gracious and I shared it with Taylor. That’s when Taylor told me the memoir was the first chapter of a book, Riding with the Ghost, and its title would actually be “Death of an Heir of Sorrows.”

“Riding With the Ghost” is borrowed from a song by Jason Molina and is an example of how Taylor uses popular culture in his work. If you know, you know, but even if you don’t, his characters draw you in, especially in his story collection, Flings. Moments make you laugh out loud and it’s smart without being pretentious. He has fun with his character’s foibles but doesn’t look down on them. He takes the same approach with his father’s story, connecting the dots, while acknowledging the artifice of storytelling. In the chapter, “Riding With The Ghost,” Taylor muses on solitude and Jason Molina’s life, and decides he wants to learn how to shoot a gun.

He writes, “I knew… I was doing this at least in part to tell the story of having done it, a story I could tell Dad…” but he doesn’t because he knows his father will want to give him advice, having been a member of his high school shooting team. This is what it’s like when you learn someone you love does not want to live. It’s not that they want to die, necessarily, it’s the living that’s a problem, and you develop a hyper-awareness of that fact and censor yourself to protect them. Riding With the Ghost is about making sense of his own life by putting his father’s life down on paper.  

We conducted this interview over email from May 2020—June 2020.

—Adalena Kavanagh

THE BELIEVER: In your memoir you write about the writer’s life you chose, and we see some of the college towns it has taken you to, alone, away from your wife. Where are you now?

JUSTIN TAYLOR: I’m at home in Portland, Oregon. I was at the University of Montana, in Missoula, last spring. It would have been over by now anyway, but we went virtual in mid-March so I came home and finished the semester from here. I don’t have any more visiting writer gigs lined up; that was true even before the virus hit. I’ve loved getting to live all over the country and work with very different types of students, but the contingency and loneliness of the lifestyle do grind you down after a while. And then of course there are all these larger questions about the structural problems within academia that create these jobs in the first place. You can be grateful for the work and for the community while at the same time recognizing that the system itself is falling apart, and that your role is akin to the duct tape keeping the sideview mirror attached to the car. Those lines you quoted about trading some security for some freedom seem quaint, even archaic, to me in the context of the present crisis, and the long-term damage it’ll do to the economy, to higher ed, etc. The very notion of a trade-off assumes the existence of functional (not to say fair) systems, and I don’t know that we can continue to make that assumption going forward. 

BLVR: What are you reading these days?

JT: Adam Wilson’s Sensation Machines, which is easily one of the funniest, smartest, novels of 2020. And perhaps the most unexpectedly prescient, in a lot of big and small ways. Justin Philip Reed’s The Malevolent Volume. He’s one of the most exciting poets at work today, I think. I’m forcing myself to read it slowly rather than rip through it. I spent the spring with Edna O’Brien’s The Love Object, which is her selected stories. I like the early stories best but it’s always a pleasure to make one’s way through a whole career like that. You see the evolution and the changes, but also the fixations and touchstones. 

BLVR: Just a week later and… here we are. I’m in Brooklyn where in NYC we are under curfew from 8am until 5am through June 8th. Like you said in the last message it’s hard to believe in functional systems right now (let alone fair ones!).

JT: Yeah Jesus, this week. There have been some really heartening actions here in Portland, accompanied of course by the usual police provocations/overreactions, but people seem like they’re not backing down, here or anywhere. Feels like last night was some kind of turning point though who can say exactly toward what. Anyway, I hope you’re safe and hanging in there. As to your questions:

BLVR: You spoke a bit in your memoir about your time among anarchists in Florida. In light of the protests for George Floyd, anarchists (particularly white anarchists) have been made into a bogey man of sorts, along with anti-fascists, the narrative being that these two groups are infiltrating otherwise peaceful Black Lives Matter protests in order to dilute or divert the message. What can you say about anarchism in this time (if anything) and how anarchism is being framed in the current political conversation.

JT: I can’t claim any kind of authority about what’s going on today, but anarchists have long been a bogeyman in American politics so it’s no surprise to see that claim being made yet again, largely in the absence of evidence, mostly by cops and politicians. But maybe there’s something useful about having anarchists as the designated bogeyman at a time like this. They bring a certain… panache to the role. Plus, all the hand-wringing about them tends to make the rest of the left appear closer to the center. And on that note, I’ll say that it’s extremely heartening to hear certain ideas and policy positions that have long been regarded as the pipe dreams of the radical fringe—abolishing police and prisons, for example—suddenly enter mainstream discourse and gain broad public support. Moments like this prove that demanding the impossible is often the most pragmatic and effective thing you can do. 

BLVR: In your book you wrote about feeling you had to take notes about your father and mistrusting that feeling. At what point did it go from notes into actively writing a book? Did your father know you were writing about him?

JT: My father did not know I was writing about him and at that time I assumed he had another ten or fifteen years, if not longer, so there was never an idea that I would publish any of this. The first chapter was the first thing I wrote. I sat down one day and wrote it and then set it aside because I didn’t know what to do with it. That was in 2015, so a couple of years after the events I was writing about. A couple more years went by. When I started taking notes again in 2017, it was because I didn’t know what else to do. It was a desperate time. After he died I stopped writing for about six months. Sometime late in 2017 I revisited the material to see what was there. It felt like roughly half a book. In reality it was probably more like 1/3 or 1/4, but enough to give me something to write toward. I started to think in broad terms of a before and after story, with his death at the center. I spent another year or so working on the book as a book, I mean as a cohesive narrative and aesthetic object, and that was when I began to think about publishing it. Riding has changed a lot, but you can see the record of its evolution in the text itself, in the placement of that first chapter, the form of the “Notebook” chapters, the way it breaks into Part I and Part II. These were the seeds that the rest of the book grew out of. 

BLVR: What research methods did you use to excavate the past? What’s something that surprised you?

JT: I made use of some primary source material—emails, letters, papers—but I didn’t go about it in a systematic way. I could have done more interviews with people who knew him, my family of course, but also people he’d grown up with, or the parents of my childhood friends. There was always a self-conscious narrowness to this project, maybe owing to its origins as a private document. Once I decided to publish it, I tried to make it accessible to a general reader, but I didn’t want to wholly abandon my original instinct, which broadly speaking tends to favor depth over breadth. For example, the humor in the “Belated Introduction” chapter title isn’t just that it’s the second chapter in the book rather than the first, but in that it’s the last chapter I wrote. I had written everything else but hadn’t properly introduced my dad or my family or myself. As a result, that chapter is the most heavily researched, because I had a clear sense of the biographical and structural work that it needed to do. So that’s one version of a surprise. Another was finding out that my parents had kept kosher for a few years when they were first married. It explained a lot to me about some of my own religious questing over the years, and it helped introduce Judaism as a theme early on, which I had been trying (and failing) to find a way to do because it becomes important in the second half of the book. 

BLVR: For the last week I’ve had the Silver Jews line “bandits in the capital / civilian unrest” stuck in my head.

JT: I think about that line a lot, too, but there’s a word missing in your quote. Berman says “limited civilian unrest.” He was frustrated with the lack of resistance to the Bush administration. That album came out in ’05, and he felt about W’s reelection the way a lot of people would later feel about 2016. But right now, the civilian unrest right now is anything but limited. It’s spreading everywhere and doesn’t seem to be dying down. The big gatherings have been in the evenings, with thousands of people turning out to march over the bridges, regroup downtown, hear speakers. We were out there on Thursday and they had voter registration tables, food and water, masks and gloves. There was a strong emphasis on knowing your rights, on staying safe, on working together to protect the participants as well as the message. It was probably the best-organized protest I’ve ever been part of. Everyone knew what they were there out there for, and the leaders knew how to keep the crowd safe as well as focused, which is not a small thing when you’re trying to march thousands of people through the streets of a major city. Then today I was out for a walk around two in the afternoon and found a few hundred people gathered on this tiny triangle of park space near my house. They were raising money for Don’t Shoot PDX, and despite the fact that they caused a major traffic slowdown at a pretty busy intersection, they were getting tons of support from everyone driving by. A band was playing and there was a sign-making station in case you hadn’t brought your own. No cops in sight. It went on for hours. 

BLVR: In your memoir you discuss a failed attempt at a novel. Did you feel you had to finish the memoir before you could continue with fiction?

JT: I was still writing short stories as well as book reviews and other nonfiction while I worked on the memoir, so it’s not as though this became some all-consuming thing. The novel had its own problems and I would have had to reckon with those no matter what else was going on in my life. Me and that novel had one of those unhealthy relationships you stay in way too long. The bottom line might just be that I am not a novelist. My writer-brain tends to eschew nearly all of the things that go into novel-writing. The logic of longform narrative is the logic of growth or expansion. That’s true even for short novels, for minimalist novels. Short stories, on the other hand, are looking for that inward turn, for the moment when things crystalize or converge. Or that’s what I’m looking to stories for. Anyway, this idea of maybe not being a novelist used to bother me but it doesn’t anymore. Sometimes the best thing you can do for a form is abandon it; be a fan and not a practitioner. That’s how I feel about poetry, about music, so why not novels? And this is just the tip of the iceberg of things I don’t do. 

BLVR: Do you think fewer fiction writers would attempt novels if agents didn’t always ask “do you have a novel?” when you try to talk about your short stories?

JT: I am sure that fewer would, but I don’t know if it would be that much fewer. There is something exciting about conceiving and executing a book-scale project, and the novel is such a formless form that there’s a lot of room for whatever you’re doing to fit its bill. I mean in artistic terms. Once we start talking about “the market” that’s a whole other thing, but I think most people who write novels gravitate to the form because it suits the scale of the story they want to tell. The market is so fickle and unpredictable that the only sane thing to do is write exactly what you want to write, worry about the rest later. If you’re writing toward the zeitgeist as you perceive it via the NYT bestseller list, or for that matter via social media, you’re chasing phantoms. Those books were all finished and sold years ago. It’s the light of dead stars. 

BLVR: How do you approach, or decide on form these days? Does it matter to you? I ask because I misremembered you tweeting about your piece in Bomb about David Berman (among many other things) as being a prose poem (which is what I read it as) and now see you called it a “story (essay? unclear, not that it matters).”

JT: When I sit down to write, it’s usually toward a voice, an image, or a fragment of an idea, so there’s a baseline understanding that it’s fictional (or will rapidly be fictionalized) and that it’ll probably be a short story when it’s done, though I would never cut something off that wanted to keep going. That piece that was in Bomb, “Abridged Abyss,” was a special case. I wasn’t writing much last summer, because I was finishing the edits on this memoir and not sure what to do next. Berman was out there giving what we did not yet know would be his last interviews, promoting the Purple Mountains record. He mentioned Stendhal’s “20 lines a day” technique a couple of times, and I decided to try it. Stendhal probably meant sentences and paragraphs of prose, but I went with little one-offs, observations and riffs, banking bits of material to be sifted through later, which is how Berman described using his own notebooks. I did this daily for a couple of months, then in mid-September decided to end the experiment and type up what I had. I started cutting, revising, moving things around, and this piece came out of it. “Abridged Abyss” is essentially nonfiction in terms of its content, but it does most of the things I want a short story to do. I’ll put it in a story collection if I ever get the chance.

BLVR: David Berman and Jason Molina are two musicians who are twin poles in your memoir. Today I flinched remembering that when the first chapter of your memoir was published as an excerpt in Harper’s I sent it to David Berman (who I was then interviewing) because his lyrics play a role in the narrative. I didn’t think anything of sharing it at the time but now I’m uncomfortable with myself because the chapter is about your father’s intended suicide and DCB suffered so much from suicidal ideation and depression. Did you choose Molina and Berman, or did they choose to enter the narrative? I’m such a fan of both that they seem obvious choices. I guess I’m asking how intentional their inclusion was. Would you have written more about DCB if given time?

JT: I didn’t set out to write about either of them, but music was important to my father—and is important to me—so a lot of the chapter titles ended up taking their names from songs. There was no other possible title for that first chapter other than “Death of an Heir of Sorrows.” But I would not have written more about Berman if given time.  We barely knew each other, but he knew that I was a huge admirer of his work. I think he appreciated that, but he could also be guarded—and rightfully so—around people who seemed like they were trying to get a piece of him for their own reasons. A byline, a blessing, whatever. I had already decided that I wasn’t going to write about the new record. After he died, I wrote an in-memoriam piece because I was asked to, and he became an explicit rather than implicit presence in “Abridged Abyss,” but that was it. At a certain point, enough has to be enough. I don’t know if Molina would have played as big a role if I hadn’t spent that semester teaching in Indianapolis, but I listened to his music so much out there, and then later in the Deep South, by which time my father was gone and I’d inherited his car. My dad’s car made the “riding with the ghost” idea very real to me, which reminded me of that time I’d interviewed Molina, how I’d asked him if he was being literal when he talked about ghosts and he said yes with absolutely no hesitation.

BLVR: I tried to think of memorable (to me) books about fathers and I couldn’t come up with many except perhaps Mr. Bridge but again Mrs. Bridge is much better known. Can you think of a canon of fathers?

JT: I don’t know about canons, but just to name a couple of books that have been meaningful to me, there’s Donald Barthelme’s novel The Dead Father, and Donald Antrim’s The Hundred Brothers, a novel haunted by an outsize yet absent father, even as Antrim himself was haunted a bit by Barthelme. Speaking of Antrim, his memoir The Afterlife, which is about his mother; is a very sharp and I think underrated book. Rachel Khong’s novel Goodbye, Vitamin is a very tender and moving book with a father-daughter relationship at its core. There’s a great Danielle Evans story from her first book, “Jellyfish,” where the perspective shifts back and forth between a father and his grown daughter during a tense lunch date, so you see how they read (or misread) each other. Oh, and the novel Percival Everett by Virgil Russell by Percival Everett, which is experimental and strange and challenging but also such a raw and earnest book about grieving. I mean we could take this almost anywhere—Paradise Lost? That’s a difficult father for you. 

BLVR: Do you have any personal rules or guidelines for including popular culture in your writing?

JT: The K-Mart realists were right about this much: in our culture, you don’t buy “a soda.” You buy a Coke, or a Mountain Dew Code Red. Writers can get a bit precious about keeping brand names out of their work, which may make the world they’re building feel more pure, but less realistic. At the same time, you don’t want your work to be so jam-packed with references that every paragraph is followed by a word from its sponsor. You also don’t want your reader to have to put the book down every other sentence and look up some clothing label or band so they can know what you’re talking about. But maybe that has more to do with subcultures than with pop culture, and certainly there are writers who are seeking readers already in the know about certain things, and willing to leave behind anyone who can’t keep up. But all fiction becomes historical fiction sooner or later, so in some ways it’s just a question of how many footnotes you want in your Penguin Classics edition. (Kidding! Mostly.) The only rule I’ll offer is to stay rooted in character psychology. The name of the song playing on the car radio is only as important to the reader as it is to the character—does she know it? does it bother if she doesn’t? does she have an opinion about this band? For some people, it would be YES to all three questions. For others, it couldn’t matter less. 

BLVR: In terms of writing, what’s next for you? Aside from “Abridged Abyss”, have you set any fiction in the post-2016 world? I don’t think my imagination has caught up yet. Maybe the book after the current one I am writing.

JT: I’m not sure. I’ve got a few new story manuscripts that I’d like to get back to, and I’m always looking to do more criticism, especially if it’s longer form stuff where I can explore an author’s whole body of work. I love to take those deep dives. I don’t have a new book project lined up. A few of the newer stories are set post-2016, I think, if only by virtue of being broadly contemporary and written within the last few years, so the characters are cognizant of the world they inhabit, even if politics or mass culture aren’t their main focus. When we first shut down for COVID, I took a story I’d been working on and set it in a post-shutdown near future. Not in a sci-fi way. I was curious to see if I could articulate how people might think back on this moment in a year or two. When life is back to normal and they have these lingering memories of being stuck in the house, of having been sick maybe, etc. But it was a superficial gesture and I don’t think successful. “Normal” isn’t coming back any time soon. Maybe ever. Still, I’m glad I tried it, and maybe there’s something salvageable in the mistake itself—that naive fantasy of the short-lived and mostly painless lockdown, which is what a lot of people thought it was going to be. That failure of comprehension is deeply revealing of character, which surely makes it worth exploring, though I’m not sure how much we’re going to like what we find. 

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