Recently, Morgan Green interviewed Mountainview MFA faculty member and author of Flings, The Gospel of Anarchy, and Everything Here Is the Best Thing Ever, Justin Taylor, about his latest project, as well as his new role as the Teppola Distinguished Visiting Professor.
What is your current book about?
My last book was a story collection called Flings. It came out in 2014. The stories weren’t connected, though a few characters popped up in multiple pieces. Right now, I’m working on a memoir, which still feels bizarre to me to say. I don’t want to get into too many details, because it isn’t finished yet, but it’s a book about my relationship with my father, who was an amazing but also difficult man. It’s also about my relationship to Judaism, which turns out to be equally complicated.
What’s your writing routine?
I don’t have one. I’m bad with schedules. But when I’m trying to really dig in on a project, I do find it’s good to write every day, or to write one day and edit the next, make sure the fire in the hearth doesn’t burn out, you know? I like to write in the mornings when I can, preferably before I’ve seen email or my phone or the internet, because my head is still clear. The best is when I’ve got like half a day to myself, say between three and six hours, and I can turn all the devices off, relax and read some poetry or something, let the urge to write build up a bit instead of having to scramble, and then I start when I’m ready and go until I wear myself out. That’s a best-case scenario, obviously, not the norm.
What authors do you admire most?
Denis Johnson, Joy Williams, and Don DeLillo are three big ones for me. Virginia Woolf, especially The Waves and To the Lighthouse. Saul Bellow. There are other authors who I have admired very much but no longer return to very often. Though I still remember what it felt like to read them and be blown away. I think it’s possible to love a particular writer, or a particular book, but then to hit the limit of what you can take from them and so you move on. Like a relationship that doesn’t end badly, it just—ends. So that’s one answer. Also, In the past couple of years, I’ve written critically on Percival Everett, Thomas McGuane, and Mary Robison, which meant I got to know their work extremely well. I spent between six months and a year with each body of work, and developed all kinds of ideas about how each writer works and what their strengths are. I’m a huge advocate now for Robison’s Subtraction, for McGaune’s novel Ninety-two in the Shade, and for Everett’s Erasure, Watershed, and God’s Country, just to name a few since he has written so many. I could go on but I probably shouldn’t.
What’s the best thing you’ve ever gotten out of a writing class or workshop as a student? The worst?
The best was probably learning to line edit. I had one professor whose aesthetic was severely minimalist, and who had also been a magazine editor for most of his career. He had no patience for redundancy, cliche, or self-indulgence. Every sentence had to earn its place, and it turned out that most of them hadn’t. There was a set of values and aesthetic biases behind what he was doing that are not necessarily universally shared, but they were worth understanding, and the practical skills he taught me, in terms of editing and self-editing and also in terms of not settling for the quick fix, have been invaluable ever since. Conversely, the worst workshop experience I think I ever had was with a different professor at that same school. Nice guy, smart guy, but he was lazy, so he smothered us in easy praise to mask the fact he wasn’t reading us closely or challenging us to be better. So you wound up with a genial workshop, and all these stories you thought were ready for the big leagues, and then you had to find out the hard way later that they weren’t even close. It was a lot of wasted time.
What is the lesson or piece of writing advice you return to most as an instructor?
I’m not sure who told me these things, or what was told to me and what I figured out for myself, but here’s my handy three-step process for revision:
1) Write the first draft by hand
2) After you type up that draft, print it out and do the next edit in hard copy again. Shifting between the physical and digital space helps keep your critical eye fresh, plus it forces you to type up every set of notes into the document, which effectively becomes another round of editing. (It also helps to read your work out loud.) Repeat this process as many times as necessary.
2a) Invest in a laser printer. It’ll save you money in the long run.
3) Never type up your edits the same day you make them. Leave a night’s sleep between marking up your printed manuscript and inputting those mark-ups into the computer file. This is how you avoid accidentally butchering your work because you were in a bad mood or the coffee was too strong.
So you’re a visiting professor at Williamette University, how did that come about?
I was nominated for a position that they have there, the Teppola Distinguished Visiting Professor, which is a one-year appointment that rotates among the various departments at the school. So the English department made a case to bring me in, and I guess we beat out the other departments and whoever they had nominated. This is a slightly more academic title than I usually end up with, but the work is about the same. Last school year I was the Artist-in-residence at the University of Southern Mississippi Ph.D. program (home, by the way, of the wonderful Mississippi Review) and before that I was the Writer-in-residence at the Butler University M.F.A. program in Indianapolis. So in one sense it’s pretty familiar territory, but it’s very exciting for me because I get to live at home in Portland instead of some random city, and because Willamette is a very special school. It’s the oldest school in Oregon, I believe, and it sits in the heart of downtown Salem, across the street from the State Capitol. It’s a gorgeous campus, and I’m optimistic about the upcoming school year.
You’re teaching a multi-genre introduction to creative writing, and a 19th century lit seminar on monsters. Tell us more about that. Also, what’s your favorite book from the reading list you assigned?
Yes, two classes I don’t usually teach, so it’ll be a real treat to workshop poetry and nonfiction as well. We’re reading eight or nine books in that class, including Mary Robison’s Why Did I Ever, Asali Solomon’s Get Down, and Alexander Chee’s How to Write an Autobiographical Novel, but I might be most excited about Terrence Hayes’ American Sonnets for My Past and Future Assassin. It just came out and I think it will yield a lot of strong opinions and good discussions. The Monsters class was challenging to put together, and I’m a little worried I’m trying to pack too much in, but we’ll see how it goes. We’re doing a lot of Edgar Allan Poe, Robert Louis Stevenson, and Elizabeth Gaskell’s Gothic Tales. I found this great anthology that Italo Calvino edited called Fantastic Tales—it’s got Balzac, Dickens, Hawthorne, Le Fanu, and much more. Oh and we’re reading this wild little Swiss novel called The Black Spider, recently translated by Susan Bernofsky for NYRB Classics. I might name that as the favorite only because I have absolutely no idea what is going to happen when I teach it.
How do you balance teaching with writing? Do you feel as though teaching slows down the process at all?
I’m of two minds about this. On the one hand, sure, spending time doing anything other than writing is lost writing time. And sure, after a full day of teaching (or line-editing student fiction) you’re not going to be able to give your best energy to your own work. So on a day when a lot of teaching-work has to get done, it’s pretty likely that not much writing-work is going to get done. On the other hand, I find that working with students is intellectually stimulating and a lot of fun. You get to meet people at the moment when they’re finally getting the chance to focus on their life-long passion, and you get to help them on their way. It’s awesome to see students have breakthroughs, figure out how to finish a story, get published for the first time. So I guess the answer to your question is: Short term, yes, teaching can slow you down, but long term, it gives a lot more than it takes. And I haven’t even mentioned money. We’ve all got to earn a living somehow, and if I wasn’t doing this I would be something else, probably with longer hours and worse colleagues.
What’s more valuable in a workshop, praise or criticism?
Neither is all that valuable. Praise is always nice to hear, and it can be very useful for an aspiring writer to hear what is working. And of course we all need to learn how to take (and how to give) criticism. The piece wouldn’t be in the workshop if it was already perfect. But I think that “praise and criticism” is too often code for “good and bad,” which is just such an impoverished language for talking about stories. This isn’t like scanning Yelp reviews deciding where to go for pizza—oh it says the breadsticks were soggy, but the drink refills are free… Forget all that. More than anything else, what I want a workshop to do is tell the writer of the piece what we see in her piece—not what we feel about what we see, but literally: What is on the page? You can get a great argument going about a story just by asking the workshop, What did you think this was about? Or even, What happened in this story? You will get 10 different answers. When people summarize, paraphrase, or describe, they immediately reveal what they as readers thought was important. They reveal what they as readers forgot about or didn’t understand. So the writer comes away with a lot of hard data on the way she is actually being read, which tells her something about the distance between what she was trying to do and what she actually did. How she uses this information is up to her, but it’s a lot more useful than “I really liked the part with the ferris wheel but I was sad when the dog died.” Or worst, worst, worst of all: “I really related to this because it reminded me of myself.”
What are the top myths people have about the publishing industry?
I don’t know, maybe that it’s a strict meritocracy, which it isn’t? Or that there’s any kind of consensus on what constitutes “merit,” which there also isn’t? Every time you ask yourself the question, “How did [Bad Book X or Bad Story Y] get published?” the answer is really simple: Someone was able to convince someone else that it was actually good, and/or that a lot of people would want to buy it. Most editors do want to publish smart, challenging plotless novels and beautiful heartbreaking books of poetry that will sell 300 copies, but that desire is not the only thing, or even the main thing, on their minds. They can’t afford for it to be. And with magazines it can be even more complicated, because the editor there is probably also thinking about things like the news cycle, or how this piece fits in with the 12 other pieces in the issue, or what the other magazines in their competitive tier are also working on. None of this, by the way, is good news or bad news (though it is of course very annoying that Bad Book X got published, or that your story got rejected), it’s just true. So the best thing for a new writer to do is to try and understand this whole ecosystem, and imagine what that same world looks like from the POV of some of its other players: the agent, the editor, the assistant editor, the marketing team, and so on. Then you have to go and repress all that shit or you'll be too depressed to write anything—which is its own kind of challenge—but sooner or later the day will come when you’ll want to have access to all the information. It won’t make the process seem more fair, necessarily, but it will make it seem less random and insane.
Should students write with publication in mind? Why or why not?
No. It is one hundred percent, without exception, a waste of time and energy for this simple reason: you’re trying to imagine something that doesn’t exist. There is no such thing as “publication,” there are only publications—magazines, journals, websites, publishing houses—each with its own sense of identity, its own sense of what is important, or what kind of work it would like to be publishing. You might submit your story or your book to twenty places before it lands somewhere, and it’s impossible to write something that’s equally “for” all of them. At that point you’re writing the TV Guide. You don’t know who those editors are, or what they’re looking for, or how your piece might or might not fit into the particular issue of the magazine they’re putting together right now, or how your book might fit in with the two dozen other books currently on their publishing schedule. The only thing to do is do the best work that you possibly can, put it out there, and see who wants to give it a home.
Morgan Green is a current degree candidate at The Mountainview Low Residency MFA in Fiction and Nonfiction.