FACULTY SPOTLIGHT: Justin Taylor

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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.

Credit: David Benhaim

Credit: David Benhaim

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.

BOOKS


Love Medicine by Louise Erdrich

Review by Justin Taylor, Mountainview Faculty

This past school year, I used an anthology in a few of my writing classes that I had never used before. It was The Oxford Book of American Short Stories, edited by Joyce Carol Oates, and to be honest with you, I was not persuaded of its efficacy as a teaching tool. The selections are refreshingly offbeat, and the sheer range of the thing (1700s-2000s) is something, but the book contains a lot of typos, formatting mistakes, and errors of fact (particularly in the biographical notes for the included writers) that left me constantly second-guessing my primary course text, which is the one thing a teacher doesn’t want to have to worry about. Oates/Oxford should have hired a proofreader and a fact-checker, or, if they did, they should have fired them. Oh well.

     Still, there were some stories that I encountered for the first time in The Oxford Book that not only yielded fruitful classroom discussions and creative responses, but stuck with me after the school year ended. One such story is “Fleur” by Louise Erdrich, about a woman reputed to be a witch, and the supernatural revenge she may (or may not) have taken on a group of men who violated her. The story, which is less than ten pages long, is masterful in the way it handles point of view, as well as in the way it balances candor and subtlety. It left me eager to read more Erdrich, so I picked up Love Medicine, her debut novel, first published in 1984 (then revised and expanded in 1993, and again in 2009).

     Love Medicine takes place over roughly half a century on (and off) an Ojibwe Reservation in North Dakota. A family tree included in the front matter lays out five generations of Kashpaws, Morrisseys, Nanapushs, and Lamartines, many of whom will get to narrate one or more chapters at some point in the sprawling saga. On the family tree, a legend explains that different symbols are used to distinguish “traditional Ojibwe marriage,” “sexual affair or liaison,” and “Catholic marriage,” as well as “children born from any of the above unions” from “adopted children.” Such scale might overwhelm some readers before they’ve even begun, but don’t be scared off! The novel, for all its technical daring (leaps forward and backward in time, characters phasing in and out of primary-protagonist status) is remarkably lucid and emotionally potent. It’ll have you hooked within five pages, and in full-on binge-mode within fifty.

     I loved it so much I forced myself to slow down around the three-quarters mark, because I wasn’t ready for it to be over yet. Happily, it turned out that this was a needless precaution, because Erdrich has written several more novels set in the same community, including the Pulitzer finalist The Plague of Doves, the National Book Award-winning The Round House, and a novel called Four Souls that, as far as I know, hasn’t won anything but which caught my eye because its protagonist is Fleur Pillager, i.e. the title character of the story that first introduced me to Erdrich’s work, so I’m going to read it as soon as I find a copy. (Fleur appears in Love Medicine too, but only briefly.) 

     Philip Roth called Love Medicine “a masterpiece, written with spellbinding authenticity” and Toni Morrison rightly noted that its "beauty...saves us from being completely devastated by its power.” To these accolades I only wish to add a brief teacherly note. Love Medicine is recommended for one and all, but it will prove especially useful for students exploring that gray and intimidating borderland between the novel, the “linked collection” and the “novel-in-stories.” I’ve seen Love Medicine described as all three of these things, but Erdrich herself seems to regard it as a novel, while at the same time regarding its component parts as stories rather than as chapters. (The title story of The Red Convertible, her Collected Stories, is a chapter from this novel.) This makes sense if you think about it, given how many books she’s written about these people and this place: are not the novels themselves mere chapters in some larger book? In any case, if you’re looking for a model, Love Medicine is among the best you’ll find, because it will give you permission not to follow anyone else’s, but rather to build your own.


Justin Taylor is a Mountainview MFA faculty member, as well as the author of Flings, The Gospel of Anarchy, and Everything Here Is the Best Thing Ever.

Faculty Picks: Reed

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Justin Taylor-- Generally speaking, I always advocate for more poetry in the prose writer's reading diet. It is a great way to learn the weight of words, the value of lines. Even relatively expansive or dense poetry still has the virtue of concision, and most important of all it reminds us that there are other forms of logic and progression than simply, What happens next? Lately, I've been reading Indecency, Justin Phillip Reed's debut collection, which is about to be brand-new from Coffee House Press. In the words of Dawn Lundy Martin, "Reed's deft craft is so rare, so precise, and driven by language whose surface is texture like teeth, that it seems like freed speech into the ache of repressive histories, white gazes, and uninvited invasions." I find myself very drawn to this idea of "freed speech": how can we liberate our language from the bondage of cliched usage, lazy thinking, and harmful or retrograde presumptions--and aren't these really three ways of saying the same thing? Reed's poems are fierce and fast-moving. They are searching and raw. "what question / does the self ask at the body's behest / that time won't wring from the body itself?" he asks in "Performing a Warped Masculinity en Route to the Metro.” 

In "A Statement from No One, Incorporated," the poem's epigraph is granted unusual placement: above its title. The line is: "what is it when a death is ruled a homicide but no one is responsible for it" and it was written by the essayist Hanif Abdurraqib in response to the risible Kafkan determination by Baltimore officials that Freddie Gray, who died of injuries sustained on a so-called "rough ride" in a police van, was the victim of a homicide, but that no particular person was responsible for committing it. This is, of course, both a legal and moral impossibility. In the poem, the responsible non-entity is “incorporated”, i.e. made real, though still not human, since--despite dubious claims to the contrary--corporations are not people. Reed’s corporate entity, then, is an infernal creation—embodied but having no particular body, and therefore no locus of humanity, since whatever else we are, we are our bodies first and finally. The thing speaks in a bloodless collective voice; whining, "We are not responsible. We have not / the capacity to respond, cannot take / your call, are not obliged." Later, it ponderously intones that "We need to have a deeper dialogue / about the need for deeper dialogue[.]" 

But it would be a mistake, in heeding Reed's outrage and his sense of urgency (and heed it we should) to hurry past the beauty in these poems, of which there is plenty to be found: potent word play, intricate rhyme, and stray lines like "a smeared sweet on his cheek in the parenthesis of a grin" or "the dense streets clapped into a quick-descended stillness." Kadijah Queen says rightly of Reed's work that, "there is no separation of sound from the language it travels in, from the body that produces it, from the experience that evokes it." Indecency includes many poems in traditional structure, right alongside radical formal innovations. There are brief prose poems floating in oceans white space--"(in which all this white is my gaze)" he writes wryly--and work that extends the tradition of concrete poetry. "Portrait with Stiff Upper Lip", which I've taken a picture of and have included below, simply cannot be read "normally." The sculptural design forces our eye to move in directions to which we are unaccustomed to moving over the printed page: up instead of down, for example, or back and forth instead of one and done. You have to "read" it the way you would a piece of visual art, which, as Reed’s title makes clear, is part of his point. Whether you're looking to discover a new writer, some wild new approaches to style, or you just want to get more poetry into your reading life, I recommend Indecency

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Faculty Picks: Johnson, Stegner, Welty

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Benjamin Nugent--In “Strangler Bob,” the short story by Denis Johnson published in this week’s New Yorker, you find Johnson trotting out his courtly mode. It’s kind of Blanche DuBois cum Bertie Wooster, but he metes it out in such small doses that it never feels like camp. He uses it in “Dirty Wedding,” when the narrator laments, “These days had reduced us to the Rebel Motel.”  Also in “Two Men,” when the narrator bemoans the break-up of his gang: “Later on one of them got hurt when we were burglarizing a pharmacy, and the other two of us dropped him bleeding at the back entrance of the hospital and he was arrested and all the bonds were dissolved.”

In “Strangler Bob,” which takes place in jail, the narrator, Dink, says of a fellow inmate: “This time he’d been arrested for giving a man some well-deserved punishment in the dining area of the Howard Johnson’s, which he described as the wrong kind of restaurant for that.” Dink deems a prisoner who shares a low-grade hallucinogen “most generous.”

Joining Dink in Johnson County’s facility is Dundun, who also features in Johnson’s older story “Dundun.” Dink describes him thus: “Dundun’s mental space, customarily empty, had been invaded by an animal spirit.” Imagine if Johnson had gotten self-conscious and replaced the elegant “customarily” with plain old “usually.” The paragraph would have been mauled.

It’s a classic Mark Twain move, to write of coarse individuals as if they rated great tact. But see also Marilynne Robinson’s Housekeeping, where the narrator says, “The people of Fingerbone and its environs were very much given to murder.”

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Richard Adams Carey--"In this not-quite-quiet darkness, while the diesel breaks its heart more and more faintly on the mountain grade, I lie wondering if I am man enough to be a bigger man than my grandfather."

Those are the wrenching last words of Wallace Stegner’s 1972 novel Angle of Repose. The narrator is Lyman Ward, an aging historian, divorcee, and wheelchair-bound amputee. His grandfather was Oliver Ward, a brilliant engineer who took his cultivated, Eastern-educated wife Susan from mining town to hardscrabble mining town throughout the West at the end of the 19th century.

Lyman is devoting his retirement to writing the biography of his grandmother, an artist and illustrator, and of her loving, strenuous marriage—a union blighted by tragedy and recrimination in its final decades. Lyman has recriminations himself against his former wife, now abandoned by her lover and extending overtures to him. The novel is chiefly the epic story of Susan Ward, her family, and the frontier, but the present-day (1960s) struggles of her crippled, solitary, angry, but eminently humane grandson play in gorgeous counterpoint to the main plot.

Lyman Ward lives alone in his grandparents’ last home in northern California, and his description of being bathed by the neighbor lady hired to help take care of him is harrowing in its depiction of the indignities of age and disability. But the novel as a whole glows with all the courage, endurance, mercy, and love we can hope to shore against our frailties.

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Justin Talyor--I’m living down in Hattiesburg this school year as Writer-in-residence at University of Southern Mississippi, and have taken the appointment as an opportunity to get re-acquainted with Southern literature. I've been revisiting Barry Hannah and William Faulkner, exploring the early novels of Harry Crews and Thomas McGuane, teaching Lydia Peelle's excellent collection Reasons for and Advantages of Breathing in my contemporary lit seminar. But the greatest revelation has been Eudora Welty, who lived and wrote just up the road in Jackson. I did not know her work at all before I got here and have been making my way through her Collected Stories, vacillating between profound shame at how long I managed to stay ignorant of her and profound gratitude for the fact that I get to discover her now, while living in her home state. 

I started at the beginning of the Collected, with A Curtain of Green and Other Stories, published in 1941. The Wide Net and Other Stories followed close on its heels in 1943. I’m midway through The Golden Apples now, which appeared in 1949 and so finished out an astonishingly productive decade. I love these stories. Welty's use of voice, her sense of history and place, her delight in the grotesque, are easily in league with Faulkner. Moreover, I find her largely free of the pathological Southern sentimentalism that nags at even his greatest work (and smothers some of it). You can draw lines from Welty not only to the aforementioned Hannah and to Flannery O'Connor, but to Joy Williams and--in a story like "Moon Lake", for instance--even Christine Schutt. But the writer of whom Welty reminds me most strongly, especially in those early books, is Nathaniel Hawthorne. Stories like “A Visit of Charity,” “Death of a Traveling Salesman,” “Old Mr. Marblehall,” and “The Wide Net” put me in mind of Hawthorne’s earthy, sinister, proto-Kafkan tales such as “My Kinsman, Major Molineux,” “The Minister’s Black Veil,” and especially “Wakefield.” And one great thing about reading a Collected Stories is being able to trace the arc of its author’s development. As much as I admire and enjoy those flinty, mysterious first two books, to read The Golden Apples is to watch a natural born talent achieve true mastery of her form.  The seven connected stories it contains feel less imagined than lived, or better still, dreamed into being, as in this paragraph from “Moon Lake”:

“Luminous of course but hidden from them, Moon Lake streamed out in the night. By moonlight sometimes it seemed to run like a river. Beyond the cry of the frogs there were sounds of a boat moored somewhere, of its vague, clumsy reaching at the shore, those sounds that are recognized as being made by something sightless. When did boats have eyes--once? Nothing watched that their little part of the lake stayed roped off and protected; was it there now, the rope stretched frail-like between posts that swayed in mud? That rope was to mark how far the girls could swim. Beyond lay the deep part, some bottomless parts, said Moody. Here and there was the quicksand that stirred your footprint and kissed your heel. All snakes, harmless and harmful, were freely playing now; they put a trailing, moony division between weed and weed--bright, turning, bright and turning.”   

Staff Pick at The Paris Review: Justin Taylor's "So You're Just What, Gone?"

"So You're Just What, Gone?" in The New Yorker. 2015.

My preparation for the Q&A with Justin Taylor that will feature in our Warzone issue has involved a substantial amount of research. I've read and reread his two story collections (Everything Here is the Best Thing Ever and Flings) and his novel (The Gospel of Anarchy). I've also dedicated many a midnight Internet rabbit-hole to devouring his digital archives, which I'm both proud and terrified to report I've nearly exhausted. They're quite extensive.

My favorite piece of Taylor's is his most recent short story, "So You're Just What, Gone?", which appeared in the May 18, 2015 issue of The New Yorker. You can read some of my thoughts on it here, at The Paris Review Daily. I'll be interning (and staff-picking) at the Review for most of the winter/spring.