Justin Taylor’s latest story collection, Flings, features stories set in New York, Florida, Portland and Hong Kong, and recurring characters who intersect across these locales and elsewhere. In this, his third book after the collection Everything Here is the Best Thing Ever and The Gospel of Anarchy, a novel, Taylor has created a coherent, fully inhabited world, populated primarily by restless twenty-somethings, but also, in “Carol, Alone,” by a vividly and unsentimentally rendered widow, and in “Mike’s Song,” by a father trying to connect with his grown children through the universal language of Phish.
It’s a book that demonstrates range by extending the author’s skill with characterization and empathy to a broader range of voices and experiences, while at the same remaining rooted in his earlier work’s commitment to a scruffy, idiosyncratic brand of realism. If it were an ambitious third album by a Britpop band, it would be Parklife, not Be Here Now. (Taylor’s references lean more toward Dylan and the Grateful Dead, but Flings is not at all like The Times They Are a Changin’, and I don’t know much about the third Grateful Dead album, which is apparently Aoxomoxoa, and anyway they weren’t really an album band.) In an email exchange, we talked about the significance of having a literary community, the use of colloquial speech in fiction, and the work of creating a story collection that feels like a book rather than just a collection.
Some of the stories here—I’m thinking of “Flings,” “Gregory’s Year,” and “Poets,”—cover fairly long periods of time in relatively few pages. This gives them a zoomed out, anthropological quality that feels different from the traditional short story structure. How did you develop this approach? What are you trying to achieve with it?
I wanted to write stories that felt super-saturated, with character, event, language, duration—some or all of these things, in any given story—like days when the weather app says the humidity is 110%. There’s a precedent for that in stories like Barry Hannah’s “Two Gone Over” and “Rat-Faced Auntie,” or Saul Bellow’s “The Old System,” plus of course many of Alice Munro’s endings. Usually that tradition focuses on a single character and uses the passage of time as the engine of narrative. “Poets” and “Gregory’s Year” both do that, but “Flings” is about a group of friends and to me it is the group dynamic whose evolution matters, so the principle is the same: the shared life of five or six different people, charted over the course of about a dozen years.
I’m interested in the way you use informal, real-life speech (“like, I don’t know”), both in dialogue and in narration. It’s something I’ve seen discussed a lot among writers and teachers—how to negotiate the line between “real” spoken language and the way it’s written. Is this something you think about? Are there guidelines you try to follow?
No guidelines. These things tend to reveal themselves later in the revision process, after the major work on the story is done and I’m basically stress-testing the prose. If I’m reading it aloud and my instinct is to use a filler word, or repeat something for emphasis, then I’ll add it. If it’s the author-as-narrator, I’ll sometimes use an informal or spoken style to set mood and to step the pace up—like those David Gates and Jim Shepard stories where the narrative voice is self-hectoring, constantly saying “Can you believe this shit?” to itself about itself. But I try to use that sparingly.
The story “A Night Out,” which originally appeared in Brooklyn, reads as an homage to/skewering of the tropes of the “New York story,” complete with cocaine, an art opening, and a terrible one-night stand. What are the difficulties and opportunities presented by New York as a setting? Is it hard to write about the city, especially while living there?
I don’t think it’s hard to write about New York, but there are certain aspects of life here that you will get pilloried for depicting, even if you do it in a novel way and well. Look at how people have gone after Lena Dunham for Girls, which is such a smart sharp original show, or Tao Lin for pushing flat affect as far as he did. I wanted to write a story that had everything “wrong” in it and then did everything wrong with what it had. I even used the McInerney “you” for fuck’s sake, but in a way that refuses all advantage of the form. The “you” stands inertly in place of a regular name. The story became this overgrown thicket of images and ideas I had that didn’t fit anywhere else: Candi’s dream set inside a Paul Klee drawing, the loop-the-loop structure, the “you” thing. Eventually it achieved that super-saturation I talked about earlier, which was enough to justify its existence, at least to me. The Hemingway epigraph [“…and a story called “The Light of the World” which nobody else ever liked.”] is there to preemptively acknowledge all of this. It’s saying you have my blessing to be annoyed by this story, but also maybe your reaction is a little…expected, or lazy. Ho hum.
And re: New York, and Brooklyn in particular, do you find it helpful to be a part of such a thriving literary community? I feel like it can be a mixed blessing to be surrounded by lots of ambitious writers. Maybe you could talk a little bit about the positive and negative aspects of being a young writer in the city.
It’s a great place to live. You’re close to where publishing happens and you become close friends and colleagues with people who share your values and challenge your limits (literary, cultural, etc.). Over the summer I ran into Ben Lerner crossing the Gowanus—we were headed opposite ways and stopped in the middle of the Union Street bridge to catch up. I heard Jennifer Michael Hecht on NPR one morning and then ran into her at the park across the street that afternoon. Adam Wilson lives three blocks down from me and is one of my closest friends. All that, to me, is community. The flip side of it is you have to learn to protect your solitude, to shut out the noise of daily outrage and what everyone’s talking about and where the party’s at. As a distraction engine, New York is like a live-action internet. So if you have the discipline to stay off Twitter when you’re supposed to be writing, then you can handle living in New York.
This is very consciously a “collection,” with recurring characters and a sense of narrative progression, though it’s not a “novel in stories” a la “Jesus’ Son.” Were there any collections that you drew on as models? Were there particular things you wanted to capture that you felt would be best served by this structure?
Thank you for saying that. Almost from the beginning I thought of this book as a book, and wrote the stories with that idea in mind. I didn’t want them to depend on each other for intelligibility or meaning, but I did want to insist on a shared reality, which is why the characters pop up in each other’s stories, because they are occupying the same world at the same moment. This was what I was trying to capture, and I guess I took some cues from writers like David Gates—who does not revisit characters but returns perennially to certain themes and locations—and Lorrie Moore, who uses style and mood to make each of her books its own consistent universe. Like Life is more cohesive and complete than a lot of novels. I should also mention Jess Row’s two remarkable collections, both global in scope, one oriented around the “return” of Hong Kong to the Chinese in 1997, and the other set in the year following 9/11. But in the end I tried to make something that I had never seen before.