There was a time when one could make friends on the internet, particularly during the late night hours when the rest of the country was sleeping and that is how I met Brandon Taylor on Twitter. He was still very much a scientist who just happened to be an avid reader and a writer with a few publications and not yet the literary powerhouse he has become. We bonded over books like Pride and Prejudice and everything written by Alexander Chee, and so when Brandon mused in a tweet that he’d written a novel, but wasn’t sure about it, I offered to read that first draft. I knew immediately that I was reading something extraordinary.
That draft became Real Life, the story of introverted Wallace, a PhD student whose ideas about his small academic world and his place in it shift over the course of a weekend. In the way of the world, everything happens to Wallace at once, forcing him to confront a barrage of catastrophes both small and large. After his experiment fails under suspicious circumstances he decides to meet his friends at the lake, a rare appearance that seems to set off everything that happens next. Taylor manages to peel back the layers of so many big topics (race, sexuality, intimacy, and grief) all the while pulling us into narrative a narrative so compelling and tense your shoulders will be hiked up to your ears until the last page.
Brandon has earned a graduate degree in biochemistry from the University of Wisconsin Madison and a graduate degree in creative writing from the University of Iowa. He is currently the senior editor of Electric Literature’s Recommended Reading and a staff writer at Lit Hub. He’ll tell you that he’s a short story writer, but his nonfiction can be found all over the internet. But I’ll concede that his short stories are excellent, including “Anne of Cleves” at Guernica, a love story about two women that still keeps me up at night, and his story “Grace” here at The Rumpus which was selected for inclusion in the 2018 Best of the Net anthology.
We spoke for the first time IRL for this interview over Skype and I got to ask him what happened after I read that first draft, why we end up empathizing with our oppressors, and what it’s like being a Black Southerner in the Midwest.
The Rumpus: Can you tell me about the journey of Real Life?
Brandon Taylor: I think I sent the first draft to you with a note that said, “Is this a book? Tell me it is, so I don’t throw it in the trash!”
Rumpus: Mhmm. You did.
Taylor: So what happened shortly after that is I put it in a drawer and went to a couple of writing retreats because I was in the process of transitioning to Iowa City and leaving my science PhD program and joining an MFA program. First I was at Tin House in Portland and then I was at Lambda Literary, a queer writing retreat in LA, and they said I had to do a reading because every fellow does a reading. I was on the first night as a returning fellow, but I didn’t have anything, so I pulled a section up [from Real Life].
Rumpus: Wow, do you remember which section?
Taylor: Yes, it was right before the Dinner Thing, when Wallace was alone in his apartment.
Rumpus: Oh yeah!
Taylor: Yeah and that was my first time reading that section to other people and the response was really intense and great.
But backing up a little, when I met my agent, before I ended up signing with her I told her I had a novel but it wasn’t done yet, so I only showed her my collection of short stories, which she loved and so I signed with her having only shown her my stories. So after the great reception at Lambda, I emailed her the novel saying, “I read this to some people at Lambda and they said it was good.”
She wrote me back, “Should I continue reading and editing the stories or should I read this novel.” And I replied, “No, the novel is trash. It’s literally a first draft; focus on the stories.” And she didn’t read it, so for five months we worked on the short stories and an essay collection. I was also in my first semester at Iowa.
Rumpus: Um, this is a lot. What the hell?
Taylor: I write a lot; it’s a pathology. Around December I did one too many drafts of a story and it got worse. And Meredith, my agent said, “Oh no, we’re supposed to go out with this soon. What do we do?” So she cracked open the novel.
We fixed maybe six typos and went out with the first draft and sold it to Riverhead and Cal Morgan, but for most of the time the journey of Real Life was me putting it in drawers and telling my agent not to read it.
Rumpus: That is ridiculous! [Both laugh] Can you tell me if there’s a difference between being in a biochemistry PhD program and being in an MFA program?
Taylor: The thing is there aren’t that many differences. They’re both these intensely cloistered self-selected groups of people who have monastic dedication to this project that may take years and years and years and you don’t know if it will actually work until you’ve done it. And then if it doesn’t work you have to figure out why and then you have no choice but to do it all over again. And often. So they’re very similar. These very tight-knit groups of people who are poorly socialized to anything except the thing they’ve chosen along with backbiting and petty jealousies. So, very similar and I found it easy [the transition] because I’d already done it once. I’ve already done the process of being with a group of people who are obsessed with a subject.
I think science is overall more fratty. There are much more parties and because it was Wisconsin there was much more booze involved, so much drinking. Not to make my former classmates sound like boozehounds—they were all brilliant and sober people until they were drinking.
Rumpus: But I feel like I knew that you don’t drink…
Taylor: I don’t drink! So I spent a lot of time standing in the corner nursing cups of ginger ale or warm water.
Rumpus: I definitely went to an MFA party with the intention of not drinking, so I started the night with ginger ale and ended with wine. I don’t even know when it happened. It became such a habit. If we were all together outside of the classroom, we were drinking.
Anyway, let’s talk autofiction. I said it to you about the first draft and now I’m saying it again that this book reminded me of the glorious Alexander Chee’s Edinburgh. Obviously much of this book is coming from an experience you had, but you’re not Wallace. Where did you draw the line?
Taylor: Yeah, I think about this a lot and I thought about it a lot while I was writing the book during those nights when I was walking home from lab at 3 a.m. in the morning with the snow still in April. Thinking about how Wallace is different from me. And the way that I think about it is Wallace says and does things that I know better than to say or do. And I was thinking about something Alexander Chee says all the time and I’m probably going to butcher it, but it’s something like, “When you move something into fiction it can longer be beholden to just what happened. You have to completely make use of it.”
And so Real Life as a novel was a place for me to unpack some of the things that were happening to me and people I knew and things I was seeing in respect to really basic microaggressions. So for me it was fun to take things that I knew as real and put them into this novel and sort of push them further and to allow the characters to make those situations fictional and make them new.
I made this vow that for the racism in the book I would only use things that people had actually said or done to me. So a lot of the most ridiculous and awful language that the characters say that kind of sting or burn the most are real things that came out of my life. In one sense I didn’t want to waste all this energy to imagine, “Okay, what would a racist say?”
Taylor: But I was also afraid of this impulse to kind of tamp it down, which is the instinct of people who are on the receiving ends of these accosts—what happens is the people who do violence against us often conscript us into making us feeling okay about it. So I was afraid that could take over the writing process, so one way around it was to just use the raw transcript.
Rumpus: That makes me so angry.
Taylor: The number of times I just had to walk away from a lab bench because people say things to you and they say them to you in the normal course of their lives and then they get to go home. But then I had to go home and detox with my roommate about it. Yeah, so one of the challenges of the book was using that found footage or found image and make it new or make it a part of the process into art. So that’s one of the more autofiction-y strands of the book.
Initially when I started writing where Wallace begins in the novel is maybe as close as he is to me. I sort of piled all this stuff from my life into him and then I set him on this course. And that course of the novel caused him to change in really interesting ways. It was fun to track those changes like, “You know, Wallace, in that situation, I wouldn’t have done that.” And also to watch him react to a lot of the things I had been the receptacle for and to really try to reexamine those things.
Rumpus: That leads me beautifully to Wallace’s relationship with Brigit, a Chinese American woman and PhD student in Wallace’s program, and the only other person of color in their department. Their relationship is a perfect example of how Wallace is good at seeing everyone else, but he struggles with seeing around himself and in this way he misses the levels of trauma that Brigit has endured, because of his assumption that he’s the only one dealing with oppression. So his relationship with Brigit has kind of fallen to the wayside. Am I reading that right?
Taylor: Right. So something I was really desperate for in writing the novel was to preserve the complexity of any given person’s various identities engendered in their life. Wallace is a queer Black man and he goes through life with an attitude that is very much his own. He’s a very odd duck. And he has a sort of attitude about what his positionality means politically and he’s so preoccupied with thinking about his relationship to white people that he forgets that he himself is capable of reproducing that very same dynamic with someone like Brigit who isn’t white. He’s so used to being the one whose gotta hold the line and accustomed to thinking about the ways people are doing things that are erasing him that he forgets that he himself is capable of being an inattentive friend.
So here’s a person who’s been going through something right next to him and when she calls his attention to it he has that reaction that we all have when people we think are fine, because we’re the ones typically going through it and we’re the ones who yadda yadda yadda, that the other person is like, actually I could use a friend right now. And it’s like, Oh damn. I thought you were fine because I had my own thing going on. I really wanted that in the book because sometimes art about people of color or about queer people often flattens characters into sainthood and they aren’t called upon to be full complex humans. They’re just there to be acted upon by whatever oppressive structures are governing the world and they aren’t called into action by their ethical relation to each other.
In my own life I’ve been so preoccupied with being microagressed that I completely missed the fact that my male privilege has made me unaware of the ways the women in my life have been going through it, too, often much worse. And I think, “Oh right, the reason I can’t relate to this thing you’re telling me is because I don’t have to deal with it because I am a cis man.” I don’t have access to the Universal Suffering Mind just because I’m gay and Black. There are things I’m going to miss.
For Wallace, part of the novel is coming to realize he can fail people. And he has to be called to account for it.
Rumpus: It’s interesting that the conversation with Brigit about race and gender looks completely different from the conversation with Dana, a white woman who is undeniably racist, but who is also hindered by the oppressive systems we’re talking about. And I found myself trying to find something human or sympathetic in her character until I eventually thought, Fuck this! Why? Why am I doing that?
Taylor: Listen, I feel the same way about Dana. My whole ethos as a writer is that I want to write fiction that is moral and to me moral fiction is fiction that allows every character nuance and complexity and allows the reader to see that even if you don’t like them you can see how that person thinks they’re right.
Taylor: So the first draft was such a struggle to write that because I thought, I mean she’s bad! But the writer brain is like, Yes, she is bad but she’s still a person who has had a whole life. So I was writing all these terrible sentences trying to justify what she was doing and then I realized I was doing exactly what I was telling you before about being conscripted into feeling okay about the violence done against you.
It was really difficult, but also an interesting opportunity to reveal to the reader that mechanism specifically of trying to endow this person with empathy so you can understand why it is they’ve done the thing they’ve done to you and be okay with the thing they’ve done to you and to make that explicit and transparent. It’s a scene that contains the core emotional questions of the whole novel and it was just so difficult to go over it again and again to ensure that the reader had access to both Wallace’s response to it, but also the complexity of the dynamic. She’s not a flat villain because that would be too easy. If she’s a flat character that’s not interesting in terms of art.
Rumpus: Wallace shows real restraint in that confrontation with Dana, which brings me to my favorite scene, the Dinner Thing, where all restraint is thrown out the door. But let’s talk about the big thing from the Dinner Thing, the silence of white people.
Taylor: Very telling. People’s silence screams the loudest, I think. When I set out to write Real Life I made all these lists to help me wrap my brain around it. And one of the lists was of all the scenes I wanted in the book that I was really excited about because if I could get excited about the scene then I could write a lot of words and at the end of the day that’s what a novel is. So, top of my list was a dinner party. It’s like dinner parties, airplanes, and road trips are things people run away from in fiction because the characters are locked in and there is no escape. Thus the interminable graduate student potluck.
It’s a very basic thing in a novel to throw all these balls and at some point they’re all going to converge creating a lot of heat and drama, so I thought what better place to bring it all to a boil than a grad student potluck that Wallace was not invited in the first place.
Taylor: So I was like let me get all these white people in a room! [Both laugh] Something’s gonna happen. I’ve been to enough dinner parties to know that there are always at least six stories going on at any given time.
Rumpus: Yes, and only certain people know all the details.
Taylor: Right. Dinner parties are like dynamite for a story. I love it when it blows up.
Rumpus: Can you talk about the role of the South and the Midwest in Real Life?
Taylor: I told myself I wasn’t going to write a harrowing Southern Black story. I’m just not going to do that. It’s often people from the north writing their great grandmother’s version of the South and I was like I can’t be one them writing the mammified South. So I was determined not to write any backstory for the first half of the book at all. I was going to keep it all toward the middle. And I knew that I couldn’t write a Black person from the Midwest. I don’t know what that’s like, so I wanted to write a Southern Black character but I didn’t want to drag in all the baggage.
Reviews talk about the South like it’s a major part of the book and a positive one, but really it’s only in very specific parts and what Wallace says lets you know it isn’t great for him. For Wallace, he didn’t know he was Southern until he got to the Midwest. He didn’t have that conscious reality of being a Southern Black man until he moves to the Midwest and people told he was other. Or when people pointed out his mannerisms it was, ”Is that a Southernism?”
Wallace’s primary experience in life is alienation and estrangement and even in the South he felt like he’d been exiled and in his own home he didn’t feel like he fit, so when he moved to the Midwest he thought he could find a place where he could merge and be at ease and that’s just not what happens. In fact the estrangement in the Midwest is more active and constantly shifting under his feet even as he tries to understand it.
Rumpus: I wondered if that was the overall question of the novel—Wallace wondering whether he should stay or go—but if he’s going to be an outsider everywhere he goes, he might as well stay. Who gets to decide that academia is or isn’t real life?
Taylor: It’s tied up in what has emerged as the larger question of, “What do you do when you realize you’ve made yourself smaller in the order to survive the circumstances of your life? And what do you do when that’s not enough anymore? When you’ve built your life on these concessions that require more and more of you, when happens when you decide you deserve more than that?”
Rumpus: That has me thinking about the catalyst of the book. At first I thought it was the experiment being destroyed and then I thought, no, it’s that Wallace’s father has passed and no one knows. And how grief shows up in ways we can never expect. I wondered if Wallace is moving through the whole novel in various stages of grief?
Taylor: Many things about the book have changed, but one thing that hasn’t is the first line. That’s one of the changes my agent wanted to make, was the first line, and I said, “No that has to be it,” because it’s the everything-ness of life. It’s choosing to go to the lake. It’s also your dad just died. It’s also your experiment just blew up. Everything comes for you at once.
To write about the weird space that is grief. I get frustrated with some books by Black authors who write about the death of the really important matriarch and the families always look one way. And the family is always the single most important thing in a life and the families aren’t complicated or messy. I get really frustrated by that. So I wanted to write about grief in a family that was made more complicated by all of these dimensions of trauma and class and sexuality and violence. It was important to have that current pulling the story along, so it’s not always there, but it permeates like a mood.
Photograph of Brandon Taylor by Bill Adams.