The Alternative Hypotheses: A Conversation with Brandon Taylor

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The thing about any modern online friendship: it’s hard to really determine origin. You follow a friend of a friend, or you follow a person because they seem to share similar interests, or you see a person’s Good Tweet and make the decision to include them in your life in some small way.

I don’t remember why or when or how I started following Brandon Taylor on Twitter or when we became friends, but I also know my life is distinctly split into Before Brandon and the present. Even online, it was easy to see that he was an incredible writer and kind person. I do remember the first time I met Brandon in real life. It was at a Tin House Summer Workshop reading, and I remember seeing him from across the outdoor auditorium, that sort of surprise at seeing someone you only knew through a screen but now in person. We ate dinner at a Japanese restaurant with a few of my friends, and I remember Brandon talking about the Midwest and Naruto/Boruto. The meal had the warmth and comfort of being around friends you feel like you’ve known forever.

The thing about Brandon: everyone who knows him, even to the smallest degree, knows that he is absolutely brilliant. I don’t really even have to expand on that. If you’ve read his debut novel, Real Life (critically acclaimed, shortlisted for the Booker Prize, NBCC Prize, and Young Lions Fiction Award, with a movie adaptation from Kid Cudi currently in development), if you’ve read his short stories, if you’ve read of his essays (either from his own newsletter or published elsewhere), if you’ve so much as existed in his physical or virtual space, you know what I’m talking about. He is an editor, a writer, a biochemist, a photographer, an appreciator of good knitwear and Bon Iver, an Alice Munro stan, a Crusader Kings fan, and an all-around thoughtful and empathetic human being.

You’ll have even more opportunity to experience Brandon’s brilliance with his first collection of short stories, Filthy Animals, released yesterday from Riverhead Books. It’s a collection that puts his writing skills on full display, from richly complex characters exploring intimacy to chilly Midwestern settings to physical descriptions that had me regularly rereading passages.

I had the immense honor to talk with Brandon via email about the new story collection, the complications of desire, the comforts of sadness, and being fair to your characters.

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The Rumpus: Your work spans novels, short stories, and essays, and it feels and reads so seamless. I’m curious how you decide what becomes a short story, essay, or novel.

Brandon Taylor: I feel that my work in those media are so different that it’s usually pretty clear to me what will be a story and what will be a novel and what will be an essay. I don’t like to go into projects with a real clear sense of the dimensions of the thing. I don’t write a story, for example, until I have a sense of the concerns that will govern the manuscript that the story will eventually rest within. I don’t just reel off stories just for fun. They have to fit within a larger constellation of narrative. Likewise, with a novel, I know when something is a novel because when I sit down to write it, I am doing so with a clear intention of writing a novel. I wasted a lot of time early on trying to make things fit forms and scales that weren’t suitable for them. I pursued a lot of intractable, silly projects that never went anywhere because I wasn’t good at setting out clear goals for myself. Now I try to move with maximum intention. I’m not really a “let’s see where this goes” kind of writer in terms of form and structure. I try to be clear with myself up front.

Rumpus: I know you’re working on another novel, but you’ve also told me and the internet that you are but a writer of tight short stories of domesticity. And you write essays, through your weekly newsletter and in countless publications. Do you have a preference these days for what you like to write?

Taylor: Right now, I’m really not able to write fiction. There are times when the fiction brain just is not cooperating. I started writing the newsletter just to give myself something to do creatively. I was really struggling with not being able to write during the last half of 2020. It was difficult for me. I turned to nonfiction mainly just as a way to feel like I was writing again and like myself. I’ve been surprised by the quality of the writing that’s come out of that. I really had no intentions other than just trying to get some exercise in that way. I’d like to be able to get back to the novel and to writing stories, and it’s been horribly miserable the last few months not to do so. But so far, the nonfiction writing is the only thing keeping me from totally dissolving into a pile of goo on the floor. It’s a nice outlet, but I’d always rather be writing fiction.

Rumpus: I’m personally always interested in desire, and how writers present it. Desire is an indelible part of all your stories in the collection, and I love that your characters’ sense of desire (and acting on it) can be so complex and vulnerable but not always outright soft and sweet. There is a sort of edge or anger or even violence to it that runs through every story, whether it’s Charles biting a little too hard on Lionel’s cheek, the way that Sophie sort of plays with both Lionel and Charles, the climax of Hartjes and Simon’s story, or the four boys featured in the title story. It’s honestly a really incredible balance. Can you talk to me about how you approach writing that sense of desire?

Taylor: I think desire has long been a core concern in much of queer and Black literature, and it’s obvious why that is, you know. I mean, for people who exist under an overculture, our lives are surveilled, and our desires are policed and regulated quite a bit, and sometimes even made illegal or called immoral. But desire is such a part of being human. We all have desires. Even if they aren’t sexual. We all have things that we want. That we crave.

For me, desire is complicated. My desire is complicated by an ambivalence I feel toward the idea of sex. An ambivalence that stems in no small part from a history of sexual violence and trauma, and emotional abuse, that sort of thing. For a long time, I thought that my desire grew in malformed, that I’d never be normal or be able to experience desire in the way that other people seemed to. But what I’ve come to understand is that everyone feels that way. We all carry around some strange, prickly unease with respect to our desires. And every person’s desire, and relationship to desire, is different, and one’s journey to self-acceptance can be seen as a function of one’s changing relationship to their desires.

In my stories, I’m always trying to articulate the many-sidedness, the polygonal aspect of desire. The aspect that can reveal that we are sometimes, in the darkest, smallest parts of ourselves, fundamentally strange and unknown to ourselves. Desire is complicated, and I think it’s an important part of my work for sure.

Rumpus: Okay, Real Life has a (now infamous) dinner party scene, and the Lionel-Charles-Sophie cycle in Filthy Animals starts with a dinner party. Both parties are, let’s say, awkward (though I don’t know many dinner parties that aren’t!). What’s your fascination with dinner parties, and why do they make such incredible catalysts for characters?

Taylor: I think that I’ve always been interested in sites of social collision. Those moments when we’ve all opted into a social contract that says that we have agreed to eat dinner together and no one can leave too soon or it’s rude, and things like that. To me, there is no more artificial and constructed of a social situation than the dinner party. It somehow makes the rules of the social game quite explicit but also, you spend the whole time pretending that it’s totally natural and casual even as some really high-speed social calculus is constantly unraveling over your heads. It’s amazing to me.

Much depends upon the outcome of a dinner party, I think! They can make or break you socially. They can be a site of welcome or ostracism. And everyone is simultaneously playacting and being totally sincere. I don’t know, it’s just a phase of socializing that feels very heightened and extreme to me. Plus, I love thinking about interiors and set-design, and a dinner party is an opportunity to describe things and really inhabit the world of a story. So, I greedily insert them into almost everything I write.

Rumpus: Something I really admire about how you write your characters is how fairly you treat them. The reader is free to judge, for sure, but your characters are so deeply understanding of each other, understanding of human mistakes and insecurities, and you allow each character that level of empathetic interiority. How do you extend that level of fairness and non-judgment to your characters?

Taylor: I think it’s about what D. H. Lawrence calls moral fiction. Fiction that preserves the true relation between things without distorting them to make the reader feel comfortable or happy or smug. I think we live in a complex matrix of ethical and moral relations to each other. And one’s view of that matrix is, of course, entirely subjective. What is not subjective is that we are all interconnected. That is what a society is. And I think no observer of that society can get very far if they aren’t interested in the relations between people and they can’t do a very good job of their observing of those relations if they don’t acknowledge the basic truth that people’s responses are these readouts of complicated human histories. Subjective human realities.

Whenever I’m tempted to take a character’s side in an exchange, I try to see it from the other character’s perspective. I try to let the shade of other possibilities fall upon the reader’s eye so that they must contend with what my Eukaryotic Molecular Bio professor used to call, “the alternative hypotheses.” That it wasn’t enough to come up with one reasonable answer that fit all the data, and that the real work was imagining other, credible hypotheses that might also take into account the data. I try to layer those alternative hypotheses within a story for the reader, but of course, you can’t do that infinitely, and so one must curate. Hopefully, what emerges from the work is an almost three-dimensional moral aspect. And I think that three-dimensional moral aspect is what we call fairness.

Rumpus: I think a lot about our conversation about how happiness can feel foreign, that trying to cheer up others can feel like a strange act. Not that we are incapable of joy and brightness and hope in all its facets, but there’s a familiarity or even comfort in sadness (distinct from depression). I’m wondering if that plays into your stories and the way that your characters relate to each other.

Taylor: Oh yes. Yes. Yes. Yes. There’s this review of the book that says something like “the stories have a sepulchral cast” and I don’t disagree. I think that there is certainly a kind of melancholic filter thrown across all of my work. It’s a part of my subjective reality. It’s deeply entrenched. The at-homeness I feel in sadness. The inwardness I feel in sadness. I feel sometimes that happiness is something one puts on for other people. It feels like an outward posture. Or at least, the social aspect of happiness, I’ll say, feels that way to me. But there is something deeply satisfying in the Eeyore effect, you know? Something so cozy about not having to psych yourself up to smile and bounce around in the world and make other people feel comfortable about your brain chemistry. It just feels that when I let my guard down and feel totally at ease with myself, there is this stomach-tingle of sadness there. I feel like myself when I’m sad. I feel deep satisfaction in it. But I think we also said in that conversation that we are some A+ wallowers. Love to wallow, haha.

Rumpus: I do truly love to wallow.

Much of these stories take place in the Midwest, with the Lionel-Charles-Sophie cycle and the other connected stories set in or around Madison. It feels so distinct from Los Angeles, or New York, or whatever other Big City™. How does setting your stories in the Midwest help you shape your characters?

Taylor: The Midwest was the first place I lived as a mature observational intelligence moving through the world. Of course I am from the South and still consider myself fundamentally Southern, and the cast of my characterization feels quite Southern to me. The sensibility of the writing and the character-making. But when it comes to putting all of that into practice, into actual narrative, the setting that I know best is the Midwest. Because that’s where I was an adult on my own for the first time.

I write characters in the Midwest because that’s kind of what I know. What it’s like to be between the ages of twenty-five and thirty-five in this particular part of the country. I used to try to write about New Yorkers and people in big cities, but I don’t know what life is like there. I don’t know how the light falls in those places. How the people’s eyes shift and change when something passes across the surface of their mind. But I was raised on a farm and in small towns and I’ve lived in small and mid-sized cities, and I know what the light looks like in a place like Madison or Iowa City. I think the Midwest has its share of large cities, sprawling cities, urban centers, and I don’t write about those either. I simply don’t know what it’s like to live amid the sprawl. Thankfully, there are many writers who have the urban beat down. I’m interested in all the rest of it. I guess I’m living that Sherwood Anderson life, but Black and gay, haha.

Rumpus: My personal favorite story in the collection is “Anne of Cleves,” which really beautifully gets at the push and pull of trying to understand the other person in a relationship while dealing with the invasiveness of outside forces. Can you talk to me about how that story started and how it fits into the collection as a whole?

Taylor: I love that you love that story. I think of “Anne of Cleves” as the one true love story in the book. It’s one of those stories that I just feel very lucky to have gotten. Because I was sitting in a bookstore here in Iowa City, Prairie Lights, and I had this sudden image in my mind of two women on a first date. And I thought, Wouldn’t it be great if someone got asked on their first date which of Henry VIII’s wives you most relate to? I thought it was so funny and such a silly idea, but then I thought, No, I want to read that. I got up, walked home, and like two hours later had the whole first draft of the story written. It really came all on one wave. The whole thing just descended into my mind totally intact. It was the first story I had written that wasn’t just one long scene in a very long time, and it felt so right. I sometimes reread it to laugh about all of the history parts in it. It’s one of my favorite stories, not that I have favorites.

As for how it fits into the collection, I think that it is a nice counterbalance to some of the other stories, which can skew a little dark or painful. I think the story also serves as a nice counterpoint to the title story “Filthy Animals,” in that it’s a love story that goes right. A person feels that they can express something about themselves, and they receive love and affirmation for it. And I feel that the story just makes everything cohere. It’s, to me, one of the hearts of the book, and it’s the story that resolves some of the harsher notes of the book. I don’t think the collection would work without it.

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Photograph of Brandon Taylor by Bill Adams.


Alvin Park lives and writes in Portland. His work has been featured in SmokeLong Quarterly, The Mojave River Review, Wyvern Lit, Synaesthesia Magazine, Wildness, and more. He is Korean. More from this author →