“With a Bit of What I’m Sure the Kids Don’t Call ‘Tude’”: Q&A With Justin Taylor

by Keene Short

Filed under: Blog |

Justin Taylor is the author of one novel, The Gospel of Anarchy, and two short story collections, Everything Here is the Best Thing Ever, and, most recently, Flings. He recently read here at UNL from Flings, which felt fitting, since Prairie Schooner published the title story in Summer 2012. I emailed Justin a few questions about his book, and about story collections as a genre. Enjoy!

Can you tell us a bit about the collection Flings as a whole?
It's a collection of a dozen stories, all more or less "contemporary" and more or less "realist" though some of them are secretly experimental in their approach to structure, point of view, or time. I say "secretly" because this aspect of them is not emphasized in the jacket copy or the work itself, but it is there. Three stories have clearly defined, albeit tenuous, connections to each other. One is connected to a story from my first book. Otherwise what they share are certain common or at any rate overlapping/recurring thematic and stylistic concerns that are maybe better encountered than described.

Tell us about the story “Flings” (published in Prairie Schooner 86.2). What inspired you to write it?
"Flings" is a loose homage to my own post-undergraduate dissipation, written in even looser homage to Virginia Woolf's The Waves, a book I love and have read and taught and reckoned with many times. I imagined what an analog of her novel conceived & written by me might look like, then I tried to write the equivalent of one stray chapter of it, getting as close as I could in terms of time-span covered and actual length. To keep things from getting too subservient, I tried to get as far away from her lyrical, sweeping style as I could–and so her daisy-chain of breathless inner monologues became a roving close-third person, unattached but voice-y, and with a bit of what I'm sure the kids don't call "'tude."

What are the oldest and newest stories in this collection? How has your writing changed between those two?
The oldest stories in the collection are "A Night Out" and "Saint Wade," both of which were part of the manuscript for my first book, in much earlier and incomplete forms–which is why they were left out of the final version. My editor, rightly, intervened. I'm going to guess that those two stories go back to 2006 or so. After I turned in the manuscript for Everything Here Is the Best Thing Ever in early 2009, I spent a year and change working exclusively on The Gospel of Anarchy, to get the mostly-finished book to actually-finished status. After I turned that book in, in April 2010, it was thrilling to get back to the short story form, to be able to dip in and out of many worlds.

The stories in Everything Here are shorter and more invested in minimalism as a style than the ones in Flings. The stories in Flings are longer, slower-paced, and less committed to revealing themselves with maximum dispatch. The first collection has 15 stories packed into 45,000 words. The second one has 12 stories distributed across 60,000 words. It's the longest book I've written–though it must be said that this isn't, in the greater scheme of literary things, very long.

What do you think of story collections as a genre, as compared to novels or memoirs?
They're totally different and largely unrelated forms, so I'm not sure how to compare them to each other. For what it's worth I think the short story as a form has more in common with the poem (or, perhaps less plausibly, the painting) than with the novel, even though story and novel are both comprised of prose fiction. For me the bigger and more urgent question is how does the story collection understand itself? I've taught a class on this subject a few times, "The Story Collection Considered as a Form," and then wrote an essay for Poets & Writers in which I attempted to distill a semester's worth of thinking and discussion into a kind of thesis statement. Without self-cannibalizing the essay too much, I think I can say that the writer should strive for the same sort of coherence-through-variety that a good album has, and that the reader should be willing to find that coherence in places other plot/character/setting–e.g., all the things that in a novel or memoir we typically expect to be consistent throughout.

For more information on Taylor, click here to visit his website. To buy Flings (now out in paperback!), click here.