Religion, Writing, And The Gospel According To Jam Bands
Author Justin Taylor on why he loves the Grateful Dead and how his Jewish-American ancestry influences his writing.
Justin Taylor's first two books — his debut story collection Everything Here Is the Best Thing Ever and first novel Gospel of Anarchy — were a one-two punch that had the literary world reeling. Taylor's latest short story collection, Flings, is the uppercut, establishing him as a compassionate yet unflinching writer who delves deeply into the lives of his characters and varied worlds they inhabit. I sat down with him in his Brooklyn apartment to discuss his writing, his fascination with religion, and how he justifies his love of the Grateful Dead to skeptical strangers.
The title of your new book, Flings, is also the title of the first story in the book. Did you do this consciously, as a deliberately tone-setting choice?
Justin Taylor: Yeah, definitely. I wanted it to set the tone, but also the range, for the collection. That story covers a lot of time and covers a lot of different places. Over the course of the book you'll see most of those places and age ranges again. So it's kind of an overture or a thesis. A lot of the book is concerned with questions of commitment, whether that's between men and women, parents and children, friends and friendships, whatever. They're not really flings in the "weekend fling" sense, so I guess there's an irony there, but I'm also interested in "fling" as a verb. A lot of the characters are flinging themselves into — or out of — situations, places, relationships. And coming after the last collection, which was called Everything Here Is the Best Thing Ever, I wanted something that would immediately sound very different.
Was it a conscious choice to do another short story instead of another novel? Did you not want to do another novel after your previous work?
JT: I did — do! — want to do another novel. But I didn't have an idea for a novel right away after Gospel, which came out in February 2011, so figure that it was finished — give or take a few edits — about a year before that. I had been working on that novel for many years sort of alongside other things and I worked on it almost exclusively for that last year to finish it, so by the time it was really and truly done, I hadn't written a short story in close to a year and a half; I'd just been putting everything into the novel. That's probably as long as I've gone without writing a short story since I started writing, so returning to the form felt very natural and very freeing.
I started three or four stories in a short period of time and had a lot of fun moving between them: a little bit of this, a little bit of that; not like with a novel where you live in this one universe full time. "Flings" was one of the ones that came out of that period. "A Talking Cure" was another. A couple years went by. It must have been early 2012 when I looked at what I had and thought, "Well shit, this looks like it could be a book." It was somewhere between half and two-thirds complete, but I could see the shape of it, and I chose at that point to work on it in the same way one would work on a novel, or any other book you sit down and write on purpose, rather than watch accumulate of its own accord. Finishing Flings took about another year.
So it's just whatever happens, and if you see something that can be made into a workable thing, that's how it is?
JT: Well the novel I'm working on now is an idea I've been kicking around for a few years but for a long time hadn't felt either sufficient interest or focus to actually sit down and write. It takes a while, you know, to finish something and send it out and go through that whole process. If you're lucky, you're already working on the next manuscript, which takes your mind off the business side of things, but in this case, it didn't work that way. So really it was after the collection was kind of through edits and through that whole process and almost into galleys that I said "all right, you wrote the book you wanted to write then you took a long break. It's time to start the next thing."
It seems difficult to balance.
JT: It is difficult to balance. And part of it is, too, that your life changes. When I started working on Gospel of Anarchy in earnest in 2008, I thought, How am I going to get the voice of the novel and these individual characters really right? I decided to try an experiment and stop reading fiction entirely, so the only fiction voice in my head was my own. So for seven or eight months, I only read poetry, nonfiction, philosophy — stuff that was relevant to the book or my own interests, but no fiction. I'm sure that was the longest I've gone without reading fiction since I learned to read.
That seems really difficult.
JT: It was a good experience. It allowed me to make that book what I wanted it to be. At the time, I was teaching composition. My students read and wrote nonfiction, and the focus was on argument, clarity, citation — all that 101 stuff. But what I mean is that even though they were writing courses, they were effectively separate from my writing life. Now I teach creative writing and creative writing workshops and I don't have the option of deciding not to read any fiction at all because it's what I'm assigning to my students and what they're turning into me. So my experiment, fruitful as it was, can't become my standard procedure. My life simply won't allow for it.
But each book makes a different kind of demand on the writer. They don't all gestate the same way. I'm working on a new novel now, and it doesn't feel like it has to be so cloistered from the world. Gospel of Anarchy was a very insular book and it was about isolation, interiority, people radically disconnected from the world around them. The people in the new novel are not that way at all. They live in the mainstream, more or less, and are pop-culturally fluent. Because of that I've actually had to become a bit more plugged in than I would naturally choose to be. I joined Twitter because I was writing a lot of characters who were using it.
So the decision to join Twitter was a personal choice or a something you did for research?
JT: Both. There's basically no difference. But what finally made me do it was I'd written a scene in this book that hinged on an errant tweet and its aftermath and I realized that I had no sense of the platform. I'm not a Luddite. I've been on Facebook for a thousand years, and my characters send texts, use Google Maps, whatever. But individual online communities/platforms/services generate their own specific kinds of etiquette and rhetoric and attitude, and I thought it was worth my time to get a sense of what that was. I will say I am very happy that I joined Twitter. It's really fun. I love the immediacy of it, and the fact that it's built around interaction rather than announcement.
I feel like a lot of people, for a while now, have talked about how Twitter is a place where you actually talk to the people you want to talk to as opposed to the weird social obligation you have to your friends on Facebook. But in this collection, the way you handle people and the way they interact through social media feels like some of the most natural seeming writing, not clunky in the way a lot of writing that incorporates social media can feel. Do you find it difficult to get that just right?
JT: The one thing you don't want to do is fetishize the technology. Nothing ages faster or more poorly than one's sense of what constitutes the cutting edge. You try to learn enough about it to describe it with competence, then write it the way it feels to the character using it. It's an essentially naturalist approach. And if you're writing about contemporary characters, young or old, it's probably more difficult to exclude social media and digital interactions than it is to include them.
In "Flings" a character named Ellen anticipates someone proposing to her and imagines the photo she's going to post to her Facebook page of the ring on her finger. It's a perfectly normal daydream for her to have and so you write it that way. Then's there a character like Carol, the older woman in "Carol, Alone," who's checking her email, but is using a desktop computer her son set up for her. There's two or three things she knows how to do on it and she feels good about them, but beyond that she's simply not going to get involved.
You noted in the book that you interviewed some of your relatives for stories like "Carol, Alone." Is research important to all of your fiction or just certain stories like that one?
JT: When I started talking to my grandparents and great aunt, I didn't have anything specific in mind. I think my grandmother must have triggered it. I was down in Florida visiting them and we went out to dinner one night and she started telling this story about a candy store the family had owned a few generations back and the guy who'd owned it. He was very religious and sat in the back of the store and read Torah all day while his wife — he worked this woman to death. He studied Torah all day. And the image seemed so incredible: this depression-era candy store halfway to Coney Island and this woman making malteds and selling candy and newspapers out front and this guy in the back doing whatever. I loved it. So I asked for more details, and more stories about their grandparents and their childhoods, which I knew almost nothing about. It's all set in and around Brooklyn. Eventually I had all these notes and so when I was writing "Carol, Alone" and "The Happy Valley," it was easy to draw on that material, and felt right to do so. Some of if it I fudged and some of it I rewrote, but a lot of it is family straight history. The stories were good as they were and they seemed to suite the characters, so why bother to make it untrue just for the sake of making it untrue?
I think "The Happy Valley" must've been what started me using those notes because in that story I was really just writing about Hong Kong. That story has everything I know about Hong Kong jammed into it and from all the time I spent there over several years, when my cousins lived there, but as the relationship between Danielle and her father in the story seemed to hinge on her sense of his sense of Jewish identity, it made sense to send her to visit the Jewish cemetery in Hong Kong, which is a crazy place. I took about a hundred photos of the graves when I toured it. Every single place in "The Happy Valley" is right where I say it is. You can eat the food, you can see the Buddhas, all that stuff. I like writing that way whenever possible. I spend a lot of time trying to get places as real as I possibly can.
Judaism seems, in a certain way, prevalent throughout your work. A lot of your work — Gospel of Anarchy, but a lot of your short stories too — involve this sort of this secularized spirituality. It permeates your stories. Is that something you're thinking about and deliberately putting in your work or does it just manifest itself?
JT: It usually manifests as I write. I have a pretty strong religious streak. It's narrow, but it's strong. It's kind of always been there. It's in the way I write, it's in the way I think, it's in the way I read. I have a real appetite for religious thinking, scholarship, mystical writing. It manifests in different ways at different times. In Everything Here Is The Best Thing Ever, Judaism tends to show up in its secular, cultural form. Gospel of Anarchy is a book about Christianity as much as it's about anything else. The central argument that the characters make, that the book does its best to take seriously, is that Christianity and anarchism are essentially two sides of the same coin, or at any rate deeply reconcilable and maybe even necessary to each other. I could talk for an hour about how I came to those ideas and why they're interesting to me, but I won't.
After writing that book I felt very liberated from everything that had driven me to write it and so it felt quite natural and right to turn back towards Judaism — my own culture and traditions — and to start to think about those things and explore them. I read Abraham Heschel's wonderful book on the Sabbath, which wasn't actually "research" for this collection — it just made me a better person. Gershom Scholem on the Kabbalah; a lot of the imagery from his On the Mystical Shape of the Godhead ended up in the story "Adon Olam." Somewhere along the way I discovered Tales of the Hassidim, which provides one of the book's two epigraphs. Tales is an amazing, amazing book that Martin Buber compiled/edited/maybe actually wrote. Like maybe "best practices" of folklore collection were not strictly followed. Oh well.
Anyway the book collects hundreds of these parable-length legends about the various great Hassidic Rabbis of Old Europe, grouped into "the early masters" and "the later masters." It's a mix of their teachings and bizarre fables about them, their lives. That epigraph about the soul is a complete text of one of those fables and there's probably five hundred of them. The other epigraph is Saul Bellow, from Herzog. I'm probably over-selling the Jewish content at this point, but what the hell. In fact, let me also mention Joshua Cohen, one of the great Jewish authors of our time — A Heaven of Others, Witz; two name two of my favorites — but also a great friend. He's someone I can always bounce ideas off of, who can always tell me which book to go to next, which translation to read. I wouldn't have found Buber's Tales without him, and the Hebrew that appears in "Adon Olam" is his. I wanted a Hebrew name for the summer camp where the story is set, and I described to him what I wanted it to mean, in terms of the themes of the story and the Kabbalist stuff I was messing with, and he came up with a few different phrases that fit the bill. In the end I went with "Klippot Ketanot," which translates more or less to "shards of youth" or, better still, "peels of youth."
Speaking of shards of youth, you went to a Phish concert recently?
JT: I did. Two Phish concerts, actually. Back to back. They were so good.
This is something that puzzles me. I feel like people who know your work and also know what a big fan you are of bands like Phish and the Grateful Dead might be confused. I think of someone who's a very avid fan of those bands, I don't think of someone like you. Have you ever had someone question the credulousness or earnestness of your enjoyment of these bands?
JT: Yes, plenty. I think that it throws some people or possibly just disappoints them. What can I tell you? The Dead are going on literally half a century of existence. Thirty years of touring in the original incarnation and another 15, almost 20, of post-Jerry Garcia iterations and archival releases. Whenever anything has that kind of longevity or duration, it's going to not only be wider and more diverse than you think it is, it's going to be self-renewing: Older fans get bored or die off; new people old and young become fans and in so doing redefine what the music and surrounding community mean, in a way that is perhaps not obvious from the outside. As for Phish, it's easy to think of them as very contemporary, and I guess they are, but they date their own beginning to 1983. They just celebrated their 30th anniversary last year. That's almost two generations of existing, starting from a time they were younger than I am now.
One thing I admire and appreciate in both bands is their use of the set, the show, the run, and the tour as units of musical thought. Maybe that sounds stupid but it's true. These are bands whose base unit of performance is about 90 minutes. They play two sets a night, with nothing repeated, and what they did the night before informs what they'll do the next night.
I guess that's hard for people to understand.
JT: Yeah, I don't know. I'm not a jam-band scenester. I think people are initially surprised that I'd give a shit about the Dead or Phish at all and then after that they're maybe even more surprised that I don't know what the next 10 bands down the line.
It's rare to meet people who like jam bands, as people call them derisively, that isn't committed to a whole scene.
JT: I'm not committed to the scene at all. It's not that I have anything against it, it's just that it doesn't appear on my radar. Maybe some of it has to do with when I got into those bands. The Dead are just kind of their own thing. I love the music, they're my favorite band, I own hundreds of hours of their material and Garcia's solo stuff. For better or worse, it gets me in a way that nothing else does. So you can almost bracket that off.
As far as Phish goes, I do love them, but I don't feel nearly as strongly about them as I do about the Dead. To me they're almost not even in the same category. I've been seeing shows off and on since I was a teenager. The story that's in the collection, "Mike's Song," is written about a show I went to, Dec. 28, 2009. If you cut through the scene stuff and the hippie stuff and the all the things that make it feel weird or unpalatable to an outsider, what it comes down to is four guys who have been playing with each other for 30 years, to the point where they can read each other's minds. They're just incredible performers, and they're going to give you three hours of music for about 50 bucks. That's the sort pitch I'd make to someone who's completely baffled by it.
It's probably not as alienating as a lot of the scenes in Brooklyn right now. I go to a lot of small, DIY shows. A lot of those communities are a bit exclusionary.
JT: Oh I'm sure. But it's a different scale. I used to go to those kinds of shows when I was in college in Florida, and also here when I first moved to the city. I would still go to one now, but if I were to go, I would expect, first of all, to be the oldest person there and, second of all, that no one would talk to me. They would look askance at me like, "How did he find out about this?" And that would be a totally reasonable question for those people to ask. The answer is probably that I found out from you, Aaron, or that one of my students told me. A Phish show is a different thing. It's thousands and thousands of people in a field, or at Madison Square Garden. And at least 75% of them are stoned off their face.
Here's a Hasidic parable for you: We were standing behind these people at the show I went to recently, an older couple, about my parents' age, who had obviously come in from Long Island. They had these folding chairs. The mom had mom hair and she was sitting in the chair the whole time and the dad was wearing this loose tank top that said "Long Beach Weekend Warrior." They were there with their daughter so I assumed at first that she must have dragged them, but then I watched them rip through three joints and sing along to every word. The old songs, the new songs. They were just so into it. In the middle of some jam, the guy starts reproposing to his wife, getting into this whole grandiose thing, and a bunch of us are watching now, a kind of crowd within the crowd, and what does she do? Turns him down! Kidding, I assume, but she said no. And he turns to all of us and shouts, "Her loss, I'm filthy rich!" And it's probably true. That guy's probably your dentist.