“I’m not Joyce Carol Oates,” Taylor says via Zoom from his Iowa City apartment. “I just don’t have a life. All I do is write all day.” He claims he owes his intense and fruitful work habits to his years, before Iowa, in a doctoral program for biochemistry at the University of Wisconsin–Madison. “Science grad school destroyed any sense of work-life balance or the ability to sleep. It’s not hard if you just shirk all your responsibilities and do the thing.”
After the Iowa program, the novelist Garth Greenwell, a friend of Taylor’s, noticed he could write quickly and encouraged him to “live by his pen,” prompting him to build a name for himself with a steady output of essays.
Taylor’s big laugh, bright eyes, and wide smile balance a sturdy and serious composure. He speaks confidently and thoughtfully, using his outstretched hands to hold an idea or a detail, sometimes sending it off with a flick of the fingers—such as when he mentions how stories would come in and out over different drafts of his linked collection as they evolved. The noon light cuts through the mini blinds on the windows surrounding him in the apartment. He wears a black fleece vest and baseball cap, along with a black-and-white-striped, long-sleeved tee, a casual complement to the striped sweater worn in his author photo.
Taylor has had a long journey to becoming a writer, marked by hard work from the beginning. He grew up on a farm in rural Prattville, Ala. His parents, who met as kids while living across the road from one another in Prattville, both come from big families. “I was related to everyone around me for like dozens of miles in any particular direction,” he says. There was hunting and fishing with his brother and cousins, and he absorbed a range of skills, such as learning how to fix cars and tractors. “I always think of it as my family was preparing me for one kind of life. And that’s just not the life I live now.”
Taylor was also responsible for reading the family’s bills and medications (their “admin and clerical work,” as he calls it now), since his parents were mostly illiterate. “Reading wasn’t a big thing in my family,” he says. “We were country people.”
As an undergraduate at Auburn University, Taylor majored in chemistry, but writing was always a big interest, and he received encouragement from his “lit nerd” friends. He looks back fondly on college—he says it was when he began to befriend other Black people interested in creative pursuits and find a sense of community. After a bookseller at an Auburn Books-a-Million told him that the store didn’t stock books by Black writers because it was a “family store,” he felt especially driven, he recalls. “I went home and wrote my first real short story in a furious rage. I was like, how dare you tell me you’re not going to stock this in a family store?”
Taylor’s interest in writing initially took a backseat to his interest in science, as the 15- to 18-hour days in the lab left little time for anything else. But the itch to write was still there, and he wasn’t happy without doing it. At a Lambda retreat in 2015, he met novelist Justin Torres, whose encouragement began to help him see that he could confidently change course. He began publishing stories, and by the end of 2016 he had his first draft of Real Life, which he dashed off in five weeks.
Real Life follows Wallace, a Black gay biochemistry student clearly modeled on Taylor, who navigates microagressions from his friends and racist double standards in the lab, where he suspects someone sabotaged his work. Taylor says when he wrote it, “I felt like I was floundering in science for reasons related to how my advisor chose to encourage me.” At that point, he chose writing over science. When told that some people read Real Life as a metaphor for writing school, he laughs and says, “No, it was literally just about being a scientist. It was in fact a metaphor for science school, unfortunately.”
Also during that pre-Iowa burst, Taylor wrote the first draft of Filthy Animals, which is mainly set in Madison. The result, which has been extensively rewritten (he significantly revised one story just a week before this conversation took place), pushes further on his interest in uncomfortable situations.
Taylor’s agent, Meredith Kaffel Simonoff, calls him a “master of wrenching moments” that are often sparked by fraught interactions between people. Referring to the stories in Filthy Animals, she says these moments “arrive each time on the page like a subtle and ravishing detonation.”
After reading the first pass, Taylor says he felt he had more to do on a story called “What Made Them Made You,” about a North Carolina family. Many of the book’s stories had already been published, and Taylor says his editor, Cal Morgan, asked, “Why are you blowing them up?”
When asked about the revision process, Morgan says, “There is a kind of reality that sets in the first time you see a book typeset, that makes you ask different questions of it and respond to different things within it. He’s aware of harmonics under the surface that even I, after having read the book seven or eight times, hadn’t picked up on, but that amounted to small challenges he wanted to set himself.”
Explaining how he approaches building out a linked collection, Taylor says he’s “always thinking in constellations of stories. I don’t write a story until I have a sense of how it fits into a larger manuscript.”
The opener, “Potluck,” traces the collection’s constellation. In it, Taylor commits to peeling away the awkwardness, insecurity, and uncertainty that often delineate interactions with strangers. Lionel, a Black gay man, is treading back out into the world after extensive psychiatric care following a suicide attempt. He used to be in a graduate program for math. Now he works as a test proctor. At a dinner party, he trades glances with Charles, a dancer, who is there with this girlfriend, Sophie. After the exchange of looks, the two men chat.
As the story progresses, exploring the points of view of Charles and Sophie, it comes to light that the two are in an open relationship. In later stories, the couple’s arrangement seems to bother Sophie less than Charles, and when she encourages Charles to sleep with Lionel, it leads to complications among the trio.
While the characters don’t always take the best care of each other—parents disapprove of their children’s sexuality or career choices, and feelings are selfishly trampled upon—Taylor always treats them considerately, eschewing judgment for understanding.
This quality, Morgan says, is at the root of Taylor’s powers. “There’s not a touch or a word in his stories that is casual,” he adds. “Everything is so intently meaningful that we feel the need to take them as seriously as he does.”
—A Year in Reading: Brandon Taylor
This piece was produced in partnership with Publishers Weekly.