Interview with the author
Few writers can boast the instant success Brandon Taylor has had over the last three years. His debut novel, Real Life, was released in the summer of 2020, in the middle of the pandemic, by a small publishing house. For some, this would have signalled an ending before they’d even begun. But Taylor’s novel, which followed a Black gay biochemistry student over a fraught weekend, won the acclaim that is usually reserved for established writers, not debutantes. A place on the Booker Prize shortlist quickly came and, in just a few weeks, it felt Brandon was already an established and respected name in the literary scene.
His latest novel, The Late Americans, is a much vaster work than his debut. Gone are the tight constraints of Real Life — the single protagonist, the weekend-length timeframe — instead here we have a whole cast of characters and endless time. It feels like Taylor has allowed himself to breathe with this novel, to see where his characters take him. The result is something quite rare in contemporary literature — a novel that takes its time and empowers its characters to become actual people. We chatted to Brandon just as The Late Americans was being released across the UK.
Barry Pierce: The novel opens with this amazing evisceration of writers workshops, these cabals where writers-in-progress go to refine their first major works, which are often advertised as open forums of ideas but, in reality, can just be cesspits of clashing political ideologies and generally pretty fraught spaces. What lead you to going in on them as much as you do?
Brandon Taylor: I mean, for a long time I was going around calling myself a workshop abolitionist. And it very much has to do with my own constitution more than anything else, but I just found [workshops] really harmful. In the workshops I was in, the person whose work was being discussed was not allowed to talk. You would sit there for an hour (a lot of times, two hours), while people talked and talked about your work and ascribed things to you and to your text that, you know, sometimes were very tenuous readings. And that just felt so hostile and so wearing. I hated every moment of it.
So when it came to the book, I wanted to write about the workshop because I just found it to be a deeply absurd structure. This idea that a bunch of people who have no formal training whatsoever get together and their formal training is to pretend to have authority over someone else’s work.
BP: The concept of the “workshop novel” has been discussed a lot recently, in that some novels feel far too perfect, far too clean, as if they have been workshopped to death. Is this novel, in some ways, a response to that?
BT: I sort of go back and forth on that because you can tell when a novel or a piece of writing has been machined down. But it is true of a lot of fiction, not just workshop fiction, that feels totally frictionless. Where the conflicts feel like they’ve been very carefully orchestrated, but there’s no real human drama. I think this is maybe reinforced by readers, when there’s fiction that has any friction in it or any texture whatsoever, people are like, “Oh my gosh, this is horrible!” What’s been interesting about the response to this book is that people are telling me there’s so many characters in this and all I can think is we used to read Dickens! My book has eight characters in it, and it’s just some dudes and their boyfriends.
BP: There used to be character lists at the beginning of novels!
BT: I love a dramatic personae! But yeah, the standard American novel written in a workshop is, like, nice, tight, three max characters, maybe they’ll have a name, and they go into rooms and they go out of rooms and they have these neatly delineated conflicts. [laughs]
BP: Well, how do we save contemporary fiction then? Because I know you’re an editor at a publishing house now and I imagine you have to wade through a lot of recently-written novels.
BT: I’m looking for books that remind me of the books I love. That remind me of Evelyn Waugh or Henry James, but that also feel distinctly modern. I’m looking for people who are writing messy but big books, like books that are really alive and haven’t been too carefully managed. I think saving literature comes down to — 1) Editors doing their jobs and editing books.
BP: Okay you’re asking a lot here.
BT: [laughs] And — 2) Just taking more risks. Not being afraid to be a little in bad taste because it’s going to get you somewhere interesting. To write books that feel like the answer is complicated. No more easy stuff.
You want books that would stretch you to write the marketing copy for. I think there are a lot of books that, when they come in, you read it and the marketing copy is already descending in your mind. It’s like a harrowing tale of coming of age in insert small town or grappling with contemporary ideas of masculinity in insert American urban centre. I think we need to take these books and ask more of them.
BP: You mentioned Dickens earlier and while I was reading the novel I kept on thinking about it in terms of Victorian fiction because it’s about the interplay between all these characters. Is this your Victorian novel, or do you associate it closer to another era or movement? Is there a specific author you’re trying to play off?
BT: Honestly, I think this book is most like an Anthony Trollope novel. Especially, he has this book The Way We Live Now and the opening of it is this woman scamming these three editors into promoting her book for her and sort of doing literary grifting. The way he moves in and around the different POVs of the different editors and the way he moves around in POV in that book in general. And of course, his book are such richly social books but they’re also, in the way of soap operas, richly personal and interpersonal. So I think the shape and form of The Late Americans to me, it feels like a Trollope novel.
BP: I can totally see Trollope. And you touch on the social aspects of his novel, which I think is very apt to your book because so much of the novel is, I think, dedicated to analysing class in America. It’s something that a lot of contemporary British novels are doing, looking at class as a huge influence in the lives of its characters, but it isn’t something that’s touched on that much in American novels, from what I can recall.
BT: Well, class is so different between the UK and America. In America, we view being poor as a moral failing and if you are poor it is because you have simply not done the proper programme to become un-poor. In America, class is there to be transcended and if you are worse off than your parents were, you have somehow failed at being an American and you are not embodying the proper American values. Whereas, when I talk about class with British people they’re like, whoa, what do you mean transcend your class? It is an immutable part of your identity! I find that really fascinating.
The curious thing about class in America is that it is either deeply racialised or we pretend it isn’t racialised, even though race and class often go together in that country because of capitalism and the horrors of slavery. I wanted to mostly write about the absurdity of it, the difficulty of it, the slipperiness of it. How, when you’re a grad student, people project onto you all these middle-class values, both for good and for bad, and you sometimes internalise them even though you have no money in your bank account.
BP: Okay, my final question, the characters in The Late Americans all have these interesting, sort of Eastern European names, like Fyodor and Hartjes and Goran and Ivan. What was your idea behind that?
BT: Ah, well, when I was in graduate school, my white classmates would often say to me that I had “concealed” the race of my characters or that I was writing veiled narrators. Because I would refuse to describe them as, like, mocha or almond, but to me, I was writing very obviously Black characters if you knew where to look. A Black reader, reading my work, would quickly be like, “Oh yes this is a Black person, look at how his mother talks! Or here’s a thing his parents do.” So I was trying to capture my characters’ subjectivity and the white readers were like, “Why do I find out on page eight that the character is Black!?”
I was so insulted by the very premise of the question that I was like, okay, I will other my characters for you but I will not let the thing that others them in your mind be their skin colour. I’m going to pick these incredibly ethnic European names and every time there is a character of colour in here, I’m going to give them a name like Fyodor or Hartjes or Goran or Timo. And that way, if you say to me, “These names don’t seem appropriate,” I’m going to force you to tell me why a Black person can’t be named Grisha. I need you to say it with your human mouth.
BP: So it’s entirely a petty thing.
BT: Oh absolutely! Barbara Kingsolver just won the Pulitzer with a book named after a guy called Demon Copperhead! But people are like Goran? It’s too much.
The Late Americans by Brandon Taylor is out now from Jonathan Cape.