Justin Taylor left New York City last year for Portland. He returned to Brooklyn to celebrate the release of the paperback edition of his story collection Flings. It was the first book he wrote that was released in hardcover, he explains, and so it also was the first book he had the opportunity to launch a second edition of. He was joined at Powerhouse Arena by Adam Wilson, author of Flatscreen and What’s Important is Feeling. Since leaving New York, Taylor has gotten married and adopted a cat.
After he and Wilson each read a short selection, they begin by discussing the new cover of the book. The paperback cover has new artwork and includes a picture of grass. Taylor jokes it is good for people who like lawns.
“I find the older I get, the more inclined I am to buy a hardcover,” he observes.
Taylor says that his publisher has given him five beautiful covers over the course of four books. The hardcover copy of Flings has an iconic bright yellow with red and black print. Taylor spent time in the Pratt Library snapping photos of book covers from the 1970s send examples of what he wanted to the graphic artist.
Wilson shifts the discussion to writing fiction as a kind of cover song of a biography or autobiography. A story can be like a cover song of somebody’s life. The story Taylor read that night from the back of the book is very much like that, based on a friend he knew.
The concept began for Taylor as structuring the story along each month over the course of the year. He calls it a weird idea. Eventually it was clear that some of the months and the moments he was writing about would take more time than a paragraph would allow. However, even as the story expanded, he liked the idea of keeping those breaks and tried use monthly timeframes as a guide.
Since he was closely relying on a friend’s life to create the story, in this case, he showed his friend the narrative. Some of the internal thought that Taylor invented for the characters had gotten closer than his friend wanted to admit.
Each paragraph in the story was a kind of self-contained narrative. He wrote it without adding in breaks between events either hoping that the structure would propel the momentum forward. A single physical object can help give a scene a sense of place, so he kept descriptions of place short, also adding to the force of scene.
Building on the idea of biographical fiction as a cover song, Wilson adds to the metaphor by describing how composition of narrative can be like playing a guitar where one note leads to another.
“I can’t play a note,” Taylor says, saying he doesn’t understand how music works. He prefers thinking of writing as a ouija board, but it’s entirely in the hands of the writer.
“The only thing a story has to do is command a reader’s attention,” Taylor says. A story has to earn the time it takes to create and the time it takes to read. “When something falls short of the attention at the desk–get up from the desk.”
Using real people for inspiration can be a problem. Often, young writers in particular, when they first write fiction about themselves are too caught up with the factual elements and remembering the way things were. The better choice is to decenter the self from the narrative and then edit out the story.
Writing about other people can be risky. “Sometimes the implicit message is ‘fuck you,'” Taylor says, adding that you can’t be surprised when people are hurt.
Several of the stories in Flings were originally supposed to be for his first collection. However, Taylor says at the time, he wasn’t old enough to answer the questions those stories were asking. “Sometimes you put something away because you lost interest.”
“I’m definitely a believer in the short story collection as a collection,” Taylor says.