Tag Archives: Justin Taylor

An Interview with Justin Taylor

6 Aug
Justin Taylor is the author of three books, most recently the story collection Flings.

Justin Taylor is the author of three books, most recently the story collection Flings.

Justin Taylor is the author of the story collection Everything Here Is the Best Thing Ever and the novel The Gospel of Anarchy. He lives in New York City and co-edits the arts journal Agriculture Reader. His most recent book is the story collection, Flings.

To read Taylor’s story “So You’re Just What, Gone?” and an exercise on digging into a scene, click here.

In this interview, Taylor discusses the moral universes of stories, creating bombs and aftershocks in fiction, and his testing process for writing characters’ text messages.

Michael Noll

One of the writer-sayings from workshop is that a story should walk characters through danger doors–situations that put them at risk. This story does a terrific job of that. First, Charity is seated next to a pervy older man on a plane. Then, he gives her his number. Then he invites her to meet him. As empathetic humans, we don’t want Charity to go along with any of this, but as readers, of course, we want her to choose poorly since it makes a better story. Given all of this, I’m curious about how you approached the ending. She has the opportunity to meet Mark but talks herself out of it—with some help from his aggressive behavior. I love this ending, but I’m also curious if, in early drafts, Charity ever met Mark as he asks? How did you know when to put an end to the chain of bad events?

Justin Taylor

I’ve never heard that expression before—“danger doors.” It reminds me of old-school video games, specifically those colored bulbs in the original Metroid or the ante-chamber to the boss room that you’d find in any given Mega Man. Anyway, to answer your question, there are no drafts in which Charity meets up with Mark. To me, the story is about Charity’s inner life, her self-perception, particularly with regard to questions of age and maturity. To me, the major conflict of the story is between the part of her that still feels young—like a daughter, like a child—and the part of her that craves independence, wants to grow up faster. Mark’s intentions are predatory, but he’s not a very effective predator. Charity’s autonomy and safety are never truly put at risk. The public space of the airplane, and later the distance of the phone, conspire to place a concrete limit on the damage that Mark can do, and that’s because the story is far less interested in what he wants from her, than in what she thinks about it. In the moral universe of this story, questionable choices (and/or the mere fact of being an adolescent girl) are not understood as debts to be repaid through suffering. Mark’s impatience and his demands are somewhere between the ravings of a tyrant and the tantrum of a child. To hook up with someone like that would be to cede the very independence she’s been fighting for, and as soon as she sees that, she’s repulsed. That in mind, I wanted to end the story with Charity on her own, to reinforce that this is not a “him and her” story, but just hers—he was just this weird interlude in her life, like a bottle episode on a TV show, where it doesn’t quite connect back to the main arc of the season. That’s how I came back to the aquarium: she’s on her own, and doing exactly what she wants to do. It may be that the most dangerous thing you can do with a teenager is pay her the same respect that you would someone your own age. That, to me, is the main “danger door” the story walks through.

Michael Noll

Justin Taylor's story, "So You're Just What, Gone?" appeared in The New Yorker.

Justin Taylor’s story, “So You’re Just What, Gone?” appeared in The New Yorker.

I’m interested in the pacing of the story. It begins with a long scene aboard the plane that occupies about 1/3 of the story, and in that long scene, we’re introduced to the character and the plot (will Charity call the guy?), but I can also imagine a workshop teacher suggesting that it all get condensed to a paragraph, which sounds right in theory but, of course, would have been terrible advice. How did you keep that scene going without losing tension?

Justin Taylor

You cannot condense those pages into a paragraph. They are, as you have said, 1/3 of the whole story, and therefore are doing 1/3 of the work. That scene establishes Charity’s psychology through her perceptions of the world around her, her relationship with her mother and various other establishing and background details. Maybe most important of all, it builds up mood. When Mark assaults her, that mood is (hopefully) shattered. I wanted his change in tone and behavior to feel like a bomb going off in the story, and then for the rest of the story to sort of reverberate with the aftershocks of that blast.

Michael Noll

The story contains some extended text conversations. Do you approach those any differently than you would spoken dialogue?

Justin Taylor

I tried to write my texts the way most people actually text—the language clipped, the punctuation light or absent—but mostly I wanted to be true to the characters themselves. They should sound less like “a person texting” than like the people who they each actually are. Charity, for example, is a more deliberate texter than Mark is. There are a couple places where he runs two sentences together in a hash of unpunctuated shorthand (“Cmon sumthing to look fwd to ur teasing me bad here”) whereas she bothers herself to put a comma in the middle of “Pajamas I guess, like a shirt”. She also prefers “you” to Mark’s “u,” though at the end of the conversation she adopts his style, possibly because she wants something from him—“Will u send one back?” Originally, I wanted Mark to be borderline incoherent, because I liked the idea that he was this rabid bro falling all over himself, but then I did some test-runs with my own phone’s autocorrect and saw that it tended to save him from the worst of himself. Overall the punctuation is pretty true to an iPhone 5, though I took a few liberties, such as the un-capitalized “I”, which reads like hasty texting but in real life could only be the result of extra effort, because the phone would always fix it for you unless you stopped it from doing so. Also, “Now were talking.” The phone has enough grammar to know that you meant “we’re” in that sentence. Or anyway mine does. But it’s also true that autocorrect learns from usage, so it’s at least plausible that Mark’s phone wouldn’t make that fix. Also—and I know I’m giving away the depth of my own insanity here—I originally had Mark using “2” for “to” but I eventually realized that while 2 is faster on a computer keyboard, on a phone screen it takes several extra touches to get over to the number screen and then to get back. So he wouldn’t do that.

Michael Noll

The story is about a 15-year-old girl’s sexual encounter with a 30-ish man. It’s a story in a similar vein as Lolita, and when that novel was published, a lot of early reviews claimed that the young girl had somehow entrapped or seduced Humbert Humbert. The reviewers were, it seems, reading Lolita as older than she was because of the way she was viewed by the narrator. In your story, did you worry that the reader would somehow forget that Charity, because she’s interacting semi-sexually with an older man, is only 15? Did you build in reminders of her age?

Justin Taylor

I don’t see how you could forget Charity’s age—the story is entirely defined by it. She’s only on this trip in the first place because her mother thought she was too young to stay home alone. Plus there’s her homework, her friends back home, the presence of her mother and grandmother, and Mark’s own word choice with regard to her. Lolita is 12 years old when the novel begins, and is literally kidnapped by a murderer. If she can be said to eventually “seduce” Humbert, it’s only in the sense that a captive figures out how to “seduce” her captor. I think Nabokov himself is very clear about this, even if the critics haven’t always been—most of the book doesn’t make any sense without this element, and the ending certainly doesn’t. Charity’s problems aren’t nearly as grave—she has a lot more power than Lolita, and she’s older. Not “older than her years” (which is what all abusers of children tell themselves—it’s a fantasy of permission) but old enough to understand the world, and the body, she inhabits. To the extent that, as I said before, the story places superlative value on Charity’s capacity for self-determination, it would have to respect her decision to hook up with him just as much as it does her decision not to. She doesn’t cut him off because she suddenly realizes he’s too old for her—that was the main thing that made him attractive in the first place. She cuts him off because he’s a creepy scumbag, which to me is a better reason. Adolescence comes and goes, but a well-tuned creep-detector is something you carry with you through life.

August 2015

Michael Noll Michael Noll is the Editor of Read to Write Stories.

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How to Dig Deeper into a Scene

4 Aug
Justin Taylor's story, "So You're Just What, Gone?" appeared in The New Yorker.

Justin Taylor’s story, “So You’re Just What, Gone?” appeared in The New Yorker.

If there’s anything I’ve learned as a writer, it’s that I tend to create a potentially interesting scene and then exit it too quickly. I don’t think I’m alone. Because stories value compression, it’s natural to compress everything, all of the time. But the best moments in a scene don’t always arrive immediately. To reach them, you must dig deeper into the scene to discover what’s inside.

Justin Taylor’s story, “So You’re Just What, Gone?” starts with a long scene that ends with a great, tense, plot-driving moment. It was published in The New Yorker, where you can read it now.

How the Story Works

The story’s opening lines set the scene:

It’s one of those airlines where you get your seat assignment at the gate, and they’re late to Logan and slow to get through security, so the lady at the counter can’t seat Charity and her mom together. Which means five-plus hours of freedom—hallelujah!

Charity is fifteen years old, and so, of course, the story makes her sit next to this guy:

When the guy appears, he’s older, way older—like thirty, maybe. He wears leather sandals and a powder-blue slim-cut dress shirt, untucked and with the sleeves rolled. When he lifts his black backpack up into the overhead compartment, Charity finds herself staring straight into his exposed navel, a bulging outie like a blind gold eye in his belly, which was waxed at some point and is now stubbled, like a face. The top of his boxers peeks up above the waist of what Charity just so happens to recognize as three-hundred-dollar True Religion jeans.

This is the point where it would be tempting to dive directly into conflict and, then, end the scene. But that’s not what Taylor does. He’s got a potentially tense situation, and he milks it.

First, he flirts with her a bit, mildly, but the flirtation ends quickly when he becomes absorbed in a newspaper. Next, Charity falls asleep and wakes to find that she’s been resting her head on the man’s shoulder. Then, they stand up at the same time to use the restroom, and when they return, talk a bit until this moment:

“I’m Mark,” he says. “What’s your name?”

“Charity.”

“Charity. That’s pretty.”

She can feel her cheeks warming. “I don’t know.”

“No, really. It is. You are.”

“O.K. I mean, thank you. Thanks.”

He gives her his number, and then this happens:

He palms her inner thigh and squeezes it, two pumps, the second one a hard one, his wrist digging against the crotch of her jeans.

“Call me when you get bored, Charity,” he says.

To arrive at this moment has taken almost a third of the story. We’re not stunned at this turn of events because it was suggested by their proximity to each other. But, we are creeped out. Taylor has slowly led us to the man’s hand on Charity’s thigh, giving the scene space to steadily make us more uncomfortable. So, how did he do it?

The situation (young girl, older man) presents an obvious narrative arc. Rather than rushing to that ending, Taylor picks a series of moments to depict along the way, inching us closer and closer to the inevitable end. They’re small moments: minor flirtations and incidental physical contact, but because we suspect where this is headed, each moment is charged. That charge is the reason we savor the scene.

The Writing Exercise

Let’s dig into a scene using “So You’re Just What, Gone?” by Justin Taylor as a model:

  1. Identify the situation and a natural narrative arc. This is something you may do after you’ve written a rough draft of the scene, simply because we don’t often know what’s going on until we’re in the thick of it. So, state the situation as clearly and succinctly as possible (teenage girl sat next to pervy man on plane). Then, consider in what direction the scene could naturally move (man hits on girl). The genius of many scenes is not that they do the unexpected but, rather, that the expected thing is so dramatic and tense. In a horror movie, when a character walks into the dark alone, we know what’s going to happen. It’s the wait that thrills us. So, figure out where you’re going with the scene.
  2. Brainstorm points along the arc. What large or small moments might occur before the scene’s end? Taylor’s moments are both large (she falls asleep on the man) and small (he lets her by to use the restroom). What matters is that each encounter builds on the previous one. Richard Ford once said that stories make impossible things possible. In this story, Taylor allows the characters to become comfortable enough with each other that the man’s hand can move to the girl’s thigh. The man wouldn’t do this immediately. Seduction (or at least familiarity) is needed. How can you show the steps required to allow your ending to occur?
  3. Build mini-scenes around each point. Each moment in Taylor’s scene is not long. The moment when Charity awake with her head on the man’s shoulder is only a few paragraphs. Each moment has its own small arc—its own increasing tension. So, in each of your mini-scenes, think about how you can ratchet up the tension, even a little. How can each mini-scene end with more tension than it began?

Good luck.

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