Shooting the Breeze with fiction writer Taylor Brown

published in Focus on the Coast magazine

Of the twelve stories included in Taylor Brown’s debut collection In the Season of Blood and Gold–to be released in May from Press 53–ten have been previously published. Notables include Rider, winner of the 2009 Montana Prize in Fiction, and Kingdom Come, which took Second Place in the Press 53 Open Awards. Another of my favorites, Cajun Reeboks, was listed as a “distinguished selection” by Best American Mystery Stories in 2010.

Active Image
Taylor Brown
photo: Jason Armond

Despite his recent success, Brown has known the slap of rejection. His path, littered with “Sorry but your work is not quite right for us” slips, shares this common ground with most storytellers hoping to shoulder their way into print. When I brought this up to Brown, he nodded. “You begin to get used to the taste of blood in your mouth,” he says, “but you need to be able to spit in the dirt and get back up.”
Originally from St. Simon’s Island, Georgia, Brown landed in Wilmington a few years ago after stints in Asheville, San Francisco and Buenos Aires. After a quick tour of his shared office above the shops of Lumina Station, we sat down at Brasserie du Soleil to talk about his big break, rye whiskey, and how the best stories transcend genre.

Have you always been a storyteller?

My first grade teacher gave our class a handwriting exercise everyday with special sheets of paper, unlined at the top to draw, and lined at the bottom to write about whatever we wanted. One of my earliest stories was about a spider who stole a remote-control car from under the Christmas tree to escape from the cat. I remember trailing my mother around the house with long-winded ones explaining why my dinosaur toys had rocket launchers, or why my GI Joe’s were so small compared to the trees in the backyard–that the world they came from had expanded, like The Indian in the Cupboard. It got to the point where she would have to hide in the bathroom to avoid me.

What’s your method like today?

I try to get down at least one page per day. Like a good bird dog, when given a task I target-lock on the goal. The novel I’m working on now deals with bootlegging in the 1950s in Wilkes County, NC, so I’m reading a lot of non-fiction about the beginnings of NASCAR, snake-handling churches, and Glenn Johnson–Jr. Johnson’s father–who went down in one of the biggest busts in moonshine history.

How did you end up in Wilmington?

Before graduating from the University of Georgia, I spent a lot of time traveling. Prague, Paris, Amsterdam, Munich, Barcelona–crashing on friends couches in London, passing myself off as a student. I later took some classes at Oxford, which was old-school tutor style where you meet with your professor once a week and read your paper out loud to them and they critique it to your face. After finishing, I sold my car and moved to Buenos Aires–even though I didn't speak Spanish or know a soul down there–to get my certification to teach English as a Second Language. I stayed there a little under a year before accepting a job in San Francisco, fell in love, moved to Asheville in 2009, then Wilmington in 2011, though I’m single again now.

Have you ever felt like you need a sense of danger to write?

I think a little bit of danger is good, but unless you grew up with it, I think it makes it harder to write. Then again if you are too secure, too comfortable, you may not have the same experiences, so I’m finding that it’s all about balance. Like everything, try to find the sweet spot and stay there.

Then there are stylistic dangers. My friends who work in academia and are around writing all day long, the same way as if I were reading Blood Meridian right now and Cormac McCarthy’s style would infiltrate my own work, I’m afraid that reading student work all day will affect my stuff. And up until tenure, most don’t know if they’re going to have a job next semester.

I like reading work some may consider to be in a certain genre but that takes it to another stylistic level. I never set out to write crime or noir, the stories just become about what the characters are interested in. I have to be careful what I read now to make sure that the style is somewhat neutral. I really like a lot of people who might be called stylists: someone you could read once and you’d know right away it was them. Faulkner, Cormac McCarthy, even Hemingway whose the anti-stylist stylist. I really like those guys but if I read something that’s really distinctive, their styles sometimes work their way into my stuff. The cadences get into your head.

Tell me about In the Season of Blood and Gold.

The first issue of Surreal South that Press 53 published had everyone I liked: Brad Vice, Chris Offutt, Chris Rodriguez. So I knew right away that was where I wanted to submit. In 2010, my story took second place in the Press 53 Open Awards, and later some of my work was selected to be in the anthology Press 53 Spotlight, so I knew they knew my work, but they still rejected the collection at first because they said the stories were too similar. I had put my strongest ones at the end, and made the mistake of grouping similar ones together, so the later ones were never read. I knew it was a long shot to ask if I could reorder them and resubmit, but they agreed. Jason Frye suggested I put the stories on index cards and experiment with drawing their arc in different ways.

When I found out it worked and they were accepted, I ran around the house in my underwear, screaming, like a soccer player who takes his shirt off after scoring a goal.

Do you have advice for others who might not yet be published?

Duotrope is a great resource to keep your submissions organized, but it really all comes down to persistence. That’s the crucial factor. What did Calvin Coolidge say?  ‘Persistence and determination alone are omnipotent.’

While experimenting with the order of the note-cards, did you notice how your work has evolved over the years?

I feel like there is a lot more light in my stories now. I’m more open to the concept of wonder than I used to be. When I’m done for the night and I’ve just completed something I know is good, I feed off of that.

Like tapping into something that energizes you?

Exactly. Feels like I’m doing what I’m supposed to be doing.

"Holiday Sauce" Cocktail for Thanksgiving

Wish I could say I came up with this one. Proves that cognac is an under-utilized strong spirit in cocktails. Well-balanced and appropriately tart. Besides, no one ever uses up all the cranberry sauce anyway....

1.5 oz Hennessy V.S
.5 oz Fresh Squeezed Lemon Juice
Heaping Tablespoon of Cranberry Sauce (the kind you would have with turkey)
1 dash fee brothers cranberry bitters (optional)
Garnish: Orange Twist, Cinnamon sugar rim

Glass: Coupe or martini

Method: Add all ingredients to a shaker tin with ice, shake until well chilled.  Take the coupe or martini glass and rub the rim with a fresh cut lemon, now dip the rim in a plate of cinnamon sugar (1 part cinnamon to 1 part white sugar).  Strain the cocktail into the rimmed glass and garnish with an orange twist.

Binary Stars

originally published in Devour, Fall 2013

Henry and Roxanne fell in love the way galaxies form: combine nitrogen, helium and a few dashes of lithium over ice … and shake the hell out of it!

Only when the mixing glass freezes to your hand, and the icy meteors have pulverized each other to slush; strain the contents into a martini glass and watch as the icy shards form moons and planets around the rim. Then again, Roxanne preferred her most recent cocktail-of-the-moment, Manhattans, stirred with a long slender spoon. The difference, she insisted, was like sipping from a cool brook rather than a glacial torrent.

Most times, too, she’d forego the cherry unless perched at a place that took their garnishes seriously enough never to serve the red #5 formaldehyde Franken-kirsches that have come to dominate most mise-en-places. She adored our cherries, brandy-soaked sour bings. They're probably the reason why she kept coming back—before meeting Henry, of course.

“Why doesn’t he…?” Roxanne asked, exasperated. “Why doesn’t he show anything?”

I propped my foot on the beer-box and leaned back, creasing my eyes.

“He’s had a rough time,” I said. “At one point he was living in his car, just so he could be near his son. Maybe he’s got a lot of scar tissue.”

“Scar tissue? Ha. I’ll show him scar tissue. We’ve all got scar tissue!”

“I know, I know.”

“Plffff!” she said, palms turned upward as she let out a long exhale.

Ready to pour the rye for her second Manhattan, I asked. “This one perfect, like the last? I know sometimes for your second one you go dry with a twist. . .”

“All I want is to know what he thinks about me,” she said.

“You're about to get your chance,” motioning my head toward the window beyond which Henry was chaining his bike to the rail around the cherry blossom that only bloomed in winter. 

Her face beamed as he made his way in. “Make this one a Rob Roy.”

"Coming right up."

“Nigel,” Henry said, his pet name for me, with a curt nod and exaggerated smile before sinking back to his usual granite face, “a beer would be swell.” Turning to her, he nodded again, “Roxy,” his face a marble pillar.

Exchanging looks, she and I burst into laughter. Uncapping a pale ale, I slid the bottle a few feet toward Henry before disappearing into the back for more Scotch so they could be alone.

Roxanne and Henry continued to collide over the next few months, each time shattering a bit more of the icy casements around their hearts, both middle-aged and living alone, sharing laughs. I was lucky to watch the pieces shatter on the floor. Then, out of nowhere, they were getting married, and I was on the other side of the bar at their wedding while a three-piece ensemble played jazz in the corner of a grand old room.

Henry and Roxanne were beautifully at ease entertaining the room. We ate raw oysters arranged on large blocks of ice, danced and drank champagne, smiled and laughed. We watched very proper folks shed pretenses, as they danced and smiled and rebooted friendships and forgave longstanding feuds in the spirit of celebrating that force called love which binds and sustains us.

Hours later, before getting back into the cab, we said goodbye and for a moment I felt more than just their bartender. I wondered if, now that they had each other—planets cooling into a steady orbit—whether or not they would need me anymore. Sure, there were always meteors and black holes waiting to destroy or suck the life of whatever came their way, but they were bound together now, dual suns, binary stars hovering fierce and close.

I hugged them both under the streetlights, knowing I’d probably never see them again.

To see where I expound on the many variations of the Manhattan cocktail, follow this hyperlink to the original article.

If you liked this story, you'll probably like Cocktails & Conversations from the Astral Plane, my collection of others. Check it out on Amazon with this link.