Shooting the Breeze with fiction writer Taylor Brown
––Taylor Brown, original tine-type by Harry Taylor
Originally published in Coast
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.
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.