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10 November 2021

Brandon Taylor Q&A: “My theme tune is Chopin’s Nocturne in E-flat major. It’s melancholy and very gay”

The author on Northrop Frye, the joy of drafts, and the dubious enterprise of idolising political heroes.

By New Statesman

Brandon Taylor was born in Alabama in 1989 and studied biochemistry before becoming a writer. His debut novel Real Life was shortlisted for the 2020 Booker Prize.

What’s your earliest memory?

Oh, no clue. Chickens. I remember we had a lot of chickens.

Who are your heroes?

I didn’t have a childhood hero; I didn’t have that kind of childhood. My adult hero is the musician Robin Pecknold. He’s the kind of artist I’d like to be when I grow up. Also Katie Kitamura. She’s so brilliant.

What book last changed your thinking?

Northrop Frye’s Anatomy of Criticism. Before I read it, I viewed irony with scepticism, but I’m a real convert now. I also love the work he does on the concept of the pharmakos, or scapegoat. Just brilliant, brilliant, brilliant. And Frantz Fanon’s Black Skin, White Masks gave me language and a framework to understand my feelings about black subjectivity both in art and in life. It was an Earth-tilting read for me.

Which political figure do you look up to?

I don’t know that I look up to any political figure. It’s a dubious enterprise, no? It gets really dicey when they attain the status of cult figure or folk hero. It becomes harder to hold them to account.

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What would be your Mastermind specialist subject?

Early modern European history, but especially the Thirty Years’ War. Though I am getting there with the Plantagenets as well. And I know more than a person should know about the Burgundian ascension during the Hundred Years’ War.

In which time and place, other than your own, would you like to live?

If I was forced to live in another time period as a gay black man, I’d pick the 1930s. There was some good writing happening then, and excellent fashion.

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What TV show could you not live without?

Classic Law and Order, especially the early seasons. Every single episode is basically an hour-long play. Such monologues!

Who would paint your portrait?

I’m sceptical of portraiture these days, but if I had to pick: Sargent. But the soft, late Sargent. It’s so airy and delicate without sacrificing the lucidity he brings to the face. He’s a master of the subtle, wry expression.

What’s your theme tune?

Chopin’s Nocturne in E-flat major because it’s melancholy and very gay.

What’s the best piece of advice you’ve ever received?

A friend once told me not to worry about a project because it was “just a draft”. I return to that advice every time I start to get anxious about writing.

What’s currently bugging you?

At the moment, I am extremely bugged by the structure and form of my current work in progress.

What single thing would make your life better?

A solution to the extremely annoying problem of structure and form that’s dogging my current work in progress. Or a new season of Mare of Easttown.

When were you happiest?

I rented out a friend’s house on Lake Monona in Madison, Wisconsin, one summer a couple years ago. It was total happiness. Until it wasn’t.

In another life, what job might you have chosen?

I was a researcher before I became a writer, so probably that.

Are we all doomed?

Well, yeah. That’s the human condition.

“Filthy Animals”, a short story collection by Brandon Taylor, is published by Daunt Books

[see also: Edith Widder Q&A: “My Mastermind subject? Sea creatures that make light”]

This article appears in the 10 Nov 2021 issue of the New Statesman, Behind the Masks