Brandon Taylor on 'Filthy Animals,' 'Real Life' And Relationships : It's Been a Minute Author Brandon Taylor used to spend most of his hours studying nematodes under a microscope as a grad student. He wrote his first novel over a period of five weeks, mostly while in a lab. That book, Real Life, was released in 2020 to much critical acclaim. He published his second book this year, a short story collection called Filthy Animals.

Taylor talks to Sam about his focus on the tensions of everyday relationships, writing from a Black and queer perspective and his intended audience of just a couple close friends.

This conversation is part of a collaboration between NPR and the Library of Congress National Book Festival. For more information about the festival, visit loc.gov/bookfest.

You can follow us on Twitter @NPRItsBeenAMin and email us at samsanders@npr.org.

Brandon Taylor Wrote 'Real Life' And 'Filthy Animals' For His Queer, Black Friends

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SAM SANDERS, HOST:

You're listening to IT'S BEEN A MINUTE from NPR. I'm Sam Sanders. My guest today wrote his first novel in a science lab in just five weeks.

BRANDON TAYLOR: When I had a long incubation step, I would just write words. And then I would get up and do the science, and then sit down. And while I was waiting, I would write more words. And slowly but surely, the book came together.

SANDERS: That's Brandon Taylor. That first book is called "Real Life," and he wrote it while he was a grad student in a biochemistry program.

TAYLOR: I was studying stem cells in nematodes.

SANDERS: The main character in "Real Life" is named Wallace. And Wallace also spends most of his time in the lab. Wallace is a biochem grad student, also studying nematodes. And a strange thing happened when the book came out. It brought together a community that you have probably never thought about.

TAYLOR: One of the delightful things about publishing this book was that nematode Twitter found it. And they were like, finally representation for the worm.

SANDERS: (Laughter).

TAYLOR: I was like, yes, my people.

SANDERS: Nematode hive rise up.

TAYLOR: Basically.

SANDERS: Man.

TAYLOR: Worm hive. Let's go.

SANDERS: (Laughter).

TAYLOR: Yeah, no, it was great.

SANDERS: Brandon Taylor does not look at worms all day under microscopes anymore. He quit his grad program and got an MFA in writing. And after he released "Real Life" to much acclaim in 2020, he published his second book this year. It's a short story collection called "Filthy Animals."

So Brandon's books are all about the awkwardness and sometimes cruelty that exists in our everyday relationships - platonic relationships and romantic relationships and in-between relationships as well. His books are also very much about how identity and who we are informs our relationships and how we move through the world. Brandon is Black and queer, and his stories offer a view of the world through those perspectives. All that to say, I am very excited to share this chat with you all.

And I'm very honored to let you know that this conversation is part of a collaboration between NPR and the Library of Congress National Book Festival. I know. Fancy, right? Little kid Sam reading under the covers past his bedtime with the flashlight would be so proud. All right. If you want more information about the festival, visit loc.gov/bookfest. With that, here is my chat with Brandon Taylor. Enjoy.

(LAUGHTER)

SANDERS: I want to talk about your books. But I want to talk about some of your other writing that I've also been devouring lately - your Substack and then other stuff, like your recent review in the New York Times of Sally Rooney's new book. It feels as if you're entering this space of cultural criticism. And I like it. But I'm wondering for you, a novelist and a fiction writer by trade, does that kind of cultural writing and cultural criticism - does it feel safer or less safe or more fun or less fun than just writing fiction?

TAYLOR: Oh, my goodness. Well...

(LAUGHTER)

TAYLOR: That's so harrowing. I mean, I think that you know, since, you know, you've been following me on the internet, that I love to make fun of critics, and I'm like, I'm not - I'm glad I'm not a real critic.

SANDERS: (Laughter).

TAYLOR: And I mean, it's like - it's been a sort of running gag for many years now. Now all of my critic friends are like, aha, now you see behind the curtain. Yeah. I mean, I think of myself first and foremost and always as a fiction writer, and fiction is the thing that I find easiest and the most fun to do. It's sort of my primary mode. But for much of the last year since I put out my first novel, I haven't really been able to write fiction just because of, you know, the demands of being a sort of outward-facing author persona.

SANDERS: Yeah.

TAYLOR: And it's just been really tough to sort of get back into that sort of small, private, strange interior world you have to access in order to be able to write fiction. And so I've just been, like - for a long time, I was just, like, not writing. And then at the start of 2021, I started reading all these books about literary criticism and cultural criticism and just, like, histories of the American novel and American literature. And I suddenly had access to all of these - like, all this language to think through and talk about, you know, things in books that I had always wanted to talk about but didn't really know how real critics did it.

And so I was like, I really wish I could, like, start writing some of these ideas down. And then I realized, like, well, I have this defunct newsletter. Maybe I can just revive it and try to write a little bit each week, just as a way of getting some thoughts down and just trying to experiment. But at the end of the day, I feel like I'm finally getting to talk about art in a way that feels organic and natural to me and that I'm not like putting on a, quote, unquote, "serious voice." So...

SANDERS: Yeah.

TAYLOR: ...You know, it's been a different kind of fun I feel. It's been a delightful little experiment (laughter).

SANDERS: Yeah. I like it because one of the themes that I pick up when I'm reading your Substack and other stuff is that you're not just talking about, you know, a show that you were into or a movie that you were into, you're also, in these really interesting ways, talking about the moment we're in. And specifically in the essay that you wrote on Substack about that new Netflix show starring Sandra Oh - the show's called "The Chair" - you know, there's this one section in that essay where you're talking about just the proliferation of so many things to watch.

You wrote, quote - and this stuck with me - "things have never looked so good or sounded so good. But at the same time, never has it been easier to borrow the signifiers and attributes of good art and commodify them to disguise deeply mediocre [expletive]." And like, when I read it, I said, that's it. I hadn't been able to put my finger on this moment until you wrote that. Like, we're in this moment of everything and abundance, but a lot of it's just not good.

(LAUGHTER)

TAYLOR: And you know, it feels like - it feels very taboo to say that out loud. Like, it feels like - you know, like, going to a party and talking about a show that everybody there enjoyed. And you'll be like, yeah, but it wasn't good though, right? And everybody looks at you like you just...

SANDERS: (Laughter).

TAYLOR: ...Did the worst faux pas in the world. And they're like...

SANDERS: Because they're like, no, it had Laura Dern in it. It has to be good. And you're like, no, I don't know. It wasn't good. I don't know. Maybe it wasn't good.

TAYLOR: You know, maybe it wasn't good. I enjoyed it. You know what I mean? It's...

SANDERS: Yeah.

TAYLOR: And with a show like "The Chair" - like, that show, I binged. Like, I watched that show straight through. I love everything Sandra Oh does. I cannot get enough of her. She is an icon, a legend. And it wasn't - I didn't think it was, like, a great show. I didn't think it was even a particularly good show. It was a fine show, a solid show. But what I did recognize in it was that it had borrowed all these little signifiers, you know, all these little gestures.

SANDERS: It looked expensive.

TAYLOR: It looked well-made, you know? It looked (laughter) - like, somebody had a wardrobe budget because you're not going to dress Sandra Oh in nothing, you know? Like, but it...

SANDERS: Exactly.

TAYLOR: But it felt like gloss at the expense of depth or substance. And when you what I call, like, kick the tires on it, like, there's nothing there. It's hollow.

SANDERS: Yeah. Yeah. I want to talk about both books. Let's start with "Real Life." Can you give our listeners maybe a 30-second plot synopsis for those who haven't read it yet?

TAYLOR: Yeah. So "Real Life" is a novel about Wallace, who is a Ph.D. student in biochemistry. And he discovers one Friday afternoon that his experiments have been sabotaged or maybe he ruined them himself. And he decides that he's going to go to the lake with his friends, and it sets into motion a series of personal and professional confrontations that he has to negotiate in trying to figure out, like, what is a real life and how to live and act with agency in the world.

SANDERS: And it's also just kind of, like, this book about - I don't know. I was writing down notes as I was reading, and I said to myself, it feels like the two central questions of this book are, do we ever really like our lives? And do we ever really like our friends?

(LAUGHTER)

TAYLOR: I mean, it's so true of so many things. And I feel like the answer to that question in that book is no, probably not...

(LAUGHTER)

TAYLOR: ...On both counts.

SANDERS: What does that no mean, though? Because, like, no is an easy answer to a question that's really a lot more complex. Because this idea of, like, not really liking the lives that we're living - that's a question I'm sure all of us have asked ourselves in this last year. What does it mean to ask that question through the context of Wallace in the book and just, like, in life for you?

TAYLOR: Yeah. I mean, I think that in - for Wallace, you know, he is someone who has survived his life by accepting what he's been given and just sort of trying to make the best of it and trying to take up as little space as possible. And really sort of the dominant action of the book is, what happens when you, a person who's been told your whole life that you just have to accept it and bear it and live with it - what happens when you say, no, that's not enough? This right here - this is not enough for me. I would like more. And it's - you dare to seek more from your life.

And I feel that for Wallace, like, his unhappiness, in some sense, is, like, truly just the beginning because he's just being like, I don't accept the premise that I have been given. And he moves from this sort of miserable stasis into agency. And sometimes that brings him great ecstasy over these - you know, the weekend that the book takes place across, and sometimes it brings him great pain and danger.

And you know, I feel that when you say to your life or to your current circumstances, this is not enough, I would like more, that isn't being - you know, it's not like in Disney where you get to ride off into the sunset on your magic carpet. What you're saying is, I'm going to seek more and act with agency. And that means taking the good with the bad, the pain with the pleasure, the ecstasy with the sort of deep sorrows because, like, life is unpredictable.

And when you upset the apple cart of your life, you know you're inviting risk. And risk and agency are the sort of twin forces that govern a lot of our lives. So I think that when you say, like, do we ever really like our lives - and if you say no, I think that that is - saying no to that question means saying yes to possibility with all that it entails.

(SOUNDBITE OF FLEVAN'S "FLICKER")

SANDERS: Coming up, we talk more about race in "Real Life" and Brandon's second book, "Filthy Animals."

(SOUNDBITE OF FLEVAN'S "FLICKER")

SANDERS: This book is also so much about what it means for Wallace to be a Black face in a very white space. And I was wondering if you writing about that through fiction has made that reality for you, a Black man in book publishing, a very - still a very white world - has it made that experience any easier, being able to write about the experience...

TAYLOR: (Laughter).

SANDERS: ...Even if just through Wallace in Wisconsin?

TAYLOR: Oh. Oh, wow. Yeah, I don't think so.

SANDERS: (Laughter).

TAYLOR: I mean, it's all kind of the same. I - you know, I mean, I wrote that book when I was the only Black person in my Ph.D. program at UW Madison. It was, like, a 100-person program. I was the only Black person. And also, the five years I was there, they released the sort of, like, diversity data or whatever on the demographics of the university. And there were, like, 273 Black graduate students across all doctoral and professional degree programs out of 10,000 graduate students on campus. So...

SANDERS: Wow.

TAYLOR: And I would see, like, 15 of them every couple of weeks at this fellowship thing that I was a part of. The sort of Black - the sort of POC students in the sciences - there was a fellowship for us. And so we would often see each other every couple of weeks and complain about the white people in our labs. And so, you know, like, writing that novel, I was writing it as, like, the only Black person. And then I went to Iowa to study creative writing, and I was no longer the only Black person there.

SANDERS: OK.

TAYLOR: There are many - it's become a very diverse program. And it was - it's strange. It's very strange. I think that in some ways, like, publishing is still incredibly white. I think the numbers are not good. But what I have been excited by in the last couple of years is just the number of other Black - especially Black queer writers who are writing these incredible books that are getting so much buzz and acclaim. That has been incredible. And I don't think - I mean, it was quite different five years ago, you know, when I left my program. I mean, it was so different even five years ago. And I feel like it's night and day, but still so very white (laughter).

SANDERS: Yeah. What I found interesting about Wallace was that when he starts to assert agency, a few of his white friends are like, this isn't like you. And it's like, no, no, no, no, no. This is very much Wallace. You just haven't seen this side of him. And how dare you? And I feel like that is a challenge a lot of people from marginalized backgrounds face when they stop being the quiet one. And I wonder, I don't know, does the story of Wallace offer some guidance in that respect...

TAYLOR: (Laughter).

SANDERS: ...As people navigate that?

TAYLOR: I mean, it's surreal. I mean, I remember - I will never forget this one time somebody basically called me lazy. And I was like, well, I'm not lazy. And they were like, don't yell at me.

SANDERS: (Laughter).

TAYLOR: Like, I'm not - my voice is not even raised. I just resisted your classification of me as a human being. Yeah, I mean, I think that the novel dramatizes, you know, someone who has survived white supremacist institutions by internalizing what it wants from him. It's - he's sort of internalized this sort of terrifying, objectifying gaze, and that's how he's gotten by. And when he suddenly starts being like, no, I'm not going to just, like, disappear so you can feel comfortable, then all the white people get very anxious, and some of them get angry. Some of them feel sad. Some of them feel distress (laughter).

SANDERS: Which is crazy because these white people throughout the whole book are fully expressing their fullest range of emotions at all times.

TAYLOR: (Laughter) Yes.

SANDERS: They're always on 10. They're always on 10. And as soon as Wallace gets to a six or a seven, they're like, whoa, hold up.

TAYLOR: Oh, yeah. He gets like, I didn't like that. And they're like, whoa, why are you being so...

SANDERS: (Laughter) Aggressive. Yeah.

TAYLOR: So I don't know if the book has any lessons. But I hope that when people read it, they're like, oh, yeah, it's totally like that. And what I found really interesting in talking to white people about the book is that many of them have been like, wow, you really held up a mirror to some of my toxic behavior. I didn't even realize that I was, like, doing this. And I was like, well, I didn't write it about you. But if you were doing this, like, please stop (laughter).

SANDERS: Please stop. Yes.

TAYLOR: Please stop because you're probably making people in your life anxious, unhappy, and you're making your baggage their problem. So that has been really fascinating, the extent to which white people have been able to clock the sort of dangers of white silence when a Black - when a sort of person of color is being silenced and overlooked. And that has been a fascinating part of it, the white guilt component to (laughter)...

SANDERS: Yeah.

TAYLOR: ...The book's reception.

SANDERS: Yeah. Although, you know what? Keep reading it, white people. Keep feeling guilty. That's part of the work. Do it.

TAYLOR: (Laughter) Yes. Discomfort is a part of the growth. Yeah.

SANDERS: There you go. I want to make sure we talk about "Filthy Animals." Same question for you for this book. Can you give our listeners a 30-second synopsis of that book without giving everything away?

TAYLOR: Yeah, sure. So "Filthy Animals" is a short story collection, at the heart of which is a linked story cycle that follows a young man, Lionel, who is trying to figure out how to be in the world again after recently getting out of a hospital. And so it's a lot about, I think, what a lot of us are experiencing with quarantine, which is, like, how do I interact with other people? How do I go to parties? How do I figure out how to socialize and connect with people again? And then there are other stories that sort of orbit themes of loneliness and caretaking and caregiving, and they sort of are all sort of set in the Midwest - so, like, Iowa and Wisconsin.

SANDERS: Yeah. It's about, like, what does it mean to reintroduce yourself into the world and talk to strangers again and make small talk and go to dinner parties. But I also felt like so much of "Filthy Animals," and also "Real Life," was, like, things to avoid. You know, reading these scenes of, like, the awkward dinner party interactions, for me, the lesson was, like, stop going to dinner parties you don't want to go to.

TAYLOR: Oh, my gosh.

SANDERS: You're too old to be around folks you don't want to be around, right?

TAYLOR: (Laughter) Yes. I mean...

SANDERS: I wanted to take Lionel and be like, you don't have to go, man. You don't have to, like - you don't have to hang out with these fools.

TAYLOR: Oh, yeah. I mean, the fact that he makes the decision to go to that dinner party, almost on reflex - he's like, well, in the before time, I would have gone to this, so I guess I'll go. And then he goes, and he's like, this was a mistake. This was (laughter) - and the - I mean, that - the particular horror of going to a place out of obligation and realizing immediately that it was a mistake, but because of social obligation, you can't leave (laughter)...

SANDERS: Listen, it's hard.

TAYLOR: Oh, my gosh. It's...

SANDERS: Well, this is why I just really don't ever commit to anything until the day of. I'm in the business of telling folks, like, I'm going to see how I feel that day, and I'm probably going to text you and ask who all's going to be there, and then we'll see.

TAYLOR: (Laughter) Well, see, I feel like you can get away with that, as you are, like, a mega celebrity. For the rest of us...

SANDERS: Oh, God (laughter).

TAYLOR: ...It's like - for the rest of us, it's just, like, a kind of a rude habit. But I - I'm going to cultivate that air. I'm just going to be like, I'll let you know. But, see, like...

SANDERS: Yeah.

TAYLOR: ...I have such a difficult time with it because I - like, I had, like, such a strict, like, very traditional Southern upbringing, that the idea of, like (laughter), being - like, potentially putting someone else, like, out, I'm just - I can't. I get, like, chills. I feel like I can hear my grandmother yelling at me to get my act together.

SANDERS: Yeah.

TAYLOR: But I think I just got to embrace it. It's 2021. We got to throw these social rules out.

SANDERS: You really do.

(SOUNDBITE OF FLEVANS' "FLICKER")

SANDERS: Up next, Brandon on the queerness of his books and who he's actually writing for. Stick around.

(SOUNDBITE OF FLEVANS' "FLICKER")

SANDERS: Wallace is gay. He ends up hooking up with someone who may or may not be gay, doesn't know what words he wants to use around it, someone who I actually also hate. I hated him, too. I'm not going to give away spoilers and name who it was, but he was a trash man, OK?

TAYLOR: (Laughter).

SANDERS: And there were several moments where I was like, Wallace, run. You're in danger, girl. You're in danger. But I digress (laughter). My larger question is, can these books be considered queer fiction, or are they something else because there are real and textured characters in these books who kind of blur the lines of sexuality or at least have some ambivalence about where they fit into the spectrum or what titles they would put on it? You know, you have these characters doing queer things who might not call themselves queer. Does that mean it's not quite queer fiction or something else? I don't know.

TAYLOR: Yeah. I mean, I think that - I think of myself as, like, a queer author, and I think that everything I write is about queer characters, even when the sort of main character isn't necessarily obviously queer. I feel like there's a very present queer gaze in my work because that's who I am, in the same way that I think all my fiction is kind of Black fiction in a way. Like, I'm a - like, I have the gaze that I have, and I'm very much writing from a sort of queer, Black sensibility. I mean, I do think of "Real Life" as being a queer novel in the same way that I think of - it's kind of, like, a Black novel and I think it's a novel about solipsistic, young male (laughter), you know, experience and being self-absorbed and trying to figure out who you are.

But I do think that the sort of fluidity of the characters - that, to me, doesn't make it un-queer. Like, to me, that's, like, very much a part of queerness. I think queerness is capacious, and I think that queerness can also be a framework, you know, with which to understand human relationships. And some of the queerest relationships I have seen in my life have been between straight men. Like, they have, like, a very, I mean (laughter), like...

SANDERS: It's really - it's weird.

TAYLOR: I mean...

SANDERS: Not weird. Good. Good for them.

TAYLOR: But it's...

SANDERS: But like (laughter)...

TAYLOR: You know, but, like, it's - sometimes they don't even know. They don't even see it. And I'm like, you guys are so in love. It's beautiful. But, like, I can't say anything about it because someone might die if I...

SANDERS: (Laughter).

TAYLOR: ...Bring your attention to it, you know? Like, there - very often...

SANDERS: Yeah.

TAYLOR: ...Like, intimate relationships - there is a valence of what feels like queerness. And so, like, yeah, I mean, I think of my works as having a real sort of queer sensibility. Because at the end of the day, I'm trying to write honestly and authentically and directly about human relationships and the power dynamics, like, within human relationships. And I'm a queer Black man. And so that is going to inherently be the lens through which I approach, you know, human relationships. And so I consider them queer books. But they're not just queer books, not that queerness or Blackness are limiting. But it's one of the many things that I think the books are up to.

SANDERS: Yeah. Well, and, like, what I admire about the way you talk about sexuality in the context of friend groups is the way in which you point out, many times in lots of relationships that we don't particularly think are sexual, there is a layer of sexuality and sensuality to them, you know? Like, I think we say, well, friendships are asexual, and our partners - that's who we have a sexual relationship with. But like, the penumbra of sexuality and attraction and desire can be laid over all different kinds of relationships in different kinds of ways. And both books live in that gray space delicately and beautifully, I think.

TAYLOR: Yeah. I mean, I think that all relationships are complicated. I think of relationships a lot like weather systems. Like, it's always shifting. It's always changing. It's a dynamic thing. And I think there - especially, I mean, listen. Especially among queer men, like, there is a very dense valence of sexuality to many of those...

SANDERS: Yes.

TAYLOR: ...Friendships for reasons that are historical and (laughter) et cetera.

SANDERS: Yeah.

TAYLOR: But like...

SANDERS: Yeah.

TAYLOR: I mean, it's just very true that - there are all these memes about, like, gay male friends and, like, the ones of which you've slept with and the ones of which you haven't slept with yet.

SANDERS: Oh, yeah, you know...

TAYLOR: Like, it's...

SANDERS: The gay handshake, you know?

TAYLOR: You know? I mean, totally. And I think that any time you're sort of, like, intensely involved with someone, even if it's a, quote, unquote "platonic relationship," there isn't necessarily that you want to sleep with them. But there is an element of eros to that. There is something...

SANDERS: And desire - yeah - and attraction.

TAYLOR: And desire.

SANDERS: It's just there. Yeah.

TAYLOR: Totally. Yeah. It's all a part of, I think, the human field of emotion and relation to one another.

SANDERS: Yeah. You know, there are these scenes that just kind of lay out the ways in which Wallace secretly hates everyone that he calls his friends, even the ones that he ends up sleeping with. And you're just like, at a certain point, like - I wondered several times - I was like, what do Brandon's real friends in real life think of this book...

TAYLOR: (Laughter).

SANDERS: ...And what it says about his own friendships?

TAYLOR: Oh, yeah. Well...

SANDERS: (Laughter).

TAYLOR: You know, I - that's a great question. So you know, my closest friends who I met in college are also queer Black men from Alabama. And...

SANDERS: Ooh, sign me up for that group chat. I want to be in.

TAYLOR: It is very spicy.

SANDERS: (Laughter).

TAYLOR: You know, but it's - you know, it's like - they're like, yes, go get them. Tell it how it is. And when the book was a finalist for the Booker Prize, my closest friend in the world called me, and he said, you know, Brandon, you write about us and you write about our experiences, and it never felt like our lives mattered. But now it feels that you have told the world about us, and the world has said that we matter.

And of course, we've always mattered, et cetera. But, you know, I remember - I started writing stories because those same friends took me to a bookstore to buy me, like, a book because I was, like, very depressed. And the bookstore clerk was like, we don't sell those kinds of books here. We're a family store.

And to go from that to then writing a book that was nominated for one of the most prestigious awards in the country - and not just any book, but a book very much about, like, a character who was, in some ways, an amalgam of me and my closest friends - like, that felt like telling the culture that it couldn't set the terms of, like, our lives for us. And it was, like, at this really emotional moment, and we had a big old cry on the phone about it.

SANDERS: Wow.

TAYLOR: And so they - you know, my friends loved the book. But it's very interesting. I took this - I - you know, I say it - like, I took it home to Wisconsin for my very last in-person book tour event on the book tour for this book. And I thought maybe three people would show up because the book is set in Madison, Wis. It's about a science program in Madison, Wis. I thought people would show up. I went to the bookstore. It was packed...

SANDERS: Wow.

TAYLOR: ...Through. And this is in, like - this was like two days before shutdown. So people are in...

SANDERS: Oh, wow. Yeah.

TAYLOR: ...Coronavirus, ooh, you know? But this bookstore was packed with people from the science programs that I, you know, had known and people I didn't know. And all these people had come out to say that this book had articulated something true about that experience of being in science in Madison. And it felt like the whole city had embraced the book in a way that was, like, really beautiful, even as the book sort of lovingly critiqued Madison.

SANDERS: Lovingly is a word you could use. Because at some parts, it's not lovingly. At some points, you're just like, this town. These people. This school.

TAYLOR: Listen.

(LAUGHTER)

TAYLOR: But then I - you know, I went out to dinner with former lab mates, and they had all read the book. And they had all been so supportive and really loving about it. Went out to dinner with my friends - some of my friends from my program, my cohort-mates. And they were like, yeah, the first five pages, I was like, wow, he's writing a novel about us. But then you turn the page on Page 6, and then it just becomes a novel. And I'm like, yeah, that's how fiction works, thank God.

(LAUGHTER)

TAYLOR: So no one has been like, I resent this novel, at least not to my face. I'm sure there are group chats where that is not the case. But to me, they've been nothing but supportive and very loving.

SANDERS: Oh, that's good. That's good.

TAYLOR: (Laughter).

SANDERS: Was there a - who was the one that went off on Wallace in the book? Was there an actual...

TAYLOR: Oh, Dana.

SANDERS: ...Dana in your life? Is that a real person? Was that real?

TAYLOR: Oh, my gosh, yes. So there is a character very much who - I wrote the character of Dana into the book to deal with, like, some very sort of present and ongoing - what felt like racialized harassment in my lab. And you know, she - that person was my bay mate, who sat literally right side-by-side with me for many - for a couple of years. And they were just not a great - they weren't a great teammate. I'll say that for it. And really funny - I was working on one of the Dana scenes in lab like a very bad boy, and this person comes up to me and taps me on the shoulder because they had been reading over my shoulder...

SANDERS: Oh, no.

TAYLOR: ...The whole time. And they're like, I know who that is. And I turn to them, and I was like, you do? And they're like, that's based on a real person. I know who it's based on. And I was like, who? And they're like - and they named this other person in lab.

SANDERS: (Laughter).

TAYLOR: And I was like, yes, absolutely. It is based on that person. And like, there was a little bit of that person in that character in the same way that there's a little bit of everything in all the characters. But that was a real close call.

(LAUGHTER)

SANDERS: You know, I'm hearing you talk about all of the various audiences that enjoyed the book - you know, your Black queer friends from back home, the Wisconsin community, the nematode community. But when you were writing this book, who were you writing it for? What specific audience or reader?

TAYLOR: Yeah. So I mean, I was writing it for - I always - when I sit down to write, I always write for two friends - my two queer Black friends who are, I think in some ways, like, the first two friends who were Black, who I met, who were so much like me that it was like we had been separated at birth. And they taught me how to be loved because I hadn't been loved very much as a child. And...

SANDERS: Yeah.

TAYLOR: ...I always say that I was raised by wolves until I met them (laughter).

SANDERS: Wow.

TAYLOR: And so whenever I write anything - and they were the friends who took me to that bookstore where the clerk was like, we don't sell those kinds of books here. And so whenever I sit down to write anything, I'm always thinking first and foremost about them and trying to write things that will make them not just feel represented, but will make them laugh or cry or feel something or things that they will understand or be engaged by, writing fiction that will honor their sensibility.

And you know, that - it's been like that since I wrote my very first short story in undergrad. And I mean, I was working on a novel earlier today, and I was still - I'm always still thinking of them. And so they are the people who are sort of first and foremost in my mind. And I'm not writing to a demographic. I'm writing to these two people who loved me and taught me to love and to be loved. And so, you know, I'm always thinking about them.

SANDERS: I love that. Hey, well, thank you so much for this chat. I have enjoyed so thoroughly getting immersed in your writing and now in this conversation. And I am so excited for folks to just hear you think out loud. Thank you for this chat.

TAYLOR: Oh, thank you. It was such a pleasure.

SANDERS: Thanks again to Brandon Taylor. Both of his books are out right now. And you can catch even more of his writing on his Twitter and his Substack. This conversation was part of an NPR collaboration with the Library of Congress National Book Festival. For more information and author interviews, visit loc.gov/bookfest.

This episode was produced by Liam McBain, and it was edited by Jordana Hochman.

All right, listeners, don't forget we're back this Friday with a new episode. And for that one, we want to hear from you, sharing the best part of your week. Just record yourself and send that file to me via email. That email address is samsanders@npr.org - samsanders@npr.org.

All right. 'Til Friday. Thank you, as always, for listening. Be good to yourselves. I'm Sam Sanders. We'll talk soon.

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