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Brandon Taylor On His New Story Collection, 'Filthy Animals'

SCOTT SIMON, HOST:

Brandon Taylor's book "Filthy Animals" is a collection of stories - some interconnect, some just bounce off each other - most of which are set in a Midwestern university town in which Lionel, a Black, queer grad student trying to build back from a suicide attempt, goes to a party and encounters a couple who may change his life or may just put him into a new tailspin.

BRANDON TAYLOR: (Reading) The couple were leaning forward now, each of them having a different conversation with the androgynous person, talking over each other in a hash of references to Dostoyevsky and Planned Parenthood. People only think they like Tolstoy better, but he's basically J.K. Rowling. Dostoyevsky is the real genius. Like, we're this [expletive] close to being totally defunded. Skip a latte and make a damn donation, right? OK, but, like, I've tried. Where should I start? Sure, but one person can't do anything against the vast political machine of American empire. Honestly, I think telling someone where to start with an author is kind of a slippery slope to fascism. I'm fine, Lionel said. Just getting over a bug. You're not contagious, are you, someone asked. I don't think it's contagious, Lionel said. Good, because I don't have a great immune system, and, like, it's socially irresponsible to come out if you're not feeling well.

SIMON: Brandon Taylor's highly acclaimed debut novel "Real Life" was shortlisted for the Booker Prize. His stories appeared in The New Yorker, Gay Mag and many other places. He joins us now from Iowa City. Thank you so much for being with us, Mr. Taylor.

TAYLOR: Thank you for having me.

SIMON: Lionel falls into a relationship with Charles and Sophie, whom you mentioned, both dance students. How would you like us to understand them, who are a couple when they meet Lionel?

TAYLOR: Yes, Sophie and Charles are in, I think, what most people might describe as an open relationship. And they go to this party, as young people in graduate programs often do. At this party, they meet Lionel, who is drawn into their orbit. And he begins to orbit each of them separately and then ultimately together. And I think what culminates in the book is not quite a thruffle, but certainly a trio of sorts.

SIMON: Sophie says at one point - I marked the words down - don't hurt him, Charlie. He's a good boy. He's not like us. What does she mean by that?

TAYLOR: I think what Sophie's saying there is that, you know, she and Charles both view Lionel as a kind of sweet young boy who's, you know, found his way kind of like an innocent hare into the crosshairs of a hunter. And so, you know, Sophie's saying something to the effect of, he's more gentle than we are. We, you know, are two people who've been scuffed up by the world. But, of course, I think Sophie comes to understand that Lionel himself has his own amount of scuffing from the world.

SIMON: Yes. He's struggling.

TAYLOR: Yeah.

SIMON: He doesn't know where to get hold of life as he's climbing up the mountain side.

TAYLOR: You know, I wrote those stories many, many years ago, but I think Lionel's position is one that many of us relate to, you know, today, where we're all trying to figure out how to get back into the world after a long and difficult withdrawal from it. You know, the book opens with him going to this potluck. And he's just gotten out of a hospital after a relapse of suicidal ideation. And he's just trying to figure out how to be in the same room as more than one person (laughter) again. And I think that that's...

SIMON: Yeah.

TAYLOR: ...A feeling that many of us are negotiating now as, you know, the outside opens back up again.

SIMON: The title story, "Filthy Animals," has another cast of characters entirely. Tell us, please, about Milton and Nolan and their friends in rural Alabama.

TAYLOR: Yeah. So Milton and Nolan are a part of this, you know, this group of four friends who've known each other from basically infancy, as it often is the case in small towns, especially in Alabama. I feel like I had the same group of friends from kindergarten to high school, almost.

SIMON: We should explain. You grew up outside of Montgomery, right?

TAYLOR: Yes. I grew up in a small, small town on a farm outside of a small town in rural Alabama. And so Milton and Nolan are - you know, I think of them as two sort of quintessentially Southern teenage boys. We meet them on one of those nights in late fall when it feels like anything could happen. And they go out to a bonfire and then get into a great deal of trouble (laughter).

SIMON: I'll say.

TAYLOR: And I think all the main characters in that story - Milton, Nolan, Tate and Abe - are just young men who are just out on the prowl in all the ways that we think of young men as being on the prowl. But I think they also all have these incredibly tender hearts, and they don't know what to do with them, as, you know, is often the case of young men in our culture. We don't know what to do with our feelings, and those feelings come out in strange and sometimes violent ways.

SIMON: Yeah. As you were writing, was it a relief to get out of academia for a story?

TAYLOR: Yeah. Honestly, yes. I (laughter) - it really was a pleasure to write about not just people who weren't in academia, but youth and all of its tensions and precarity and strangeness. There's just something really pure about being able to write about teenagers because experience is so new, and it's so raw and immediate and urgent. And, you know, writing about the time when, as a young boy, as a young queer boy you fall for your best friend is, like, one of the most fraught (laughter) - one of the most...

SIMON: Yeah.

TAYLOR: ...Fraught moments in a queer life. So it was a relief and a joy to write about those boys, the things that they get up to on weekend nights (laughter).

SIMON: Forgive me, Mr. Taylor. It's none of my business. But this from your personal experience?

TAYLOR: I think a lot of that story stems from personal experience and stems from a lot of the questions that I had when I was that age that I didn't have answers or language for. You know, the main character of that story really struggles with what it is he's feeling, which is ultimately love and all of its shades, for his best friend. But he doesn't yet really know what to call it or how to call it. All he knows is that he feels it so deeply in himself. And that was certainly something that I, as a young queer boy in Alabama, felt. Just - I remember lying awake at night and just being on fire with love for the people I was closest to and not really knowing how to make sense of it, just knowing that it was, like, this almost sickness I couldn't get over. So, yeah, a lot of that definitely comes from my own coming of age in some respects.

SIMON: Did that have a role in making you a writer, do you think?

TAYLOR: Oh, absolutely. I think it must have. The writer Mavis Gallant says that, you know, a writer is someone who experiences an initial jolt in life that leaves the door forever ajar. And I think that a lot of my childhood was so strange and so brutal, and I was deprived of language about myself and my own experience in so many ways that I really had no choice but to sort of turn inward and try to find some for myself. And, you know, that's not unique to my life. I think certain childhoods are like that. You know, people don't tell kids anything. It feels different now, though. It feels different. It feels like kids have a more robust set of language. And maybe that's the internet. Maybe that's social media. They can find language...

SIMON: Yeah.

TAYLOR: ...For themselves. But I certainly felt that I had to make my own. And that's part of, I think, why I ended up being a writer.

SIMON: Brandon Taylor - his new collection, "Filthy Animals." Thank you so much for being with us, Mr. Taylor.

TAYLOR: Thank you so much for having me. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.