Justin Taylor Talks To Us About Activism, St. Augustine, and Bad Reviews

02/25/2011 9:47 AM |


Exactly a week after his debut novel, The Gospel of Anarchy, was released by Harper Perennial, Justin Taylor met me at the Housing Works café and bookstore to discuss activism, religion, politics, being a writer in Brooklyn, and the complexities of his novel about a group of progressive punk anarchist-Christians in Gainesville, Florida searching for meaning in a spiritually void culture at the turn of the millennium.

Since there are so many young writers living in Brooklyn, do you feel any competitiveness, or more collaboration and encouragement? Or do you not feel there’s a scene and feel isolated from all this?
I think the middle one. When you’re actually sitting there writing, you’re by yourself. You’re not think about your peers, you’re not thinking about a scene, you’re not thinking about what’s going on in your kitchen, I’m mean you’re just alone and, hopefully, immersed in the work. But the rest of the time, maybe some friendly competition, but for the most part people that are here are really happy to have fellow travelers, and a community of peers and colleagues, people who will come hear you read and people who you’ll go hear read.

When I heard you say you wrote the 20,000 word rough draft of Gospel of Anarchy in one day in a coffee shop I was pretty impressed and didn’t know if that was usual for you.
It was certainly a one of a kind experience for me. None of that material ended up being used. That was the zero draft.
Does that happen often? Writing something and then complexly burning it?
I’ll cut the guts out of something and put new guts in it—see what a story feels like once a story has lost a character or pivotal scene. It really interests me when you take out what feels essential and it opens up these spaces. But working on a story or novel is very different. With a story you can spread 15 pages out on a table and see what you’re doing, and with a novel, you just can’t. You have to be able to deal with it in pieces without losing sight of the whole.

Do you feel working as an adjunct writing teacher facilitates your writing, or suffocates it?
Doing lesson plans and grading assignment takes time, I suppose takes time away from when you could be writing, but if I wasn’t doing that I’d be doing something else to make a living. At the same time, there’s no question that you expend creative energy on grading composition, essays, or fiction; it’s a different process than working on your own stuff, but it’s drawn from the same well… I do enjoy teaching for its own sake. It’s a wonderful thing to have twelve or thirteen students in the prime of their lives and their attention and all they want to do is talk seriously about whatever you want to talk about. That’s a good feeling.

Your novel is philosophically heavy; do you prefer to read philosophically heavy literature yourself? What type or region of literature has been most influential on your writing?
I certainly read a lot of philosophy, I read a lot of poetry. I like to have that very broad range of inputs. This novel was written in a very specific kind of way, bringing a lot of philosophy, a lot of theology, and lot of political theory in a very overt way. But I think that’s really unique too—
Unique for you? Or unique for contemporary literature?
Unique for me. I think there are plenty of other writers out there who deal with as much philosophy as I do, some of them quite overtly and other more implicitly. There’s DeLillo, who was a very big influence on this book; you can read a book of his and point to very specific philosophers—Point Omega owes an enormous debt to Teilhard de Chardin, which he’s pretty upfront about. Other novels are written in a very different way in how they keep their influences below the surface. I think I did that more in my short stories, but I wanted to write a novel not just inspired by Kierkegaard, but where people are reading Kierkegaard and taking it seriously, so it’s the characters’ engagement with these primary source texts which opened me up to citing and using them. In a different kind of novel where the stakes are different, it would not make sense, I don’t think, for Jimmy to walk into a room and start reading from Fear and Trembling and everybody stops what they’re doing and thinks about what he’s saying, but here you can get away with this.

Now I want to move to responding to a couple reviews Gospel of Anarchy. I read in the Times that your goal is to remind “those of us long past our difficult youths of the grace and beauty to be found even in a “bunch of drunkpunks in the armpit of Florida.” Now, I thought your goal was to address our spiritually empty culture and the “problem of privilege.” One of us is way off…
I think I want to suggest that it’s both. I read that Kois piece and there’s a lot in that review that frustrated me. Most notably that he speaks of the politics and cultural aspects—and he didn’t like the novel very much, which is fine, he’s entitled to do that—but what’s frustrating to me is that he didn’t address the religious stuff, at all. The word “Christianity” literally does not appear in that review, so if all you knew about the book was from the review, you would not know what 50% of this book was about, and that’s frustrating (and again, that’s his prerogative, I guess).

But I don’t think what he’s saying and what you’re saying are incompatible. You can’t write about people during college without writing a paean to that time, but where he and I might diverge, and where I might align closer to you, is that part of what puts those people in a state of beauty is that they are much more open to taking on these kind of problems than at any other time in their lives. It’s a moment in time when people are uniquely situated to really thinking critically and seriously about where we come from, how we function, what our role is, and I think it’s important that people do ask those questions seriously, and that they answer them seriously. There’s a unique state of receptivity at this time. If you want to put it in religious terms, it goes back to Augustine’s state of grace. There’s this thing, I forget what it’s called, but it’s like a pre-grace. There’s this thing that happens to you to prepare you for the grace you’re going to receive, to change you and make you better.
Like an ideological purity?
Yeah, but more than a purity, which suggests a positive value: it’s almost more like an emptying-out. These people at that age and moment, especially in this drop-out culture taking very real personal risks—and I don’t want to say that’s always the right thing to do, certainly it’s not something I did—but coming up to the edge, that empties you and primes you in a way to receive whatever’s coming, and you don’t always know what that’s going to be, but being open like that is really valuable. I think that’s one of the reasons that the novel starts with the way it does, with this guy that’s kind of unwittingly emptying his life of all meaning: he’s working at this job he hates, and he’s looking at internet porn, and it looks very different but really it’s just Augustine’s Confessions, which is why the chapter is called that.


How much of your original version of the book was altered during the long publication and editing process? I’m asking to address the idea that independent publishers offer authors more creative control and freedom.
Oh, I was very happy with the final product. I was working on this book for years, before I met my editor, before I sold it, and they saw what I was working on. I sold the stories and novel together, with the understanding that the stories would come out in 2010 and I’d have another year to put the finishing touches on the novel. So they knew what they were getting. My editor and I worked on it, but we did not make any significant changes—he’s a wonderful editor, he caught a bunch of things and helped make it strong. But if they wanted to change a lot of things, they probably wouldn’t have bought it in the first place. And it is so strange to think that this is the last place a book like this would end up. Harper Perennial, you know, is a subsidiary of HarperCollins, which is part of NewsCorp, which is a Rupert Murdoch company. So in theory, my editor works for the same people that Bill O’ Reilly works for. I can tell you everyone at Harper Perennial I’ve met, from the web designer all the way on up to the publisher, has been 100% supportive. No one has censored anything, editing anything, not politically, not aesthetically. They believed in me and they thought that this could work and they’re really seeing it through. And they were great with the last book, too. And the photo book that I edited. They’re just amazing people. I would work with them again in a heartbeat. I wish I had another book to sell [laughs].

I read that you were involved in activist politics in college. To what extent were you active?
I did a lot of different things, things that felt very involved at the time. The U of Florida, and Gainesville particularly, has a big progressive population, so there’s always something going on. I was involved with a group called Student Peace Action, an anti-war organization, and inside that there was Students Against Sweat-shops, which split off into its own thing, and it actually had some measures of success, introducing measures into the student senate. We used to go into the student store and spike all the products with these little gift cards about sweat shops, explaining how all the garments were produced, that kind of stuff. We spent a lot of time fighting Taco Bell, and bringing attention to these nightshift janitors, most of whom were single minority women—I was happy with that one.

And do you consider your writing as activism?
I don’t think this is an activist novel. It certainly seems to take progressive politics very seriously and it deals with them at length, and if makes people feel that those positions are viable, then that’s great, I’m happy. But it’s a very reflective book. And the truth is that the characters express a lot of cynicism at the kind of traditional activism that I was just describing to you, the kind I myself was involved in—and that’s not to say I now hold the cynical position or the optimist position: I’m not involved as an activist on any day-to-day basis, but I try to vote with my dollars, and occasionally vote with my votes.

So, like your characters, you think making lifestyle choices is a good way to be an activist?
I think that people ought to live their beliefs as much as they can. I don’t think that excuses people from speaking up or standing up for change where it’s necessary, or arguing against when things we fought for in this country are actively being taken away from us—things like social security, or abortion rights, or the right to organize. Especially these days, when you see it almost daily, I don’t think it’s enough to say that I bought a four dollar organic apple.

Do you have a deep personal passion for anarchy, the apocalypse, and Christian mysticism, or are you mostly just intellectually fascinated with them?
I dove into it in that I immersed myself in the literature and the belief systems of these worlds, and spent years in that head space, tossing things over and making them work, and then emerging with this book in hand. So in that sense, I take both very seriously and have respect for both. At the same time, I’m not a churchgoing person. I was raised secular, and Jewish, actually, and liberal, though not radically progressive by any means. So where does the interest come from and how much of it is purely academic and how much of it is purely personal? I don’t think there’s any way to figure that out. If something catches my attention, presents itself with self-evident value, I don’t need to know why I think it’s important. If I think it’s important, I’ll spend time with it until I produce something.