The Chat: Trevor Corkum Interviews Jess Taylor

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This week on The Chat I speak to Jess Taylor, whose debut collection of short stories, Pauls, has earned rave reviews across the country.

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The stories in Pauls explore the lives of young Torontonians looking for love, struggling in dead-end jobs, and working overtime to make sense of their painful pasts. The Star called Pauls “a dark but strikingly atmospheric debut” and praised the collection’s “wisdom and sadness,” while the National Post said the collection is “a cycle of bristlingly good stories...one gets the sense of discovering in her authentic, compelling voice a master-in-waiting, like a young Alice Munro.”

Jess Taylor founded The Emerging Writers Reading Series in 2012 and is the fiction editor of Little Brother Magazine. She's released two chapbooks of poetry, And Then Everyone: Poems of the West End and Never Stop. Her story "Paul" received the 2013 National Magazine Award for Fiction.

[Photo credit: Angela Lewis]

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THE CHAT WITH JESS TAYLOR

Trevor Corkum: How was Pauls born?

Jess Taylor: I always think of my work as being somewhat cohesive ... All the characters belong to the same world, much like our own world. I think I find something peaceful about organizing things that way. For instance, all my poetry is now just one big long life poem. I was already grouping my stories into a collection that was going to be called Spokes. Like the spokes of a bicycle, different sections connecting to one wheel. Each section of three stories focused on a different geographical space and then I had this section “Paul.”

I’d noticed Paul was a go-to name of mine (I often reuse names, as I find it fun, realistic, and asks questions about the arbitrary nature of language). The Paul stories were similar in other ways ... Pauls seemed to be at times trickster figures or characters who are not self-aware. There was something tragic about these Pauls to me, as if by being named Paul they were fated to a certain life. It seemed natural to group the stories together although it didn’t really fit with the rest of Spokes.

I realized the section “Paul” included my best stories and focused on what I’m most interested in—people—rather than putting a focus on spaces. Spaces are still important to the characters in Pauls. It just is secondary to the characters. After “Paul” was published in Little Brother and won the National Magazine Award (NMA), I realized that people understood the idea and were interested in it, so I continued with the collection. I threw the other stories from Spokes away, forever.

TC: Each story references a character named Paul. Many of the stories explore the lives of young women in Toronto who grapple with a sense of unease as they move through their daily lives. You evoke this danger and unease expertly, in subtle and often chilling detail, as if something is not quite right under the familiar surface of the everyday. Can you talk more about this particular climate of danger and what it means for your characters?

JT: I think in writing about the climate of danger I was just trying to write about the real world, the way that I see it, and the way many women experience it. It’s a scary place!

I like to write about these things as if they are commonplace because in reality they are commonplace. I think at times in literature and news media things like abuse and assault are sensationalized and seen as this great big other thing instead of something that can occur in a lot of “regular” relationships and moments and friendships, even. By depicting things as they are, you can hope to actually change them, to identify the real problem. The real underlying problem isn’t just that these things are happening; it’s that they are day-to-day, a regular part of our lives and existence. Every time we make it seem far-fetched or not something all people carry with them in some way, we ignore the real problem.

I think at times in literature and news media things like abuse and assault are sensationalized and seen as this great big other thing instead of something that can occur in a lot of “regular” relationships and moments and friendships, even.

The reality of what it means to be human is that you can never fully experience another person. You never know what’s going on in another person’s head. This can cause fear at times, as you wonder how unpredictable the person you choose to spend most your time with is. It is also what causes wonder, admiration, and love. That mystery. I write to try to reach a point of mutual understanding with my characters and the world, and this means trying to understand all the twists and turns to a person, even the menacing sides.

TC: I admire the ways in which you explore the nuances of romantic relationships. In your stories, romance and intimacy are portrayed as complex minefields, unstable, painful, and full of complicated hurt and aggression. In one of my favourite stories, “We Want Impossible Things,” a young woman navigates a possible pregnancy and tries to summon the courage to address the situation with the man who would be the baby’s father. What draws you to these kinds of tales—in which love and romance are rarely redemptive but instead cause for wariness and self-defense?

JT: I think I was just trying to be truthful to most people’s experience. Being in love or looking for love is never a painless thing. Even when two people are mutually in love, even let’s say everyone’s on the same page and wants the same things at the same times and is dedicated to a future smooth and beautiful and the sex is always trouble-free, there is still longing when apart, there is still feeling suffocated when too close together, there is still feeling cranky because you haven’t gotten enough sleep, there is still taking out frustration from work, there is still not feeling appreciated at times, there is still wanting to argue for no reason.

 ... there is still longing when apart, there is still feeling suffocated when too close together, there is still feeling cranky because you haven’t gotten enough sleep, there is still taking out frustration from work, there is still not feeling appreciated at times, there is still wanting to argue for no reason.

People are fickle; humans and their emotions are complex minefields. This doesn’t mean that there isn’t just as much joy and beauty that comes from love or romantic relationships, but that they are complicated. Nothing is wholly good, nothing wholly bad.

I guess how wary and defensive you are when approaching any sort of close relationship depends on what’s happened to you in the past, your personality, etc. In Pauls, I happened to be writing as or about characters who have been through a lot of pain already, and this affects how close and truthful they can be with other people. I tend to be much more rash about these sorts of things than my characters ... and to forget my moments of pain almost too quickly! Perhaps I try to be a little wiser through my writing while still being true to my worldview.  

TC: Imagine you’re heading on a road trip with one of the Pauls in your collection. Which one would you choose? Where would you go and how would you spend the day? What music would you listen to as you drove?  

JT: Oh geez. I write about a lot of jerks and while I have a very high jerk tolerance in my daily life, I think that I wouldn’t want to be stuck in a car with any of the male Pauls for sure.

I’d maybe go with Paulina, but I feel like I’d get frustrated with her. She’s not as direct as I’d like. I’d want to go with someone who’d talk with me the whole way. I feel like Claire from “Claire’s Fine” might be fun to go with, or Kayla from “Degenerate”—she’d blast the radio the whole way and flick from song to song. I like Will from “Breakfast Curry” too ... I feel like he’d be fun, but he might get too drunk when we stopped for food. I don’t want to deal with anyone passing out or puking out the car window.

TC: The title collection of the story, “Pauls,” won the National Magazine Gold Award for Fiction a few years’ back. What did it mean for you to receive such public recognition for your work so early in your career? Did winning the award change how you write or your relationship to an audience of readers?

JT: I’m a little torn on how I view public recognition. It changed everything for me, for sure. When I won the award, I hadn’t even had a paid publication yet, and not a lot of people had read my work. Most people knew me as a promoter from starting The EW Reading Series. And I was comfortable with that, although it did make me feel like a hack sometimes. That’s what is different about winning an award like that—you finally feel like people are reading and getting your work, that you might not be a hack after all. It led to the book contract for me, and to a lot of great things. I don’t think I would have the same amount of teaching if I hadn’t had that recognition. I would probably still be teaching a course here and there and tutoring to make ends meet. I still don’t have full-time work, but I have enough to live, which was different than how things were before the NMA.

That’s what is different about winning an award like that—you finally feel like people are reading and getting your work, that you might not be a hack after all.

I don’t think it really changed how I write. I still try to be truthful to my characters and the questions I want to explore and not try to think too hard about what other people think. But you do feel people’s eyes on you in a different way, feel some pressure. Your writing life also picks up this other dimension where you’re doing things like this interview. This cuts into your creative writing time, and so then, just like before, you start to feel like a hack again. It depends on your mindset and whether you think of it as part of your work.

I think it’s a delicate balance between feeling good about recognition and feeling like it doesn’t mean anything. You can’t have it be the reason you write, but at the same time you have to not be so dismissive of it that you think anything nice anyone says about your work is invalid. It’s really easy to just say, “Oh they just said this because I know them through ___” or think that it’s ridiculous that your story was considered better than some writers you admire.

I think it’s good to look critically at these things and the way publication and publicity work, but I think we also shouldn’t be selling ourselves short. This is obviously something I’m still thinking about and trying to figure out. I know many writers who aren’t trying to publish or seeking recognition for their work—they just write to try to make something they are proud of, art for art’s sake. Sometimes I think this may be nobler, but since I’ve always wanted to communicate with people, I need to have my work out there.   

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EXCERPT FROM “WE WANT IMPOSSIBLE THINGS,” FEATURED IN JOYLAND MAGAZINE 

I had a hard time falling asleep because I knew I couldn’t possibly be pregnant with his baby. And yet I was four days late, according to the app on my phone, and there was a gnawing in my stomach, like she already had a mouth.

Everything gets caught up with everything else. This fall was an echo of every fall that came before, and this him, the one that might have gotten me pregnant, was more or less an echo of the first him. And the first him was more or less an echo of certain men in my family. People for whom when I was obedient, I was the world, but the rest of the time, most of time … well.

I didn’t want to take a test. I had taken tests before and they never really told you anything. Besides, it was just four days. Four days was a blip, it was nothing, but when I fell asleep behind my eyes I could see us becoming a new family.

January 28, 2016
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