Brandon Taylor on his southern upbringing, being Black in the Midwest, and talking truthfully about depression
Brandon Taylor was on a path to becoming a scientist before he burst onto the literary scene with his debut novel, Real Life. Published in 2020, it received rave reviews and was shortlisted for the Booker Prize, announcing the young American author as an exciting new voice.
Real Life draws on much of Taylor's own background, from his upbringing in a Baptist community in rural Alabama, to his graduate studies in biochemistry at the University of Wisconsin. It centres on a gay, Black graduate student who experiences racism and a turbulent intimate relationship, while struggling to escape a traumatic past.
Taylor's latest book is Filthy Animals, a collection of short stories — about half of which are linked. Moving from the South to the American Midwest, it explores the often unspoken nature of depression and the primal side of human behaviour.
Taylor spoke to Eleanor Wachtel from New York City.
Growing up in rural Alabama
"Maybe calling it a farm is too robust a word, but we did grow our own vegetables. It was a little blue Jim Walter house, which is a clapboard house on cinder block stilts. We had five or so fields. We would grow greens and beans and tomatoes and things. I grew up in this herd of other boy cousins. I had two very large families on both sides. My parents were neighbours and childhood friends. When they got married, I became related to everybody in like a 10-mile radius of me. We would go into the gullies and the ditches, and we would chase cows around, much to the irritation of my relatives. It was a classic bucolic American childhood, in some ways.
"But it was not always bucolic. I had an older brother and several older male cousins. They would leave me at home because I couldn't keep up with them. They would go and hide away in the clubhouses they built in the woods. Another kind of un-idyllic part of that childhood was that there was a lot of rural poverty in my family. There were a lot of struggles with addiction and money. People didn't have a lot, and sometimes that translated into pain and aggression. It was a strange way to grow up for sure, because you saw both the rural beauty of Alabama as a state, but you also saw the privation and the difficulty of rural American poverty."
Childhood ghost stories
"My grandpa would tell these stories about working on a dairy farm and the things that he had seen happen to other Black people. Sometimes the stories were about groups of white men driving in trucks and throwing and hurling things at people's houses. Or there would be stories about being followed by police officers down long, dark country roads.
"But other times the stories would be kind of supernatural, stories about people seeing ghosts or spirits or visitations in the night. As a child, I couldn't always tell which of the stories were exaggerated and which were 100 per cent truth. So the result of that, is that everything felt 100 per cent true all the time. Sometimes it could feel quite gothic. All of the grown-ups are laughing, and I'm sitting there horrified at the thought of a ghost standing at the foot of my bed.
When I think about my earliest memories of stories that I wrote, they're always about ghosts and dead children and the ghosts of dead children being locked inside of trees.- Brandon Taylor
"I think I started writing stories to amuse myself on those afternoons when my brother and my cousins would leave me behind. It started with drawing, because my brother was a bit of an art prodigy. I was copying him, as all younger siblings tend to do. But then everybody started telling me, 'Oh, your drawings aren't as good as your brothers.' Can you imagine saying that to a five-year-old? So I started trying to write the stories that were in my head — about superheroes and little boys who got lost in the woods and were chased by dogs and things.
"My dad recently told me that he found a box of old stories I had written when I was in third grade. He said, 'There's one in that box that is about a little boy whose mother poisons him by feeding him Clorox.' He said that he remembered the teacher being very worried and calling the home asking, 'Is everything all right?'
"When I think about my earliest memories of stories that I wrote, they're always about ghosts and dead children and the ghosts of dead children being locked inside of trees."
Writing Filthy Animals
"It always seems to me that when people act in a way that is most human, that's when people call you animalistic. Like if you experience pain and you scream out in agony, or if you're ravenous and you eat rapidly and with a lot of intensity, or when you behave in ways that society doesn't want you to — that's when they call you an animal. They call you an animal to strip you of your dignity and to imply that you are going against the rules of decorum and that you should fall into line. I'm interested in those behaviours. Again and again, I find that I'm writing about things that are hard to capture and to put into language, and that very often is people behaving in ways that are thought of as animalistic or dangerous or brutal or primal.
"At least in the southern culture that I grew up with, men weren't afforded a robust vocabulary with which to express their feelings or their inner states. I think people often think that manifests as, 'Men are very taciturn and they don't know how to talk to other people.' But there's a part of that experience that gets overlooked: not only do you not have a robust vocabulary with which to talk to other people about your feelings, you don't have one for yourself.
I remember being a young boy in Alabama and not knowing how to talk to myself about what I was feeling.- Brandon Taylor
"I remember being a young boy in Alabama and not knowing how to talk to myself about what I was feeling. All I had were these sensations and this intense feeling of pressure and no way to explicate it to others or myself. It made me miserable, and you start lashing out. When people are like, 'What's wrong with you?' You don't know what to say.
"I think that in the context of the title story in Filthy Animals, what you have are four boys who feel quite intensely — who have these tender, sensitive hearts — but who don't know how to communicate anything they're feeling except through their fists, in these codes of violence and codes of machismo. That's what leads to some pretty dangerous scenarios for all characters involved."
"Being southern, I associated it with being backwards in some way. I associated southernness with narrowness and with certain attitudes about masculinity and about life. One example is that growing up in Alabama, most of the people I encountered were evangelical Christians. I was raised in an evangelical household. I was raised Baptist, in a quite traditional and religious family.
"It seemed to me that to be southern was to be deeply religious and deeply conservative, culturally and socially. All the things that I wanted in life — like a life of literature and a life of art and a life in which I could be an out queer person — all of those things were forbidden to me within a southern life. Of course, now that I'm older, I realize there are many different ways to be southern. These things are only true within a very narrow context and my very narrow upbringing.
It felt like quite an honour to be able to write a novel about a queer Black southerner and to have it be published and to have it recognized around the world.- Brandon Taylor
"But I wanted to get away from all of that. I wanted to get away from all these limitations, things that felt like they were being imposed on me by the culture and by my family and by the society of the South.
"It's strange. When I moved to the Midwest, I thought I would be revealed as a midwesterner at heart — that I was secretly a northerner all along. But what happened was that I realized how deeply southern I am. I realized that all these parts of how I acted and how I behaved were so southern. There was such goodness in that, in being raised in the South and having a southern view on life.
"Now I think of it as being one of the great honours and privileges of my life, to be a southerner, to have had that kind of upbringing and to have that reservoir of experiences. It felt like quite an honour to be able to write a novel about a queer Black southerner and to have it be published and recognized around the world. And so I love being a southerner. It's great to be from the South."
Brandon Taylor's comments have been edited for length and clarity.