This was not the publication year Brandon Taylor envisioned. His debut novel, Real Life, was a literary breakthrough, garnering praise from the likes of Roxane Gay, Garth Greenwell, and Jeremy O. Harris in The New York Times. Then, in the midst of his inaugural book tour, the world changed. Taylor was headed to a reading in Madison the day Wisconsin announced its first response to the coronavirus pandemic. But Taylor is no stranger to plot twists. In 2016, he walked away from a promising graduate career in biochemistry. Years of cutthroat competition and rampant microaggressions from colleagues and mentors alike convinced him that his path lay elsewhere.
And so, Taylor wrote Real Life, a brooding campus novel that’s lush in its interiority. Wallace, like Taylor once upon a time, is a biochem grad student navigating being black, gay, and Southern at a Midwestern university. Over the course of a steamy summer weekend, resentments, rivalries, and a nascent romance with a straight classmate reach their boiling points, and Wallace contemplates whether to stay or leave. Taylor relishes in treading the line between science and art. His probing observations—“Miller’s thighs flashed. The skin seemed smooth and chaste;” “frat boys, all in tank tops, their skin so healthy in the milky dusk light… they almost glowed with possibility”—expose the complex lattice of emotions underlying all that is mundane.
Not only did science lose a great mind in Taylor; it lost someone with a kind heart. And one thing we’ve learned from this crisis is that we need good people in science. But what a boon for the literary world! Taylor recently spoke to us from his home in Iowa City about life in quarantine, and how he managed to finish a story collection and start his next novel while keeping anxiety at bay.
BRANDON TAYLOR: Oh my gosh. Who wouldn’t want to be called that by Jeremy O. Harris? Every writer’s dream, but also every writer’s nightmare, is a really astute writer and thinker reading your book. Here was another queer Black man from the South who read this book and understood it and had something to say about it in his own incredibly Jeremy way. What a dream, frankly.
LONDRES: How is Iowa City? Are you starting to reopen?
TAYLOR: I went to get a deli sandwich for takeout yesterday and the woman was like, “Do you want to dine in?” And I was like, “What do you mean, do I want to dine in? There is a medical crisis happening in this country!”
LONDRES: How were you imagining your year as a debut author, and how did the pandemic change things?
TAYLOR: Back in February, when the book came out, which feels like three lifetimes ago, I had my book tour all set. The day I left L.A. was when L.A. announced its first case. The day I left New York, I think, was the day New York had its first case as well. Then I had my event in Madison the day the governor announced a state of emergency. The bookstore owner called me while I was at baggage claim, and they said, “We’re still going to do the event, but we just want to see if you want to do it.” I was like, “Well, I already flew here. I know a lot of people who are coming. The book is set in Madison.” That event was my last.
LONDRES: Do you feel cheated out of a proper first book tour?
TAYLOR: I don’t feel cheated really. Even in the best scenario, meaning not in a global pandemic, not every debut author gets to go to bookstores to meet readers. Even one store would’ve felt like a colossal privilege. It meant a lot to get to take that book back to Madison and be with people who I loved and who made the book possible.
LONDRES: There seem to be two camps of writers on quarantine: those who have always thrived in solitude and those who need stimulation from the outside world. Where do you fall between the two?
TAYLOR: From a young age I was someone who felt really isolated from the people around me and who sought solace in digital community. So even though we’ve been in isolation, I still have Twitter and Instagram and my friends who I text all the time. But living under quarantine, that’s not normal. My anxiety is off the charts. Debuting even in the best of times is a weird self-estranging thing because you’re both yourself and you’re also this weird authorial projection in the world. I had a really intense series of anxiety attacks in March and April.
LONDRES: Where was that coming from?
TAYLOR: I’ve always struggled with anxiety and depression, but back in November I started to have these really intense anxiety attacks resulting in tachycardia and trouble breathing. I would go to my doctor and I would be like, “I’m feeling ill.” And he’s like, “Would there be anything in your life causing you anxiety?” And I was like, “No. I mean, I have a debut novel coming out in three months.” He gave me some anti-anxiety meds and that helped for a time. Then I got a really bad bout of sinusitis when I came home from Madison. I was having all of these symptoms that were consistent with COVID-19. I felt really afraid. I was in the ER three times.
LONDRES: I’m so sorry to hear that. How are you doing now?
TAYLOR: The thing about anxiety—sometimes people think that you have a panic attack and then it’s over, but it would take me days and weeks to recover. The anxiety meds themselves have this lingering malaise. And to top it off, I couldn’t write, and I couldn’t read. But right around the time my brain fog was clearing, my editor sent me edits on my short story collection. It was just nice to have a project to dig back into. Now I’m back to a place where I feel like I’m able to write, and think, and work again, which has been really nice.
LONDRES: You said you’re working on a short story collection, but I know you’re also working on your next novel.
TAYLOR: The collection is called Filthy Animals, and that’ll be out… Well, when I sent it to my editor in February, we were thinking about next year, but everything is so subject to change now. The novel I’m working on is called Group Show. It’s about these five assistants and their terrifying boss in a fictional art museum in Madison, Wisconsin. It’s like The Devil Wears Prada meets Big Little Lies but set in the contemporary art world.
LONDRES: That’s amazing. When you were describing it, I flashed to Marina Abramović: The Artist is Present, and those performance artists and studio assistants working around this huge personality.
TAYLOR: Yeah. Maybe this is a product of my own ridiculousness, but when I think about an art museum, yes, I’m obsessed with the art, but I’m also like, “Who hung this?” My mom cleaned hotels, and so I was always aware that there was someone who cleaned up the messes that other people left behind. I’ve always been really attentive not necessarily to the main action of a thing, but what is behind it. When I watch Law & Order, I’m interested in Stabler and Benson and what they’re doing, but also, how are they interrupting the day of the person they’re interrogating? That’s why The Devil Wears Prada is so interesting. Yes, a movie that’s directly about Miranda Priestly would be interesting, but a movie about her dowdy assistant who becomes this glamazon and betrays all her friends in the process? That’s interesting.
LONDRES: On that note, what media have you been turning to this quarantine?
TAYLOR: I have been turning to shows about small towns. I’m from a small community, and I love them because they’re so folksy and every town has its own mythology, and every episode is like a short story with recurring characters. I recently watched all of Gilmore Girls for the first time. Right now, I’m watching this Australian show called The Heart Guy which is about a big shot cardiothoracic surgeon who gets kicked back to a small town because he was a bad boy in Sydney. I also watch this show called Virgin River which is about a hotshot L.A. nurse who goes to a small town in Northern California and she has the most sickening coats that you’ve ever seen.
LONDRES: You share your latest pop culture obsessions on Twitter. I was wondering if you could pitch some of them to someone who, let’s say, has lived under a rock and knows nothing about pop culture. First, The Big Flower Fight on Netflix.
TAYLOR: It’s competitive flower-arranging. It’s incredible. It’s like Survivor but with florists. Who wouldn’t want to see a group of people competitively go head-to-head arranging flowers in these fantastical structures? It’s so heartwarming because they’re not mean people, they’re florists. There’s this very hot duo of men who low-key do some gamesmanship and everyone else is not prepared for it because they’re all polite people. And these two Irish dudes hoard all the grass.
TAYLOR: Melrose Place except high school. If you love those second-tier Bravo shows—not the headliners like Real Housewives and stuff, but Summer House and the one about yachting, where young people are just being young and foolish and falling in love—if you want a show that has all the second-hand cringe of watching realistically portrayed people engage in romantic and social foibles but everyone is really hot with great set design, then Normal People is your show.
LONDRES: What about Billions?
TAYLOR: Billions has some of the smartest pop culture referencing that I’ve ever seen in a TV show. They weave these Faulknerian, Shakespearian monologues on topics of power and what we owe each other in a society, while at the same time getting some really incredibly detailed work about how the financing industry works or how the legal system works. It’s a show where everyone is a little bad, and they’re also a little good, and they’re in a shootout to the bitter end. The drama? Oh, my god.
LONDRES: Okay, last one. I think I already know the answer to this, but Brad Leone versus Alex Delany?
TAYLOR: They’re two chefs for Bon Appétit. First of all, they’re both huge. Delany is the only person who, when he’s in a shot with Brad, looks like a normal-sized person, which is how you know they’re both like 6’3″, 6’4″. Bon Appétit is a stable of charismatic personalities, but Brad is the frat boy with all of the obnoxious tendencies but a heart of gold. Delany’s like the cool guy who goes to frat parties but is not a in a frat because he’s above all that. They’re so delicious to watch. Brad is obviously my platonic ideal BA test guy, but I think the one I most identify with is Molly Baz. I’m such a Molly.
LONDRES: Back to Real Life, one of the biggest revelations for Wallace in the book is that no man is an island, and we need each other to survive. How would the Wallace at the beginning of the novel handle being in quarantine versus the Wallace at the end?
TAYLOR: I think Wallace at the beginning of the novel would maybe handle it better if he were by himself, though he has so much baggage he hasn’t processed. The Wallace at the end, he’s acknowledged that there’s some stuff to work on in the dark attic that is his mind. He would handle quarantine better if he were with another person, for sure.
LONDRES: How has the theme of needing each other resonated for you in these strange times?
TAYLOR: I’ve been asked a bunch of times how Wallace is different from me. Wallace is a character to whom I gave all of my baggage. He’s me if I had not had any therapy, and if I had not found friends who loved me and supported me. I really do think that the only reason I’ve gotten through any of this—even gotten through college and through my first round of grad school, and my second round of grad school, and through debut year—is having really good friends who held me through some difficult, painful stuff. Those friendships have been the most significant and important relationships in my life, even above family.
LONDRES: Real Life takes place over the course of a single weekend, during a pivotal moment in Wallace’s life. Right now, we’re all in this transitional period together. What do you think is waiting for us at the end of this long weekend?
TAYLOR: What I hope is, at the end of this—the weekend that is the first 10 months of this year, perhaps—that everyone emerges okay and healthy. I’m not hoping that the world just reverts to the way it was because, even when the coronavirus wasn’t here in the States, and even before the coronavirus happened, in some parts of the world there was already catastrophe and calamity. I am hoping that now that we’ve had it visit our door, we’re able to realize, oh, we should be problem-solving at a global level. We shouldn’t think of anyone’s life as expendable.
LONDRES: Your cardigan-over-sweater moment in the Times inspired many a selfie by cable knit-clad readers. What is your must-have piece for our summer indoors?
TAYLOR: I’ve been wearing this chambray button-down that I got from Uniqlo. I really love it. You can roll the sleeves down in the evening when it’s cooler, you can unbutton as many buttons as you want because you’re on your porch, maybe. And if you go up a size, you can put it over a tee-shirt so it’s messy and large and you can pretend to be a painter. I obviously spend a lot of time thinking about this stuff.