Brandon Taylor: ‘I grew up reading my aunt’s nursing-home manuals and bodice-rippers’

Brandon Taylor, 32, grew up in Alabama and studied at the Iowa Writers’ Workshop. He was shortlisted for last year’s Booker prize with his debut, Real Life, a campus novel about a gay black biochemist. His new book, Filthy Animals, is a series of linked stories loosely centred on the sexual tension between Lionel, a black maths postgraduate, and two white dance students, Charles and Sophie. The writer Paul Mendez has called Taylor “a phenomenon… the laureate of young, expensively educated people… pleasuring and harming themselves and each other”. He spoke to me over Zoom from his home in Iowa City.

Did you consciously set out to broaden your range in these stories?
I wrote the bulk of them in 2016, before writing Real Life, but I was revising the collection just as Real Life was being shortlisted for the Booker. After the challenge of writing that novel from one character’s perspective over one weekend, I found that when I came back to the stories I had more confidence to play around: the central thread of the collection is that Lionel meets these two dancers at a party, so I got to have different point-of-view characters circling one another, which was nice after the hermetic severity of Real Life.

In one story, a black protagonist recounts his boyhood trauma because white people have “a vast hunger for the calamities of others”…
A black student on my creative writing programme criticised that line heavily, but it seemed so true to me. I was trying to work out my feelings about black subjectivity as it would be consumed on the page by progressive white liberals – as a black person, am I complicit in the consumption of my own calamity? Like, I profit from it in some ways and not in others; I was trying to put down some of what that feels like, when there are white people ready to consume your story and give you a scholarship for having a tragic past or whatever. Real Life was all about what happens when you take white people up on their very kind offer to pay for your education because they feel sorry for you.

To judge from the responses of UK-based critics, Real Life was the most divisive novel on last year’s Booker shortlist.
Even positive reviews felt I was not nice enough to white people. They couched that in varying ways, but it essentially came down to “this author has no interest in the subjectivity of his white characters and he treats them like props”. If I wanted a novel that shared most of its energy with the white characters, I wouldn’t have written Real Life; I’d read Jeffrey Eugenides.

What was your experience of studying creative writing at Iowa?
I got a lot done once I learned how to be there, but the first year [in 2017] was very hostile. You have an instructor and it’s you and 12 people: it was like trial by fire. My first workshop, I turned in a story that bombed really hard, and the second time, I turned in flabby nonsense that bombed really hard. I thought I would have to leave.

Previously you pursued a biochemistry PhD [at the University of Wisconsin-Madison]. How did that compare?
You were expected to participate in your own education, whereas at Iowa you’re not allowed to talk while people criticise your work – there’s this gag rule, to preserve the real-world encounter with the text. You’re sitting there for two hours and they’re beating the story to death; in science you might have a two-hour lab meeting, but that’s because there’s a dialogue. But in my science programme I was the only black person out of, like, 90 people, and that wasn’t fun. At Iowa I always felt that when people were rude to me it was because they didn’t like my work, not because they had a racial animus.

How important has the internet been to your writing?
I grew up in rural Alabama, where I didn’t know anybody like me, and my solution was always, “I’m lonely, I’m sure there’s a messageboard somewhere.” So when I was living in Madison, Wisconsin, I got on Twitter because I wanted to be part of the literary world and had no plans to move to New York City any time soon. Editors have been drawn to that very online version of my voice; people come up to me and they’re like, “I read your tweets about Mare of Easttown.” You can’t take it too seriously: my friend says, whenever someone is deep in Twitter, that’s a person who needs to go touch some grass.

What have you been reading lately?
I’ve been giving myself a critical education in mid-century white-men criticism: Lionel Trilling, Northrop Frye, and FR Leavis’s The Great Tradition, which I really hated – his writing was kind of bad. Alfred Kazin’s On Native Grounds, a history of American prose literature, blew my mind: it has this beautiful reading of The Great Gatsby. A great novel I read recently was Aysegül Savas’s White on White: it’s very Cusky, it’s basically art criticism disguised as a novel, but it’s good.

What did you read as a child?
Most of my family cannot read or they read very poorly, so there were not a lot of books. I taught myself to read with my brother’s schoolbooks; while everybody else was reading The Cat in the Hat, I was reading my aunt’s nursing-home manuals and bodice-rippers. My most formative early reading was the Bible, which haunts me still, and the first author I loved was Pat Conroy, because the lyrical language of The Prince of Tides sounded so much like the Bible. I tried to imitate that intensity when I started writing, and then I was like, no; a lot of black writers get called raw and visceral because they write lyrically, and if I could remove that from the equation, it would be nice.

Filthy Animals by Brandon Taylor is published by Daunt on 24 June (£9.99). To support the Guardian order your copy at guardianbookshop.com. Delivery charges may apply

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