We spoke with Brandon Taylor about his story “Honorarium,” which appears in the Winter 2021 issue of the Review. Taylor’s story focuses on a violinist, Vasek, whose life is unexpectedly touched by a poet at whose memorial he is asked to perform. Taylor’s novel Real Life was a finalist for the 2020 Booker Prize, and was reviewed in our latest issue. His first story collection, Filthy Animals, is forthcoming in June 2021. In this conversation, he talked to us about a story’s opening gambits, the effect of figurative language in narrative, and his own (and his characters’) coming of age in academia.
—Adam Ross, Editor
SR: Your story “Honorarium” starts with this one-sentence paragraph: “Vasek was not familiar with the famous poet’s work, but he had been asked if he would be willing, for a small honorarium, to play a brief selection at the open and close of the memorial service.” There it is, the story’s entire plot right up front, and I confess it put me in the mind of so many of [Anton] Chekhov’s brilliantly compact openings. What’s your philosophy of how a story should begin?
Taylor: I’ve ingested a lot of Chekhov by way of Mavis Gallant and Raymond Carver. It wasn’t until fairly recently (maybe a couple years ago) that I actually sat down and studied Chekhov directly, and it was like that weird moment of entering a room and having a powerful feeling that you’d been there before. So it makes sense to me that you’d detect some resonance in our approach. It all flows from Chekhov one way or another.
As to my philosophy on how stories should begin: I like it when the opening contains some of the attack of the story. The key, animating tensions and motivations glimpsed, as if moving by them in traffic, only to come upon them at the intersection much later. I think it just opens up so much more room in a story if you present the reader with the core tension early. You don’t have to waste all that energy building up to it and trying to justify it to yourself. Thrusting the reader and the character into the motion of the story simultaneously lets you just get on with the real work of writing. Plus, I always find that when I’m trying to justify a beat in a story, I end up writing so many needless words, and then I find I’m trying to manipulate the reader in a way that feels cheesy or pointless.
I guess I just like openings that contain the music of the story and give the reader a sense of directionality and momentum.
SR: When Vasek, a violinist, performs at the memorial, he starts abruptly, so that he seems to botch the opening. But Vasek gets the piece under control, and you have this beautiful line: “It was then that whatever significance had been mounting in the moment was punctured and lay down, like an innertube with a hole.” And I was struck by how sparingly and intentionally you use metaphor. What’s the place of figurative language in your conception of realism?
Taylor: I have this very vivid memory of writing the first pages of “Honorarium” in the little dining area of the grocery store here in Iowa City. And I remember thinking to myself that I had used too much figurative language in my novel Real Life and in some of my stories, and I wanted to write a story without that. I very much wanted to go on a cleanse. To me, figurative language represents a phase change. It’s the point at which character experience shifts under the pressure of narration. Metaphor and simile represent the highest order of phase change. It’s the most intense because it represents the starkest departure in register from the texture of narration and exposition. I try to use it sparingly because I don’t consider myself an incredibly lyrical writer. I care very much about the concrete, about the physical, about the embodied texture of narration. I think a lot of lyricism sometimes leaves me feeling like I’m drifting through space with nothing to attach to, and I start to miss the physical form. I also feel that sometimes figurative language is a way to avoid looking directly at something. It’s a way to conjure feeling in absence of real emotion.
I try to avoid what feel like unearned flights of fancy. But sometimes I get carried away. It’s hard to resist beautiful writing.
SR: Early in the story, Vasek reflects, “He didn’t know what he wanted because the opportunities for the world did not flow to him but away from him, and he always had a hard time conceiving of things in absence of an example.” This observation is, to me, a central theme in your novel, Real Life. But in the case of the protagonist, Wallace, this has a significant racial component. Both narratives share a similar setting and characters—university life and graduate students who dwell in a sort of limbo before they enter their workaday, adult lives. How does this story echo and differentiate itself from some of the concerns in your novel?
Taylor: One of my oldest friends recently said to me, “I’m ready for you to write about real people again.” Meaning that he was feeling a little fatigued reading about graduate students. Which I thought was fair, but it also hurt my feelings a great deal. Because it seemed to say that stories about young people waiting to find out who they are and what kind of shape their lives will take are somehow less urgent, less important, less interesting, less potent than other kinds of stories. And of course there is some teeth to that argument, in the context of graduate school, which is often a space for privileged people to argue over abstract values.
What I try to do in my work though is illuminate all of those nuances. I’ve spent a lot of time in and around academia. It’s the place where I came of age. Where I learned how to be an adult. And also where I realized that I would lead a life that was essentially alien to my family, who had been preparing me for quite a different life. I think in all of my work, I am interested in characters who find themselves stranded in moments and in lives that they did not see coming. You wake up one day and suddenly you’re an adult, and all of those choices you didn’t even know you were making have cohered into a life and set of circumstances. How do you negotiate that? How do you navigate the alienness of your own life?
I think “Honorarium” and Real Life both speak to some of the weirdness of that pre-adult real world that awaits us all one way or another. But I think “Honorarium” is more interested in how one finds meaning in one’s art when they aren’t a once-in-a-generation talent. What becomes of those legions of ordinary people who still have to get on with the business of living? And, I think the story is also interested in how class and gender and race all operate in terms of trying to make art and trying to make a living.