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Author Spotlight: Brandon Taylor

By Jia Wen Ho, Shaniah Shields, Leanne Francis and Michelle Ye


Born and raised on a farm on the outskirts of Montgomery, Alabama, and with an illiterate mother and a “legally blind” father, Brandon Taylor was the family’s designated reader since his youth. At school, he had an aptitude for sciences and subsequently did a doctorate in Wisconsin, where he also wrote his first novel, Real Life.


Talking about his upbringing, Taylor was a queer boy in a Christian household. “I always say that I was raised by wolves,” he says, describing his home environment as one that did not encourage talking about feelings, instead being very strict and “fire and doom.”


His family didn’t read much, but Taylor managed to tumble upon romance novels, which became one of his two favourite genres, the other being European history. At the age of twelve, he started writing collaborative stories for roleplay forums. He says that “writing is the most fun I’m capable of having.”


The Publishing Journey


Prior to his novels, Taylor began his publishing career writing short stories and essays which have appeared in multiple literary magazines, such as American Short Fiction, The New Yorker, Necessary Fiction, Gulf Coast and The Literary Review. His first published short story, Cold River, was written while Taylor was an undergraduate student at Auburn University, when he was spurred on by a bookstore’s lack of queer literature. Despite a seemingly disparate background in the sciences, Taylor attributes his literary productivity to his time as a doctoral student in biochemistry. In the short span of five weeks, he had completed the manuscript for his debut novel, Real Life. However, the road to publication for this work that merged Taylor’s passions was not without obstacles, including rejections from two agents. But he was encouraged by fellowships for his writing and an acceptance to the Iowa Writers’ Workshop, leading him down the process of revision towards the publication of Real Life by Riverhead Books in 2020. Following his debut novel, Taylor’s collection of short stories, Filthy Animals, was published in 2021 and awarded The Story Prize. Most recently, Taylor’s second novel, The Late Americans, was published in May 2023.


Books


Real Life. Riverhead Books, 2020


Described as a “controlled roar of rage and pain,” Brandon Taylor’s debut novel, Real Life, takes place over the course of a single weekend. We are introduced to Wallace, a gay, Black biochemistry student from a small town in Alabama. Wallace is four years into his PhD programme at a predominantly white Midwestern university, when he learns that his father has passed away. His father’s death prompts Wallace to think back on various life events, alternating between gatherings with his white friends, moments of solitude, a session in his lab and a number of sexual encounters.


Filthy Animals. Penguin Random House, 2021


In Filthy Animals, Taylor’s “blisteringly beautiful” short story collection, the author creates a group portrait of young creatives living in the Midwest. Featuring eleven distinct but interconnected stories, Filthy Animals provides a window into the shared concerns of young people, including issues with intimacy and feeling like an outsider. He intricately narrates the unspoken tension within the world of each story, revealing how one character influences the others in different ways, and builds a three-dimensional portrait of the group as the stories rotate.


The Late Americans. Penguin Random House, 2023


Taylor’s latest book is a kaleidoscope of self-discovery and relationships. Each chapter features portraits of young queer people at the University of Iowa: Ivan, a dancer turned aspiring banker; Fatima, whose lifestyle and ethics complicate her relations; Fyodor, a local meat process plant worker who is dating a vegetarian. Described as Taylor’s richest work, The Late Americans probes at love and sex, ambition and instability and the human capacity to hurt one another during the journey of self-discovery.


Review of Real Life


Brandon Taylor’s acclaimed debut novel Real Life was shortlisted for the 2020 Booker Prize. Following Wallace, a Black biochemistry student from the Deep South now studying in the Midwest, this tale of alienation and desire is set during a solitary summer weekend. Taylor’s intimate character study of Wallace is complex and full of yearning. “You have to let it go if you’re going to keep moving, if you’re going to survive, because the past doesn’t need a future.”


The heart of the story is about overcoming childhood trauma and the debilitating effects of racism. Taylor’s abundant prose, partnered with a narrative on the nuances and anxieties of our humanity, has created a tender portrait of contemporary America. Dissecting themes of race, sexuality, friendship and childhood, Real Life is a novel of its time.


Real Life is described as “psychologically compelling, incisively satirical [and] told in a muted style that nevertheless accesses a full emotional range.” Taylor’s prose is sophisticatedly crafted and full of gems. You will find yourself underlining quotes and relating to the story in more ways than one. A future modern classic, Taylor’s presentation of the contemporary Black American experience in Real Life is brimming with intrigue and heart.




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