‘Anna Karenina is a symphony’: 21 Questions with Brandon Taylor

The author of The Late Americans on Jane Austen, his love of Chopin and, um… cryo-sectioning mouse eyeballs.

Photo: Haolun Xu. Image design: Victoria Ford / Penguin

In the middle of writing his second novel – the follow-up to his Booker Prize-shortlisted debut, 2020’s Real Life – author Brandon Taylor hit what he thought might be a case of insurmountable writer’s block, and almost gave up.

“I took up film photography”, he says now. “I started taking pictures because my novel wasn't working and I was like, ‘Well, I'm never going to be a writer again. I must find a new means of accessing art and beauty.’”

Of course, his facility for writing came back to him, which explains the release, now, of The Late Americans, a brisk but dense novel about art and identity, centred on a group of friends as they prepare to enter life after university and told with Taylor’s mix of poignancy and wit.

To mark the book’s release, we asked Brandon our 21 Questions about life and literature, where he talked about how Call Me By Your Name changed his life, fountain pens, and serving Julia Child’s beef bourguignon to Edith Wharton.

Which writer do you most admire and why?

The writer I most admire is Mavis Gallant, because she writes about big, huge world forces within the confines of a single life.

What was the first book you remember loving as a child?

A book called A is for Apple, W is for Witch. I think it’s the first book I tried to plagiarise, because I loved it so much; I wanted to write a story about a little boy who also is a secret witch who discovers his magic. The first thing I remember writing is a bad plagiarised version of that story.

What was your favourite book when you were a teenager?

A romance novel called Beauty Like the Night by Liz Carlyle. I really love romance novels, but I loved that one, especially, because it had a lot of things about poetry in it. And I don't know, it was just very beautiful. I bought it in a grocery store; it’s a sort of pulp romance novel. But yeah, I thought it was so beautiful.

Tell us about a book that changed your life’s path

Someone was putting into language things I had felt, and I didn't realise language could do that

I read Andre Aciman’s Call Me By Your Name when I was very young. I think I was 18, and I was living away from home for the first time. It was the first time I'd read a book about a queer person; before that, I thought that I was singularly strange. Reading a book about a lonely boy who has read too many books, with too many feelings, was really kind of amazing. Someone was putting into language things I had felt, and I didn't realise language could do that. I don’t even think I realised I was gay. I think I was just beginning to express that, when I started reading that book.

What’s the strangest job you’ve had outside being an author?

Before I was an author, I was a scientist. So I’d say maybe the strangest job I've had is cryo-sectioning mouse eyeballs, in a tissue lab. We would embed them in a frozen substance: first we would fix them using formaldehyde, then freeze them, then slice them with a very sharp, very small blade. We were looking for genes important for certain kinds of neural regeneration, nerve regeneration. It was really cool. I’m on the right path, but sometimes I miss science.

What’s the best piece of writing advice you’ve ever been given?

Right before I wrote my first novel, when I was living in Madison, still working in a lab, I had really bad writer's block. My roommate at the time said to me, “What are you afraid of? It's just a draft. Just write it; you know how to write. It's a draft, you can fix anything.” That was really revelatory for me; I went from a person who did not finish anything to a person who suddenly had the capacity to finish something. I suddenly had confidence in my ability to fix it later. So yeah: it's just a draft. It's so powerful.

Tell us about a book you’ve reread many times (and why)

So I am a chronic re-reader; I reread almost every book. But the book I reread the most is probably Jane Austen's Persuasion. I love Austen. I did not love that novel at first, but every time I've reread it, I've found something new in it. And more than finding something new in the book, I think it teaches me something different about myself each time. I feel like it's not the book that is changing – it’s me, and I really love that. Austen has so many lessons to offer us at different phases of our life; it's like the growth rings in a tree.

What’s the one book you feel guiltiest for not reading?

Because I was a scientist for a long time, whenever I feel a little guilt, I just say, “Well, you were a scientist, you read other things; you don't have the burden that the English majors have.” Whenever there's a book that I feel like I should read, I just read it. I don't like to feel too much guilt.

If I didn’t become an author, I would be ______

A scientist, probably.

What makes you happiest?

Writing makes me happiest. I love writing. When I’m writing, I am having the best time I am capable of having. And after that, probably photography. I took up film photography because my novel wasn't working and I really love it.

What’s your most surprising passion or hobby?

Austen has so many lessons to offer us at different phases of our life; it's like the growth rings in a tree

For people who don't know me, probably my deep, deep love of Chopin. I love Chopin. I am listening to Chopin all the time. And for people who know me, probably fountain pens. I'm really into fountain pens – like, it's a problem. It's a pathology. I got into them shortly after moving to New York City. It's similar to film photography, in that it is a very finicky, very technical hobby to have. I was like, “I could never get into fountain pens, they’re too persnickety”, but I really love them. I was once asked on a date, and I was like, “Sorry, I can't go out right now, I have to clean my fountain pens.” It's a ritual to have! So yeah, fountain pens or my obsession with the ballads of Chopin.

What is your ideal writing scenario?

I'm pretty easy. I think an ideal writing scenario is just free time, time where I don't have to be somewhere else, do something else. I've turned in all the things I have do. There’s just time to take a breath. So that's my ideal scenario. Literally, I just need time and free mental space.

What was your strangest or most embarrassing author encounter?

Probably someone starting an interview by saying that my book was actually really boring and hard to get through… and that he hadn't finished it, but wanted to interview me anyway. He said this at the start of the interview, and I was like, “Oh… why am I here?” I felt such secondhand embarrassment for him that it actually made me uncomfortable. Like even now I can know that I wasn't even worried for myself. I was just like, “What are you gonna do?”

If you could have any writer, living or dead, over for dinner, who would it be, and what would you serve them?

I think I would want mid-period Edith Wharton, because she'd be so funny. I think I would make her Julia Child's beef bourguignon. Edith Wharton did not like peasant dishes, and that is a peasant dish in the extreme. That'd be really fun to do because she'd eat it anyway. She's very polite. That is a scenario I've thought through multiple times. But like, a really good red wine that shows I have taste. My goal is to end up described in one of her novels as like the person who paired a really good wine with a peasant dish.

What’s your biggest fear?

Birds. Two things did it. First, I grew up on a farm, and I once saw my cousin attacked by a swarm of chickens; we had chickens, and he dropped the feed pail while we were supposed to be feeding them, and they swarmed him. It was really scary. Another time, the second thing, is that same cousin stuck a stick through a dead bird and chased me with it. Ever since, I've just been done with birds.

If you could have a superpower, what would it be?

Telekinesis. All day, every day. I want to move things with my mind.

What’s the best book you’ve read in the past 12 months? 

I think Rebecca West’s The Court and the Castle, which is a great book of criticism on the relation between the individual and society. She does these really great readings from Hamlet through Kafka and Proust. It's just an amazing, funny, beautiful, brilliant book; very timely, even though it was published in the 1950s.

Reading in the bath: yes or no?

Yes! I work as an editor for a small press, and the first title I ever acquired, I read it in the bath. I read the first 200 pages in one go in the bath because it was so riveting. I love reading in the bathtub.

Which do you prefer: coffee or tea?

Coffee. Drip coffee, not espresso.

What is the best book you’ve ever read?

I think it's got to be Anna Karenina. I think we're never seeing those heights again in the novel format. We're never getting there. That book is extraordinary. It is a symphony. It has everything. It's not my favourite book, although I love it a lot, but that book… I felt annihilated by that book. That book was like encountering the Death Star.

What inspired you to write your new book?

I was really annoyed and angry at our contemporary idioms around art, and identity, and culture. I wanted to write a book that sort of made fun of those idioms and tried to find something true in a world that feels increasingly false.

The Late Americans is out now.

Sign up to the Penguin Newsletter

For the latest books, recommendations, author interviews and more