Interview with Alex Taylor

Posted: August 10, 2010 in Interviews
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Photo by Julie Bullock

Live Nude Books: I was wondering if you could talk about your approach to compiling the stories in The Name of the Nearest River.  Did you write individual stories with the intention that they’d be parts of a collection?

Alex Taylor: Well, no, I never set out, envisioning any kind of linked collection.  I guess if there’s any kind of link between the stories it would be one of place and perhaps attitude of the characters, but I never really had bought into the notion that a collection of short stories has to be linked.  I know publishers want that these days ’cause it makes it easier to sell, if it has the appearance of a novel that’s broken up into parts.  But I was just writing stories; I just like the buffet feel of a collection, rather than any kind of unified whole. But, hey, maybe it has one; I’m not exactly sure about that.

LNB: You talked about the attitude of your characters.  Do their attitudes spring from circumstance?  Which comes first in your writing process, character or plot?

AT: Most often, a lot of my stories seem to stem from an anecdote that I’ve heard about.  Then it’s me, imagining what kind of—reimagining that anecdote into a more fully formed situation.  And then the character seems to arise out of that.  That seems to be what happens more often than not.

LNB: How does place inform your writing?

AT: Well, seems like—not just in the world of fiction or nonfiction or literature in general, but from everything to politics, economics, religion—anything you really want to think about; in America, we’ve become a culture of suburbanites, whereas the rural folks, they get ignored to the point where people don’t even really believe we exist.  (laughs) That’s what it seems like to me—I don’t want to come off, sounding like I got a chip on my shoulder.  (laughs)  But if you set a story in a place where you can still see the stars at night, it’s a strange thing for a lot of contemporary readers.  Sometimes they fetishize it, I reckon.  By the very nature of setting a story in a place that has a scant population and a lot of agriculture, I think you’re creating or tapping into a world that a lot of contemporary Americans don’t see on a regular basis.

That’s one way, I think, place can inform the story; it’s something that most people don’t think about.  But in regards to actually how does place function into moving the narrative along: when I’m thinking about a story and where it’s set, the landscape contributes to an overall thematic and philosophical ethos.  At the outset, I was only subconsciously aware I was trying to convey that.  Being from Kentucky, the ethos is largely one of loss and regret and often times anger.  But the landscape of Kentucky can often look angry, especially in the areas that have been strip-mined.

LNB: The language in your stories is very lyrical and the descriptions are fresh, yet these elements don’t slow the momentum of the narratives.  How important is language in your work, and do you worry about it overshadowing the story?

AT: I used to have a real problem with that, and maybe I still do to some extent.  I just wanted to write one metaphor and one simile after another.  Barry Hannah, my teacher at Ole Miss, he told me I was being “Piss Elegant.” (laughs)  He tried to cure me of that, and hopefully he did, at least to some extent.  I love language, I love writers that are thick in their usage of language; I prefer Faulkner to Hemingway.  It is a problem that you have to deal with, though, if you like poetry and you don’t want it to subvert the narrative.  So, I try to strike some kind of balance.

LNB: What are you working on next?

AT: Well, I’ve got this hideous novel that’s sitting in the corner here like a rabid dog.  But I’ve been working on it for about four years now, so it’s finished—well, the fourth draft is finished.  It’s not exactly finished finished, I guess.  It’s about a family that runs a ferryboat in western Kentucky.

LNB: What have you recently read that you’re recommending?

AT: I just read this collection of novellas—by this writer, I’m not exactly sure how you pronounce his name: Josh Weil—called The New Valley.  Really, really intense stories about Virginia cattle farmers.  One story, the last story, is an epistolary story, but the person writing the letters is a semi-retarded person.  It’s pretty interesting, in that respect, with that narrative voice.  Also just reread the book of Judges in the bible.  It’s always great fun, the Old Testament.

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