Without a doubt, Taylor Brown is my new favorite short story writer, and if you know how much I read, you understand the gravity of that statement. His recently released collection In the Season of Blood and Gold is like a gem mine; the stories are often cloaked in darkness, but each contains a brilliant moment that strikes out at readers and pierces them to the core. From the very first page, from the very first two paragraphs of “Rider,” I knew that I had entered into the realm of a master craftsman. After reading each story, oftentimes unconsciously holding my breath, I thought to myself, “Okay, now That one was my favorite.” And then I would turn the next page, plunge into the next tale and realize immediately that “Oh, no, This is my favorite one!” and the journey through the brilliant sorrows and stark landscapes offering brutal truths alongside secret hopes would continue. (For the record, I have decided upon “Sin-Eaters” as my favorite from the collection- I haven’t been able to stop thinking about it) If you love the work of Daniel Woodrell or Cormac McCarthy, then this book should already be in your hands. If you love excruciatingly well written fiction in general, then In the Season of Blood and Gold should be en route to your mailbox by the end of this interview.
And speaking of interviews, yes, I was lucky enough to score an interview with the ever-talented Taylor Brown. Please keep reading as we talk craft, style and what’s coming next.
Steph Post: In the Season of Blood and Gold is comprised of mostly previously published short stories. How did you decide which stories to include in this collection and is there any significance to their order in the book?
Taylor Brown: Good question! In putting together the manuscript, I quickly realized I had no idea how to order a collection. None! Each of the stories was created as its own separate work, and I’d never given any thought to them as any kind of coherent whole. My first attempt was an epic failure, to be honest. I threw most everything I had into the mix—seventeen stories, I believe—and grouped together similar stories. Bad idea!
Then I took the advice of a friend and fellow writer, Jason Frye, and bought a deck of index cards. I wrote the title of each story on a card, then started playing with the order, thinking a lot about the beginnings and endings of each story and how they might flow. I actually took a pen and tried to map or trace the arc of the stories in some sort of hand-scrawled EKG. Strange, I know, but it really did seem to help, even if I just cooked up the idea after a couple of whiskeys.
SP: It’s obvious, given your publishing history and winning of awards, that you are familiar with the current literary magazine scene. How important do you think literary magazines are today?
TB: I still see them as pretty darn important. To me, it almost seems a rite of passage, racking up all those rejections. Are you tough enough to keep at it? Will you work hard enough, long enough, to make yourself good enough? It takes a lot of faith and perseverance to do what we do, and I guess submitting to the magazines teaches you that early. It’s an apprenticeship of sorts, and I can say that nothing ever felt as good as that first story I got published: “Black Swan,” in The Dead Mule School of Southern Literature, in 2008.
Secondly, I think it’s a way of garnering attention. Agents do find writers through the literary magazines. I know Wiley Cash was found that way, and Tom Franklin too. Countless others I’m sure. In a world as subjective as ours, publications do lend credibility I think, and get your name out there.
SP: We’ve spoken before about “country noir,” a literary style that we both write in, and I often have people ask me what the term means. Do you consciously use this label when promoting your work and, if so, what does it mean for you?
TB: Such a good question. To be honest, I think I was writing stories that could fall into the “country noir” style quite some time before I heard the term. I came across it in an interview with Daniel Woodrell—a favorite writer of both of ours, I believe—and I realized that my work had a lot of the same elements: dark rural settings, criminal happenings, violence or the threat of it, etc. And then I went back and read some of the early works in the style, like They Don’t Dance Much by James Ross, and realized that a lot of my favorite writers have work that might qualify: William Gay, Larry Brown, even Cormac McCarthy and Flannery O’Connor.
To be honest, I’m a bit shy about using it to promote my work, just because a) I don’t want to get pigeon-holed into anything, and b) there is still the (unfortunate) perception that noir can’t be literary. That it’s somehow not as elevated. Which is pure bull, of course, but I don’t want my work hampered by such notions before it’s even read.
Woodrell has said he began using the term before he realized what strict definitions (some) people have as to what constitutes “noir.” Certain kinds of endings, etc. But noir is so damn hard to define anyway. People can impose all of these rules, and have, but really it’s one of those things that you just know when you see it—at least to me. And, to me, it’s an atmosphere more than anything.
Recently, I’ve been hearing the terms “grit lit” and “rough South,” which are kin to country noir, for sure. There’s an interesting discussion of all this at the beginning of Grit Lit: A Rough South Reader, a 2012 anthology whose lineup reads like my list of favorite writers.
SP: Which authors have influenced you in the past and what are you reading now that excites you?
TB:I do gravitate toward Southern writers, for whatever reason, and I do it unapologetically. William Faulkner and Cormac McCarthy are two of my big favorites. Then there’s Barry Hannah, Larry Brown, William Gay, Pinckney Benedict, Harry Crews, Flannery O’Connor, and a lot of those other Southern greats. In poetry it’s James Dickey and Robert Penn Warren.
Outside of the South, I like James Salter, Tom McGuane, Hemingway, and I’m a big fan of the WWII novels of Alan Furst. His work is actually mentioned in Justified, in a prison scene when one of the trustees is delivering books! One of the show’s writers must be a fan!
Right now I’m really excited about John Ehle. He wrote this seven-book saga that traced the history of the Appalachian frontier from the 18th century all the way up through the Great Depression. I’m currently being blown away by the first book in the series, The Landbreakers, which Press 53 brought back into print in 2006. When they did, Harper Lee sent a personal, handwritten note to the press, calling Ehle “our foremost writer of historical fiction,” among lots of other nice things. Some blurb!
SP: Violence, both physical and emotional, plays a role in all of your stories. Do you believe this theme is essential to the identity of your work? What function does it serve in your writing?
TB: I really don’t set out to write of violence in any way, but somehow it always seems to creep its way in there. I don’t know, I guess it’s just that violence, in real life and in fiction, is so visceral and immediate. What a character does in such a moment reveals a lot about who they are and who they want to be, and it makes what happens pretty damn important. I have a hard time getting into some sterile story involving a domestic squabble over whose turn it was to do the laundry, but throw in a pipe-wrench or linoleum-cutter (to channel Woodrell), and things start getting interesting :)
SP: In many of your stories, you have very specific images that serve as a touchstone of sorts for the reader. I’m thinking here of the butterfly ring in “Bone Valley,” the frozen horse in “Rider” and the cut flowers in “The Covered Bridge.” Do you know when you begin writing that these images will play an important role in the story?
TB: Sometimes I do, because sometimes a story grows out of such an image. Sometimes there’s a picture in my mind, or some word or phrase that grips hold, and I start exploring whether there’s a story there. But other times, I think you just find those images as you go along. Maybe the first time it comes up, it doesn’t even seem important. But then, by the time you reach the end, you realize it was the touchstone of the story all along!
SP: How do you expect readers to respond to your stories? They’re not exactly heartwarming, but they do seem to burn into the reader and stay with him or her long after the last page has been turned. How do want your readers to feel while reading and after?
TB: To be honest, I’m not sure exactly, except that I know I want them to feel something. Ideally, I want some moment in the story to ring inside them, clear and true, or some image to strike deep enough they can carry it with them later. I would like them to enjoy themselves, even if the subject matter isn’t exactly heartwarming.
SP: You are clearly a master of short fiction, but have you ever considered writing a novel? Many of your stories chronicle a specific event or moment, but others, such as “Sin-Eaters” seem to lend themselves to the development of a longer work. Is this something you would be interested in? (And if you ever do turn “Sin-Eaters” into a novel I promise to buy the very first copy…)
TB: I actually expanded the title story of the collection, “In the Season of Blood and Gold,” into a full-length novel entitled Fallen Land. It’s set in the wake of Sherman’s March through Georgia, and we’re currently shopping it to publishers (fingers crossed)!
Meanwhile, I’m hard at work revising my latest manuscript, The Gods of Howl Mountain, set in the dry counties of North Carolina in the early ‘50s, when everyone is wild for bootleg whiskey and stock car racing.
SP: In the Season of Blood and Gold was just recently released, but do you have anything currently simmering in the works? What should be fans be looking for next?
TB: All I can say is: fingers crossed you’ll be seeing more ;)
Taylor Brown was born on the Georgia coast. His short fiction has appeared in a wide range of publications, including The Baltimore Review, Chautuaqua, The New Guard, CutBank, storySouth, Crimespree Magazine, and many others. He is the recipient of a Montana Prize in Fiction, and he's been a finalist for the Press 53 Open Awards, Machigonne Fiction Contest, and Doris Betts Fiction Prize. His debut short story collection, In the Season of Blood and Gold, is available from Press 53. He lives in Wilmington, NC, and you can find him at www.taylorbrownfiction.com.
And buy his book. Seriously.