Monday, January 25, 2016

The Sun Has Risen on Fallen Land: An Interview with Taylor Brown

Taylor Brown is an author I've been following for a while. We met as fans of Justified, discovered we'd both written at the same coffee shop (though not at the same time) and read each other's work. Taylor graciously provided the cover blurb for A Tree Born Crooked and I was floored by his short fiction collection In the Season of Blood and Gold. If you haven't read his story "Sin Eaters," you are missing out....

As impressive as Brown's short fiction is, however, it is his debut novel Fallen Land, which I have been shouting from the rooftops for the past few months, that is really the work to take your breath away. A harrowing and heartbreaking work of love, land and the transformative repercussions of war, Fallen Land is at once lavish and stark, lyrical and biting. Brown's prose can be quaking at times, mercilessly commanding the page and the reader, and also quiet, lovely and startling. There are moments of brilliance in Fallen Land that are nothing short of masterful.

Taylor in his own right is also kind, humble and supportive of others. He's the kind of author you can wish only wild success for (not that he needs it the way Fallen Land is flying off the shelves!) and someone whom I'm proud to call a friend. Without further introduction, I bring you a conversation with Taylor Brown- there's much to learn here, much to appreciate and much to enjoy.

Steph Post: The novel Fallen Land grew out of the title short story in your 2014 collection In the Season of Blood and Gold. Was it just that the characters wouldn't leave you alone or had you always intended for the story to be a novel-length one? What was the process for taking the initial concept of In the Season of Blood and Gold and fleshing it out into Fallen Land?

Taylor Brown: I certainly didn’t plan for the story to be novel-length. But I’d gotten to like the steely little buck from “In the Season of Blood and Gold,” what with his overlarge slouch hat and revolver, his clothes all stolen or handed-down, his tough face screwed on to confront a big, ugly world—as if he's size enough for it.

That story has a hanging ending—quite literally—but our boy’s prospects aren’t good. I had a little of an older brother feel toward him, I think, and I think I felt a little bad for putting him in such a predicament. I didn’t want that to be the end of his story, you know? Fortunately for both of us, I had the power to make him a little longer for the world.

As for the fleshing, I mainly just sat down and started writing, just going step by step. One scene to the next. What do they have to do? Necessities like fire and shelter and water and food and transportation—the rudiments of survival—became lodestars in the story. I was kind of living the ride with them. I didn’t really know what would be around the next bend, and neither did they, and I think that uncertainty helped me elevate the suspense, you know?

That said, I was about one hundred pages in when an agent reached out. My story “Rider” had recently won the Montana Prize in Fiction and caught his attention, and he wanted a synopsis along with the first 50 pages of the manuscript. This was 2009. So at that point, I was forced to outline what would happen in the book—in like a single day. (I wanted to strike while the iron was hot.) That synopsis gave me a broad arc, but only that—the story kept unfolding in a pretty natural way. It was kind of like pouring a stream of water down a cliff face. You know it’s going to get to the bottom, and you know where some of the big ledges and facets and fissures are, but you don’t really know where the stream is going to zig and splash and fork along the way.

SP: You're a prize-winning short story writer and Fallen Land is your debut novel. Have you had to approach writing in the separate genres differently? I noticed in reading Fallen Land that not one bit of the power and sharp grace that I so love in your short fiction was missing in this longer work. How did you maintain that edge throughout the breadth of the novel?

TB: You know, I trained myself with the short story, like most of us do, but I think there was a greater leap to the novel form than maybe I suspected. Fallen Land was actually the third novel I’d written, so I’d already been learning to bridge the gap, but I think I’ve had to learn to “decompress” my style for the longer form. You have more room in the novel, and you have to use it, I think. I’ve tried writing novels with my short story approach, and it just doesn’t work that well. It’s too knotty and hard. Too quick. And that makes it difficult for the reader to enter the dream, I think, or at least stay inside it.

I certainly made some of these missteps in the first drafts of Fallen Land, I think. Back stories were only hinted at, instead of fully fleshed—much like a short story—and certain swerves were too aggressive and sudden. On the other hand, certain sections were too dense, and I had to whittle down the prose and fracture the narrator’s voice with dialogue.

SP: Going back through my dog-eared and marked-up copy of Fallen Land, I realized that many of my circles and exclamation points were concerning passages describing landscapes. Your ability to render settings in gorgeous, atmospheric detail is quite breathtaking. How important is setting to you in a story and how important is it to get it right?

TB: Thank you for the kind words, Steph! Setting and landscape are really important to me in a story, and that’s probably because they’re really important to me in real life. I don’t know, this may sound weird, but I think I feel certain landscapes, and I really felt the Blue Ridge Mountains when I lived there. I’d never lived in a place where the leaves burned like that in the fall. I mean, the mountains explode into flame, and yet beneath them, you know the shadows are growing colder, bluer. The days shorter. You know you better have enough wood ricked, and soon it will be hog-killing time. I mean, you can feel that in the mountains, this juxtaposition of beauty and brutality, and that really informed the book, I think.  

SP: I also found a comment in my copy of Fallen Land that made me smile. I had written, with much underlining- "yes! He actually understands moonshine!" I think this definitely speaks to the authenticity found in Fallen Land. Considering that the novel takes place in the 1860s, you had to draw on more than just your own experiences in Appalachia. What was your process for research? Did any of your research lend itself to creating unexpected elements of the story?

TB: Absolutely. There was a lot of “required reading,” which I mainly did as I went along. This included histories of Sherman’s March and irregular warfare in the eastern theater of the war. I spent a lot of time perusing old daguerreotypes and such, and reading up on clothing and equipment in old cavalry manuals and settlers’ catalogues. A number of episodes in the book are inspired by anecdotes gleaned from this research, some of which would be difficult to make up. For instance, the lady in Milledgeville with a goose on a leash.

There was also the physical research. I was very lucky, because my good buddy Blaine Capone was living on a Southern Appalachian Highland Conservancy property west of Asheville. It was a very primitive existence: no cellular signal, wood stove for heat, gravity-fed water, and his only transportation about the property was by horse. I would go up there and help him with chores around the place, and in return, he would teach me about horses. Riding up there, we were on trails that had only known hooves or the odd four-wheeler, and it was a pretty short leap to imagine the world of 150 years ago. Many of the roads and creeks and meadows in the book are based on real places in that area.

SP: So much of your language is lyrical. In some ways, it steps out to the forefront of the story. For example, I love this line- "He thought of the skinless slabs of muscle over the flames, the red engines of the beasts fired black." That's just a small instance of the voice that permeates every part of your novel, but I'm curious as to how much conscious work goes into creating this poetic style. Does it come naturally from the story or is this result of careful crafting? How do you manage to not come off as pretentious (and you certainly don't) while still presenting the events of the story in this manner?

TB: Thank you! The language is really important to me. I wouldn’t really call the style conscious. I mean, I might skew it a few degrees this way or that—hard and knotty versus looser and rolling—but when it comes down to it, I’m just writing what wants to come out. What sounds good and right to me. I do think I was influenced early on by poets like Robert Penn Warren and James Dickey, and my favorite prose writers have a rhythm or cadence. The sort of prose that begs to be read aloud, you know?

As for avoiding pretentiousness, I’m not sure. I think it’s a matter of keeping a cold eye on your work, and cutting yourself when necessary, and scanning the work again and again for places where the language rings untrue, where it serves ego instead of story or atmosphere or mood.

In the end, I think it’s something intuitive, but based on years of hard scrutiny. Pretentiously enough, I’m reminded of a line from Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance:

“And what is good, Phaedrus,
And what is not good—
Need we ask anyone to tell us these things?”

SP: When we first meet Ava, a character I love, of course, she bursts onto the page with this line- "Ava. Any closer and I kill you." Your dialogue is so precise, I believe, because you render it down to what is necessary. In doing so, you create gritty characters that border on mythological. Do you write and then edit down your dialogue to achieve this tautness or does it come as an organic result of working with brutal and poignant characters such as Ava and Callum?

TB: I think I’m going for that tautness from the beginning. Part of it comes from daily life, I think. We don’t actually speak in neat paragraphs or complete sentences, you know? We speak in fragments and spurts and rambles, and so much of what we say is nonverbal. When writing, you can communicate some of that nonverbal communication through beats and descriptions of body language, but not all. So syntax and diction becomes that much more important, I think. And I think I’ve always been influenced by the snappy, direct dialogue of noir and crime masters like Raymond Chandler and Elmore Leonard. There is so much to learn from these writers, and I think you ignore them at your own peril.

SP: Quite a few writers have been compared to Cormac McCarthy. It's a high honor, but one that I find is rarely fulfilled. It's easy to make comparisons; it's another to live up to them. Fallen Land is the first work I've read, actually, that I would nod and say "yes, this is akin to Cormac McCarthy's work. This is in the vein, on that level." The comparison to McCarthy has been coming in from other quarters as well. How does it feel to hear, and know, that your debut novel is reminiscent of a novelist that I'm sure has been influential to you?

TB: I’m honored, surely, but I don’t take it too seriously. I feel like everything gets compared to Cormac McCarthy these days. “It’s like Cormac McCarthy in the bayou!” “It’s like Cormac McCarthy in the Pacific Northwest!” “It’s like if Cormac McCarthy had a sense of humor!” 

He was writing in Faulkner’s shadow, and we are writing in his. This book certainly begs the comparison, what with horses and pistols and wide-brim hats, and I’m okay with that. Maybe I even wanted it; to some extent. I’d have a hard time thinking of someone I’d rather be compared to, and comparisons are part of this business.

On the other hand, I think that our philosophy, approach, and style are a good bit different. I’ve learned a tremendous amount from his work, and will continue to. But in the end, you don’t want to be the next Cormac McCarthy. You want to be yourself.

SP: Finally, you've got an exciting year ahead of you with Fallen Land. I'm sure the entire experience of bring this novel to light has been a journey. Can you put it in a metaphor?

TB: Well, I think the metaphor of a ride is fitting. This novel was certainly carried through some lonesome valleys in my own life, and there was the need to just keep going, going, hoping the sun would someday rise :)

And your readers are going to be in for a ride along with you!

Many thanks to Taylor Brown for stopping by! Now seriously, go pick up your copy of Fallen Land today....

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