- Published: 15 March 2017 15 March 2017
Katy Simpson Smith and Taylor Brown
Katy: If you were to name your favorite motorcycle after a literary character, who would it be?
Taylor: Katy! Best question ever. I name all my vehicles -- these are deep matters. There's my car, Lux -- a silver '87 BMW. She's a stone fox, so I named her after Lux from The Virgin Suicides. (In the movie version, of course, Josh Hartnett tells Kirsten Dunce she's a stone fox). One of my bicycles is named "Patton" and the other is "Country Road Bob." My newest motorcycle is "Blitzen," because he's my favorite reindeer and the handlebars look like chrome antlers and my Dad and I started building him over Christmas.
But...I've been tiptoeing around the naming of my old standby, a 1981 Yamaha XS650. I've had a name percolating but neglected to christen him officially. So here goes: I shall call him "Buller," after Beryl Markham's trusty dog from West With the Night -- one of my favorite books. Buller may not be the prettiest or fastest, but he's sturdy and dependable, and he rarely fails to put a smile on my face.
We've talked tattoos a good bit. After all, I got my first -- a swallow-tailed kite -- while I was in New Orleans last. Most people have never heard of the bird, but it turns out that your aunt, Susan Cerulean, is the author of Tracking Desire: A Journey after Swallow-tailed Kites -- what?! So...if you were to get a literary-themed tattoo, what would you get and where?
Katy: Well, obviously I'd first need to find out what kind of books your uncle had written. Tit for tat. (That pun came out of the blue!) One of the reasons this is such a challenging and dastardly question is that the visual impacts of books, for me, are entirely imaginary. So if I got a portrait, e.g., of Dorothea Brooke from Middlemarch -- my self-denying, overly moralistic, and awkwardly passionate spirit animal -- no one would know who it was. Nor could I very well get a recognizable tattoo of the swampy mosquito-stricken entrails of the Mississippi River as it pours out of southern Louisiana in Eudora Welty's "No Place for You, My Love." And how do you paint the mood of the extremely disturbed hilarity in Richard Hughes's A High Wind in Jamaica? You can't, Taylor! I guess, since there's a gun to my head, I'll get Keats's death mask tattooed on my back, two feet tall. I trust that all the people who were inclined to mess with me will do so no longer.
Speaking of small worlds, we have a lot of eerie parallels in our writing journeys, from our tendency to turn short stories into novels to our interest in multiple timelines to our coincidentally showing up at the same panels, month after month. ("What are YOU doing here?") What one trait or experience or peccadillo from your writing life would you not want to wish on anyone else?
Taylor: Oh Katy -- it's been too long since my last confession. So many mini-sins of the writing life to admit.
First, we have my strange insistence on traveling to my work spots on two wheels. On a day like yesterday, when it was below freezing here in Wilmington, this meant running my socks through the dryer before hopping on my bicycle, then arriving at the coffeehouse with Keats's death mask as my actual face. I trust baristas who heretofore thought me relatively sane (for a writer) will no longer regard me as such. But I seem to write better on two wheels -- small sacrifice.
Then there are the death-rays I beam at anyone who happens to be sitting at one of my preferred writing tables. I don't give them bad looks, mind you -- that would be against my nature. They have no idea they're being targeted by my mind-laser, aimed to make them surrender their seat and leave the establishment.
After that, we have my annoying habit of getting super excited about whatever esoterica I'm currently researching. For instance, did you know there are more tigers in captivity in the state of Texas than left in the wild? Or that pilots of the Royal Flying Corps drank milk and brandy in the cockpit because their engines ran on castor oil, a powerful purgative? Or that during the Renaissance, many royals carried fossilized shark teeth as lucky charms, referring to them as glossopetrae -- "tongue stones" -- because they believed them to be the petrified tongues of dragons?
(Dinner date gold, let me tell you -- no wonder I'm single.)
Wow, I'm feeling purified after that. But not pure enough to let you off easy. So here's my question: is it true that you have never reread a book? Please tell me more.
Katy: Bless me, Father, for I have never reread a book. I understand why people do it; lord knows I rewatch movies and listen to albums on repeat and select art to put on the wall with the intention of looking at it over and over. But the thing about books is there are so many of them. And my life, I will be the first to admit, is short. Garth Risk Hallberg said something about only being able to squeeze in 3,000 books before he died, and when I saw that, my heart acquired a fracture. I know I'd make profound discoveries if I revisited some of my favorites, especially since I read some great books too young, but I feel the morbid need to keep stampeding forward, clawing at the shelves until I've grabbed as many different worlds as I can before the clock runs out. (This is also why I gravitate toward short novels, because you can squeeze more in. Sorry, Victor Hugo. [Just kidding -- your time will come.])
Is morbidity the cause of my singleness? There's a great idea for an essay collection here: Writers Can't Get Their S*** Together. But seriously, petrified dragon tongues? Would that we lived in the Renaissance; there's no mystery left in the world.
Since you brought up history, and since we do a little historical dabbling in our fiction, I want to ask about your relationship to the past as a literary tool. Is it a fascinating and factual overlay onto your imaginary universe, like a crisp sheet of acetate, or do you use it more like modeling clay, mushing it around and bending its structure to create an entirely new shape? Its position in my toolbox has been shifting over the years, so anything's fair game -- maybe you use it like a hammer to destroy your table thieves.
Taylor: Would that I had a time-hammer to smite my table-thieves, Katy! Seriously, though, this is a damn good question, and I'm going to try not to write an essay here. I think my relationship to the past -- or rather, to history -- has differed with each project. I'm guessing it's the same for you.
With Fallen Land, atmosphere was more important to me than factual history. I wanted the history to be an accurate substrate to the story, so that the knowledgeable reader would recognize markers without my having to cite directly the names of towns and rivers and regiments. In this way, it was much like your acetate (beautiful metaphor, by the way), or like a vast open world map in which my characters could interact. I guess I was less concerned about the history of 1864 than the story of characters trapped in a cold and dangerous and lawless world -- a story that felt both timeless and contemporary. I wrote this essay for Lit Hub entitled "How I Accidentally Wrote a Civil War Novel," in which I talked about the similar experiences of civilians in the mountains of Afghanistan and Vietnam and Appalachia, in countless other locales throughout history. So I wanted a universal, even elemental story, and the inspirational force behind the book -- an old ballad -- gave me the Civil War as my channel.
With The River of Kings, I wanted to show a more specific thread of history -- the story of the French colonists at Fort Caroline -- and my characters were real historical figures, including the first European artist in the New World. This time, I felt like the history acted as the central rod or spine, around which I braided my other storylines, almost like the serpents of a caduceus. And what was so fun here was how much was not said in the historical narratives. How much was left out, intimated, even denied. All of that negative space could be fleshed with imagination, with the loves and pains and desires of these historical figures. I thought working with real peeps might be limiting, but it wasn't at all. Hell, it was fun. It was more like I had skeletons on the table, and I got to give them flesh and blood and spirit and heart. I got to make them stand upright and walk around.
In both cases, though, I felt more like I was the tool -- like the (his)story chose me as much as I chose the (his)story. I feel like I always have my antennae up, you know? Listening through the static for a song, for a story or image or phrase that burns in my mind or heart. That thunders or wounds, that sticks.
For instance, we were talking about life being short, right? And I hear you on that, big time. The way you feel about those 3000 books -- I feel like that about writing sometimes. Like, I'll be at some social function that should be fun, and I can't help but think I have only so many nights on this earth, and maybe I should be writing instead of being here. Well, bringing history and the shortness of life and my incessant esoterica -- did you know the average lifespan of a Royal Flying Corps pilot during WWI was just 11 days? Eleven days! And what's more, pilots carried pistols not to defend themselves on the ground, but to shoot themselves if their planes caught on fire (they didn't have parachutes).
So this is how history works with me. Something speaks loud. Here is a story waiting to be told -- and one morbid enough to scare off at least a couple incompatible dinner dates!
Okay, since we're both fully aware that we're dying (and living) every second, I'll make this my last question for you. I've told a couple of people that your prose is so pure, I think you have some angel in the blood. In particular, you have these single lines, often at the end of a paragraph, that just gut the reader. And with so clean a blade. So keen-edged and deadly and sweet. Do you such lines come to you like the rhythm of a song -- largely intact -- or do you revise and revise and revise on the sentence-level for days, months, years?
Katy: My tattoo's going to say, in Gothic script, "Taylor Brown is a shameless flatterer." Seriously, I think writers like us find sentence praise more gratifying than any other kind, because those are the bones that matter. And I can tell you what a relief it is to fall into a book where each sentence really is a prize. (*Cough* Fallen Land.) How do they come about? I'm betting you have a similar process. Some are worked, and some are overworked, but the ones that ring clearest for me are that ones that emerge from a kind of trance state. Sometimes when I'm stuck I'll lie down on the sofa with my computer on my stomach and stare at the ceiling as I type blind. This usually results in gibberish (it's useful to see what you're writing, kids!), but every now and then it's like I've released myself from this nitpicky system of crafting and something else opens up, some kind of portal to untethered space and time, and a sentence will float down that I didn't exactly think of, but I didn't not think of either. This sounds way too grand for what it actually looks like, which is that I type something and then go, "Huh!" You're absolutely right about rhythm -- I often hear the way a sentence should sound (ba-dum ba-dum ba-da-da-da) before nailing down the words. But again, the daily work is 95% pedestrian and 5% sci-fi transcendental trippiness.
I'm all fired up to read The River of Kings now! I want to see those creepy animated skeletons in action! It always makes me so proud to call myself a writer when I see the incredible company I'm in. Our job is to remind readers that life is short, but also ludicrous. Did you know that the 10th-century papacy got so randy that 19th-century historians referred to it as the Pornocracy? So good...
Back to work, friend! Thanks for the opportunity to procrastinate so pleasantly.
Taylor: Thank you, Katy. It's been an honor and a pleasure and a lot of fun.