Jess Taylor’s collection, Pauls was released by BookThug in October.
Jess Taylor, a former Town Crier contributor, is the author of Pauls, published this fall by BookThug. She is also the founder of the Emerging Writers Reading Series and the fiction editor of Little Brother. E Martin Nolan asked her about her debut collection and the sometimes grinding reading tour that comes with promoting a new book.
E Martin Nolan: Sickness features prominently in Pauls, as does healing. Can you talk about how that played into the characterization in the stories and how you think about your characters’ physical and emotional vulnerability?
Jess Taylor: When I was 21 or 22, I was diagnosed with a blood disorder (the same one Paul has in “Breakfast Curry”) and so I felt like my adult life really began by confronting this illness and that the first years of my 20s were about coming to terms with the limitations it set for me and the anger this stirred in me. When you’re in your early 20s these types of things start to show themselves—whether they are mental or physical illnesses—and eventually we all will have sicknesses and imperfections in our bodies and health. I never really intended the physical vulnerability (or what others have called “woundedness”) to be representative of a spiritual or emotional vulnerability. I believe all people have that vulnerability, however they try to disguise it, and this has always interested me. Reviewers and people reading the book often mention my preoccupation with scarred/wounded characters, but for me, it’s that all people are vulnerable (in all ways) and need to come to terms with this. I want to talk about the parts of people that hurt and that are terrifying to them.
I understand how people read the physical and emotional attributes of my characters as linked, but I think that if they are linked it’s just in the way that life does things to you. Existing wears us all down physically, emotionally, and mentally and you can dwell on it, you can laugh, or you can find the little things you need to cope and heal. I think I privilege neither type of vulnerability; physical vulnerability is as interesting and dangerous as emotional vulnerability, poses the same threat for characters, and is given the same weight in the stories.
E Martin Nolan: The prose style in Pauls creates a very particular mood. Maybe it could be called melancholy. There’s something relentless about the consistent clarity of the sentences. The narrators also tend to be nice and honest, which means we know exactly where they stand and we are inclined trust them. This combo disarms the reader, and sucks them into the world of the story. The characters’ vulnerability is made to stand out, convincingly. Let’s look at an example from “Breakfast Curry.” The speaker is describing a friendship:
I listened to his voice describing electricity and knew I’d never have another friend who would stand by me and watch as liquid became gas inside of a static minute.
I’m curious to know what it was like editing this collection to maintain the clarity of the prose so that the reader has a direct line to the story’s emotional core.
Jess Taylor: I tend to overwrite more than I underwrite, so really the editorial process tends to be a lot of cutting down. Usually cutting down tends to strengthen the emotional impact of a piece since it focuses on the best lines and gets rid of anything that muddies the effect I’m trying to create. With this collection, major cuts were made even before they got to the stage of working with Malcolm Sutton at BookThug. I work with a couple of peers on the line level while revising,
I cut substantially while writing, and I also worked with some great editors to prepare the stories for publication in magazines: most closely with Emily M Keeler. Malcolm and I then continued to work on cuts up until publication, although they weren’t heavy. I also write in fragments and then move around the fragments to best create the emotional effect I want. This is usually done fairly early in the writing process.
I start out with a feeling when writing and then really all the editing is to present that emotional core in the clearest way possible. It’s probably a priority of mine over plot. Those feelings are often uncomfortable ones, as I need to write into my fear, and I guess that results in something melancholy.
E Martin Nolan: You did a series about literary events for The Town Crier and an essay for The Puritan titled “Keep Building: Members Reflect on Toronto’s Literary Community.” Readers can find the Crier pieces listed at the end of the essay linked to above. You’ve now toured with a book and done a ton of readings. Has your thinking about literary events changed at all since you did that series and essay?
Jess Taylor edits fiction for Little Brother Magazine
Jess Taylor: I think the ennui I depict at the beginning of “Keep Building,” as well as the hope with which I close the essay, still exist. When you’re doing so many events, it definitely starts to drag on you. You notice what’s all the same at places, and anything that’s different and fun really stands out to you and makes the whole experience much more enjoyable. I wrote the series and essay from a dual standpoint: the audience member and the organizer. I talked about the difficulties an organizer faced and how those were at times at odds with the enjoyment of the audience member. There is a third perspective that can be considered, and that’s the performer.
Sometimes as a performer, especially when you’re doing a lot of readings all in a row, you’re struck by how pointless it all is—sometimes people would rather buy drinks than books, people can seem disengaged despite all your preparation, and you wonder if it’s something you’re doing wrong as a performer, if it’s something with the structure in general, or if people just don’t care about readings. Likewise when readings have small attendances—if you’re a person like me, who feels guilty/responsible for everything, you wonder if this is your fault: “Oh, everyone realizes that I have nothing to say.” It’s an extremely difficult feeling to juggle with the obligation to do a bunch of publicity to promote a book. But then you’ll have one event where people are engaged and excited by your work and that changes everything.
One thing that surprised me about the whole experience was my enjoyment of Q&A. I’ve never given Q&A much thought as an organizer, nor have I been drawn to attend events that advertise one. But as a performer, every single show I did with a Q&A were my favourites; the questions from audience members or hosts were always so well thought out and exciting for me and provided me with something more or less unexpected. It allowed me to hear people’s response to my work in a way that was more authentic than the usual “great reading” that people tend to give. I also was always fiercely interested in what the other writers had to say. I think it’s a format people could do more with, as there’s tons of ways to integrate it into the traditional reading series format. Brockton Writers (on November 11th) was one of my favourite shows to do. It was such a warm reading and the Q&A there allowed the writers to slip between humour and seriousness on a dime.
Jess Taylor is a writer and poet based in Toronto, Ontario. She is the founder of the Emerging Writers Reading Series and is the fiction editor of Little Brother Magazine. Her work has been published in a variety of journals, magazines, and newspapers, including This Magazine, CNQ, and The National Post. Her first pamphlet chapbook, And Then Everyone (Picture Window Press) was released in April 2014, followed by her first full-length chapbook, Never Stop (Anstruther Press) in October 2014. Jess also received the Gold 2013 National Magazine Award in Fiction for her short story, “Paul.” This October, BookThug published her debut short story collection, Pauls.