It’s one of the first questions in the age of the Zoom interview: camera on?
“This takes me back to the olden days of Yahoo chat rooms,” says Brandon Taylor, moments after his face appears on my screen. Behind him, a giant stack of boxes sits in a corner of his Iowa City apartment, which contains nearly four hundred recently signed copies of Filthy Animals, his short story collection published by Riverhead on June 22. “It was that perilous moment when you decide that you’re going to turn on [the] cam and you never know who’s on the other side— if it’s gonna be some old white man in a basement in Indiana pretending to be a teenager.”
Throughout Filthy Animals, Taylor fixes his gaze on similar moments of peril, probing the tension between vulnerability and deception, sexual desire and violence, with an elegant precision teetering on the gothic. Like Taylor’s critically acclaimed debut novel, Real Life, which was shortlisted for the 2020 Booker Prize and is currently being adapted into a movie with Kid Cudi, Filthy Animals takes a queer Black graduate student in the Midwest as its central protagonist.
Lionel, a math major recovering from a recent suicide attempt, finds himself engulfed in the tempest that is Charles and Sophie, dance students who are in an open relationship. Of the collection’s eleven stories, five follow their entanglements in a psychosexual rollercoaster of Black Swan-like proportions. Elsewhere, in the title story, Taylor takes us to the backwoods of a highschool burner party, and in standout “As Though That Were Love,” to the rural farm of an older gay man, who lives there with his many goats. But no matter how isolated the setting, the human relationships are just as fraught.
Before he became a novelist, Taylor considered himself a short story writer. The former biochemistry major was particularly drawn to the form’s relationship to epiphany and revelation, by its ability to exist in a state of “constant escalation.” “No shade to the novel,” he says, but with short stories “you can just hang out for 45 pages and you’re like, oh yes, an entire life.”
GQ spoke to the 32-year-old writer about the relationship between fashion and fiction, growing up in Alabama, and working with Kid Cudi.
GQ: You‘ve spoken really candidly about your struggles with mental health over the past year, including a panic attack you had during the beginning of lockdown. How did you get better?
With the panic disorder, there was nothing for that except to just slowly realize that I was not in any great danger. There were some days I was like, oh, I’m totally better. And then the next day, I wouldn’t be able to get out of bed or I would feel so anxious my heart rate would be like 140. And so it was just a long incredibly boring, incredibly difficult slog. I watched a lot of Gilmore Girls, I caught up on all of the white people TV that my friends have been talking about for years that I never watched. But the big thing that really got me over the hump was getting back to being able to read, because when I’m not reading, I’m so miserable. Like once I got back to being able to read I was like okay, I can survive this. I will survive. I don’t know what my life will look like once I’m over this hump, but I know that at least I’ll be able to read.
What a relief. One of your central concerns throughout Filthy Animals seems to be how quickly tenderness and sexual desire can slip into violence. To what extent do you think that tension is central to queer relationships?
I feel like that has more to do with me and my sort of pessimistic view of human relationships than inherently queer ones. I mean, I think it can be very much a part of queer relationships and certainly has been a part of my own sort of queer relation. And I do wonder if part of it also relates to sexual intimacy between queer men particularly. There’s something about queer men and violence that feels…[laughter] what a shocker: men and violence.
I think that in my depiction of sexual intimacy and intimacy in general there’s always a moment at which, to be intimate with someone involves being vulnerable with that person and to be vulnerable with that person always feels like giving away your power to that person and granting them some degree of power over you. Something that has haunted me my entire life is the question: How do you know that that other person won’t hurt you? And when I asked this of my first boyfriend, he was like, Well, you don’t. You just have to trust me. And I’m like, that is not the comforting answer you think it is. [laughter] But it’s true. That is the only answer to that question. You can never know that a person won’t hurt you. And you just have to trust them.
Speaking to the title, there are lots of allusions to animals and animal behavior throughout the book, which feels like another thread: how easily humans can become feral and animal-like. How much of that was informed by growing up on a farm in rural Alabama?
Part of it certainly comes from that. A friend once asked me, Brandon, why do you keep writing about people killing animals and cleaning them and then eating them? And I was like, it’s what I grew up doing. I grew up shooting animals, and then cleaning them and then eating them.
Part of it just comes from this part of my life that was spent in a really religious, very conservative Baptist upbringing and this strict dichotomy between behavior that was good and behavior that was bad. And it seemed to me that with all the behavior that was bad you were always likened to an animal in some way. It feels like the vocabulary that our culture uses to describe behaviors of people we want to control is to liken them to animals. And when I look at the sort of behaviors that fall into those categories, at least for me, it was always moments when I felt most like myself, like me at my most human, when I was a kid crying really loud or just screaming into the trees, you know? Or when I would be really, really thirsty from playing in the sun all day and I’d run inside and drink water, my mom would be like oh, you drink just like a dog. This idea of a child satiating a perfectly human natural thirst and being called a dog for it.
So I think the title is also a gesture toward the idea that all the characters in the book have in some way, at some point in their lives, been likened to animals or have been called filthy just for being their human selves. The book is trying to hopefully give each of the characters back some sense of agency or dignity in that designation of the animal.
You’ve talked about your parents being illiterate. As Ocean Vuong has mentioned, that doesn’t mean he is the first storyteller in his family, or the first poet. What was your relationship to storytelling growing up?
I’m absolutely not the first storyteller in my family. [laughter] Around 5:30, 6 o’clock in Alabama in the summer, when the heat of the day is broken, everybody would sit in the shade of the house and just tell stories about the day. It was rural Alabama, so everybody’s in everybody’s business. So people hear the laughter and they would come over and they would bring their chairs and their beers and suddenly by like 8 o’clock, everybody’s just cackling as the dusk is falling and telling all these stories about things they used to do when they were younger or things that they had seen or crazy behavior and things like that. So I grew up hearing all these stories.
I always feel like I’m a bad storyteller because maybe in some ways, I’m always sort of comparing myself to those memories of my uncles and cousins making everybody just crack up with these stories. I don’t think I’ve ever laughed as hard as I’ve laughed during childhood. So much I didn’t even understand until I got much older like, Oh, that’s what that was about. Oh my goodness, the drama of it all.
Filthy Animals has some really keen observations about clothing. How do you think about clothes and style functioning in relation to your characters?
A lot of writers are like, I hear a characters’ voice first. For me, it doesn’t start with the voice, it starts with clothes. I’ll see an outfit in my mind, on a human body, but the body isn’t filled in yet. I’ll just see the outfit. And I’ll think, okay, who would wear this? And where would they wear it to? A character begins with the wardrobe. I see a flash of clothing and I understand something about that person, and I think it comes from like, all my youth spent watching Project Runway and thinking very much about what Nina García says in that show, which is, Who is your girl and where is she going? Who is your girl? Like figure out who your girl is for this outfit and then you can figure out the rest. And I was like, Oh yes, this is perfect writing advice for 14-year-old me. So my earliest attempts at stories were just elaborate fashion descriptions.
How does fashion function for you personally?
In my own life, for a long time I grew up having my body dressed. My mom would buy my school clothes, and she would tell me how I was going to dress, even into my teens. My body was heavily policed. The minute I got to college, I was like, I’m gonna buy these skinny jeans. And the first time I put on skinny jeans, which is the first piece of clothing I bought with my own money, I was like, Oh. My. God. My mom is going to lose her— she’s gonna know somehow. Like even though I was 19 and in college, my mom is gonna find out about these pants that fit my body. I wore them home on break and I feel like that was the moment I really severed connection with my family.
Are you serious?
I mean that as a joke but I also mean it quite seriously. Like all the uncles were whispering for days. And my mom was like, I don’t think you need to wear those anymore.
Moving to the Midwest, I got to buy sweaters for the first time ever. And I was just like, sweaters, what a moment. Part of the sweater thing, which has become a bit of an internet meme when it comes to me at this point, is you never get to see Black people in sweaters. If you look at TV and movies—
I feel like it tends to have a Bill Cosby effect?
Yes, I pull up my pants. Very respectability politics, but you never get to see Black people in cozy outfits, like sweaters and stuff like that. It just felt like I’m gonna dress how I want. Like, who cares If I dressed like a Norwegian yuppie. Who cares? It’s great. I get to express something about myself. To me fashion feels like an assertion about who you are that you make to the rest of the world. And it feels like this very personal way to sort of make an argument about what you believe, and what you feel. I’m sure one can make an argument about the politics of comfort and the politics of self-expression via fashion, but for me it just feels like reclaiming some agency that felt like it was stripped of me as a child.
How’s the adaptation going, and working with Kid Cudi?
He’s a very kind and generous and incredible person, so there’s that part of it. And then the other part of the process is difficult and harrowing and I feel like I’m learning more about myself as it goes on because screenwriting is just a different craft. It has a different relationship to narrative, it has different forms, it has different constraints that I am unaccustomed to, so it has just been a truly humbling education. I think I went into it expecting to be humbled and I’m still shook by how humbling it has been.
You edit Electric Lit’s Recommended Reading. For Pride, if you had to create your ultimate gay book stack, what would you include?
Oh my God, oh my God. This is so hard.
I read somewhere that you love Call Me by Your Name?
Well that was the first novel I read with a gay person in it and it was just like, oh my God this book. I think Brontez Purnell’s 100 Boyfriends just because that book is so Black and so gay
in a way that we haven’t seen in a while. Peter Kispert’s short story collection, I Know You Know Who I Am, because it’s so crisply written and full of these great stories about people who lie and deceive. A contemporary classic, for sure. Bryan Washington’s Memorial, because it had such a good vibe, and it was one of the first books I could read once I got back the ability to read. Reading that book was like sitting in a warm bath. The Price of Salt [by Patricia Highsmith] for sure, which was made into a movie called Carol. I reread that book at least three or four times a year [laughter] It’s so sad. And I think Alexander Chee’s novel Edinburgh, which is one of the great queer novels, and great American novels, of our time. It’s just so good.