Home > Interviews > “I write about people who are trapped. I write about people who are alienated. And I think gender and power dynamics trap and alienate people”: an interview with Jess Taylor

Photo credit: Angela Lewis

Interview by Kayla Czaga

I met Jess Taylor last November in Toronto at the Emerging Writers Reading Series, which she founded and runs. She is also the current fiction editor of Little Brother Magazine, and a NMA gold winning short story writer. Her debut book, Pauls, is being released by Book Thug this fall. It’s a brave and honest collection of ten interconnected short stories that explores people—how they hurt each other and are hurt by each other, how they cope and navigate the world.

Pauls is a collection of interconnected short stories with recurring motifs and characters. Why did you choose to write the collection as stories instead of a novel? Were there things you felt you could do with the short story form that you couldn’t with a novel?

Writing a short story collection rather than a novel never was a conscious decision. I’m always writing something and usually I have longer works on the go while also working on stories and poems. How I decide that something fits the story form rather than the novel form is hard to say. It really just comes down to breadth and scope. Most of my stories work with a very limited timeframe, so that even if we have access to a character’s past and future, the “real time” of the story usually is just over a day or a few days. The only stories that deviate from this would be “Breakfast Curry” and “Degenerate,” both of which take place over several months. For “Degenerate,” this was because the story is a novelette and for “Breakfast Curry,” it still worked in the short story form because the story still had a really strong focus on a particular issue in the narrator’s life.

I was writing stories on the side to give myself a break and have some fun while working on my thesis project at U of T, and the idea for Pauls came out of that. Paul was one of my go-to names I would use in stories, and so I started to write “Paul” almost as a joke about myself and how much I used the name. Growing up with the name Jessica, I also had a best friend named Jessica and people would call us the Jesses or Jess Squared or Jess 1 and Jess 2. It seemed like an idea that was funny and comforting to me and then expanded to encompass a section of a collection of my stories I was working on from the past five years. Eventually, I chose to only use stories from the section “Paul” and keep writing Paul stories to make up the collection. I never thought about turning the book into a novel, as to me, part of the point was that these were separate entities with similarities that overlap. It was about how everything is both connected and distinct.

I am working on a novel featuring Paulina from Pauls. She gets three stories in the collection and then will go on to have a longer journey in my novel, Where Everything Glows, which will pick up a little after Pauls leaves off.

rsz_pauls-jess-taylor-cover-510-510x777Can you describe your process for writing a short story? How do you begin? Typically how long does it take? What does revision look like for you?

I usually begin with a line or an image. I’ll have a character’s voice in my head. Usually I’ll know where the story starts more or less and will know the ending, and then I just need to play and figure out what happens in the middle. Depending on how long the story is, I may get some surprises along the way, especially if I’m writing as a character who reacts and thinks differently than I do. For longer work, I will extensively plan scenes and have a checklist of what I need to cover or a mind map on my wall to help me stay focused, but I’ve found that plans are only effective if you’re able to deviate from them when the time is right. For a story that is under 4000 words, I’ll usually not need to plan. I write in chunks, not linearly for the most part, and will write whichever parts inspire me. Usually this means I’ll start with the ending paragraphs after I’ve written a couple opening paragraphs. Even if I have the story totally in my head and within my grasp, sometimes it still takes months. I need to inhabit the story. Sometimes when I finish writing a story, I’m not ready to be done and I get so sad. I still want to be with the character and in that world. So it might take me a little longer just for that reason alone! For instance, I recently wrote a story called “The Stink” and I keep putting off writing new things just because I want to still be in “The Stink”. Haha. I’ve also had those magical moments where you sit down and write a story and then it’s done and there’s not really much more you can do. It’s like you’ve plucked it out of the air and is something I can’t really explain except for that it’s still not an easy process. It’s painful. It feels like you’re ripping something right out of your chest.

One of the first things that struck me about Pauls was your voice. I found the writing style very compelling. It was very colloquial and casual. It reminded me of Jesus’ Son by Denis Johnson, or of overhearing a story in a bar while both the speaker and reader become increasingly inebriated and emotional. How did you work to create this fictional voice?

Thank you so much for the generous comparison! I love Denis Johnson and am humbled by being mentioned beside him. Voice has always been important to me in my work, both in poetry and in prose. When I first was writing and reading furiously, I decided that I had no interest in representing people who didn’t speak like real people. I wanted to represent people as I saw them, as they really existed, as they existed in my mind. Part of this is an attention to slang and other colloquialisms and part of this is really getting into the skin of a character, letting their perceptions affect the language. It might not be how everyone speaks, but it should be how that character would speak. Even when I write in third person narration, I have a hard time just having a neutral voice… Like in “Degenerate” or “Paul” the narration is at times playful, ironic, or has its own worldview and knowledge. Since the perception of the narrators does constantly influence the way things are told, it does affect reliability, but I’m glad you’ve separated the concepts of reliability and honesty, because these characters are honest, even if they aren’t reliable. I want to be true to these characters, I want them to be real and for the readers to understand the characters on multiple levels. For me, creating this illusion or effect starts at the level of language.

Your collection explores various forms of male privilege—including violence towards women and consent. What drew you to writing about this subject in fiction?

I’ve always written about this subject matter to a certain extent, and it was interesting that as I got deeper into it, mostly as a reflection of frustrations in my own life, it was also blowing up in the news. I remember reading “The Letters” at Pivot pretty much the same day that all the Jian Ghomeshi assaults were really coming to light and even debating about if it’d be appropriate to go up there and read it. I’ve never been one to shy away from an uncomfortable situation like that, so I went up and read it anyway, and a lot of people mentioned they were glad I did because people were afraid to talk about it, to talk about the complications that arise from something like this. Every time an assault or instance of power being intertwined with sex comes up, it also gets people to examine their own lives and how power is allocated, how its abused, whether this is present in their own experiences or not. People are afraid to seem dirty, to see the monster in themselves. Fiction lets us do this. We can put it in a character and discuss the harder things about a situation that people are scared to get into in non-fiction or even casual conversation. Then this can help things to really change.

I think why I was originally drawn to this subject matter is for a couple reasons. I write about people who are trapped. I write about people who are alienated. And I think gender and power dynamics trap and alienate people. If I write about a man or a boy, they also feel trapped and frustrated by society’s expectations. The same goes for women, except the bodily threat is more present, the dynamic is different for them. I write a lot about how people hurt other people and the lasting impact of this hurt, I guess because I’m sensitive to any sort of hurt myself. I’m also very interested in writing about sex, and before I wrote about sex, I was drawn to writing about power. Sex and power always wind up together somehow, and I think sex, even safe, consensual, mutually-beneficial sex, is where power dynamics in the world get played out, subverted, and reinforced. A lot of these stories ended up focusing on the darker side of how they get played out.

Yeah, I definitely felt that sense of being trapped. The structure of the collection—with characters returning in various forms, undergoing similar yet different struggles, with a character named Paul in every story—echoes that trapped feeling. Did you create this form intentionally or did it arise naturally out of the subject matter?

It definitely came naturally from the subject matter and then was refined more as I continued to write. Once I had the premise of the story “Paul,” I started to think about the doppleganger and doubling. As I decided to get into writing the collection, I decided I also wanted to have a doubling of motifs and scenarios. I wanted everything to be connected in the book, even if it was just tangentially, or coincidentally, the way things are in real life. I’ve always liked the concept of mise en abyme in art and used it in some earlier stories… The idea of things being reflected within things. I find it really interesting, both visually and how it’s used in literature. Framework narratives are an example of this sort of thing. I really like framework narratives because they  reinforce that trapped feeling. Having a story within a story is both something that opens us up and traps us as readers. It exposes something outside the main narrative, but also shows an inability for characters to get beyond the past. I guess you can use them in different ways, but it always seems to be the way I’ve written them. That the story within the story highlights some failure to grow by the protagonist. I really believe that form and content should work together, and luckily, my mind works in a way that while I am aware of making certain decisions while writing, it all feels organic to the process.

Kayla Czaga is the author of For Your Safety Please Hold On (Nightwood Editions, 2014), which won the Gerald Lampert Award and was nominated for the Dorothy Livesay Poetry Prize and The Debut-litzer. Her chapbook Enemy of the People is forthcoming from Anstruther Press.