a talk with Jess Taylor

jess2resizeA talk with Jess Taylor about Pauls, her forthcoming first collection of short fiction; about working with BookThug on putting it together; and about laying the foundation for her first novel.

Jess Taylor has widely published in a variety of online and print journals. Last fall, Anstruther Press released her first chapbook, Never Stop. She won a 2013 Gold National Magazine Award for her story ‘Paul’, the title story of her debut collection. Jess is also the fiction editor at Little Brother Magazine.

HHR     For people who haven’t heard of what you’re doing with Pauls, maybe it would be best for you to put it in your words; an elevator pitch of the project.

Taylor     Pauls is a series of slightly interconnected stories that all involve somebody named Paul. They may not be the protagonist; Paul might be the roommate [as we see in ‘Claire’s Fine’, published in the Hart House Review], the brother, or maybe even a Paulina. Some Pauls may be the same Paul, and they may not; that’s up to the reader. And they’re stories about people; about trauma, learning, and growing; and about characters who are unseen to themselves but who, through interactions with other people, find shades of self.

HHR     That addresses something I wanted to ask, which was, in your estimation, how many Pauls are there in Pauls? But I guess there is no ‘right answer’––

Taylor     Well, even having the ‘comprehensive list of Pauls’ in ‘Paul’, that adds all these other Pauls. So it branches out, too. Some of the Pauls in different stories I imagine to be the same, but like I said, a reader doesn’t have to, so their count would be different.

The stories are cool because they emerged as these B-side projects, in a way; when I was doing my Master’s at U. of T., I was writing a novel that was ultimately a failed project, and I was writing these stories for fun, to unwind or just goof around. The concept came to me because it’s one of my go-to names when I’m writing. I have a lot of names like that, usually names that came up a lot in my childhood, but through writing these stories I realized I hadn’t known many people named Paul. I started writing all these Pauls in different roles, and then I made that ‘comprehensive list’ before I wrote the story.

So, I started to collect Pauls, whether it was a fictional Paul I knew or a Paul in stories told by other people in my life. Then I visited a friend in Scotland and we went looking for Pauls. We would shout ‘PAUL!’ on the street. I met a Paul from Seattle that way––he was like, ‘Did you call me?’. There was a DJ, too––I got him to sign my list. I had one guy in Dublin who got down on his knees and proposed to me. Obviously we didn’t get married, or engaged, or talk ever again, but I enjoy meeting these people and I’m still friends with some of them on Facebook. And at the time I had a great student I was tutoring, who was a Paul; and now my neighbor is a Paul; and now I work with a Paul at U. of T.; and I joke with them all, like, ‘My book’s about you!’ I even have this joke that I wanted to put in my press kit for BookThug; ‘Pauls can also be a gift for people named Paul!’

Yeah––the idea emerged out of all these weird things I was doing. It was play, it was pure play, but it was interesting because, though I wrote it over a long time, it didn’t need a lot of editing when it was done. It was what it was.

HHR     I find a lot of general frustration in the Pauls I’ve read about. And, often, the character of Paul seems to feel like he’s a complete alien to social situations he’s in.

Taylor     Frustration is definitely something I write about. I’m a really impatient person, and I find a lot of frustration in the world with things not happening as fast as I would want, or things not happening the way I want. I also write a lot about how society sets up obligations and expectations, and how we bump up against them with our own wants. People approach something like a conversation, for example, with different wants and goals; that can be as innocent as wanting to experience a connection, which is the most positive motivation one can have in a conversation, but that’s often not the want. So that’s where a lot of frustration emerges, and I’m hyperaware of these things and how they’re negotiated.

And, alienation is why I write. I write with a goal of connection and of wanting to have the hope that connection is possible. I find that through writing, so that comes through in a lot of my stories. […] [Also,] Paul’s meant to be a character who’s completely not self-aware. That’s the one defining trait that links all the Pauls.

HHR     So, you’re also a poet! And I’ve read the selection from Never Stop on Everyday Genius. What was the goal of that project?

Taylor     Never Stop is a selection from a long poem that will be a ‘life poem’. I’ll never stop writing it through my whole life. So it’s called Never Stop, and there are no full stops, and so on.

There’s not a lot of my poetry ‘out there’. I don’t publish poetry the same way, I don’t really send it out. […] For a long time, no one published me at all. I never took rejections really hard, because––well, I’ve wanted to be a writer since I was about eight––my mom knew a fair bit about it, she had published some poetry, and she always told me, ‘This is what it is. You have to work really hard…’. So I learned how to edit, how to be hard on myself, how to not take rejections too hard.

I was talking recently about M.A. and M.F.A. programs, and I realized that when I started at York [as an undergraduate], it made my writing a lot worse, then a lot better. They try and ‘undo’ your writing and put it into this model––especially at York, which is very traditional in terms of prose writing. I came in with this almost experimental style, really stylized, but I needed to learn to reel myself back and then build on that. I had an undoing and a redoing. But after I got out, I had to think, what do I like to do? Without thinking about what everyone else was doing.

HHR     How has it been working with BookThug on Pauls?

Taylor     It’s been amazing! With them, you really feel like you’re a team. The process is overwhelming if you’re writing your first book, especially if you’re someone like me; some people are more ‘chill’ about processes, not so worried about being on top of things, but I’m obsessive about wanting to do a good job, and on every step I’ve been trying to make it as good as possible, as close to where I want it to be as possible. Every step has been easier because I’ve had this support system.

Malcolm [Sutton, the Fiction Editor at BookThug] has a background in graphic design, so he’s also doing my cover. What’s great about that is, you have the same person who is reading the manuscript as it’s becoming what it’s going to be and doing the cover. He can bring all of that and design a cover that really captures the essence of the collection.

HHR     From the initial concept of Pauls, how has the project changed over the past year as it’s been readied for print?

Taylor     It hasn’t changed a whole lot; most of the stories I came with have stayed in their original forms, it hasn’t been a heavy editorial process. BookThug first approached me, and the manuscript they saw only had nine stories, so they took it unfinished. Then I wrote ‘Degenerate’, a long short story, to close the collection. I wanted it to be like Salinger’s Nine Stories, or like how Joyce’s Dubliners ends with ‘The Dead’. I like the idea of ending with something that is relatively much longer in a collection of short stories.

HHR     Now, to close: I’ve read the story ‘We Want Impossible Things’ [soon to appear in Joyland], and you’ve mentioned to me before that that story introduces the protagonist of what will become your first novel.

Taylor     Right––there are three Paulina stories in Pauls, and that story is in her voice, and that voice inspired the novel I’m working on currently. It will be called Where Everything Glows. You’ll get a good sense of Paulina and the characters her life from reading that story in Pauls, and the novel will pick up her life from where we leave her. I like the idea of recurring characters, of never needing to be ‘done’ with a character.

HHR     On the note of Paulina, I read in your interview with echolocation that you’re very ‘over’ the trend of unlikeable protagonists––

Taylor     I can clarify that. Recently, we’ve had all these characters who are, like, murderers, and readers are meant to think, ‘Wow, he’s such a sociopath but we still relate to him because he’s so charming!’, or whatever. Paulina is somebody who will end up being victimized a lot, but she’s uncomfortable with being a victim, she doesn’t fall into that pattern easily. Another difference is to have somebody who’s actually trying their best. With a lot of modern protagonists, you have, ‘Oh, he’s so likable as he bumbles his way through life!’––but let’s have some real people who are really trying to live their lives, who are trying to understand others and be tender towards the world while still having flaws and things they want to fix in themselves, while still being on these quests and journeys.

‘Claire’s Fine’, a story from Pauls, appears in the Hart House Review 2015.

Photograph by Brian St. Denis.
Follow Jess on her ‘Paulr’ (Tumblr) here.