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“Often, the work of writing is not to answer a question, but rather to create the language in which it can be asked.” 2019 Fellow, Justin Taylor

We’re thrilled to introduce the 2019 Oregon Literary Fellowship recipients with individual features on our blog! Out-of-state judges spent several months evaluating the 400+ applications we received, and selected thirteen writers and two publishers to receive grants of $3,500 each. The 2020 OLF applications will be posted at the end of April, and the deadline to apply will be Friday, July 12, 2019.

2019 Oregon Literary Fellowship Recipient
Justin Taylor


Justin Taylor is the author of the story collections Everything Here Is the Best Thing Ever and Flings, and the novel The Gospel of Anarchy. Riding With the Ghost, a memoir, will be published in 2020. He lives in Portland and is the 2018-2019 Mark and Melody Teppola Presidential Distinguished Visiting Scholar at Willamette University.

Q&A with Literary Arts
What are your sources of inspiration?
Inspiration comes from all over the place: things I see and hear (or overhear), books I read, things that happen to me, or—crucially—things that don’t happen to me and I start to think about why they didn’t, whether or not they should have, what would be different if they had… I had a great writing teacher when I was an undergraduate at University of Florida, Jill Ciment, who used to say, “Don’t write what you know, write what you want to know.” Over the years, I’ve taken that to mean that even if you start from a place of certainty or authority or personal experience, you want to launch quickly into the unknown, in order to create the conditions for self-surprise. You should not know the answers to all of your questions when you start. Maybe you shouldn’t even know what the questions are. Often, the work of writing is not to answer a question, but rather to create the language in which it can be asked.

How would you describe your creative process?
It usually starts with an image or a voice or a scene, or even just a few words, that pops into my head unbidden and then won’t leave me be. I want to know whose voice it is, or what kind of world the scene I’m thinking of might fit into, and I go from there—following that urge to move away from certainty and toward the unknown. And I should say that this applies equally to fiction and to nonfiction. You can pursue uncertainty and self-surprise at the level of idea, form, scope, etc., even if you aren’t making up the characters and the stuff that happened. On a purely practical level: I write first drafts longhand, usually on a day when I’ve got a lot of time, because I like to produce long messy drafts that I can then hack away at and shape. I type up the draft, print it, do my edits longhand again, often while reading them aloud to myself, and then I type up the new edits. Each new edit gets a fresh Word doc and the drafts are numbered. This saves me a lot of headaches when I inevitably need to backtrack, while avoiding the clutter of Track Changes. I repeat this process many times over a period of months or years, depending what a given piece of writing needs. Oh and I never type up my longhand the same day that I write it. It’s too easy to get carried away in the moment (or just by a strong cup of coffee) so I let a day go by and then check to make sure that I still agree with myself.

What is most exciting about receiving a fellowship?
So many things! The material support is very much appreciated, and I certainly didn’t waste any time adding the credential to my C.V., but I think the most exciting thing about it is this feeling being part of the literary community here in Oregon, and getting to connect with all the writers in this fellowship cohort as well as those of previous (and future) cohorts. I spent some time on the Literary Arts website the other day browsing the lists of past recipients and was just overwhelmed by all the great writers on there. And publishers too! I love that there are also fellowships to support independent local and regional publishers, and I was thrilled to see Opossum and Atelier 26 get some well-deserved recognition this year, joining the august company of past recipients like Future Tense, Tavern, Octopus, Forest Avenue… Far too many to name, which brings me back to my original point: that there’s such a vibrant culture of writing, reading, and publishing here. I hope to make myself and my work worthy of it.

What are you currently working on?
I’m finishing edits on a memoir, which is due out in 2020. So I’m working on that a bit but mostly starting to think about what’s next. I’ve got some short stories I’m trying to finish, and I’ve taken on some review work so I’ll be researching and writing at least one big and one small piece of criticism throughout the spring. And I’m a visiting professor this school year at Willamette University, so I’m down in Salem twice a week working with a fantastic bunch of students, which has been a real privilege. After school gets out in May, I’ll have a lot more time on my hands. I guess I ought to figure out how I want to spend it.

What advice do you have for future applicants?
Hmm, this might be a better question to ask you than to ask me, but for whatever it’s worth: put your best foot and your strongest work forward, and don’t be discouraged if it doesn’t go the way you’d hoped. Writing is 99% rejection. And sometimes you learn from that experience (or at least develop a nice thick skin) and sure, all the defeat does make the occasional victory that much sweeter (thank you again for picking me!) but you should never take a rejection as a definitive judgment on the value of your work. I mean let’s be really honest here: this is the third time that I’ve applied for this fellowship and I don’t know why I didn’t win before or why I was chosen this time. I think all you can do is go write something, revise it until it is the best possible version of itself, and then set it loose in the world and hope it finds its readers.

Comments from judge, Maya Sonenberg
“From the very first sentence of Justin Taylor’s essay about his father’s attempted suicide, he had me—or rather he had knocked me out, proving how the most direct and understated sentences can open a reader’s heart and soul. When I came to, I couldn’t stop reading. These marvelous few pages, part of a longer project about his father’s long struggles with mental and physical illness, combine the sparest and most telling details of a life—the way his father faced his diminished finances by eating only two meals a day, down to “two bananas and a pear”—with cogent analysis placing that singular life in a larger context of family and society. The cool tone, coupled at times with the merest whiff of humor, manages to both disguise and convey how deeply this son understands his father and how deeply he questions himself.”

Excerpt from essay, “Eliot Weinberger, To Be Continued”
After twelve hours on the road we stopped in Stockton, California, the setting for Leonard Gardner’s Fat City — a perfect novel, the only one he ever wrote. First published in 1969, Fat City is the story of two amateur boxers and the trainer who works with both of them. Sometimes, to get by, the men do day labor as vegetable pickers in the Central Valley. Their lives are rooming houses and rotgut, swimming vision and aching bones. Denis Johnson called Fat City “a book so precisely written and giving such value to its words that I felt I could almost read it with my fingers, like Braille.”
We checked into a Hilton and set off on foot to find something to eat. We ended up at a Mexican place that was clearly about to close as we walked in but seemed glad for the business and let us sit. We ordered dinner, drank margaritas, debated what time to leave town in the morning. A man at the bar — the only other customer left in the place — declared loudly and to no one in particular, “Whatever it costs you, don’t let your daughters grow up.”
The next day we drove through the Central Valley, where some fields were flourishing with tomatoes, pistachios, almonds, corn, and cattle, while others sat dry and abandoned and there were roadside signs in the dead fields that said STOP BOXER’S CONGRESS-CREATED DUSTBOWL and IS GROWING FOOD WASTING WATER? and MAKE AMERICA GREAT AGAIN.
Like most of Denis Johnson’s novels, Fat City might be said to be a book about people who do not know they are already in Hell.

You can read the complete essay by visiting https://www.barnesandnoble.com/review/eliot-weinberger-to-be-continued.

You can read more by Justin on his website https://www.justindtaylor.net/ or via Twitter, @my19thcentury.

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