Brandon Taylor: campus racism inspired Booker-shortlisted ‘Real Life’

Raised in rural Alabama, Brandon Taylor took his first degree at Auburn University at Montgomery, Alabama and went on to postgraduate studies in biochemistry at the University of Wisconsin-Madison. He later switched to creative writing and gained a further degree from the University of Iowa, where he was an Iowa arts fellow at the Iowa Writers’ Workshop. His first novel, Real Life, reinvents the genre of campus fiction and was shortlisted for the 2020 Booker Prize.

Where and when were you born?
Prattville, Alabama, in 1989.

What kind of undergraduate were you?
I was a pretty lazy student as an undergraduate. I skipped a lot of classes to play table tennis and hang out with my friends. But I got excellent grades, somehow, miraculously. I mostly went to class on test days, and I selected instructors who had a very lax attendance policy and who didn’t grade homework.

What spurred you to go on to a graduate degree in biochemistry?
When I realised I didn’t want to be a doctor, my mentor told me that I had the temperament for research. He pointed me in the direction of a few universities, and I went about figuring out how to make that happen. I didn’t even know what a graduate degree was before that.

What were the main pleasures of life in the laboratory?
I really loved the rhythm of lab work. Being able to design a line of enquiry and then set about performing experiments and figuring out how all the information fits together. You spend all day just thinking and doing, designing and executing.

How far are the accounts of casual racism in Real Life based on things on your own experience?
Most of the awful, racist things that people say to [the central character] Wallace in the novel came from my real life, actual things that had been said to me in various contexts in academia...The dynamics in the novel aren’t necessarily one-to-one from my actual life. Rather, they’re an aggregate of things I’ve experienced at different moments and things I’ve talked about with my black, queer friends in academia.

What was your experience of studying creative writing in a university setting?
Most of my creative writing training early on came from careful observation and mimicry. When I got to my graduate programme at Iowa, I didn’t really feel that my teachers elucidated anything for me that I hadn’t already hashed out for myself. So I spent most of those two years experimenting and writing and talking about writing with peers. It was through that process of argument and discussion outside class and in online spaces that I moved from simple mimicry to real, intentional writing choices and practice.

How far can fiction writing be taught?
I’m convinced that the instruction of fiction would be totally fine if all people did was read books and write stories in their apartments. I’m convinced they’d figure it out just fine without any outside intervention. But sure, teachers can point out things in stories. They can enhance a reading experience. And maybe, if you’re lucky, a teacher might say something instructive about your own work.

What do you see as the main appeal of the campus novel?
Campus novels are perfect because whatever artifice there is to the structure is also artificial in our actual lives. They’re kind of meta that way. The very idea of suddenly, you get to a certain age and leave home and go to school and you’re among all of these different kinds of people for the first time in your life. And you’re figuring out how to be an adult, etc...One loves a campus novel for all the reasons one loves reality TV – the artificiality of it is the very point.

Why did you feel the need to reinvent – and in a sense subvert – the genre?
I was intrigued by the question of what makes something a campus novel. And what happens when I make the central character queer and black...I wanted to know if this genre could contain the story of a person who might, in another campus novel, be a minor character.

Your novel includes some vivid but slightly stomach-churning descriptions of dissecting nematodes and other laboratory techniques. What led you to include so much scientific detail?
It wouldn’t have felt right to set up the lab as a space and then elide the detail of the work. I find that sort of trick really tedious in contemporary fiction: this idea of making the reality of the character’s work life subordinate to whatever plot needs to happen. To me, if a character works in a lab and if their life is constrained by the amount of time and effort it takes to do that work, then the lab is necessary to the story.

What does being longlisted [and subsequently shortlisted] for the Booker mean to you?
I follow the Booker every year, so it’s surreal to find my own name associated with the prize. Honestly, it’s a real honour. And to be listed alongside one of my closest friends in the world, C. Pam Zhang [author of How Much of These Hills is Gold], is just utterly a dream come true.

How can universities do more to promote the creation and appreciation of contemporary fiction?
A really simple thing they can do is assign more living writers. Poets are doing this brilliantly. But on the fiction side of things, we could be doing better. And I do think that many POC [people of colour] instructors are using contemporary writers to bring much-needed diversity to their students. When I taught undergraduates, most of the writers I assigned were queer POC writers. And my students would often say that they hadn’t read someone writing about now in a class before.

What would be your advice to a student keen to become a novelist?
Read everything. Write. Find someone who disagrees with you about books and stories and talk to them every day. But mostly: read.

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