Daniel Taylor is the author of many books, including two novels: Death Comes for the Deconstructionist (2014) and Do We Not Bleed? (2016). Both of these feature the lapsed Baptist Jon Mote, who is, among other things, a low-key 21st-century version of the accidental amateur sleuth. A third book in the series is in progress.
I first met Dan in September 1968 in a classroom at Westmont College in Santa Barbara, California. Dan was starting his junior year at Westmont; I, newly married and living off-campus, had just transferred there. The class in question was the first quarter of a three-quarter Survey of English Literature, taught by a very young and exceedingly enjoyable professor named Edward E. Ericson, Jr. Also enrolled in that class was Bruce Wiebe, Dan’s friend and dorm suitemate. A yearbook photo (1970, I think) shows the three of us sitting outside the college library; I’m reading Hugh Kenner on Samuel Beckett. Dan, Bruce, and I have been friends ever since, and Ed Ericson became a lifelong influence.
The conversation that follows was conducted via email.
In the fall of 1970, you started a PhD lit program at Emory on a four-year fellowship. You specialized in the canonical modernists and wrote your dissertation on the outlier Wyndham Lewis. What did you take away from those years in grad school?
Many things, of course, including a love of the modernists. Reading Hugh Kenner’s The Pound Era while flying from Atlanta to visit you and Wendy and Anna in Tulsa was a seminal event. I can remember sitting in the plane in a kind of reverential awe for what I was reading. It cemented my love for the modernist experiments and initiated my admiration for Kenner.
Related to that was coming away with a love of literature for its own sake. Going to grad school in 1970 no longer kept one out of Vietnam. And I made no assumption that I would ever end up teaching. I went in part to honor my mentor, Ed Ericson, God rest his recently passed soul. But I went mostly because the prospect of four years of reading and thinking and writing was irresistible. That it led to forty more years of doing the same was simply an unexpected blessing.
Also unexpectedly, the experience gave me, after a few decades of simmering, some characters and themes for Death Comes for the Deconstructionist.
- Death Comes for the Deconstructionist
- Slant, 2014
- Buy the Book
- Do We Not Bleed?
- Slant, 2016
- Buy the Book
You took a job at Bethel College (now Bethel University) in St. Paul, where you ended up teaching for your whole career. But also, in the early years, you & Jayne were houseparents at a home for developmentally disabled adults. How did that come about?
It came about because I was making $10,000 a year teaching, and, with our first child newly arrived, life was threatening to cost a bit more than that. We heard about this job as houseparents and interviewed for it, with almost no idea of what we were getting into. My wife, Jayne, was the point person, and for three years we lived with eight adults, on duty 24/7 except for Wednesday evenings and every other weekend.
Those three years taught me more than graduate school did. And (many years later) much of what they taught went into both the first novel and its sequel, Do We Not Bleed? Many of the scenes in that second novel are near-direct depictions of life with these residents. (How they should be named is one of the recurring questions for Jon Mote, the first-person narrator.)
I suppose the main thing I learned was to value them, eventually to love them, and to see them as complex, life-affirming creatures with as much right and reason to live as the rest of us. I hope that comes through in the novels.
It comes through loud and clear. Your first book, The Myth of Certainty, was published in 1986 (you’d be surprised—or maybe not—how many people over the years have told me that reading that book was life-changing), and you wrote a lot more books in a wide range of nonfictional genres, including several emphasizing the power of story. But way back in 1977, you sent me a belligerently funny story titled “Deconstruct This!” (I’m not sure about the exclamation point.) I remembered that when I read your first novel, Death Comes for the Deconstructionist. Were you thinking about writing fiction all along? And what enabled you to make the move from teaching the work of great fiction-writers to writing the stuff yourself?
Well, I wrote a dozen or so short stories in my twenties. I recall sending one to you and you diplomatically replying something like, “The value of these stories is documenting parts of your life as you are living it.” I took that to mean, “It’s good you’re writing these, but don’t confuse them with great literature.” Which I knew at the time meant I should keep my teaching day job. Which I did.
As to the transition later from nonfiction to fiction, I think it was not possible for me to read and teach so much fine fiction without wanting to try my hand again, even if it was (as it is still) primarily for my own pleasure. These novels (including the third I am now working on) are more than a little self-indulgent. The first-person narrator is, I hope, interesting, but he is also wearying, not something anyone less gifted than Dostoevsky (think the underground man) should try if he or she wants to please an audience. Also the works are more full of literary and intellectual history and pop-culture allusions than any reader should have to put up with. So I’m clearly writing to please myself, not to win an audience. (Though I’m grateful for any audience the books find.)
I did not feel any great transition moving to fiction. Most of my nonfiction has had a strong narrative thread (the exception perhaps being a book on tolerance), including narratives based on my own life. I’m doing very much similar things in the novels—dealing with character, motivation, plot, meaning, and the like. Storytelling is a fundamental human activity—perhaps the most fundamental—and it comes naturally to almost everyone, so I see myself now as simply doing what humans do, especially when they are trying to figure out why we are here.
I want to let readers of this conversation know that your fiction is NOT self-indulgent, nor is it aggressively allusive. To get what these books are doing, readers don’t need to pick up on all the echoes of other books and writers and such. No one reader will catch them all (I’m sure I didn’t); when they are noticed, they’ll provide a bonus of pleasure and insight, but their main purpose came in the writing, to help create the sense of coherence that a writer needs to maintain faith, so to speak, in the miniature world he is building. But enough about that. You told me recently that you’ve never had so much fun as you are having right now, writing fiction. So even if you didn’t feel that there was a big shift in moving from nonfiction to fiction, something is different. Can you put your finger on what that might be?
Well, thanks for the reassurance. Maybe I was channeling James Joyce, who, regarding the complexities and allusiveness of Ulysses, said with obvious satisfaction, “that will keep the critics busy for years,” or something like that.
I do feel differences between the writing of earlier nonfiction and these novels. One of the things that makes fiction easier—being free to go any direction one feels like—is also one of the things that makes it harder. When writing from one’s life or constructing an argument, there are inherent boundaries one must operate within. Boundaries of truth (what really happened) and reason (what is logical). These act as a kind of guide and narrow the range of choices from vast to something more manageable. Flaubert complained of being paralyzed at times by the almost infinite choices a novelist has when constructing a fictional world. He could make a character fall off a boat in the ocean, then strike him blind, then save him—or not. After writing a lot of fiction in recent years, I understand better what was bugging him.
I also feel freed a bit from trying to explain the world—to others and to myself. Especially to offer guidance on how to think, on what is true and what is illusory. “Just telling a story, mate. Nothing serious.” (Maybe that’s a factor in why I created a perpetually confused narrator who claims to have no answers to anything.)
I’ve gone so far as to say, “I got tired of telling people what to think, so now I’m just telling a few tales.” To which more than one reader has responded, “Oh, you’re still telling people what to think.”
Busted, I guess I’d have to say.
Has writing fiction changed the way you read fiction to any degree?
I don’t think it’s changed how I read fiction, but it has intensified it. In my professor days, I was always interested in pointing out to my students the craft side of lit (think John Ciardi’s classic How Does a Poem Mean? ). I recall, for instance, spending time showing in Elie Wiesel’s Night the result he achieves by announcing the place at which the young narrator’s train has arrived with a single word on its own line: “Auschwitz.” Followed by the next line: “No one had ever heard that name.” We explored how a writer can use things as seemingly trivial as line breaks to great effect.
Well, now I read even more craftily for help in my own writing. How an author opens and closes a chapter. How to transition from one scene to another. How to vary the emotional temperature in the arc of a novel. How to handle dialect. Little things and big things.
It only at this moment occurs to me, for instance, that I may have been influenced in what I am working on now by something I read in the last year. Like many readers, I was knocked flat by Anthony Doerr’s All the Light We Cannot See, beginning with the way he so skillfully builds tension, almost dread, in the description in the opening chapter of the World War II bombers approaching the blind girl’s house in France.
In the novel I’m working on now (tentatively titled Woe to the Scribes and the Pharisees), I want a strong opening that immediately creates tension and a sense of foreboding. I’ve decided to use a flash-forward slice of a climactic scene that will not take place until the end of the novel. Less than a page in opening chapters that are more or less comic.
I am not aware of thinking of Doerr’s novel when I made that decision about my own. In fact, I’m not sure whether I wrote my opening before or after reading his book. But it’s the kind of thing I have my antennae out for when reading fiction while I’m also writing it.
Last question. “We writers,” Ross Macdonald observed in the foreword to his anthology Archer in Hollywood, “as we work our way deeper into our craft, learn to drop more and more personal clues. Like burglars who secretly wish to be caught, we leave our fingerprints on the broken locks, our voiceprints in the bugged room, our footprints in the wet concrete and blowing sand.” Would it be cheating to ask the author of the Jon Mote books for a hint or two about where we might find such clues?
I’ll take it that Macdonald is referring to things that point back to him as a specific person, rather than merely The Author. Well, I’m as willing to play the “It’s not me, it’s my characters” game as anyone else. And given how wounded my narrator is, I have more reason to want to claim a distance from him than most. So I’ll start from that stance, which I more or less believe.
Prufrock is not T. S. Eliot and Jake Barnes is not Hemingway and Jon Mote is not me. It is not the case that I sit there thinking, “What would I, Dan Taylor, want to say here or want to say about this or that issue? I’ll have Mote say it.” Faulkner claimed he simply ran behind his characters, writing down what they said. I used to think that he was dodging a question (like this one), but now I think there’s something to it. Characters do, as the cliché has it, “take on a life of their own.” Jon’s sister, Judy, is Judy for me, not a mouthpiece for my pet views. Jon himself is on a path with a certain spiritual arc. I genuinely don’t know where it will lead. Some writer has said, “no surprise for the writer, no surprise for the reader.”
On the other hand, Jon Mote’s head is decorated with a lot of the same furniture that decorates my own. He’s read the novels I’ve read, seen the same television shows (reruns for him), gone to Baptist churches as a kid, and so on. And, of course, he’s a failed PhD student, so he knows something of both lit and the academic world. As do I. He’s younger than I am (a change made at the strong suggestion of my editor when re-writing the first novel), but he grew up in a subculture not all that different from my own. Jon worries about things a lot more than I do, but some of the same issues pop into both our minds.
And then there’s marriage. Again, I don’t think of Jon and Zillah as any kind of mirror of me and Jayne. But when I claim that, friends who’ve read the novels just snicker. I’m sure I have no idea what they’re laughing about.
So yes, fingerprints and voiceprints, but not enough evidence to convict.
I’m preparing for the day when someone in an audience chastises me for something grossly offensive to contemporary sensitivities that comes out of Jon’s mouth (or more likely from his closely guarded thoughts). I already have my response memorized: “Yah, that Jon Mote, he’s really screwed up, isn’t he.” If I’m feeling snarky, I’ll add, “Not like you and me.”