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Author Brandon Taylor On His Coming-Of-Age Novel 'Real Life'

AUDIE CORNISH, HOST:

Before Brandon Taylor became a writer, he was a biochemistry researcher, breeding microscopic worms in a lab.

BRANDON TAYLOR: I come from a very working-class background in rural Alabama. And so for me, going into science, even with my, you know, small graduate stipend, that was the most money anyone in my family had made.

CORNISH: But Taylor was also the only black queer man in his program doing a job that was already isolating by nature.

TAYLOR: You're in a lab for long periods of time, often at night, by yourself, talking to no one, just picking worms over and over. It's incredibly alienating.

CORNISH: After four years, Taylor left to write fiction. His debut novel is out this week. It's called "Real Life," and he's written much of his own experience into the main character.

TAYLOR: Wallace is a person who struggles to form connections. And he - he's just so deeply suspicious of other people, even when they love him and they sort of show him consideration. He's just always kind of looking for that other shoe to drop, and he's someone who is just much more comfortable being alone. But that comes at this great price of, you know, piercing loneliness sometimes.

CORNISH: It's not without cause, right? He grew up with abuse in his childhood. And the description of his lab and the people he works with - they're surprisingly nasty. Like, there's a lot of office politics for something that should - I guess in my mind should be just based on kind of, like, research and logic and results.

TAYLOR: That was one of the motivating factors of writing this book. I spent a lot of time in research labs, and I came to see them as this really interesting subculture and micro-community full of the same kinds of catty politics that you see in any other environment. And so I was interested in teasing that out because when people think of science and scientists, they think of these cool-headed species of humans ruled by reason, and that's not really the case. They're people, so they're complicated. They have petty jealousies. They form alliances. And I was just really interested in portraying that on the page.

CORNISH: Or people who are acting nice but are actually mean and condescending.

TAYLOR: Oh, truly. I - you know, Wallace is so suspicious of people, and sometimes for great reason. Like, he catches all of the little micro-nuances when people are being really nice to him but in this incredibly condescending and passive-aggressive way. Like, he's always on the lookout for the hidden - you know, the hidden barb or jab at him.

CORNISH: Is that something you experienced?

TAYLOR: Yeah. I mean, I think it's common to anyone. You know, when I moved to the Midwest, I encountered, for the first time in my life, white people who had never interacted with a black person before. And so they would say things to me, thinking that they were just making conversation, but they were committing these horrible microaggressions against me.

CORNISH: That comes across in the description and interactions within his little friendship group, where I believe he's the only person of color. I didn't know if you could turn to Page 162. There's one moment in particular where racism rears its head at this dinner party where someone at the table essentially declares that his racial background means that he should be grateful to be in this graduate program, if at all. And no one says anything about that. And here's Wallace's reaction when one of his friends tries to comfort him.

TAYLOR: OK.

(Reading) Emma puts her head on Wallace's shoulder, but she won't say anything either - can't bring herself to. No one does. No one ever does. Silence is their way of getting by because if they are silent long enough, then this moment of minor discomfort will pass for them, will fall down into the landscape of the evening as if it never happened. Only Wallace will remember it. That's the frustrating part. Wallace is the only one for whom this is a humiliation. He breathes out through the agony of it, through the pressure in his chest.

CORNISH: There's so many ways that his friends don't come to his aid. What is the toll of that on this character?

TAYLOR: I think that the toll is that you start to wonder, is this where I deserve to be? Did I do something to bring this upon myself? Am I making too much of it? You start to second-guess the very real nature of, you know, your pain and what you're going through. You just - you know, you withdraw into yourself, and you're constantly having to reconfigure your understanding of what you mean to each other and also what it is to be in that space. I just think that the toll is doubt and isolation.

CORNISH: And yet, Wallace never really has an outburst or stands up for himself. I feel like over and over again, he uses the phrase, it's fine; I'm fine. I must have done something.

TAYLOR: Yeah. He says, I'm fine, I'm fine, I'm fine, as a way to kind of assuage - to assuage the feelings of the people who have harmed him.

CORNISH: But it's not just that. He uses it in instances where he's been abused - right? - even physically. It's like this massive coping mechanism. At all times, he's trying to say, it's fine. Is he saying it for the person who aggresses against him or for himself?

TAYLOR: I think it's both. Part of it is he wants to very much cling to this idea that it's fine because if it does get to a place where it's not fine, then he has much more reckoning to do on a much deeper level. And that's not something that he feels that he can survive.

And that reminded me again and again of the ways that I was trying to survive a lot of the trauma in my own background and in my own family. Like, it's interesting that when you're in these kinds of situations, you draw on whatever coping mechanisms you have at hand. And I think both the mechanisms to survive trauma and the mechanisms to survive being in a sort of toxic environment - those are sort of two like skill sets.

CORNISH: It's tricky because some of them can continue to serve you, right? And some of them no longer serve you even as you hold onto them.

TAYLOR: And it's difficult to see when a coping strategy has lost its utility and has instead just become a part of the toxic strategy of your life. I think for Wallace, the big animating energy of this novel is that he is having to cope with the fact that all of the ways that he had of getting by in life have resulted in him making himself and his life ever smaller. And now he's in a place where he doesn't have to do that anymore, and he just does not know how to deal with that information.

CORNISH: What in your scientific training did you bring to how you approached and wrote the book? I mean, as we talked about, you were a student at the University of Wisconsin. You have this science background. What of that did you end up bringing it - to trying to put together a novel?

TAYLOR: Yeah. I think the thing I brought most directly was just the ability to think and organize a large project. So when I sat down to write this book, you know, I made a bunch of lists about my strengths, my weaknesses, why I had failed to write a novel before and also just trying to set very clearly what were the parameters of this book going to be. And once I made those lists and come up with those strategies, I just sort of sat down and got to it.

CORNISH: In the end, do you feel like writing is art or science?

TAYLOR: I think that writing and science are both art. Both writing and science are ways of knowing the world, ways of understanding the world and their way of drawing the world closer to you as an observer. There's this, like - this feeling of prying open the mystery of the world and seeing something true for the first time. And I got that feeling from both writing and also from science.

CORNISH: Brandon Taylor, thank you so much for speaking with us. And obviously, this is - it's a novel, but it feels very personal. And thank you for sharing your story.

TAYLOR: Thank you so much for having me. Thank you.

CORNISH: That's author Brandon Taylor. His debut novel is called "Real Life." Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.