Two friends, both up for the Booker prize: 'We are exploring what it means to feel alien'

Brandon Taylor and C Pam Zhang, whose debuts are longlisted for this year’s Booker, talk about their close friendship, learning to write and dealing with grief

It is rare for the debut novels on the Booker longlist to outnumber those by more established writers, but this year, at eight to five, they did. It is even rarer for two of those first-time writers to be close friends, but ever since they met at the Iowa Writers’ Workshop, the prestigious creative writing programme from which they graduated in 2019, that’s what Brandon Taylor and C Pam Zhang have been.

When the longlist came out last week, Taylor tweeted a photograph from 2018, showing the manuscript of his longlisted novel Real Life, which follows a black, gay biochemist on a predominantly white graduate programme, alongside that of Zhang’s, How Much of These Hills Is Gold, about two orphaned Chinese-American immigrant children on the run in the American west. They worked on their books “side by side, shoulder to shoulder”, he wrote, “and now to see them both on this list. I just. Wow. Yeah, I’m weepy. FORGIVE ME”.

The other best part is this: in 2018, working on this book side by side, shoulder to shoulder with @cpamzhang while she worked on her brilliant debut How Much of These Hills is Gold and now to see them both on this list. I just. Wow. Yeah, I'm weepy. FORGIVE ME.

— Brandon (@blgtylr) July 27, 2020

Tell me about the photograph
Pam took the picture. We were at Bread Garden [in Iowa City], talking about our books, just going through and making sure that they still made sense. We looked over and we’re like: “Oh, look at our our books, they’re gonna be real things someday.”

How did you two meet?
I remember very clearly, sitting down in the big open room in the Frank Conroy Reading Room at the Iowa Writers Workshop and Pam coming in and sitting next to me.
Zhang: I just remember feeling extremely overwhelmed by the number of people, so I kind of glommed on to Brandon.
Taylor: The number of times we’ve sat in a diner for hours and talked over an Alice Munro story or a Lauren Groff story or a Shirley Jackson piece, or like a novel that we both read by coincidence.

Both novels make something new from long literary traditions – the campus novel; the western. Was that deliberate?
Zhang: I’ve always loved these epic tales of the American west, Laura Ingalls Wilder, John Steinbeck and Larry McMurtry, and having moved there with my family as a young child, and driven across the entire expanse of America, from east to west, there was something about that landscape that always spoke to me. But I didn’t think of that consciously. I was living in Bangkok, and one day I woke up and I had this image of two children on the run and silver dollars and hills, and it just poured out of me like that.

My novel is really concerned with storytelling, with parsing what a dominant culture tells you, and with something that a lot of marginalised people can relate to: a lot of the lives of these two children are about looking through and past and under what the dominant narrative is telling you about how to move forward in the world. The rules do not apply. The rules are not the same. And I was really interested in that. I was having fun with it, but there’s also a sense of defiance. I wanted to twist and turn things and put them on their head.

Taylor: I love stories set on campuses, because they are often where people are becoming who they’re going to be for the rest of their lives. It’s such a rich moment in life. But the problem is, there are no black people in them. Or if there are black people, they’re off to the side. Or if they’re queer people, they’re not queer people of colour.

So I decided this time, the central focus is going to be a black gay person. I’m going to write a story for people like me, because I know that I’m not alone in these all-white spaces. I’m not the only queer black person who’s felt estranged in these spaces, and I’m going to write a story for us. And everyone who’s felt lonely and isolated will finally have a book they can turn to, that speaks to them.

How much is the novel drawn from your own life?
I started it while I was working in a research lab at the University of Wisconsin-Madison. I was in a doctoral programme and I was writing little stories on the side. I’d tried to write a novel before, but the process defeated me every single time because it’s a messy, strange process. So I tried to bring an analytical framework to it, and made a bunch of lists: What are the reasons I’ve failed to write a novel before? What are my strengths as a writer?

I thought, OK, I’m going to take the surface of my actual life, and I’m going to lift it out of reality and put it into fiction because that way, I won’t get bogged down in trying to invent a bunch of stuff, I can save my invention for where it really counts. And as the book went on, it became more and more fictional, it departed further and further from from my actual life.

Are the the experiences of racism drawn from real life?
Most of it is stuff people said to me, almost to the letter. Because I didn’t trust myself to invent that language faithfully. If I had just made that up, people would be like: “Oh, people don’t talk that way.” And it felt important to me to use the real idiom of racism and homophobia and classism, because then no one can say that.

Pam, you’ve talked in the past about feeling very conscious of the white gaze in your stories.
My first experience with writing fiction in a white, academic setting was as an undergraduate. I took a couple of fiction workshops, and it’s horrifying to me now to look back. I was writing all these imitation, middle class, white man stories. I was able to write nice sentences, but there was no heart, there was no soul in the story, and I was erasing myself as well.

After college, I wasn’t writing much fiction. And then my father died, and that, combined with a dissatisfaction with the life that I was living, working in tech, led me to want to reconnect with that early part of myself. I took a break from my life in San Francisco and lived in Bangkok. It was a test for myself: let’s see if given all the time in the world to write, I will actually write.

Brandon, you said that you could have written a book that would have been more sympathetic to the white gaze, but it would have been a worse book. What did you mean?
There are ways that Real Life is uncomfortable for white people to read. I knew that discomfort was there, and it was important to me that I preserve it. All the microaggressions that permeate the book could have not been included, and it would have been a more sympathetic book for the white gaze, but I didn’t want to write a book like that. I didn’t want to write a book that was entirely comfortable about these issues because they are deeply painful and when they’re happening to you, you don’t get to forget them and you don’t get to move on from them right away, you have to sit with the humiliation of them.

Having the reader, regardless of their race, have to sit in Wallace’s discomfort and humiliation was, to me, a really important force in the book. And so yeah, it could have been more sympathetic to the white gaze. It could have been more comfortable, but I think it would have been worse.

Pam, the topics you tackle in your novel – gender identity, immigration, the American dream – feel so current: why set it in the past?
I didn’t think of taking contemporary issues and copy pasting them into the past. It just felt inherent to these characters and the way their lives are lived. Often when we look back into historical periods, we tend to think that people’s lives were so different. But I think the emotional texture and fabric of people’s lives has always been the same. Maybe we talk about it more now, or we have better language for talking about sexism and racism and gender nonconformism, but those people have always existed and dealt with those issues. They’ve just been so marginalised that they don’t rise to the surface of written texts or history books.

What was it like writing a gender nonconforming character like Sam in a time when there wasn’t the language for expressing that?
It was a difficult line for me to walk as a writer because most of the novel is seen through Lucy’s eyes. And Lucy herself struggles with seeing Sam accurately and clearly, and has some problematic views of her own. So it was hard because the me living in 2020 obviously has one vocabulary for speaking about gender, and I have my own views, but it didn’t feel right to just force those views into the novel and have everyone suddenly able to be 100% correct in gendering Sam. I had to walk that line between what was right for the world as a novel and the characters, and my own views. The one thing I could do for Sam was in the first 15 or 16 pages of the novel, there are no gendered pronouns. Because I, as the writer, wanted to give them the chance to present as themselves fully, before the views of the world are forced on them. That was really, really important to me.

Both novels deal with grief and alienation
Brandon and I realised, after we read each other’s novels, that both of our books start with the death of a father. Stylistically if you opened up a page of Brandon’s novel at random and a page of my novel at random you would not think there were many connections, but I feel like deep down under everything, under style, under sentence choice, under structure, our novels are very interested at the heart in similar emotional questions. Something Brandon and I talk about a lot, not just in our work, but in works that we love, is how we’re both interested in exploring what it means to feel like an alien in a human body.

Taylor: If aliens were to come to earth and to pick up Pam’s work or my work, they would just think that humans were intensely uncomfortable all the time with the state of being a human. Pam and I often say that we’re like tiny little robots rattling in human cages, because we’re constantly baffled by how people just know how to be a person, they don’t seem to have to think about it all. And we’re over here just intensely just trying to figure out how to be in a conversation.


Alison Flood

The GuardianTramp

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