Trillium Book Awards Author Reading 2015

Talking with the amazing Jess Taylor

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Talking with the amazing Jess Taylor

I don't remember exactly when I met Jess Taylor, but I do remember when it suddenly seemed like she was everywhere all at once. Every reading, every literary party and event - she was there, supporting writers and connecting people. I was - and am! - totally amazed by her ability to champion local writers, promote young talent, and generally kick ass and take names.

Her work has been published in Little Brother, Little Fiction, Great Lakes Review, Emerge Literary Journal, and more. Her pamphlet chapbook, And Then Everyone, was released by Picture Window Press in Spring 2014, and her full-length chapbook, Never Stop, was released by Anstruther Press this fall. She received the Gold 2013 National Magazine Award in Fiction for her short story, "Paul," and was named “one of the best alt-lit reads coming out of Canada” by Dazed and Confused Magazine.

Her debut short story collection, Pauls, will be released in October by BookThug, and the reading series that she hosts and founded, Emerging Writers, just celebrated its third anniversary. Jess is also the new fiction editor of Little Brother.

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What was your first publication credit, and how did it come about?

I had a couple of poems published online and a story published in 2012 from submitting unsolicited to online journals. I would go through Twitter or other writer's acknowledgements and CVs to find journals interested in publishing new or emerging writers. I sent out a ton of submissions. I also used great resources like Duotrope and the Writer's Market. These first publications were great in that they made my work accessible and made me Googleable, but they didn't qualify as official publication credits for grants since I didn't receive payment.

My first official paid publication was actually the online publication of "Paul" on the National Magazine Award website. Little Brother originally published "Paul" in LB No. 3, the Pop Issue in December 2013, and while they pay contributors now, they didn't have the budget to pay contributors for the first few issues. It was definitely wild to win a National Magazine Award before I had a real paid publication credit and to have that award count as my first publication credit.

Was there a defining moment for you when you felt like you were doing the right thing by writing? That this was your thing?

Writing has always been a necessity to me. It's how I connect with the world around me and make sense of living. Some writers come to writing later in life, but for me it was what I always wanted to do. Since I was eight! Not doing it wasn't even an option. I knew that even if I had another job or career that took the majority of my time, I'd figure out a way to write. For a while, I imagined myself becoming a wildlife field biologist, stalking wolves in the wild and writing my stories by a campfire. Then I wanted to make it big with my ska band while writing on the side... I would write or read at shows, trying to find time for both of my loves. I'm a much less talented musician, and we obviously never made it big. But now I do balance writing with a variety of other commitments including curating a reading series, editing magazines, teaching at both Seneca and U of T. I still spend the most amount of time on my writing though and make it a priority. The moment it felt like this life would actually work for me was this fall. I now had a contract for my first book, was teaching enough courses to survive (more or less), and was much better at balancing my multiple priorities. Before that I was always struggling to have enough in the bank and was terrified I'd never find a way to make it work.

What's your proudest achievement so far?

The NMA is probably my most high-profile achievement, but the moment I felt proudest was when Pauls was accepted for publication by BookThug. Hazel and Jay at BookThug had approached me about my work, and I'd gone in to have a meeting. I'd submitted a couple manuscripts for them to look at and was now waiting to hear what the Millars and their fiction editor, Malcolm Sutton, thought. I went to Toronto island with some friends, which like my goal of putting out a book, also represented this idea of unfulfilled promise or potential to me... I had this thing about how people always talked about going to the island together, but never actually went. Whenever you saw people in the summer, you'd be drinking a beer on a patio and talking about how maybe next weekend, you'd all go to the island. So here I was on the island. I had an awesome day on the beach and just hanging out. I'd been so wound up about trying to make money (I was off for the summer) and getting the manuscripts together and everything else in my life that I felt this huge sense of relief once I got on the ferry. There was the lake, water all around me, and I was getting away from the city.

Once it was dark, we got home, and I went inside and checked my email. There was an email from Jay saying that they wanted to take Pauls. I read that email again and again. I thought about calling my mom or running outside to tell my boyfriend at the time, but instead I just sat alone and thought about it. I'm someone who is constantly GO-GO-GO, not really taking the time to appreciate my accomplishments. Actually, usually I feel a little blue after a major accomplishment. This was the first time I didn't feel that way. I just sat with that feeling of being proud. I'd talked to a couple friends who had already gone through the contract process, Spencer Gordon and Kevin Hardcastle, when I was preparing to meet with Jay and Hazel, and they both told me to go with it if it felt right. And that moment, sitting with that success and knowing Pauls would be coming out with BookThug, definitely felt right.

Have you ever published anything you later regretted?

I definitely think some of the work I've published is better than others, but I've never regretted something I've published. Some of my earlier poems have a different style than the work I'm doing now, but I see that as being representative of a certain time in my life. I've never really been inauthentic in my work... I think if I was someone who actively tried out different styles instead of working from a place of feeling, I might be embarrassed by earlier work... Like, "Oh that's from my _____ phase." But I see it all as an extension of myself and what I want to communicate to the world, and I was that person who wrote those things and still am that person in many ways.

The only time I've ever been embarrassed by a publication was when an article I wrote in second year of university for an online magazine (who I will not name to be a kind person) was republished in Metro with my name as the author and a different headline. I was now in the first year of my master's. That bothered me because I thought someone might come across the newspaper and think this was current information about me. They also always made incorrect changes to my grammar that made me so mad! I'm a real stickler for copy-editing and have always been good with grammar, so it bothered me a lot. I wrote a really heated email about it because they hadn't asked my permission to publish it. I'd asked them when I was still contributing to clarify who owned the rights to the articles and they'd ignored my question. What a mess. The editor apologized and said, "Well, no one has ever complained about having their work in Metro." But come on! It was an out-of-date article written three years before publication! That doesn't make anyone look good.

Has the publication process of your first book surprised you in any way?

Yes! I always heard how intense it is to put out a book, but the fast paced nature of the publication process is super overwhelming! My book got picked up in late August, and we decided on a Fall 2015 release. This only gave us a little more than a year to publication, which isn't really a lot of lead time. Unless you know someone who's published a book before, the fact that advanced reading copies are made up about six months ahead of time at first seems bizarre! The manuscript has to be ready fairly early. There are promotional questionnaires to be completed, interviews to be done, and a lot of general hustling. When you first think about writing a book when you're eight or even in your teen years, you don't think about everything else that will come with it. You think it's just about the writing. I was aware that there would be a lot of promotional work going into the book's publication, but the intensity of the deadlines caught me off guard, perhaps just because I have so many other things going on. At BookThug, everything feels like a team effort though, which helps to alleviate some of the stress.

Who would read at your dream literary event?

I'd resurrect a lot of people. I'd have Frank O'Hara reading beside Sylvia Plath. J.D. Salinger could come and read a short story, but he wouldn't be allowed to flirt with anyone. Roberto Bolano would come accompanied by Kathleen Wimmer or Chris Andrews, his translators. The readings would be brief, but the party would go all night and sometimes more readings would happen spontaneously, just when everyone thought they might go home. I wouldn't have to organize anything... I would just be there in the audience and hanging out after, and I'd always feel like I was on my second drink, no more, no less, my wallet full of cash, and we'd all watch the sunrise, together.

Do you have any advice you would offer other young writers?

Keep working! Read! Pay attention to your surroundings, to language, to everything. Do your own thing. Don't feel you need to fit your work to match what you see out there, but also be respectful of criticism. Be thoughtful. Approach every situation as if you have something to learn. Think about growing. Think about the things that scare you. Write into your vulnerable spots and into what fascinates you. Write into what's the most difficult for you. If you think you've worked the most you possibly can in a week, try to beat that record the following week. Remember that nothing you write is perfect, but nothing anyone else writes is perfect either. Think about how to turn these imperfections into your strengths. Be open to new experiences. If someone isn't doing what you want to see, do it yourself.

The views expressed in the Writer-in-Residence blogs are those held by the authors and do not necessarily reflect the views of Open Book: Toronto.