Native Kentuckian Alex Taylor delves into working-class loss and longing in The Name of the Nearest River, his debut collection.
How would you describe the characters in these stories?
I think a lot of my characters are afflicted with a terminal loneliness that they may understand, but can't express exactly. It's terminal in that they understand it, but they feel unable to do anything about it.
A lot of the stories revolve around dignity, with characters fighting against perceived or real slights. Why do you think you're drawn to this area of tension?
It probably has something to do with maybe being a man. Most men I know are pissed off on a daily basis. It seems to me that in the 21st century, masculinity has devolved, or shifted somehow. It's no longer heroic to embrace machismo. I know machismo has its drawbacks, but I was always attracted to writing about and reading about characters who woke up with nothing, so, sometimes, all they have to fall back on is their machismo and their sense of right and wrong.
What writers do you count among your influences?
Cormac McCarthy is the saint I pray to. For a while, he probably had a negative influence because I was trying to recreate what he was doing. I read Suttree and it seemed like an absolute translation of every sorrow and fear I had, and also of a way of existing in the world that was no longer viable. Annie Proulx is another one that I've admired for a long time, and Chris Offut.
Why did you start writing?
I was about six when I started writing, like a lot of kids do at that age. But I didn't get interested in constructing a literary style until 15. As for why, it's like Flannery O'Conner said—she was good at it. I was passionately mediocre at sports, math I was terrible at. But with writing, I felt like I had some talent.
You've had a diverse work background. How has that informed your writing?
I worked at a tobacco farm around where I lived in Kentucky and that reinforced the Protestant work ethic I already had. I learned to stick with something until exhaustion, and I tended to translate that sweat when I was trying to write a story. I'm extremely slow. I used to be faster. Now everything comes at a slow drip.
What are you working on now?
I've got this novel and it's awful, so I've been trying to mess with it, and I've been trying to write some stories, and they're awful, too.