Quick and Dirty Interview with Justin Taylor

Posted by Juliet Linderman

It’s not every day that a book about Christianity, anarchy and punk rock is raved up by the National Jewish Council, but then again, not every writer is as adept at prose as Justin Taylor, a Jewcy favorite whose debut novel, the Gospel of Anarchy, was recently published on Harper Perennial. The Gospel of Anarchy is a daring little thing: at a mere 256 pages, Taylor manages to tell the story—from several different perspectives—of a collective of friends living on the fringes of society in Gainesville, Florida, who accidentally create their own religion based on the found journals of a departed member of a punk house called Fishgut. The form of the novel verges on experimental: the narrative voice shifts between the handful of core characters, and is interrupted by an actual excerpt from the journal, which is subsequently turned into a ‘zine.

You’re a Jew who just wrote a book about anarchy and Christianity. Are you religious? Were you raised religious?

Justin Taylor: No, I was raised more or less like a lot of American Jews: completely secular. It was more cultural. I went to Hebrew school, I was bar mitzvahed. I went to Thursday night school. My parents were both involved in the synagogue. But I wouldn’t say we participated in a religious way.

What is your interest in religion?

It’s hard to say. You can’t always pinpoint what draws you to something and especially in my life as a writer I’ve learned to stop second-guessing, or even first guessing. I don’t wonder what draws me towards things, it’s just that I’m drawn towards them is sufficient enough. If something captures my attention I’ll start spending time with it and exploring it. I guess religion has always been that way for me. Maybe it’s a response to a secular upbringing.

Anarchy in general represents a lack of structure: it’s at odds with structure in general, and it isn’t. Religion in general, in so many cases, is reliant on structure, institution, system.

I think that the punk scene or the punk institution, or any kind of cultural institution whether it’s based around music or art or whatever, any of those things provide a baseline level of community and in-group belonging and structure that, maybe not religion in general, but any kind of church or synogague or mosque in specific aim to provide. The goals of these institutions are very different but the structures are highly analogous. If a kid is growing up in some town and he knows that there’s one venue that’s all ages that is always going to let him in and he’s going to see his friends there and he’s going to get turned on to new bands and it’s his go-to place, it’s not all that far off from someone who is a diligent member of their church and is involved in youth group and Sunday school. Again, the larger goals of the two are very different. I think that, in the case of religious groups and organizations and institutions, the idea of creating a space that is the pillar of the community is part of the explicit project. You want to create something that will draw people, where they feel safe, where they can get help, where they can become their better selves, and that’s what they’re trying to do. On the other side, whether a music venue or a scene or even a movement, those things are always going to have other goals that have nothing to do with spiritual development or fostering community. Those things will happen, but it’s incidental to whatever the main project is. At that point, it’s hard to generalize.

In the context of somewhere like Fishgut, that’s designed to be a pillar of community, right?

It’s designed to be its own community, like a world unto itself. In relationship to the larger community of which it is a part—say, the block on which the house stands, the city that encompasses the block—these people are standing apart from or in opposition to those things. In any of these examples is a constant interplay of in-group and out-group. You find something to belong to, and try to close yourself off from everything else that’s not a part of that. At Fishgut, they would be more likely to say they’re against everybody, or the systems of which those people are a part. They look at larger culture—our culture, American culture—or modernity on a radical level—as being fundamentally broken. They traffic a lot of ideas that to participate in a society that functions this way is to always have blood on your hands. There is no possibility of innocence and without actively resisting it or fighting against it you’re tacitly condoning it. One one hand, this is a simplistic idea, but other the other hand it’s incredibly profound. The profundity though is almost the problem: the assertion is so broad even if it’s true it’s self-negating. And the evidence of that is the same anarchist idea that we constantly have to be fighting capitalism and tearing this thing down. You encounter version of that same idea—it’s the Catholic doctrine of original sin. Something happened, you didn’t do it but you bear this responsibility and every moment you’re not actively seeking correction you’re compounding the original sin and also, your own sin. That’s straight-up. Any religion talking about salvation and purity, they are similar ideas.

Tell me about the research you did for this book.

This is set in Florida, a place I really lived. And while this book is in no way autobiographical it superficially bears enough resemblance to my own experience that I didn’t have to think too hard to imagine how it feels to live in a big house with lots of people coming and going. I did stuff like that. And also, I have had a long, abiding interest in both far left politics and religion in general, Christianity in particular, and those interests predate my decision to write this book. A lot of these things I was familiar with and wanted to have the chance to investigate more. But making the decision to do that I did a lot of primary source research, primarily into the origins of these ideas. I had a lot of little bits of knowledge but I wanted to figure out what I was going after. More importantly tough, I wanted to be able to speak, and have the characters speak in a way that felt natural to them. I needed to be as deeply immersed in it as they were, so when they spoke about it they would feel the same level of comfort that I would feel speaking about a topic like my favorite author or a book I really like. I read a lot of different things, like classic tenets of anarchism: Emma Goldman, Alexander Berkman, but I wanted to keep the politics true to the way they manifest in contemporary American culture. If they were reading any anarchism at all it was probably coming to them through a ‘zine. On the religion side, I started looking closely at Augustine, Kierkegaard and GK Chesterton, Flannery O’Connor. Each of those people have a specific relationship to Catholicism.

Let’s talk about the ‘zine. You chose to include an exerpt from the ‘zine, which I thought was cool, and risky. Did you read a lot of ‘zines growing up? What’s your relationship to ‘zine culture? I know it’s different now than it used to be, because today everyone has a blog instead.

I think ‘zine culture, by and large, is a byproduct of DIY culture, punk culture and youth culture. None of those are things I’m actively a part of at this point in my life. I assume it’s happening and I hope it’s happening. But the novel is set in ’99. The internet exists and plays a small but pivotal role in the novel, but really it’s a story of physicality, and these characters are looking for the fastest, cheapest way to get this information out into the world, and this was the truest thing I could come up with. They kind of understand how to make a website but they don’t understand why anyone would want to. It’s so much about physically cutting things up and running things off on a copier.

What does anarchy mean to you? Is anarchy the same as anarchism?

No, they’re not the same. Either can be positive or negative. Anarchy is the absence of order or any kind of system or organization, and there can be a real freedom in that, but it can also be very dangerous by nature. It’s a temporary state of affairs: anarchy is what happens when government breaks down, and there’s a power vacuum and ultimately someone or something comes in and fills that space.

So anarchy is fundamentally unsustainable?

I think a permanent state of unlawlessness is unlikely. The world and culture both tend toward order and disorder in turn; anytime you’ve got one, the other is on its way. But anarchism can mean a couple of things and that’s where the hope and potential of the idea as a philosophy lies. I’m not an anarchist, but it’s something I have a lot of respect for and interest in. Amarchism asserts that people are their best selves when they’re free from coercion. That’s the premise of anarchism in a nutshell. And when we’re working together to better each other and fight oppression and ensure mutual safety and promote a culture of mutual aid, we’re doing better for our world, each other and ourselves than if we have a police force to whom we entrust a culture of violence to protect us from each other, to protect us from ourselves, and that’s a really different thing and it’s potentially sustainable. It’s never been given a fair shot and I don’t know what would happen if it ever had one. To think of this philosophy in a place like the United States where there really is no worrying about facing the problem of a sustainable anarchist community.

What about micro-communities? Would you consider Fishgut to be a community of anarchism as opposed to anarchy?

When the people of Fishgut are at their best—sharing food, when they’re having sex without giving each other diseases and getting angry of each other—that is functional anarchism. There is nobody imposing order. People are getting the things they need. And people are expressing themselves and self-actualizing and getting laid and all the good things you want to do. But, when you throw a party that gets out of control and everyone loses their shit, those are instances of disorder that anarchism has to manage in order to sustain itself. Fishgut didn’t self-destruct, it was betrayed.

At the end, a lot of these characters end up somewhere else, away of Fishgut, which brings me to the punk philosophy. Is this something that most people inevitably grow out of?

No, some people dedicate their life to the scene or the cause or whatever, and one of two things can happen. People either, over time, ascend and become the veterans and elder statesmen of that world and forge successful lives for themselves on those terms, or they get chewed up and spit out. Some of the characters in this novel, they hop freight trains, eat out of dumpsters, sleep outside—they’re living outside of the system and it’s harder the older you get.

Are they really outside of the system though? They pay rent, and do things like donate blood for money.

The people who live in the house aren’t totally outside of the system, but some of the people who pass through—those people are really beyond the pale of society and some will make it back and some are so fargone that maybe they can’t come back.

The narrative structure is non-linear, which I thought was interesting. There are lots of different narrators, the perspective shifts often. Why the decision to tell the story this way?

That was the way the story wanted to be told. I had written a number of different drafts, all in the first person narrated by David, in the third person following David, another draft Roshomon-style, where there’s a group of first-person narrators who all get one chapter. But ultimately, it seemed to make sense to do it this way. More than anything, its’ a portrait of a community, of a house, and I wanted to have a narrative voice that had the freedom to go in and out of anyone’s head that it wanted to. On the one hand, it’s free and direct discourse; the narrative lens is free to follow whoever catches its interest, but at the same time, at that moment, it’s very deep inside their head. It’s a very close third-person that’s almost closer than first-person entirely self-aware and willing to produce these lacerating self-judgments. This voice knows the characters better than they know themselves. These characters are taken very seriously, but they’re also treated very harshly by the narrative. Part of taking something seriously is being willing to call bullshit on it, and this book treats these ideas as gospel, but it’s willing to poke fun and talk shit. It’s an in-group critique at a level of extraordinary intimacy, but also extraordinary contempt at times.

Are you now, or have you ever been, a punk?

I have an abiding fondness for punk music of the 90s, and certainly some family photos that reveal a whole host of regrettable fashion choices. I don’t play anything so I was never in a band. I liked the idea of the scene existing, but it wasn’t really for me, to go join up that way. Sometimes when I was younger that was frustrating. Punk, at this point, is kind of shorthand for anyone who is involved in a serious or semi-serious counter-cultural scene. There is no indie culture or hippie culture in this country. So, I don’t know. In Gainseville, the scenes were very fluid. People were involved in activism, community organizing, literary scenes and there was a lot of overlap. It was never like the early 60s—hippies standing over there and bobby socks girls over there. It repeated itself in the 80s too, if you look at any 80s movie. By the late 90s, the boundaries became permeable. You see indie rock kids listening to hip-hop.  Maybe it’s the notion of a scene itself that’s misleading: really, it’s more about affinities.