Justin Taylor’s Riding with the Ghost: a Memoir is a portrait of his father’s final years, a doleful case study in caring for a parent who has forsworn caring for himself. Larry Taylor’s life courted misfortune. Poverty and unemployment, depression and Parkinson’s disease, isolation and divorce rent his heart and led him to plot a suicide attempt. (A last-second phone call with his daughter saved his life but prolonged his misery.) Had Larry been a failure, as he himself suspected? No, insists Taylor fils—the author of three previous books, all works of fiction—who depicts his father’s despair alongside his staggering brilliance, his patience and empathy, his gifts of conversation and storytelling, and his abounding love for his family. Rooted in what Freud calls “the work of mourning,” Taylor’s unsentimental account of his father’s life doubles as an intellectual autobiography. The writer who tells this tale remains his father’s son.
I approached Riding with the Ghost as an admirer of Taylor’s splendid story collections, Everything Here is the Best Thing Ever (2010) and Flings (2014), and his ambitious (if underappreciated) novel, The Gospel of Anarchy (2011). In his fiction, Taylor crafts intoxicating narrative voices from a poetic vernacular. (His work elicits justifiable comparisons to the stories of Barry Hannah and Denis Johnson.) As a memoirist, Taylor is thoughtful, measured, and unflinching; he exposes his own shortcomings as soberly as his father’s. “Why am I writing this?” Taylor asks himself early on. “My motives,” he admits, “are largely selfish…it feels good to revel in hot, raw hurt.”
Enchanted by the accelerated intimacy that memoir affords, I had to remind myself that I do not, in fact, know Taylor apart from the fragments of his imagination he has put in print. I worried that my list of emailed questions might strike him as impertinent—who was I to insist he share more about his father, his craft, his sense of Jewish identity, after he had already revealed so much? But that was needless hand-wringing. Taylor dispelled my anxieties (and sated my curiosities) with the open, forthright, and generous responses reproduced below.
Samuel Gold: You describe your father as a man with a “private streak.” During his lifetime you only shared the specifics of his suffering with your family and a few close friends. When did you begin to put his story on paper? Did you worry that writing this book would betray his privacy?
Justin Taylor: There’s no question that the book betrays his privacy. When I first started writing, it was a strictly private document, a way for me to record what was happening with him and to help process how it was affecting me. I had no plans or desires to publish the material, and I never told him that said material existed. I was very protective over him and respectful of his wishes, not that he ever said “don’t write about me” in so many words, but I knew what he wanted, and it meant something to me to honor that. I mean there wasn’t even a stray tweet about having a sick relative or whatever. But after he died, it gradually occurred to me that he was past needing my protection. I’d honored his wishes for as long as it had mattered, and all that was left was the story, which was mine to tell.
Did working within the memoir genre require you to alter your approach to your craft? Did you at any point consider telling your father’s story aslant, as fiction?
I think versions or elements of his story—of our story—have appeared in my fiction, and will continue to appear in or otherwise inform it, since our relationship has been so central to my life. But to answer your question, no, I never considered a fictional version of this story or this manuscript. I’m not sure why. Maybe it’s because I turned toward this project from a fiction project that was failing at the time, so there was a desire to do something very different, but I suspect the real reason is that because, as I said above, this began as a form of private writing without any expectation that it would be read, and when my father died I stopped writing it. I mean basically stopped writing, period, give or take a couple of book reviews. It was about six months later, after I got to Hattiesburg (for another visiting writer gig) that I looked back over what I’d been working on in the spring. It occurred to me that I could revisit that work, build on its foundation and develop its ideas. I began to think in terms of a book-length project, with my father’s death at the center. At first I thought about it as a straightforward before/after thing, which you can still find evidence for in the text, but the final structure is more…orbital? Like losing him is the planet and then that planet has all these moons that wax and wane. I’m sure that analogy will fall apart if I try to push it any farther. Anyway, by the time I started to think about a publisher, a readership, the question of genre was settled.
The “riding” in Riding with the Ghost is literal. You describe hours on the road, trips made out of filial or financial obligation: moving your begrudging father from Tennessee to Florida, moving yourself to Indianapolis for a semester, to Hattiesburg, Mississippi for a year—the itinerant life of the adjunct professor. The pain of geographical displacement, which touches your father’s life and your own, recalls Jewish memories of exile. Yet in your fiction, the road also whispers American promises into the soul’s ear. The narrator of “Saint Wade” (from your collection Flings) speaks for several of your characters when he asks, “what would [it] be like…to live your whole life in motion—to never even know what it meant to rest?” What draws you as a writer to the road, to travel and drastic changes of scenery?
The promise of the road is a very American notion, it’s true, but most of the travel described in this book was, as you say, undertaken more out of necessity than pleasure. And that character in “Saint Wade” who says that line is not himself in any kind of motion. His whole life is sort of paused, so the idea of perpetual motion (which he gets from a nature show about sharks) is alluring but also baffling to him because it’s so far from what he’s going through.
I’ve always enjoyed traveling—taking vacations, visiting friends, that sort of thing—but “living on the road” in the way that this book depicts was a relative anomaly in my life, an unpredictable and frankly improbable aspect of how I ended up spending the late 2010s. It was a side-effect of my wife and I moving across the country and also of certain structural changes in the academic job market. If we’d stayed in New York I probably would have just kept adjuncting at the several schools where I was in the regular rotation. Outside of NYC and maybe Chicago or LA it’s much harder to do what I was doing and get by. In Portland, it’s impossible; even if you got a gig at every school in town, there’s too few of them and the money isn’t enough. It’s not close to enough. So I had to go where the money was.
There’s a line in Jason Molina’s song “Montgomery”: The road becomes what you leave. He means as opposed to the normal thing where you occasionally leave home for a stint out on the road. I guess I started to feel that way after a while. Still, I might have told a different version of this story if not for the fact that I inherited my dad’s car while in the midst of figuring out what shape this book would ultimately take. Like you could keep a lot of things the same: the sickness, the loss, the visiting writer gigs, but factor out me inheriting his Nissan Sentra with the CDs still in the changer, and all the time I spent sitting in the driver’s seat of that car over the next year, and the text might have shaped up in a very different way.
The primary ghost of the title is your dad, but the book abounds with allusions to the lingering dead. These ghosts include your artistic influences—Jason Molina, David Berman, Denis Johnson, Philip Roth—as well as your friend and former student, Eli Todd, who died of a drug overdose in 2016. (A heartrending irony: the book’s graveyard scene, mourner’s kaddish and all, recounts the unveiling of Eli’s headstone, not your father’s.) How does Eli’s sudden, premature death fit into the story of your father’s protracted illness?
At first the two losses didn’t seem connected at all. I was trying to write about my father, and our relationship, and that was it. There was a purposeful narrowness to the project. But the more I wrote about these visiting writer jobs, the more attention I had to pay to teaching and what it means to me, not just as a paycheck but as a vocation. I realized that a lot of my approach, especially in terms of how I interact with students, comes from him. He never worked as a teacher, but he coached teams, did volunteer work, and generally made himself available in a way that not a lot of other parents I knew growing up ever did. He always took young people seriously, which meant that he didn’t talk down to them and also that he listened when they talked to him. There was a baseline level of respect and engagement that it’s pretty rare for a kid to get from an adult. I try to bring these things—some version of them—to my relationships with my students, but it wouldn’t have occurred to me to connect this to his model until I was actually writing about it, and making the connections on the page. Since so much of the book is about interrogating my father’s choices, and in some cases finding serious fault with his behavior or decisions, it was important to emphasize the positive where it was warranted to do so. I am deeply grateful to my father for the way his example influenced my teaching style.
Eli died in October of 2016. It was awful, and the awfulness was compounded by the randomness of it. It didn’t have to happen, it shouldn’t have happened, ninety-nine times out of a hundred it wouldn’t have happened, because he wouldn’t have been able to buy the drugs, or he would have been with someone else, or a roommate would have come home sooner… But all the evil stars aligned and it was what it was. Eli’s story is the opposite of my father’s; he was young, healthy, had a strong support network and a lot to look forward to. The only overlap in the Venn diagram was me, grieving for each of them, and developing some interest in the ways each grief was informed by the other. But to speak practically in terms of this book, I think the reason Eli’s story ended up becoming part of it was because of the relationship I developed with his parents, and my friendship with another former student, Anika, who had been his classmate. It was for them that I made the trip to Massachusetts for the unveiling, and it was at the ceremony where the recitation of the mourner’s kaddish and the singing of Oseh Shalom Bimromav got me thinking about my father’s relationship to Judaism, or Jewishness, in a way that I hadn’t before. It was a genuinely epiphanic moment, of the kind I’d strongly discourage my own students against including in a short story.
As to the others, only Molina was gone when I began this book. He’d died in 2013, and it was the happenstance of being in Indianapolis that got me thinking about him as a Midwesterner, an artist who engaged with place. Denis Johnson, too, since a lot of Jesus’ Son is set in Iowa. He died a few months after my dad did, and I ended up writing an in memoriam piece for N+1, which gave me a reason to revisit a lot of his work in a short time and clarify my thinking about it. Roth is maybe a less crucial figure for me than you might think (certainly less than Johnson or Berman) but Patrimony is a hell of a book. My early drafts quoted it at extravagant, maybe even indecent length, so it made sense to take notice when he passed in the summer of 2018.
And David Berman wasn’t supposed to die. In a book so focused on loss and death he was my great counterpoint, the one who’d made it out alive. I thought about this often while I was writing. I’d even mentioned the book’s existence to him in one of a few brief emails we exchanged last summer. My wife and I had tickets to see him play in Nashville. He died the week that I sent back the final copy edit. The sentence acknowledging his death was the last piece of text added to the manuscript. But what can you say?
You write that long phone conversations with your father constitute a meaningful part of who you are and who you both were. Riding with the Ghost continues that conversation, in the sense that it includes anecdotes you shared with your father, as well as instances after his death in which you felt the instinctual urge to call him. What do you imagine your dad would think of this book? Did you two ever discuss your work in detail?
If he were still alive this book wouldn’t exist. There’s no world in which I write this book and then he reads it; its existence is predicated on his being gone. If I had gotten to choose, I’d have chosen him over it, but of course nobody ever gets to choose. I will say that he’d appreciate that it’s dedicated to my sister. He always wanted me to dedicate a book to her. Which I’m sure I would have done anyway, because we are close and I love her and all that stuff, but he always kind of campaigned for it, like he was worried it might slip my mind, so it’s fitting that it wound up being this book.
As to the second question, yes and no. We talked about my work mostly in terms of career: How is it going? What does success look like? Are you going to be able to survive? He was an avid reader but not of imaginative literature, novels or stories or poems. If I wanted to tell him about some writer I’d just discovered, or what I was working on, he’d listen, but it wasn’t that interesting to him. And I never showed either of my parents my work before it was published; that just wasn’t something I was going to do. But they’d read it after it came out and always have something to say about it, even if it was just “Congratulations.”
The structure of Riding with the Ghost is self-interrogating, even Talmudic: you regularly revise, reinterpret, or reject your early explications of the book’s events. The reader becomes a confidant to the history of your mourning, adding another layer of intimacy to narrative remarkable for its emotional nakedness. How did you arrive at this form?
I think the associative, looping qualities of the text were originally a function of the fact that I was writing only for myself. The whole book grew out of that first chapter and the two “Notebook” chapters. “Indianapolis Notebook,” for example, is preserved in something fairly close to its original form, with the short sections and the movement between multiple time periods. I had an idea that I might write the whole book that way, and though I ultimately moved toward a more traditional narrative structure and flow, it was important to me that the book bear at least some of the traces of its own development. I didn’t want to produce something seamless, because I thought the stitches and scars were interesting too. To me they were part of the story. But there was a way in which I was also using those “writerly” techniques as a defense mechanism; like I was claiming to want to tell this raw and personal story but then hiding behind these layers of experimental structure. I worked to find a balance.
The penultimate chapter, “Two Trips to Sunrise,” is where the book takes its sharpest inward turn. I decided to tell the stories of these two trips to my father’s apartment—the first one to visit him and the second to clean it out after he died—simultaneously, moving back and forth between the episodes, and that decision led me to reconsider some of my own writing in the earlier chapters, where I was using words like “mourn” and “grieve” metaphorically. I was genuinely curious to know whether they held up as metaphors now that I’d experienced the non-metaphorical loss. I thought this was a question that my book was uniquely well-positioned to raise. This is an instance where I felt wholly justified in having a more experimental structure for a chapter, because the narrative purpose for it felt so clear, but even here it took quite a bit of work to make sure that the story was still functioning as a story.
This family memoir is also a spiritual autobiography. You write that you “crave the inner space that faith pries open,” and that your forays into religion and political philosophy—related disciplines, as your novel The Gospel of Anarchy suggests—are primarily a “literary undertaking.” Is there a connection between this spiritual craving and your writing practice?
This is a great question and I strongly suspect that the answer is yes (I hope it is yes!) even as I hesitate to try to pinpoint exactly what that connection is. The act of writing (or, I suppose, of any art-making) has certain formal qualities that are similar to meditation and prayer: inwardness, discipline, a self-enchantment that is, in its way, also a form of self-estrangement. There are those who will tell you that prayer is a form of attention, and vice versa, in which case the object or subject of said attention—and the form in which the attention is paid—are ultimately less important than the act itself, the achievement of a condition of total focus, a pure presence that is indistinct from pure absence. Having said that, I don’t think it’s difficult to imagine either my writing practice or my interest in spirituality/religion as separable from each other. I think they’re connected but I don’t think they’re contingent. It’s easy to imagine being a writer without an interest in religion or a religious person with no particular interest in writing fiction—or writing anything. Though of course all religion is literary insofar as it lives in language and specifically in texts: books, prayers, hymns, works in translation, practices of close-reading. If you grow up religious—almost irrespective of which religion you grow up in—you grow up steeped in this notion of the power of language, and you are well-trained as a reader and interpreter of texts. And sure, the interpretations insisted upon by the given institution might be prescriptive or harmful, but the skills themselves serve the writer well.
I’d like to hear more about your efforts to “invent a Judaism” for yourself. What precipitated these investigations into your ancestral faith? Did this impulse predate your father’s death?
It did. It emerged after I published The Gospel of Anarchy in 2011, because that book is so concerned with Christianity, it really laid bare how little I knew about Judaism, how little time I’d spent thinking about it. I had tried to “connect” with Judaism by taking a Birthright Israel trip in 2008, and that was a huge disaster. I mean sure, I met some nice people and rode the camel and saw the Dead Sea and whatever, but the trip itself combined everything I’d hated about summer camp with all of the reasons I’d never rushed a frat. And the organizers of the trip had utterly reprehensible politics. They were hardline ethnonationalists who openly advocated violence. It was because of them that I almost renounced Judaism entirely. But a few years went by, and I wrote and published my novel, and eventually I was able to think, Why should those bigots get to decide for me what my faith means or what my heritage is? I decided I could make their lives more difficult by staying than by leaving, but one shouldn’t live one’s whole life as a form of negation, so I started to look for a Jewish tradition I could actually embrace and affirm.
My next book after Gospel was Flings, which came out in 2014. It had one epigraph from Saul Bellow and another from Martin Buber’s Tales of the Hasidim, which was a relatively new discovery for me at that time. Buber’s book is also quoted in Riding with the Ghost; I go back to it a lot.
And look, I don’t want to overstate the case here. Nobody would mistake me for an observant Jew—an observant anything. But I wrote a piece last year on Robert Alter’s new translation of the Hebrew Bible for Jewish Currents, which was a huge and thrilling project, both because of Alter’s unique approach and because it’s, ya know, the fucking BIBLE. I’m not sure I got everything right, and I tried to be transparent within the piece about my own non-expert status, but I’d gotten to a point where I could at least articulate certain questions, and find a position from which to approach the text in a serious if not a scholarly way, and say something original and hopefully valuable about it. I don’t think I could have done that five years ago. There’s another piece I wrote last year for Lit Hub about Grace Paley, and that too ended up being more focused on Jewishness than it would have been if I’d written it five or ten years ago, even though I’ve known her work for a very long time and can claim a degree of expertise with regard to the American short story in the 20th century. So maybe that’s what I mean by “inventing a Judaism”: figuring out how to pay these forms of attention, when to pay them, and to whom. And for me it will always come back to writing because I pay my best attention on the page.
Paraphrasing the wisdom of Hasidic parables, you write: “The only answer to life is more life and the only answer to a story is another story.” This knowledge seems to inform your own short stories—my favorites of which (“Adon Olam,” “Mike’s Song”) do not end so much as they dissolve; the reader sees for a blinking instant what a character’s future may hold before that vision vanishes, like a dream upon waking. How do you know when to end a story—or, for that matter, a memoir?
It’s hard to give a general answer to this question, but I don’t want to leave you with some cliched response like “every story has to find its own ending,” even though it’s true. I talked earlier about finding the “inward turn” in Riding, and how that was a signal to me to start drawing things to a close. When I’m writing short stories, that inward turn is what I’m looking for from the beginning. I believe that, on a formal level, the short story has much more in common with the poem (or, for that matter, the song) than with longer prose forms like the novel or the memoir. Even in the densest, longest, short story you can think of (Joyce’s “The Dead,” for instance, or any number of stories by Deborah Eisenberg or Alice Munro) there is still an underlying minimalism, a zero-waste ethic. You need to wring as much aesthetic/emotional/thematic value as possible from any given element to justify its inclusion. Longer prose forms are more forgiving in this regard, but their ranginess can become a kind of trap. I want a story ending to raise at least as many questions as it answers. Sometimes the work of a given story is to trace the contours of a question or a problem, and the story ends the moment the question snaps into focus or the problem reveals itself. That’s very different from trying to answer the question or solve the problem.
With longform work in general, and certainly with memoir in particular, there’s a desire—arguably a need—to leave the reader with something a bit more definitive, and positive too, as a sort of palate cleanser after all the darkness of the main story. But it took time to figure out how to do that.
One draft of this book ended at Eli’s headstone unveiling, with this line: “We walk together away from the grave and into the living mystery of an autumn afternoon.” I was very proud of that sentence (I still am) and I loved it as a last line for the chapter, but it wasn’t right to end the book there, so far from my father and from home. The actual last chapter of Riding used to be a lot longer, too; I took very detailed notes on that road trip, and at one point envisioned it as another “Notebook” chapter. It was a nice bit of kismet that after writing so much about exile and the road I would happen to be taking this cross-country drive to bring my father’s car home. It’s the sort of detail you might roll your eyes at in a novel, but I came by it honestly and it brought all the book’s major themes together. The last word of Riding with the Ghost is “home.” Come to think of it, “home” is the last word in my first book, too.
What are you working now? Do you think you’ll return to, or repurpose, the “failing” fiction project that you mention above?
Is it too coy to say that I do not know the answer to either of these questions? I have a book’s worth of short stories about ready to go, maybe more than a book’s worth. I have one fantasy where I get to put out a loose baggy freewheeling collection that’s my longest book to date, but then I have this other fantasy where I winnow it down to a handful of stories in a generous typeface and slightly reduced trim size, like Captain Maximus or The Ice at the Bottom of the World. Who knows whether either version would make it through the crucible of an acquisitions meeting, but a boy can dream.
As for the failed project, the draft I abandoned was abandoned for good reasons. No going back to that scrap heap. But the idea…I sometimes still think about the idea, a few of the characters…. I made a rule last year that I was allowed to return to the concept as long as I didn’t recycle (or revisit!) any of the old text. There are new pages I like, but between COVID cramping my style and various pre-pub obligations for Riding with the Ghost, the last five or six months have been a total loss, as far as fiction goes. I had to say, Fuck it, I’m letting that part of my brain lie fallow for awhile. But now that this book is officially out, and we all understand that pandemic purgatory is a more or less permanent state of affairs, I think I’m ready to start making stuff up again.
It was a pleasure to re-read your fiction as I prepared these questions, and I am curious how you assess your previous work. Which books or stories are you most proud of? Are there stories you prefer not to recall?
First of all, thank you for taking the time to reread my previous books. I really appreciate that. Choosing a favorite book feels too much like choosing a favorite child. Maybe if I had thirty or forty under my belt like Roth or Updike, but when there’s only three…But I’ll say this: Everything Here Is the Best Thing Ever, my first collection, remains very special to me because it was my debut. It was a hard book to sell and none of the stories in it had appeared in major places, but I had an agent and an editor who believed in me and though I wasn’t paid much for it and it didn’t sell many copies or win any prizes it basically allowed me to have a career. I’m sure there’s stuff in there that I’ve forgotten about, or would roll my eyes at if I saw it now, but nothing I’d disown.
The Gospel of Anarchy is my only novel, and easily the most difficult book I’ve written, in terms of what it asks of a reader. If I were writing it today there are some things I’d do differently, but I’m glad it exists, and it is a book that tends to find the readers it needs, or rather, the readers that need it tend to find it, which may be as much as anyone can ask for.
Flings may have the most material in it that I remain most proud of. “After Ellen,” the first story I sold to The New Yorker is in there, and “Adon Olam” and “Mike’s Song,” both of which you mentioned earlier, were stories that I worked on obsessively for a long time. “Mike’s” might have gone through twenty drafts. I still have the memory of making the breakthroughs that allowed me to finish those stories, that feeling of, Oh, I can do this now. So I will stop short of saying Flings is my favorite, but I will say that if someone were interested in reading my fiction and looking for a place to start, that’s probably where I would point them.
Samuel Gold is a doctoral candidate in English at the CUNY Graduate Center. He is on Twitter @aglassoranapple.