“With storytelling or any art form, we know it somehow, and we have to do it because our blood remembers.” — Glenn Taylor.
Though he teaches and lives just outside of Chicago these days, at his core, Glenn Taylor is a West Virginia storyteller. The author of the 2008 NBCC Award Finalist novel The Ballad of Trenchmouth Taggart and the recently published The Marrowbone Marble Company speaks of the story – of the people, the land, and the circumstances surrounding them – as a living entity. Taylor’s sensibility regarding the craft of writing and the stories the craft holds reflects a bygone era.
In an age in which writers are expected to be media darlings and social networking geniuses, in which traditional print lays prone beneath the dangling sword of technology, and in which “platform” is one of the most common buzzwords tossed about in publishing circles, Taylor would “rather be known as the type who lets the writing speak for itself.”
Speak, his writing does. His debut novel, The Ballad of Trenchmouth Taggart, set against the Appalachian hills of West Virginia, was initially published by a small university press. The novel garnered a few favorable reviews from major newspapers, and in 2008 was nominated as one of five finalists for the National Book Critics Circle Award. Of the nomination, Taylor says, “that put me in a whole different thing.” The easy-spoken author still has a touch of a star-struck tone as he talks about going to New York for the ceremonies in what he refers to as a “big, fancy auditorium.” But, he says, “I enjoyed it. I enjoyed it all.”
With the NBCC nomination, came the attention of Dan Halpern at Ecco Books, an imprint of Harper Collins. Halpern read the novel, and Ecco purchased the reprint rights, and wanted to see what else Taylor had. “What else” was the beginnings of the novel that would become The Marrowbone Marble Company . “They wanted the first fifty pages and a synopsis.” Taylor laughed. “I think I had fifty-one.” Ecco decided to purchase his sophomore effort as well, and Taylor found himself writing to a deadline. “It was exciting and great! I probably didn’t give myself enough time. That was good and bad. In terms of work ethic and discipline, I was on it.”
Taylor seems to have thrived on the pressure, and refers to himself as a writer who does “better on deadlines.” However, he is not a writer to let himself get wrapped up the excesses of the publishing and media juggernaut. The story comes first. “The important thing is staying true and not letting this stuff affect me when I sit down to write.” Having completed his book tour for Marrowbone, Taylor is “just starting the third book.” He says, “I didn’t want to mix it with the book tour, to be working with a new group of people while I was still focused on Ledford and Rachel and the others. I would feel like I was cheating on them, on both parties.”
Loyal Ledford, married to Rachel, is the protagonist of The Marrowbone Marble Company. This is how Taylor refers to the characters of his stories; they are his “people.” Though few characters are based biographically on actual people, Taylor says “their phrases came from family members, and people growing up.” It is from the people of the West Virginia of his childhood that Taylor’s “people” get their speech and “eccentricities.” In some cases, the speeches of Taylor’s characters are transcribed verbatim from snippets of tape recorded by Glenn Taylor’s father Maury.
Glenn is not the only Taylor family member dedicated to the preservation of the heritage and stories of the West Virginia hills. Maury has spent years tape recording the oral histories of the older members of the community. With this inspiration, Glenn Taylor says that he “can’t help but think very deeply and get attached to [the characters.] They are so much based on the way things were.” That said, Taylor feels a responsibility toward his home with the development of his characters. “There’s a lot riding on making my representations fair, and kind, and real.” He laughs and what had been a slight twang in his voice intensifies. “I’m gonna get shot if I don’t!”
Self-mockery aside, Taylor feels a deep attachment to and responsibility toward his home state. It is no coincidence that both of his novels are set near his hometown of Huntington, West Virginia. Acknowledging that physical and geographical distance from West Virginia may have made him better able to write about the state, he mentions time spent in graduate school writing “stories that could be anywhere.”
In graduate school in Texas, however, he was surrounded by Texans and their notorious surplus of Texan pride. “Being around people so full of state pride, I got more prideful of my own state.” But going home for visits made him look at the landscape and its people in a new light. “I would listen to my dad and families stories, and steal books from my dad’s shelf. That’s when I knew what I had to write about.”
Living in the flat prairies of the Midwest, Taylor looks back toward the hills of his heritage. “Physical landscape makes a difference. I grew up in the hills. I find comfort in them. It’s a cliché, the place that time forgot. But, more and more, we don’t have places that time forgot; we’re so connected by technology and media. I like to find places that haven’t made the mistake of forgetting the old ways.”
The old ways infuse Taylor’s storytelling. With two novels set in the earlier portions of the last century, he refers to himself as someone who has “become the guy who writes about the past.” In his writing he hears “a voice in my head that sits down to tell a story that is not my voice. It is older and wiser and a little bit more country.” The twang deepens again with a chuckle. “If you’re from West Virginia, you’re always a little bit country.” He jokes, but he does worry about coming “from a place that is much misunderstood. I try to use fiction to change that.”
He pauses and reverses course briefly. “It is the inevitable truth, though – some misconceptions arise from reality.” In West Virginia, he says, “industry lived and died and boomed and busted by coal.” “In a state that was created in the middle of the Civil War, and whose entire existence is based on the whims of coal, you’re going to have some colorful confrontations.”
In The Marrowbone Marble Company, Taylor fused those confrontations with circumstances faced in his teaching life, the stories of veterans returning from tours in Iraq and Afghanistan. He was struck in particular by the story of one Marine who graduated from high school in June, 2001 and enlisted on September 12, 2001. Taylor had been reading a book called The Story of World War II by Donald Miller and had seen accounts of young men who had enlisted in the military the day after the attack on Pearl Harbor. Taylor’s reading had come about after finding statistics on the numbers of WWII veterans dying each day. “I am obsessed with the past and making sure we retain it. It was a shame that I didn’t know more about [the war].”
When Taylor had the conversation with his student, he already had his protagonist, Loyal Ledford “in mind. I knew he was the kind of guy who was going to go [to enlist immediately after Pearl Harbor.]” The rest of Taylor’s extensive research for the novel took place as the novel unfolded. “I was following [Ledford’s] life. I knew at the onset that there would be someone like Don Staples for him when he came back…I didn’t know it would involve Civil Rights or the War on Poverty.”
Taylor’s admitted obsession with the past plays into Ledford’s unusual vocation. The idea for the marble company of the title comes to Ledford in a dream. Why marbles, was the first question I felt compelled to ask. Taylor laughed, “Oh that’s a good question. Obviously I did not grow up playing Ringer, so it’s not autobiographical. But glass is such a big thing in West Virginia.” Marble City in the novel is modeled after Marble King, a real factory in Paden City, West Virginia. The Mann glass company is based on Owens-Illinois, a glass factory down the street from Taylor’s childhood home in Huntington. Fascinated by the art of the freeblower, Taylor refers to his “glass obsession gone wild” as the impetus for Ledford’s calling. Glass as a medium captivates the writer, “it is the earth beneath our feet.”
The character of Ledford may have driven the novel, but Ledford’s ideals are not far removed from those of his creator. Though Taylor denies setting out to create any sort of social commentary in his novel, the flow of his protagonist’s life very obviously springs from Taylor’s own worldview. When asked about his own ideals, Taylor pauses, the easy rhythm of the lyrical storyteller broken. “That’s the trouble these days, the tendency to try to lump ourselves in with one term or another. All of our terms have become meaningless…I have been plagued by race in this country as long as I can remember…Coming from where I come from, it’s different than in the deep South…Coal brought diversity – not only black folks from the South, but Jews, Italians, and Hungarians…Though there have been horrific incidences [of racial unrest] in our state, possibly less so than in others…But, it’s long plagued me. I can’t get away. I feel the same about our class system. I am plagued by the idea that we haven’t ever really looked at ourselves in the mirror.”
Though he denies attempting to use his fiction as any sort of manifesto, Taylor says, “it would be disingenuous if I didn’t write a novel that dealt with race and class, because that’s what is on my mind.” Ultimately, the content of Taylor’s writing stems from one source, his “people.” “The situations the people I create find themselves in are situations that deal with race and class.” The same factors play into his somewhat open ending. “I flirted with ideas of resolution, but I guess I’m not much of a plot guy…I couldn’t do my people the disservice of having it nicely wrapped up.” Once again, Taylor’s writing is informed by his duty to and love for his characters.
One of the most interesting characters in The Marrowbone Marble Company is Ledford’s third child, a boy named Orb. Born pre-maturely by C-section after Rachel began to hemorrhage, Orb is a child of gifts and challenges. Labeled “retarded,” Orb rarely speaks, has severe social dysfunction, but is unparalleled at the marble game of Ringer, and can sing like an angel. Orb also “had the kind of blood that ran and didn’t clot.” It is easy to read superficial metaphor into a character named Orb in a book about a marble company, but the reading would be inaccurate. Taylor says, “Orb had been a name I thought of long ago.” His first novel has a “teeny, tiny mention of an old man named Orb Caudill.”
He attributes his love of names, like so much else, to his heritage. “It’s those West Virginia names. They have the best names down there.” It is clear that Orb’s literary father has strong feelings for his fictional son. “The character comes from a lot of places…from having three children [Taylor and his wife Margaret have three young sons] and not always having pregnancies work out the way you want them to…” In the novel, Rachel’s pregnancy with Orb follows on the heels of a miscarriage. “Orb was a kid that from the get-go they just felt lucky to have…How he is – that’s a combination of things…Friends, family, all of us know kids labeled with autism or Asperger’s. They wouldn’t have had that term back then, we name things as we go. The bleeding…I don’t even know. Blood connects us to each other, to the earth we stand on, to the animals…Our blood hums with music.”
Taylor quotes the epigraph from his first novel, lines by Louise McNeill: “’I have gulled the pith from a sumac limb/ To play a tune that my blood remembers.’…to me, with storytelling, or any art form – we know it somehow, and we have to do it because our blood remembers.” Taylor returns from the blood and earth of family and art to his character, “Orb is not an idea or a concept. He’s a real kid that has a lot against him. At the same time, he is beautiful and magnificent.” The father speaks proudly of his fictional progeny, “I love him. He’s more complicated than a diagnosis.”
Taylor’s flesh-and-blood family fills him just as much as his paper-and-ink people. You can hear the glow as he mentions his youngest son Eli who is “in the eight month old phase of sitting and smiling.” Balancing work and home is important. Taylor and his wife have worked out a writing and teaching schedule that allows him a “block of 3-4 hours where I can disappear into the basement. She’s noticed that I’m a much better dad if I get that time.” In the summer, however, with children and father out of school, “I don’t write. I’m not disciplined enough.” Indeed, toward the end of our conversation, as Eli awoke from his nap, there was mention of an end-of-summer family swim.
Family and names fascinate Glenn Taylor for good reason. Taylor, who published his first novel under M. Glenn Taylor, is Maurice Glenn Taylor III. His father, Maurice Glenn Taylor Jr., goes by Maury. The grandfather, the original Maurice Glenn Taylor went by Glenn. Glenn Taylor the author has always used his middle name, but his oldest son – yes, Maurice Glenn Taylor IV – goes by Reece. Glenn “played around with” the permutations of his name while writing short stories, but when his first novel was initially published, settled on M. Glenn Taylor.
During the production of Marrowbone, however, the staff at Ecco “would joke around and call me Mr. Glenn Taylor.” Ecco asked if he would be willing to drop the M. This solved the problem he had during the French publication of The Ballad of Trenchmouth Taggart as well. (M. is the French abbreviation for monsieur, or mister.) Taylor deepens his voice grandly. “If I am going to be an internationally acclaimed author, I had better drop the M.” His own opinion? “It’s freeing. I prefer it. I am Glenn.”
That he is. Though his roots and blood run deep through the earth of West Virginia, in his writing, Glenn Taylor has found his own name, his own voice, and his own way to sing the stories of the past.Powered by Sidelines