"About the Work" with Brandon Taylor
In our "About the Work" series, Savannah Trent asks recent contributors for insight into their writing or for current sources of inspiration. Read Taylor's fiction, "Otto" ,in SER vol. 39.1
I remember the origins of “Otto” quite well. I was talking to the owner of the Prairie Lights bookstore here in Iowa City, and she was telling me about the exhibit that was currently running in the upstairs café. It was photos of various writers who had spent time in Iowa City at one time or another. Before that, there had been an exhibit involving various bonnets made from various materials. She was telling me about how they picked the art and said that they used to offer a small stipend to young creatives as a way to give them something to do in town.
I’ve spent a lot time in the Prairie Lights café, and I know it’s a space where people work and socialize. It’s not a place where you necessarily dedicate an hour or two to looking at art and thinking about its creation. So, in some sense, you’d be curating something that fit the vibe but also drew attention to itself but not too much otherwise it would be distracting. Immediately, I realized I was very interested in the set of aesthetic concerns that govern the curation of such a space.
I’m also deeply interested in the visual arts, the economy of them, and the particular tensions of being a young black artist in the Midwest. “Otto” more or less cohered out of all of those concerns. I wanted to write about art, capitalism, low-paying entry level creative admin work, what it’s like to be in a city that isn’t your city, and how it feels to interact with people who are from there. I wanted to write about the idea of being from a place. I wanted to write about how it feels to try to make a living as a black creative in America at this moment. I wanted to write about the commercial impulses unique to black creativity and subjectivity.
That conversation with the owner of Prairie Lights, that kind of throw away comment about how there used to be a person who curated and selected the shows for that tiny café space above the store, instantly brought it all together, and I went home and wrote the story.
BRANDON TAYLOR is the author of the acclaimed novel Real Life, which has been shortlisted for the Booker Prize, longlisted for the Center for Fiction First Novel Prize, and been named a New York Times Book Review Editors’ Choice and New York Times Notable Book. His stories and essays have appeared or are forthcoming in The Cut, The New Yorker online, The New York Times, The Sewanee Review, A Public Space, Gulf Coast, The White Review, and elsewhere. His debut story collection Filthy Animals is forthcoming from Riverhead Books.