The Autobiography of Feeling: PW Talks with Elisabeth Russell Taylor
The esteemed British author returns after 10 years with 'Belated,' a self-published collection of stories.A prolific writer of fiction and nonfiction, Elisabeth Russell Taylor has earned praise from the likes of A.S. Byatt, as well as a slew of literary awards. Belated and Other Stories, her first book in 10 years, gathers 16 lyrical short stories which deftly examine the various effects of love and commitment on their subjects. The book received a starred review from PW Select, with our reviewer saying, "These tales of longing, jealousy, and loss reveal the discomfiting effects of love on the mind, soul, and body." We caught up with Taylor to talk about self-publishing and her next project.
Your books have been published by major houses in the U.K., including Virago Modern Classics. Why did you decide to self-publish this collection?
I reacted to the fact that the major publishing houses are now being led by their sales representatives rather than educated literary editors. Books are not being published because they are good but because they will sell in large numbers. Authors are not being supported, only books. In the old days, publishers were faithful to their authors and if, after a couple of very good items, the third book was not up to standard, they published it all the same because what was important was an author's oeuvre. I was constantly being told by the major houses "short stories don't sell."
In your website, it says that you are “a committed socialist,” and “would like to see the distribution of property thoroughly overhauled.” What connection, if any, does your decision to self-publish have with your personal politics?
I was married to a painter (Tom Fairs) for 44 years. He and I never bought privilege: he did not buy space to show his work and I did not self-publish. When he died -- respected, but without a gallery -- his graphic work was taken up by a New York gallery and shown in New York and other cities in the U.S. and received rave reviews: "One of the greatest graphic artists of his generation." Although I am delighted that he has been recognized, I did not want to wait until I was dead to have Belated received.
However, I do feel morally compromised. Most of my friends are younger than I and tell me that what I did was what everyone is doing -- not an argument that has ever had much currency with me.
Can you discuss your philosophy when it comes to putting together a short-story collection? Does the order of the stories matter to you, for instance?
I was totally unaware of the importance of "order" until my editor from Virago took me in hand.
Several of your stories invoke other writers or begin with epigraphs. Who are some writers that served as inspiration in this collection, and to what extent are these stories a response to those writers?
Recently, in interviews, I was repeatedly asked, "What inspires you?" Inspires is rather a lofty word for what I do, but "influence" is no doubt appropriate. I am a huge reader of fiction, mostly European, and have been reading seriously since I was 9, shut up in an educationally unfit boarding school. Read from Austen to Zola over 5 years. I don't know where my ideas came from for Belated. I doubt that there was a single source. I get the germ of an idea to sit down to write and, as I write, characters and situations arise from my unconscious. Were I to plan something methodically, I think it would end up being a very dead piece. I am also asked if my work is autobiographical, and to that I answer that it is the autobiography of feeling, not an illustration of events from my life.
Certain authors -- Proust and Alain-Fournier, for example -- have haunted me, and I have written imaginatively about them and their work in two novels. In Belated, I look at Eugene Onegin from Tatiana's point of view; since a child I have never been satisfied with Pushkin's decision to marry her off to the old general without some explanation!
What are you currently working on?
I am currently writing a novella on Leopardi. Leopardi -- the greatest Italian poet/philosopher after Dante. Virtually unknown in the English-speaking world outside the universities. This interest arose out of my 80th birthday present: my closest friend took me to Todi where I read a biography of Leopardi and was captivated by his life and work. Subsequently, I visited Recanati, where he spent most of his life. For the past two years I have been studying his poetry, prose, and notebooks -- 4,500 pages of them.