With striking, poetic prose, Taylor Brorby’s Boys and Oil: Growing Up Gay in a Fractured Land reveals a hidden life in the wide open spaces of the Midwest. The complexities of queerness in places where it can be lonely at best and dangerous at worst, and Brorby’s quest to find a space where he could be his authentic self underpins this visually sumptuous and emotionally engaging memoir.
Yet, much like the layers of the prairie that Taylor Brorby writes about so eloquently, there are also many levels of memory: his personal recollections; secondary memories from and of his parents and grandparents; ecological memory of the land; the power and shortcomings of language; and other elements, which aren’t chained to a specific time, yet ultimately thread all of the pieces together.
Brorby’s metaphorical and literal prairie contains many conflicts and joys, such as painful family rejections, alongside unexpected loyalties and unconditional love. In many ways, this is a love letter to the complicated wide expanses of land and sky that center our country, as well as the author.
This interview has been lightly edited for clarity.
Would you talk about using location as a character in this collection? Many times, I thought about what the pioneers sought; land, space, a place to live freely; and often, to move away from hyper-occupied sites, and how that was reflected in your family’s history, and your own. One quickly becomes aware that it is nearly impossible to consider location without contemplating history, that which is far longer than our lives.
Further, how does that underpin your own searching, artistically and with respect to your essential individuality? You write “the prairie reveals” what did this book reveal to you that was unexpected?
Location is everything to a writer, whether the setting is a diner, Omaha, or the high seas. Location defines conditions for the story—what can the story contain, what feels extraneous, where can we bob and weave with the writer? It is essential. And location demands history, which for me, begins with geology. Since my book is focused on fossil fuels, it means we must go all the way back to when North Dakota was a shallow sea filled with trilobites, which are now the pulverized bodies we now call oil and natural gas. To understand a character and location, we must understand that long geologic history.
Revelation is crucial for the writer. To contain my story, one of the surprising things about this book was that, in its final form—the form that is on bookshelves—the story focused on me. I needed to set limits to keep this book from spilling out into 500 pages. It’s not a natural history. It’s not a history of westward expansion. It’s a memoir of a single gay boy who grows up into a man in a particular region at a particular time. I wanted to keep the focus there in order to keep myself sane; it helped me to know what to cut and what to keep in.
Your poetic eye and talents are evident throughout, though it feels noteworthy to mention that quite often in your early experiences, your linguistic talents were not a widely-accepted currency. Would you talk about how poetry, academic scholarship, and essays inform both your craft, and also this memoir?
I’m rather obsessive in my interests. Early in the pandemic I sat down and thought, “Well, Taylor, it’s time to learn how to cook.” So, I did. I cooked coq au vin four times in two weeks so I could master it. I made a Portuguese octopus stew a few months ago that I saw Anthony Bourdain make years ago. And that’s part of my approach to research and reading—my sophomore year of college I read every book about the pianist Glenn Gould and must have listened to dozens of his recordings and television programs. I only believe in immersion and being rather monomaniacal because, by the time it comes to sit down and write, I want to let it rip. Preparation is key. And life is constant preparation.
When I was in graduate school in St. Paul, Minnesota, I took a class that single-handedly changed my life. It was simply called “The Essay.” Now, I was a pure literature major in college—no creative writing—so I thought all essays were academic essays. Whoa, whoa was I wrong. This class sent me on a rollercoaster ride by having us read William Hazlitt’s “On the Pleasures of Hating,” (which is better than any reality television show) and Nancy Mairs’ “On Being a Cripple” (which first pointed me in the direction of knowing that writing about my disability—being a type 1 diabetic—was possible). We read greats like Zora Neale Hurston’s “How It Feels to be Colored Me,” Virginia Woolf’s “Death of a Moth,” James Baldwin, E.B. White, Annie Dillard’s “Total Eclipse,” and, probably the bravest essayist (at least among men) and the originator of the form, Michel de Montaigne, who is the only man—at least to my knowledge—who wrote about the actual size of his penis.
But I’ve learned more about my craft from musicians than I have from writers. I love talking with my friend Ari, who’s a Juilliard-trained violinist, about his approach to phrasing, building tension, and “attacking,” notes. He once told me how pieces of music are written with a type of grammar that flows into sentences and paragraphs—and that cracked my brain like an egg on a skillet. I sizzled along with the knowledge that, if the inverse were true too—that writing then could have a type of musical language; it could unleash something within my own writing. It’s just that I’m more liable to believe an artist in another field, such as a sculptor, painter, or composer, than when I’m sometimes listening to other writers speak about their process and privately thinking “bullshit.” Being too close to too many writers can muddy a person’s imagination about what they should be doing. For instance, years ago I read all of those famous interviews of writers in The Paris Review. I needed a long while to recover from those because it inhibited my process—I started standing while writing, like Hemingway, etc. So I go and find friends beyond the world of writing to stay sane and stretch myself.
Structurally, the sections of the book aren’t uniform in length; that’s a stylistic choice that is quite interesting, especially as the chapters are consistently quite short, some only a page long. What were your thoughts as you organized the book thematically and physically?
Did I have any thoughts? Haha—I just wrote like hell! I stew a lot—I’m Scandinavian, after all—so by the time I write, it normally flows quickly and confidently into a first draft. What helped was having a brilliant editor, the inimitable Robert Weil. He gave me the key that unlocked this book: “Think of each section of this book like a movement in a symphony,” he said to me. So, I tried to write a symphony. Movements in classical music build in intensity—that doesn’t mean they necessarily get faster, but we need some tension, we need some movement to push us along with the music. I tried to write the music of the prairie as I understand it.
In the latter part of the book, you write about critical ecological issues facing North Dakota. I know you’re the Annie Tanner Clark Fellow in Environmental Humanities and Environmental Justice at the Tanner Humanities Center at the University of Utah, so this is clearly both a passion and mission for you. How does ecology present itself in your literary work, in the sense of economy, in the sense of space, in the sense of preservation?
It’s impossible to grow up on an ocean of grasses and under a canvas of sky and not write about those things—they’re more volatile and extreme than any human I’ve ever met. To be chased by badgers, watch a muskrat cruise along a lush creek bank, or to hear the cluck of a pheasant, trains the senses in observation. I often get labeled an “environmental” writer, but I largely think that happens when you’re a person who doesn’t write characters set in New York City. The meeting of nature and humans is always fascinating, especially in rural areas because there aren’t immense citadels of steel and glass for protection—there are shelterbelts, coulees, hopefully sturdily-built homes. If not, things get interesting. Our relationships pull into sharper relief in rural America, which is the place for great—that doesn’t mean happy or pleasant—storytelling. We need more of it.
“Home, for me, is land,” you wrote. I’m so taken with the repetitions—the accretions—of your immense yearning for home, and how that translates into a veritable love affair for seemingly unbound land. You also wrote that “before growing upward, prairie grasses shoot down their roots—they test the soil conditions to see whether this place, this spot, is the right home for them.” Do you feel you’ve found the right home for yourself?
No. Though, I have lived before in the place I eventually want to call home—Minnesota. My life has been rather peripatetic; having to earn a living by teaching, I’ve lived in every major region of the country except New England.
I think having “home” elsewhere creates a type of yearning in me. I don’t suffer from writer’s block because, if I’m stuck, I always go back to a memory in my mind of how a particular bend in the Missouri River looks during the “golden hour”—how the sky is cast copper, how the river water shimmers like silver coins, how the waxy cottonwood leaves twitch in the breeze. It always unlocks my imagination whenever I come back and write about that bend, even if what I’m working on isn’t related to that location or idea. My whole goal is to keep the pen moving, and I think by keeping the pen moving, eventually, I’ll find home.
Your beautiful and oftentimes haunting descriptions of the prairie—as both backdrop and metaphor—are as foundational to the memoir as they are to you personally. I was especially taken with your assertion that the prairie does not heal and yet, it “teaches us that to flourish we need patience.” If the ground can be scarred—even barren—from a hundred years ago, what hope do people have to heal, given our brief lives?
That’s the conundrum, isn’t it? My friend Wendell Berry, somewhere, asks How do we stay calm in an emergency? He was writing about everything we face in terms of our ecological reality on the planet, but I think the same applies to stories, to our own lives because what, after all, are our lives but stories? We need to, as the late-poet Bill Holm said, work harder and think deeper. We need stories of restoration—not only of the land, but of ourselves. America is in deep need of better stories—stories of better wages, of better relationships, of kindness and tenderness. So much of our lives are difficult, and made more so by the economic forces working against us and the myths that we tell ourselves—especially the one that, “if we just work harder, we’ll get our comeuppance.” We need stories with breathing room to allow us to breathe and heal.
Boys and Oil: Growing Up Gay in a Fractured Land
By Taylor Brorby
Liveright Publishing Corporation
June 7, 2022