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Novelist Nick Taylor
Nick Taylor, a professor of English and comparative literature at San Jose State University, recently published his first novel, “The Disagreement.” His book chronicles the life of a young medical student named John Alan Muro studying at the University of Virginia during the Civil War. As he navigates through the shoals of college life, Muro must also face responsibility as a full-fledged doctor at a local army hospital. Though barely an adult, he makes several difficult decisions that change his life forever. A powerful coming-of-age novel, “The Disagreement” shines with authentic realism and compelling characters. I spoke with Mr. Taylor in early July about his book and his experience as a writer.
Q: What inspired the book?
A: I had this grant when I was at grad school at University of Virginia to research the history of the place. I was going to write three short stories about the different residents of the same dorm room No. 52. I researched different period of history. One was the second class of UVA, 1823, which was Edgar Alan Poe’s class. Then I wrote a story about UVA during World War II. And the other story is basically the story that became “The Disagreement,” about a young doctor and his crazy roommate and his friends. It just grew from there. I kept writing for two years and got over 400 pages.
Q: How did your experience studying at UVA and living in Charlottesville influence your book?
A: I lived in [Charlottesville] for about ten years. I lived there as a college student and as a graduate student. You know, it’s the kind of thing where you know the environment so well. Any place you know well enough to navigate it in your dreams is a good place to set your fiction because you can concentrate on the story. It helped meâ€”just be in touch with the way it feels of that particular place, like which birds came out which time of the year, when did the dogwood bloom…that kind of thing you don’t really know till you’ve lived there, no matter much you read.
Q: Do you see yourself in any of the characters in “The Disagreement”?
A: Oh, yeah. To some extend, they’re all reflections of me. I’ve heard writers talk about characters that way. I think John Muro is the most like me because he’s the first-person narrator. In a sense, the voice that I inhabited. I know what it was like to go to college far away. I grew up in Los Angeles and went to UVA and I didn’t know anybody there. But it was fun! After a day, I knew plenty of people. Kind of like what happened to Muro.
Q: How long did it take you to finish the novel?
A: It took two years, including the research, which is short for a novel. But I had the benefit of being in grad school for one of those years, so I was able to dedicate myself fully to writing.
Q: Which did you enjoy more, the research or the actual writing?
A: [Laughs.] That’s a really good question because I’ve talked to a lot of writers who got stuck in the research phase of their books. And the trick is to wane yourself off of it at some point because it’s so fascinating. You just want to immerse yourself in the literature, especially something so well-documented as the Civil War in Virginia. I find the resource immensely interesting but I always feel a little bit guilty while researching, especially if I’ve been researching awhile because I know I should be writing at some point. I always tell my students if you are reading something you already know, then you’re probably done.
Q: Your book touches on the subject of war. Did you intend for the book to be a reflection of what’s going on in the world today?
A: To some extend. One of the things I tried to show that the [Civil War] was so closeâ€”physicallyâ€”to where [the main characters] were and yet they were so removed from it. But in the hospitals, they were reminded everyday it was a real thing, with real physical consequences. I purposely chose a protagonist who’s not a soldier because I didn’t want to document that experience. I was interested in the home-front experience, from people on the sidelines…I didn’t want [the novel] to be an allegory for the Iraq War, but it was on my mind.
Q: What’s next for you? Are you writing another novel?
A: I am writing another novel. This one is top secret though. It’s another historical novel. It also takes place in the 19th century. In America…Yeah, I am enjoying it.
Q: How did you begin as a writer?
A: I started writing fiction in a fiction writing class in college. But it was just one of five subjects I’m taking, so I didn’t have a lot of time dedicated to it. And really, I’m not sure I had much to say at that point. When I started writing, I realized I had a talent for itâ€”for pushing words around the pageâ€”even if I didn’t have anything profound to say. At least I could make it sound good. After college, I wanted to become a musician so I started writing songs. But neither my wife and I had the stomach for touring, which you got to do as a musician, so I dropped that. Then I went to grad school for writing and then I knew that’s what I wanted to do forever. There you have it. I didn’t have any “struck by lightning” experiences. It was more like one of the subjects I studied at school and one that I found particularly compelling and bottomless.
Q: Who were your favorite writers growing up?
A: When I was growing up, I really liked this kid mystery writer named John Delairs. He wrote a series of mysteries for older kids. I guess I’m ashamed to say that I like Beverly Clearly, but I read all her books. Like Ramona and Beatrice and all that. I like Judy Blume a little bit, but not as much as Beverly Clearly. My wife makes fun of me for it because obviously Judy Blume is more grown up and risqué. But I don’t think I’m a total loser because I like Beverly Clearlyâ€”I mean, she had something to say. Then in high school, I read a lot of science fictionâ€”Bradbury and Asimov. And some historical stuff, [like] Stephen Crane. Then in college, I got into William Styron, a Virginian boy, who wrote “Sophie’s Choice” and “The Confessions of Nat Turner”â€”which I count as two of my favorite books of all time. I would recommend them to absolutely anyone. He wrote incredibly detailed and beautiful prose and compelling stories and characters. I also like Margaret Atwood a lot, especially the way she blends sci-fi with straight fiction, historical fiction almost. I’m reading the new Denis Johnson book right now, “Tree of Smoke.” It’s pretty intense.
Q: What advice do you have for aspiring young writers?
A: My advice is do it because you love to write. I mean that’s the only reason to do it. There’s very little fame and fortune to be had in this profession. If you’re going to do it for the long haul, the only reason is because you like it. It’s very solitary. But when you’re young, choosing to write or taking creative writing classes, you’re not signing on to do this for the rest of your life. So I don’t understand why anyone would not want to do that because it kind of opens up your mind and see what you can produce from within from yourself. It’s just such an interesting experienceâ€”that you can make up these people and put them on the page, which is so cool. And I believe there will always be people who want to read fiction because there’s no other art form that allows you to get that close to some character for so long. Believe me, you get even closer to them when you’ve been writing about them for years. So, it’s a really amazing experience. I recommend it to anyone.