Taylor Brorby has written one hell of a memoir. It covers many critical topics that come up in Crazy Town, from fracking to civil disobedience to that most inept of  policies: aiming for infinite economic growth on a finite planet. Taylor shares both thought-provoking ideas (e.g., the intimidating width of prairies versus the intimidating height of mountains) and lessons learned from growing up gay within the construct of an extractive economy. Two “bonus” topics in this episode: writing and wrestling! But don’t worry, the “Macho Man” Randy Savage impersonations remain mercifully brief. For episode notes and more information, please visit our website.

Transcript

Rob Dietz

Hi, welcome to Crazy Town. This is Rob and I’m excited to bring you this bonus episode in which I got to sit down with writer and activist extraordinaire Taylor Brorby. I hope you enjoy the conversation as much as I did.

Rob Dietz

Taylor Brorby is an environmentalist and essayist and poet. He is a fellow in environmental humanities and environmental justice at the Tanner Humanities Center at the University of Utah. He is also caring, fun, funny, and just a good hang. One way to get to know him is to read his book, which is making serious waves. It’s received glowing reviews in none other than the New York Times but also on our very own Resilience.org. The book is Boys and Oil: Growing up Gay in a Fractured Land. It was a true joy to read, and I’m glad to call Taylor a friend. Taylor, welcome to Crazy Town.

Taylor Brorby

Thanks for having me on Crazy Town, Rob.

Rob Dietz

I want to jump right in. I’ve heard you say that you wrote this book, because you wish you had been able to read something like it when you were younger. I was wondering if you could talk about that notion.

Taylor Brorby

To my knowledge, this memoir is one of the first of what I hope will become many books like it. It’s, to my knowledge, one of the first memoirs about growing up gay on the northern Great Plains, or Intermountain West, especially with an environmental perspective and a rural perspective. When I was sitting down and thinking about this and asking well-known writing friends like Pam Houston or Terry Tempest Williams, you know, “When I say ‘gay narratives from the American West,’ other than the 28-page short story, Brokeback Mountain, what comes to mind?” Long silence, nothing. There’s more, I think, now in young adult fiction coming out in that way, but from a nonfiction perspective, I mean, if you don’t have a book that says, “Hi, I’m a real human — my life isn’t fiction,” how do you know you’re not alone? If you’re a little gay boy in Forsyth, Montana, and you have these inclinations, that you might be different from someone, and there’s not even a book on a library bookshelf that at least seems to speak to your experience, how can you think anything else but, “I have to get out of here, there’s no one like me here.” And so that’s a little bit of my sensibility with writing this book — that I wanted to make space on the bookshelf for people who maybe haven’t seen themselves in nonfiction before.

Rob Dietz

Yeah, that’s a really heartfelt response and speaks to me and in my reading of Boys and Oil. Since I knew you before you wrote it, I was feeling genuinely happy for my friend, you know, reading about you falling in love or finding acceptance or even validation, which I think we all know can feel overwhelmingly good when you are validated. I wonder if you have any insights — why do you think there’s still this angry and fearful culture that looks down on homosexuality, that’s especially prevalent in these places where it seems to me fossil fuel extraction is the basis of the economy?

Taylor Brorby

Yeah, I have some half-baked theories that I’m not sure if they’re true, but I’ll throw them out there. I think rural America has been sold such a short bill of goods by which I mean, it’s normally known for what can be taken from there. So if you grew up in my small town, you’re only as good as the coal that can be ripped from underground or if you’re in Wyoming, it’s natural gas and oil, or we can even take it to farming. I mean, large-scale industrial farming is a monoculture. And I think when you grow up in extractive economies that are inherently monocultures, then you have a monoculture type of thinking. You have to fit into the system. So if you are different, or if there’s nuance, or if you’re even just a misfit — I’m not even talking about being gay — if you’re, unfortunately a straight man who maybe loves to be an oil painter in a small town, but no one else really does — that could be a source of tension or ostracism. Or people might wonder, “Are you gay?” And so I think, when you are, in fact, sexually different than the majority of people you grow up around, that doesn’t jive really well in a place where you have to fit in. Because there’s a certain status quo saying, “This is how we have to exist — this is what we have to do to exist.” And it’s easier to live in a black and white world, rather than in a world of nuance, or options. And even having conversations around sexuality: that never happened where I grew up. I’m not sure it’s still happening in the small town I grew up in. But I think because of those economic forces, Rob, it breeds a type of mentality to say, we’re having to crush the Earth. So we have to crush anyone who’s different from us as well.

Rob Dietz

Yeah, I want to stick on this point a little bit, the sort of misfit — or maybe a nicer way of saying that would be that we might have non-mainstream points of view. Yeah, I certainly as a person who’s, you know… I’ve been an activist around economic growth and take the rather non-mainstream point of view that there are limits to growth, and that we should have an economy that focuses on wellbeing rather than producing and consuming evermore stuff. And I wonder if being different, if thinking a little differently, not being part of that mainstream crowd — do you find that being in that position, maybe has given you more perspective or more ability to ask difficult questions, to probe deeper into these issues that could get you to see some of the nuance that you mentioned,

Taylor Brorby

I don’t know if it inherently gives me that perspective. Other than to… I can say, it just has. I can’t sort of take it out in a wider cultural application. But for me, you know, I grew up in a town where you either grew up to work in the coal fired power plant where my mother worked the entirety of her career, or the coal mine. Or if you own land, you were in farming and ranching. So since we didn’t own land, my options, if I were to stay, would be to work in coal. But I inherently wanted to be a paleontologist, when I was five, because Jurassic Park came out. Then I wanted to be a Disney animator and obsessively drew and practiced that. So any interest I had, I knew inherently was going to take me away from home. Because home was limited, there were only a few options. And so I think when you’re a child, who doesn’t even know what leaving home looks like, or when that happens, you’re already looking out beyond the perimeter of the lives that you’re seeing. You know what I mean? That you’re sort of asking questions. Well, how do I become an animator? What do paleontologists do? Do they have to go to school? Where do they go to school? And so I think when you’re asking those questions, or you know… In comparison to the other boys I grew up around, for Halloween they would dress as police officers or coal miners or football players, all activities or jobs they now do. They were already fitting into the world they grew up in, and I didn’t. And I’m not saying that that was easy or good or bad on any of those levels. It was just different, and I think if you’re outside of that mainstream as you’re suggesting, you question other things, how people make their living, or what the world could look like, or if you only grew up in a world where black pepper is considered spicy and then you have a falafel for the first time, it feels like going to the moon, you know?

Rob Dietz

Yeah, this is good, this is… For all listeners out there, being a misfit is the way to be, obviously.

Taylor Brorby

It’s a much more interesting life, for sure.

Rob Dietz

Well, I really appreciate that notion of not just rehearsing for what’s to come based on where you are, but asking those questions and being able to see a different path perhaps, or learn that there are other paths. I also think that if the mainstream — if we shift gears a little bit towards environmentalism — if the mainstream is taking us down a path that we don’t want to go down (like the climate change that’s dangerous for the existence of humanity), then we clearly need some non-mainstream alternatives and viewpoints to counter that steady drumbeat of, “Let’s keep doing the same thing that got us into this mess.”

Taylor Brorby

It’s a hard thing to take on, especially in the work that you do, Rob, about how do we take on an economic system that has been designed literally, for what we’re now in — the idea that is absurd, but it’s the world we’re living in, is that our economic models, as you know, are predicated on infinite growth on a finite planet. And then because of the largely men –let’s be blunt — who are in power, who are interested in lining their pocket books, you don’t have to think about the future compared to my friend, Carolyn Raffensperger, who’s done incredible work on the precautionary principle. She would say, “Shouldn’t we have a model that’s predicated on thinking seven generations in the future, and what type of harm would come from our economic models?” Then, if we took that long view, we would never have gone forward with fossil fuels. Because we’re already seeing the horrific outcome of that economic model. I mean, currently, and your listeners might know about this, but I’d suggest they look up Project Tundra, which is at my home coal fired power plant. It is the world’s testing site for carbon capture and storage, which sounds great on one hand in a greenwashing way of capturing carbon dioxide on site, liquefying it, and pumping it 6,000 feet underground, where it will supposedly stay forever. But this keeps us on fossil fuels long past their expiration date. It actually links not only coal and oil to each other, but also to ethanol and big agriculture, that it would unleash a pipeline revolution in this country, with liquid carbon dioxide being shipped transcontinentally. And just so your listeners have more of the horror beyond this, when liquid carbon dioxide meets with moisture, it becomes carbonic acid. So when these pipelines break, it’s not like an oil spill that you can try to clean up. It’s fatal to humans and livestock and actually prevents motors from operating. But I think that, just to bring it back: that’s why we need people who have viewpoints beyond the systems that we’re currently victims of and asking those questions. I mean, I don’t think coal miners inherently want to poison the soil where they’re living. But I think again, it’s because the economic model, largely rural extractive America has been given, is to say, “You’re only as good as a product that destroys your topsoil, or that we can rip from the ground, or that we can ignite and send into the ozone layer.” And, for me, that’s incredibly frustrating. I don’t even think that’s a liberal versus conservative line of thinking here. I just think it’s the way this country has developed its economic policy, and we all ultimately lose in the end.

Rob Dietz

Yeah, well, we’re gonna make you an honorary host of Crazy Town with, you know… We always question these gems of technology that are going to save us. Yeah, you have to start by looking at what are we doing. Why are we doing it? Who’s benefiting? And again, those questions that lead you down to these places of nuance and realization. That’s the one thing that we at Post Carbon Institute — I’ve always thought of as a truth telling organization. And that’s kind of what you’re on about here, right, with how these systems are operating. Before it slips my mind, I’ve heard you mention “home” quite a few times. And I want to talk a little bit about prairies and the scene there. Let’s talk about the grasslands, the badlands, the slow meandering rivers, you know, where you grew up in the town of Center. And perhaps a lot of other places in North Dakota, which I’ve been to and I do find beautiful, but these are not really the big tourist destinations. They don’t have the grandeur of the mountains or the forests or the coastlines, but you found a sublime beauty there. And I’m interested in how that happened. How did you learn, say, to look more closely at the ground and the grasses beneath your feet,

Taylor Brorby

I think when you grow up in a landscape that isn’t intimidating by its height, but instead by its width, there are other conditions that you’re trained to notice. So for me, it made sense in some ways that I would become obsessed with painting or drawing as a child because what the prairie has in spades is the play of light and color. You notice different times of day and shades and variations on green or mottled browns and autumn, and things like this. Or the idea that when you’re floating on the Missouri River fishing for walleye that waxy cottonwood leaves, when they shiver, they look like silver coins. I mean, it’s just this nuance of subtlety. We all know the Tetons are glorious, but you can climb the Tetons, which means they’re relatively easy, you have to walk hundreds of miles to even cross the prairie. You know, I mean, one of the addictive things for me is, you’re always reaching out to a horizon you’ll never reach until you get to, I don’t know, Livingston, Montana, or Glacier National Park, where the mountains just sort of shoot up. But I think something that became so rooted in me was subtlety. And I think that shapes a perspective, too. If you grew up in a world known as flyover country, then the rest of the culture doesn’t view where you come from as special, because it’s probably too subtle to understand. We know forests are incredible, you can go into them, and you can hear this sort of symphony there. You can look at the Wasatch Mountains outside of my window where I currently live in Salt Lake City and know that that height is impressive. But as I say, in my book about the prairie, you have to kneel down and get dirty to understand it. And so in some ways, you have to submit. I mean, if you want to take it to our friend Wendell Berry’s notions, it’s like being in church, and people don’t even kneel in church anymore, so it’s a way of having to get down with the microbes and understand soil and dust. And I think that can be intimidating, because we all die. And most of us go back to the ground. And that is where I think the prairie scares people. It’s why we have to call it flyover country.

Rob Dietz

Yeah, I really love that notion of width in exchange for height.

Taylor Brorby

I mean, it’s how I am in old age: I only get wider, I don’t get taller.

Rob Dietz

Well, we’re not going to talk about old age in this podcast. We actually did an episode on terror management theory and fear of death. And I think there’s a lot of points to be made between that and environmentalism. So yeah, that’s really interesting. Well, look, I think anybody listening can tell that with the answer you just gave, that you have a genuine love for this place that shaped and molded you. And I think what demonstrates that even more is your willingness to put your body on the line for that. You’ve been arrested for trying to protect your home ecosystem. You protested against fracking and the Dakota Access Pipeline. What were you thinking in the lead up to your act of civil disobedience? And what about that moment when the police clamped the handcuffs on you and hauled you off to jail?

Taylor Brorby

Yeah, I mean, the crass answer, but it’s true (and then there’s a more noble answer). The crass answer is since I’d already been writing and publishing, I knew it make for a good story at some point. I mean, that’s not a real reason, I guess, to get arrested. The more noble answer is, in 2016 when I was arrested, a Duke University study had confirmed that the Missouri River was radioactive because of all the oil, chemical, and saltwater spills happening in western North Dakota in the Badlands and the fracking region. And my nephews are dependent on that river for their drinking water, and they live in Bismarck. And I thought, you know, I had been traveling around the country trying to raise a brouhaha. I’ve been publishing letters to the editor, had been writing books and all this stuff. And I thought, you know, none of it’s working. And so maybe what I have to do along with 29 other people — we called ourselves The Dirty Thirty, the Bakken dirty 30 — we got arrested in Boone County, Iowa, in August to hold up a construction site. It’s the most expensive vacation I’ve ever had, in the Boone County Jail. And I ate things that don’t normally enter my temple, like white Wonder Bread and Oscar Mayer bologna. I mean, that was also just a sidenote, a revelation about how we treat people in jail. Like, we actually harm their body through the, quote, food we give them. I mean, that, to me somewhat says everything about our society that we’re in. So there’s a video when I got arrested when the governor of Iowa had actually called in state troopers to escalate and intimidate us about the situation. And there was a video that was released when I got arrested. The state trooper had put actual handcuffs on me, and I smirk in the video. And my aunt messaged me later; it said, “Taylor, why did you smirk?” And I said, because the officer was so nice. And he said, “Sir, if those are too tight, I can loosen them.” And I I have a very sharp, quick wit. And I almost said but I didn’t because I thought this could turn bad. I wanted to say, “Oh no officer, I’ve always wanted a big strong man to put my arms behind my back.” I didn’t say it! I too had a moment of clarity and knew, “Taylor, you’re not in charge of your body — being sassy maybe isn’t going to help things here.”

Rob Dietz

Even I know this one, Taylor. Rule number one and police dealings is: don’t be a smartass.

Taylor Brorby

No, exactly. I mean, listeners should just try this. Just try putting your arms behind your back and then stepping up on a step. It’s super hard. When I had to step into a van with my arms behind my back… when you don’t have your hands just to balance you, oh my God, I felt as helpless as a newborn calf or something. I was just wobbling around. But there was a bigger thing at work in my mind to be on protecting that waterway or trying to stop this pipeline. I mean, my whole family, beginning with my great grandfather, has worked in fossil fuels. I mean, it starts with coal, and it’s spread out to oil and natural gas. And I thought my family has so benefited. I mean, we’re not as rich as the Rockefellers. I grew up in a trailer house in a county without a stoplight. But coal and fossil fuels literally paid for saxophone lessons and put food on the table. And I thought, “There is this weight behind me that I need to step up and say no, this, this needs to end, we’re done. We need something better, and my family deserves something better.”

Rob Dietz

Well, thanks for taking that risk and putting yourself out there with your friends in the Dirty Thirty.

Taylor Brorby

Yeah, thank you.

Rob Dietz

Look, you wrote Boys and Oil. It’s a memoir, and it contains your journey. And you can correct me if I’m wrong about this, but I felt like there was a definite theme of “searching” in your life. You conducted searches through a really interesting variety of activities, like writing, fishing, drinking, wrestling, making music, exploring religion. I’m curious if you can come up with some lessons that you took away from these searches, and maybe a little bit of insight about where you are in your journey now.

Taylor Brorby

I mean, it’s interesting to just hear you recite that list back to me, you know. So much of my life is not self analysis. I mean, maybe a lot of people relate to this, but it’s just one of those things where I keep saying, “Oh, these are what my interests are, this is how my life has taken shape.” And I think what that indicates to me is I must be someone at base who’s curious. And I sometimes think about this. Can curiosity be taught, or is it nature and nurture? I’m not sure. But I have a lot of interests, and they’ve changed throughout life. Writing has been one of the more consistent things in the past 12 years of really working hard at it. But I think I’ve… all that searching in the book, you know, goes to many different landscapes beyond just North Dakota. I mean, we’re in Minnesota and Iowa. We’re out on the Olympic Peninsula, for instance, as well. But I think it must show me, in a time of climate disruption, that I’m just searching for a place to call home, I guess. I don’t really know, I mean: the odd thing about my memoir is memoirs can sometimes sort of bastardize in the way of saying, “Okay, this is an addiction narrative; addiction/recovery, or abuse and recovery, something traumatic, it’s the genre of trauma.” But my memoir takes on basically the entirety of my life up until this point. And I think, if I’ve learned anything through writing that book, it’s that I have a searching mind, I don’t know that I have wisdom from that. But I actually find some comfort, as disturbing as it is to know, I’m probably not going to be settled, not necessarily physically. But I mean, in my mind, you know, because of the systems that we live under, I think that searching has been a way of going to new places to get new perspectives. Or most of the time when I’ve gone to other states or lived in other states, or done summers at artist residencies, is to bring some clarity to my thinking, since my writing, I try to situate it within political systems. Why is it that we clear cut the Olympic Peninsula? Why is it that we blow up the mountains of West Virginia? And I find I can only really do that, Rob, when I travel and go other places, to sort of have structured time elsewhere to sort of say, “I need a few weeks someplace else, to think about this issue, so that I can bring it to my writing.” I mean, you asked a very hard question. And I love it, but I just don’t know that I have wisdom, other than what my book has taught me is really the value of working on important issues. I mean, I really believe in work, in the sense of not a job, but a good four-letter word “work” — what am I working on with my life? And my books are a part of that, I think.

Rob Dietz

Yeah, much of your answer resonates really strongly with me. That part about traveling somewhere else to get a different perspective, I think, is an important one, especially if you can do it on foot or on bike or in a way where you connect with the landscape. Or, you know, on a kayak, connect with a seascape or waterscape in a way that you wouldn’t if you are in a car or a plane or something. You were talking a lot about writing, and I want to get back to that, but I gotta go with this little aside and see where this takes us. So you did talk about wrestling, as I said in that last question, in the book. And I thought it was really interesting, because when you share yourself that way, you never know how it’s going to hit a reader, because you don’t know what their experience is.

Taylor Brorby

Right.

Rob Dietz

So you and I… I grew up in the South, you grew up in the Intermountain West, both places where wrestling, certainly in high school, is a big sport. And it’s kind of like a “prove it” sport, right? Like, yes. It’s not very cooperative, right?

Taylor Brorby

Not really a team sport!

Rob Dietz

No. I mean, it’s known for the practices being brutal. And so I wrestled one year in high school. I was kind of a runt, so I was wrestling at 125 pounds as a senior in high school and actually dropped down to 117, or something, for a meet. And it was interesting to hear in your telling about wrestling: you didn’t do it as a formal member of a sports team. You did it as kind of a hobby on the side. It turns out you’re actually good at it! You You know how, and that’s the opposite of my experience. I did it on a sports team. I was terrible at it. I failed, I got pinned. I was it was miserable. But it was really interesting to hear you talk about how you went through that and some things that it taught you. I don’t know, what what do you have to say about wrestling in your life?

Taylor Brorby

Yeah, it’s such a odd section to put in a book, but I think it’s important in a memoir, to be honest about oneself. It’s not that we should all tell our dirty secrets. And it’s not that there’s anything inherently wrong about wrestling. I don’t mean that. It’s that in that book, I come out as a liar. I mean, I used to tell this lie that I took second place since eighth grade in state wrestling. Because I thought if you say, “You took first Taylor, that’s just bragging.” But then I could always get away with this funny joke of saying, “You know, I knew I could have won. Because if I, if I…” Obviously, again, now just so listeners are clear, this is all imaginary and part of a joke, now. But I’d say, “Oh, I could have easily taken first, because if I had been on top, I could have just said to the guy, ‘I’m gay,’ and he would have freaked out.” Because that is also the province of wrestling: it’s so labeled as homoerotic, or, you know, “Oh, these guys are so close.” And we’re in a culture that doesn’t like males touching other males or showing skin or things like this. But growing up where I did, you know, I grew up with Hulk Hogan as a father. I mean, my dad, I had the same history teacher he did in high school. And both of my parents are all-state athletes. So though I was obsessed with the arts and things like this, I was the fastest in my class, could do the most pull ups just because… Well, my mother had the rejoinder of, “Well, Taylor, second place is the first place loser.” So it was always: you had to be first if you were going to do anything. And I just had to be physically tough, not that I was. I didn’t get into fights. I mean, I got bullied in middle school. But there was such a thing when the other boys that I grew up around, hit puberty. I just knew I had to be physically able to put them in their place in these ways, because overpowering other boys apparently has cultural cachet. It’s not that I wanted to fight anyone or anything. But, you know, I could take on boys who were 50% bigger than me, because they were just a little more clumsy and stuff. I just have this inherent way of knowing like, “Oh, if you do this, then a person is going to fall this way.” And then you don’t have to hurt them. It’s understood that, oh, I could really do more if I wanted to. But I think to that notion, there’s a deeper thing that was in me, even though I’m obviously gay and attracted to men beyond that stereotype of wrestling. It’s deeper in my own psychology, that there are so few opportunities in our culture for boys or young men to be physically close to each other. If you like a guy friend, you’re more liable to sock them in the shoulder, or shove them into the locker. Or when I think of girl friends in middle school, you know, they’d have sleepovers. And four of them would sleep in the same bed, and no one would bat an eye. Oh, my God, if you did that, as a group of four boys, like, good luck! I mean, literally, good luck, you know. So there’s this cultural assumption that boys aren’t supposed to have emotions. You’re supposed to bury them, you’re not supposed to even want physical affection. And again, I’m talking here, nonsexually, just getting a hug lowers our blood pressure, you know? And it’s like, you should have male friends that you’re close to that you love. But wrestling seemed like the only societal way to physically get close to other boys. But the thing was, you had to kind of have the premise of, I’m beating the shit out of you, you know. And so it’s so weirdly toxic, you know, that way. And I think that was the other intimidating thing in college, as I narrate in this book, as one of my good guy friends and I were in the wrestling room. And then, because it just felt so taboo that then we are discovered by the wrestling coach, and the wrestling coach is like, “Okay, do these moves,” and I could inherently do them. And then he just would give me the hardest time when he’d see me at the gym. And he’s like, “So when are you coming to wrestling practice?” But the idea, Rob, is that when you are a gay boy, your body can sometimes betray you. I mean, think of middle school. There’s a definitive point where all boys stop wearing athletic shorts to school, because a breeze can reveal certain things. And so the idea is that even if you weren’t physically attracted to someone, you’re trying to prevent your body from doing something. Wrestling is inherently a sport where that increases the ability of your body to betray you. I mean, In hindsight, it probably will be a great regret. I wish I would have gone into wrestling. I actually do think I could have been good at it. But just knowing at base when I hit puberty in middle school, that just felt like going into the snake pit of oh, man, “This is going to be really bad, Taylor.”

Rob Dietz

Well, I’ll just… Maybe it’ll make you feel a little better from my wrestling career where I spent most of my time on my back. I’m kind of jealous of your skills. Whether or not you demonstrated them on a high school team is irrelevant.

Taylor Brorby

Thanks, Rob.

Rob Dietz

Okay, well that’s our wrestling interlude, brought to you by Vince McMahon and Hulk Hogan and all your other favorites.

Taylor Brorby

Cream of the crop! Yeah, “Macho Man” Randy Savage!

Rob Dietz

Oh, yeah! Alright, let’s, let’s turn back to writing here. Another, well, I was gonna say “another area” we both enjoy — I did not enjoy wrestling. So writing, we both enjoy, although, I will say that for me and for many other writers out there, there’s a lot of pain that comes with writing. There are joys, and there’s an art to it. And I want to drop a little praise for you, and let you know that I see Boys and Oil as a real work of art. And let me give our listeners a couple of examples. This is just a simple one. First of all, you label the sections of the book by the key elements in the lifecycle of the prairie. You’ve got soil, roots, sprout, shoot, blade, inflorescence, and floret — clearly a metaphor for you growing like your ecosystem. But I thought that was a really nice artistic flourish that you didn’t have to do; you could have said part one, part two, part three. The second example that I want to share is you open the book right off the bat with this description: “Before it was an ocean of grasses, the prairie was a shallow sea. Saltwater sloshed for millennia, as round grains of quartz sand were swept from the dry land into the surf.” That’s just an opening little bit in the book. And as soon as I read that, I knew I wanted to read the whole book. I mean, that’s not quite fair, because I already knew you, and I knew I was going to read the book, but just reading the opening description, I felt, “Well that’s poetic, that’s Taylor, that is a couple of lines of beauty that could have opened a sweeping novel saga.” So anyway, really, really well done — inspiring stuff. And those kinds of things are throughout the book. So following all that, I want to know, what were some of your highs and lows in the writing adventure of this project?

Taylor Brorby

Well, thank you so much for sharing that and saying those things, Rob. I mean, I’m probably part of the point 001% of writers who love it. I mean, I feel like I’m addicted to it. I mean, I learned this from Ray Bradbury, who has a great book called Zen in the Art of Writing. I think Ray Bradbury, the author of Fahrenheit 451 was wired similarly. He’d say you have to write with zest and gusto. And if I had the good fortune of just being a full-time independent writer, I think I would be the happiest ever, because I would be liberated from these other structures of time. And I love being obsessed with the narrative. I love both [generating and revision]. Generating is probably easier for me than revision. I get a little bit more of a little Viking with my acts of “Erggghh, revise and stuff,” especially when I’m waiting for feedback from others, whether it’s my agent or editor of thinking I pushed it as far as I can, but they say it needs more revisions. But there’s a little bit where that’s enticing to me because I thought, or I usually think, I’ve gone as far as I can, but they see that there’s more to do. What is that “more?” And so it creates curiosity in me. So the highs, so much about writing is for me… When a sentence sings, I know I’ve got it, like that opening. You’ve read that whole opening. I kept thinking, my goal is to write a prologue that is as short as possible to compress 350 million years of Earth’s history. I mean, that’s a weird, inverse way of thinking. We should give respect to time and how long it takes. But I also wanted a lot of C and S sounds or chords with the Z. That sounds like saltwater. It sounds like water. So I wanted there to be an auditory response too, so that it’s not just simply telling a story; it’s giving the inner ear of the readers some music to listen to. And one of the highs, and then I’ll give you a low here… The high was when I got my current editor and this will be related to the low because when we met, this book was under contract with a different publisher. But when I got my current editor, the genius Robert Weil, who has edited people you’ve heard of like Pete Buttigieg and Paul McCartney. He said, “Taylor, this book needs to be structured like a symphony.” And since I love classical music, I knew instantly what he meant. In those sections, the seven sections, they should be like movements in a symphony, and he said, “Now, movements don’t necessarily get faster, but they build in intensity. You can slow it down, and it still builds in intensity. And at the end of the movement, you don’t drop a bomb. But you end with a flourish.” And if you do it well, or you’re trying to do it well, you hope that you get to the end of a movement, and then you need to go for a walk around the block, but that the reader wants to come back and say, “Where do we go next?” And so those things are very satisfying and addicting. To me, they’re sort of puzzle pieces. The low was that this book was under contract for four years with a different press and went everywhere from 450 pages to 100. And the feedback I kept getting — the only feedback — was start over. And the other press wanted me to, in their words, take out the gay thread. And I thought, okay, so I was trying to write these… At one point, this book was two books. I’m doing this in quotes, for the listeners. There was this book that I called the gay book. And then there was this book that was under contract, which was supposed to be basically about the geology of western North Dakota. They’re the same book. They’re now Boys and Oil. And when I broke my contract, I sent back my advance, which was not huge, but it felt huge to me. And I had an agent and then I got picked up by Liveright Norton with Robert Weil, and the first thing Robert Wilde said to me, “Whoever told you to take out the gay thread was an idiot.” And he just said, “You would never say to James Baldwin, take out the Black thread.” It’s important to talk about these things, I think too, Rob, because so much of the time being a writer, you don’t get wins, you get rejections. A lot of it is having a thick skin to say, “Okay, I got rejected. Well, I’ll show them. I’m gonna keep working,” you know, and things like this. But to have worked so hard to come out of the closet as a gay man, to then have an editor say no, go back in. I mean, that’s the type of violence I can’t even quite articulate. I’m just glad to be out of that relationship. I’ve never had a real toxic dating relationship. But I have had a toxic professional one. And three years, I kept just thinking, “Am I a writer? The only feedback I’m getting is start over. My sentences must suck.” It turns out, you just have to get paired with a person who gets you, and then you can sing like a western meadowlark, if you can be who you are. Because writing isn’t only solitary: you have to be in relationship with editors. You get an editor that empowers you. I mean, it feels like you’re going to the moon. And that’s how I feel at this point.

Rob Dietz

Yeah, thanks for that. So much, again, resonates my experience. I don’t think in writing my book, I didn’t have anywhere near the levels of trauma, perhaps the you had, but I had the same thing. I broke my contract and went elsewhere because I didn’t trust the feedback that was coming in. In fact, I was getting almost no feedback.

Taylor Brorby

Right.

Rob Dietz

I think you have just doled out some really important advice to anybody that wants to write: it’s that you’ve got to be true to yourself. You know, people always say, “Know your audience and who you’re writing for.” Well, the very first audience is you, yourself. If you don’t believe in what you’re putting on the paper or on the screen, then how the hell is anyone else out there ever going to believe it?

Taylor Brorby

And it’s important to stay open minded. I don’t think I am God’s gift to humanity. I need to be edited. Thank God. There are certain perspectives though, that writers out there, aspiring writers, need to be aware of the damage. Real serious damage can be done. And so I didn’t know you had broken a contract, either. But that is also really courageous because on some level, what we’re saying is, “I would rather not have a book out there, because the book that it seems this other person is pushing me to do isn’t a book that I can do. It shouldn’t be my book, you know.” And that’s not easy. And I’m glad for both of us. It turned to work out but when I broke that contract, there was a very real sense that I might not have a book. It might be the book that stays in the drawer. But that felt better to be able to move on, if that was the case, than to stay in, to not be true to my vision and myself.

Rob Dietz

Well, thankfully, Taylor Brorby does have a book. It’s called Boys and Oil: Growing up Gay in a Fractured Land. I really appreciated and enjoyed reading it, came away with lots of lessons. It made me think, made me laugh, made me feel. And I don’t know what else you can ask of a memoir than something like that. And I just highly recommend it to all of our listeners, and so glad that you are a writer. So glad that you got this book done and glad to have you as a friend, Taylor.

Taylor Brorby

Thanks for having me, Rob. And I’m just grateful to have the opportunity to chat with you.

Rob Dietz

Yeah, yeah, it’s been too long. I look forward to our next time.

Taylor Brorby

Same.

Melody Travers

That’s our show. Thanks for joining us in Crazy Town. This is a program Post Carbon Institute. Get more info at postcarbon.org.