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Benjamin Taylor on his award-winning memoir: It’s the past that is knowable, incandescent, real

Benjamin Taylor on his award-winning memoir: It’s the past that is knowable, incandescent, real
Infant Benjamin Taylor with his mother, father and brother in the early 1950s. (Penguin Books)

"When you're living your life, it doesn't feel like a story. It only feels like a story when you look back on it," says Benjamin Taylor. In the style of his memoir, "The Hue and Cry at Our House: A Year Remembered," winner of The Times' 2018 Christopher Isherwood Prize for Autobiographical Prose, Taylor's statement cuts to the quick — then blooms into metaphor. "The iron filings in the dish stand up in a certain way, with an inner theme," he adds with a subtle flourish.

Taylor was 11 when he met John F. Kennedy in Fort Worth, Texas, just hours before the president was shot. "The Hue and Cry at Our House" takes that confluence as the flashpoint, tracing the next 12 months in the life of a boy just beginning to know himself in a world that suddenly seemed unknowable.

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"It struck me that I had been becoming aware of the outside world at exactly the moment when these momentous and terrible but also wonderful events were registering historically," Taylor says over the phone from New York. "On the wonderful side, the Civil Rights Bill of 1964, all the remarkable achievements of Lyndon Johnson's first 11 months in office." On the other hand: Kennedy's death. Novelist "Don DeLillo referred to that event as 'seven seconds that broke the back of the American century,'" Taylor says. "I think nobody has ever said it better, what that assassination did. Nothing was ever quite right again."

Taylor's memoir is rich with the details of his particular childhood, growing up gay and Jewish in Texas, but girded by place and time, and deference to time's echo and elasticity.

Benjamin Taylor's boyhood
Benjamin Taylor's boyhood (Penguin Books)

"I sometimes feel that the 1960s just goes on and on forever," he says. "It's the cosmic background to so much that we've been living through ever since." In the "Hue and Cry" he writes, "What I tell is over half a century old but everything is still happening and the past is now." He speaks to both how real remembrance can seem, but also how history repeats itself. "That was my sense of that one year, November of '63 to November of '64, as an engine of history for everything that came later."

Part of the marvel of the "The Hue and Cry at Our House" is how one year of Taylor's life stands for the whole, which is a kind of microcosm of the magic of memoir, where one life can stand in for all of us.

Benjamin Taylor's extended family
Benjamin Taylor's extended family (Penguin Books)

"Any year I chose would show the same mettle," he writes, "the same frailties stamping me at eleven and twelve." And later, "I am trying to say what it has felt like to be me … this particle of history." Considering the formal constraint of a year in the life, the memoir is slim, under 200 pages. "The David Copperfield approach, beginning with 'I am born,' was not going to work for me. I wanted to write a quicker and more athletic book than that."

Despite Taylor's succinctness, Marcel Proust is his hero, about whom he wrote in the book "Proust: The Search." That influence is evident in the treatment of time in "The Hue and Cry" — the way it constricts and then spills out again like an accordion — and the crystalline rendering of recollections. "The more I remembered the more I could remember," Taylor says of excavating his youth. "What you come upon by means of voluntary memory is of relatively little value. It's what you come upon involuntarily, unbidden, through unexpected memory, that grants you the real treasure."

Benjamin Taylor with chickenpox, photographed by his brother Tommy
Benjamin Taylor with chickenpox, photographed by his brother Tommy (Penguin Books)

Writing the world as experienced through the eyes of an 11-year-old posed a challenge. "There's a kind of writing that keeps faith with childhood but that no child could have written," he says. "When you look into binoculars you don't see two circles, you see one, the two barrels together, youth and maturity, wedded into one vision. That's what I think all autobiographers who write about their childhood are after." When the Cuban Missile Crisis is resolved, Taylor writes, "the world, a great glory, looked its old self." He and his friend Robby "put on a funeral for a bookmark"; in the '80s Robby died of AIDS.

"The Hue and Cry at Our House" contains black and white photographs of Taylor and his family, although he wrote the book before deciding to include them. Never referenced directly, they serve to bolster the intimacy of the work and the sense that the past is very much with us. "The future is dark, the present a knife's edge," writes Taylor. "It's the past that is knowable, incandescent, real." Now in his 60s, Taylor began to feel the past more vividly; it more deeply interested him. He hadn't considered memoir before.

"To attempt to say what really had happened, the attempt to be entirely factual, was task enough," he says of his approach to the book, which took just eight months to write. "Eight months and my life," he added.

“The Hue and Cry at Our House: A Year Remembered” by Benjamin Taylor
“The Hue and Cry at Our House: A Year Remembered” by Benjamin Taylor (Penguin Books)

Of learning that he won the Christopher Isherwood Prize, Taylor said: "It was a bolt from the blue." Taylor has taught Isherwood's books "The Berlin Stories," "A Single Man" and the lesser known "Prater Violet" at the New School, where he is a faculty member, and Columbia University. "Isherwood has always been on my syllabus." The honor, he said, holds special meaning. "There is no prize I'd rather win."

Benjamin Taylor will be presented with the Isherwood Prize at the L.A. Times Book Prizes on April 20. He will appear at the Festival of Books at 2 p.m. April 21 on the panel "Memoir: The Past Is Never the Past" with Alexandria Marzano-Lesnevich ("The Fact of a Body"), Paisley Rekdal ("The Broken Country") and Rob Roberge ("Liar"), moderated by Daniel Hernandez.

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