By Felicity LuHill
Benjamin Taylor is one of a very select few who can say he shook the hand of a president on the day that president was assassinated. And so starts his new memoir, The Hue and Cry of Our House. Politics is just one of many hot topics this book carries. Family drama, budding homosexuality, and Asperger’s (before it had a name) are all reflected upon in this concise, 183-page telling of a single year in Benjamin Taylor’s life. With honesty and humor, Taylor gives an account of what it was like to be young in the moment just after John F. Kennedy’s assassination, and what it’s like looking back now.
Felicity LuHill: I think you are the only writer I know who talks almost exactly as you write. In both your writing and your daily speaking, you are exceptionally eloquent and funny. You are a master at controlling when you want to be subtle and when you want to be casually confessional. What is the relationship between your writing and your speaking?
Benjamin Taylor: I certainly do a lot more talking than writing, and so do all writers, no matter how voluminous their output, but I think you put your finger on something. My ideal—my prose ideal—is a style that is fresh from spoken English, that is fresh from speech, that has a little spring in it, a spontaneous speaking self, which I suppose is just another way of saying that I think voice is all-important.
FL: You’ve often said—in a more eloquent way—that memory itself is an artist. Were there times when you could feel your memory intervening in your writing of this book?
BT: The book is an ode to memory. Nothing is invented. I had to go with what I had. But I did find Proust’s law was enforced here: the voluntary memories meant much less than the involuntary ones. Things surfaced when I least expected them. And I didn’t know what to do with them, at least until now.
I say, “didn’t know what to do with them” because I wasn’t interested in autobiography when I was younger. I really didn’t read much of it. I thought fiction was much more important. Fiction had more truth to tell than autobiography, or so I believed. As I got older that view began to change, especially as I read the great autobiographies and memoirs. So it’s a case of my attitude gradually turning around. I used to be puzzled by these books that claim to tell a story without making anything up, because I thought all the glory of literature was in invention. But at the age of 64, I decided to write a book in which absolutely nothing would be invented.
I do trust my memory. I’ve had a few occasions to test it externally against other people’s accounts, other people’s memories of the same episodes, and unlike some autobiographers who insist on a certain skepticism about what they’re telling, I really believe that my memory is telling me the truth. It’s all hallucinatorily clear. I don’t so much remember things from the past as watch them happening again.
FL: That’s especially interesting because I think that the memories told in this book are artful in a way.
BT: Yes, memory is artifice. Memory certainly shapes, and leaves out, and forgets. I don’t deny that. Memory seeks for the story. Memory is aesthetic. But the idea that memory is always a liar is something I reject.
FL: You do such a great job of depicting a child’s voice, and mixing it with mature reflection. You even mix an urgent present tense with a reflective past tense. What was your process for doing this?
BT: I sort of think of it like downshifting when you’re on a country road. It somehow marks an intensification when you move into present tense. But I didn’t have a method for it, I just used my ear. I’ve done that in fiction too. In both novels I think there are shifts from the habitual past to the present. The thing is to do it seamlessly, so the reader is with you right along and doesn’t even bother to say, “oh he’s switching tenses here.”
FL: Most people who write creative non-fiction are concerned about what the people in the stories will think if they read what they’ve written. But you were in a position where most of the people you’ve written about have died. How did that impact your writing?
BT: The book probably would not have been possible when all these people were alive. But the fact is they’re gone and here I am, with the hope of a couple more decades, or maybe even three, ahead of me. It’s just an accident, after all, that I’m the last of the tribe. What I find is that the lost people, one’s own personal dead, become more and more vivid the older you get. The farther you get from them, the more alive they become.
FL: A major aspect of this memoir is your early sense of sexuality, your attraction to boys at an early age. Unlike other early adolescent queer experiences discussed in literature, there isn’t much talk of guilt or repression. There’s no “coming out” story. What made you decide to write about homosexuality in this way?
BT: Well, coming-out stories belong to later adolescence and to young adulthood. There’s not much coming out at 11 and 12, the hour before puberty. That’s what I wanted to depict, that moment when you are a prey to all kinds of emotions that you don’t really have names for.
FL: I guess I’m thinking of the parts in this book that jump time. This year acts as a window to other parts of your life.
BT: Ah, yes. A memoir—as opposed to a full-scale autobiography—has to decide about the years and even decades that it’s going to leave out. I was emphatic about writing a memoir of this moment of youth—sixth and seventh grade and that’s it. Of course, all the years that followed are telescoped in that voice that speaks at the end from the Central Park Zoo. That’s the voice of a man who’s past middle age. People say to me, “But you’re not an old retiree like the man on the park bench.” They don’t know how I feel at 64 when they say that. I’ve had a very full life and a lot of good luck and watched a lot of bad luck all around me. And some days I feel exhausted from all I’ve seen.
FL: So, what made you decide to center the book on this particular year?
BT: Because I think it may have been the year, I think the assassination may have been the moment, when my memory ceased to be random and private, and became narrative, became connected to larger events and to history. It’s clear that I was in some sense a political animal right from the start. I was organizing my understanding of the world politically and thinking historically.
FL: From the start of this memoir, you quickly establish that this is a book of both your personal history and the political history of this time. How do you think these relate to each other?
BT: In the summer of 1964 my childhood friend Scott Simon and I would listen every night on transistor radios to the Republican National Convention, or sit talking about Lyndon Johnson’s speech after the Gulf of Tonkin incident. We didn’t know where the Gulf of Tonkin was, but nobody was following more closely those events than Scott and me. We had dinner the other evening and laughed about this. Again, I got confirmation from him that my memories are accurate.
FL: We were living in a very different political moment while you were writing this book. Do you have any opinions about how it should be read now, in our current political climate? Are there any takeaways you’re hoping people will have when they read it?
BT: My friend Daphne Merkin said, after reading the book, “This is about a grand old America that doesn’t exist anymore,” and I was terrifically moved by that. That is what I feel, too.
Consider the sagacity with which Kennedy, the youngest of elected presidents, faced that missile crisis—which I depict from the point of view of a little kid, but I add in what was really going on. His joint chief of staff said to him, “We have to strike first,” and Kennedy kept saying, “No, let’s wait. Let’s play for time. Let’s try this. Let’s try a blockade. Let’s see what happens.” They got two messages from Khrushchev, one encouraging and the other very discouraging. And Kennedy said, “Let’s respond to the first message, and ignore the second.” This was a kind of wisdom in the White House that, alas, we could not hope for now.
FL: So now that you’ve written a memoir do you feel like you’re making a shift in the type of genre you’re interested in writing for your future books?
BT: I’m not too keen on talking about what I’m working on, but I’ll just say this: The Hue and Cry feels like a full stop. If this were a play I’d say we’re at the intermission between Acts 2 and 3. I don’t know what’s going to happen in Act 3. I just hope it will be reasonably long.
Felicity LuHill is a Second Year Creative Writing MFA Candidate at The New School. She is also the Deputy Editor for The Inquisitive Eater and the Digital Strategist for Barbershop Books. Along with the New School Blog, her writing has been published with Barbershop Books, Healthy Materials Lab and Enchantress Magazine, where she was also an editor. Felicity enjoys writing in nearly all forms, including her novel, her screenplay, short stories, essays, interviews, flash fiction, prose poetry, etc.