Recently, I met with Taylor Polites, author of the historical fiction novel The Rebel Wife, and author of stories appearing in Knitting Yarns: Writers on Knitting and Providence Noir. Originally from Alabama, Taylor has lived in places such as New York City and Provincetown, before recently settling in Rhode Island. He teaches in the Wilkes University Creative Writing MFA Program, at the Rhode Island School of Design, and occasionally teaches creative writing courses at Roger Williams University. I wanted to learn more about him and his inspiration for writing and creating art. On November 18, 2014, as part of the Talking in the Library Series, Taylor will be part of a discussion panel with RWU history professor Jeffrey Meriwether titled “From the Stacks to the Pages: How Research Tells the Stories from History.”
From the start, Taylor was gregarious and animated as we sat down to talk at the Seven Stars Bakery in Providence. He was happy to discuss his work with me and share his inspiration for writing and creating.
“I am interested in place, and I find that wherever I am, I’m naturally tuning into the setting and my surroundings,” Taylor said, as we talked over coffee and cookies in the warm bakery in Providence, on what was on otherwise chilly fall day. Providence, where he currently calls home, provides a wealth of creative inspiration for both literature and other forms of art for Taylor. He is interested in both the history of the city and the current vibrant, intellectual city life surrounding him. That atmosphere was evident all around us as we chatted inside the busy coffee shop. We were surrounded by people talking animatedly, just like us, or sitting quietly to read and work even in din of conversation. The place had a unique, artistic vibe that lent itself to our conversation about Taylor’s creativity.
History and place have inspired Taylor’s sense of creativity throughout his life even before he lived in Providence. When asked about the inspiration for his first novel, The Rebel Wife, he said his hometown of Huntsville, Alabama was his greatest influence.
“Growing up and seeing these antebellum homes and the way people talked about the war, even though it was 150 years ago, had a real effect on me and I was fascinated by this period of history from a very young age. So I began creating my own towns and drawing maps of the towns,” said Taylor.
Because he was so interested in creating houses and towns, he decided to try architecture in college. However, he soon realized “it wasn’t really the houses that were as interesting to me as the people who lived in the houses. So these imaginary towns, these houses, all of this became a place for me to create stories.”
He told me that The Rebel Wife is the result of his urge to tell stories about the people in the towns he created, using his hometown in Alabama as a historical source. This novel features a strong female protagonist, as Taylor was also influenced by strong heroines in the books he read while growing up. Set in 1875 at end of Reconstruction, the novel tells the story of woman from a family that was ruined by the Civil War, whose husband has just died, and who believes she will inherit money and be in control of her own life. But that all comes crashing down.
“She begins to think about the stories that she’s been told and the things that she’s been told to believe and compare that to her lived experience and the experiences of the people in the house with her, who are former slaves seeking agency in their own ways,” explains Taylor.
By setting up the novel this way, Taylor explains that he wants to examine the tension between myths, stories, and the way people remember something versus the academic perspective of historians trying to tell an objective version of history. He says that the atmospheric backdrop of the end of Reconstruction gives him the opportunity to explore themes of conflict, upheaval, racism, and the devastation of the war through one woman’s very personal story.
Tension and conflict are not themes that Taylor shies away from in his writing; in fact, he seeks out moments in history that feature opposing views coming together and people struggling for something. He calls these moments in history “hinges” or “turning points” that allow him to explore and ask questions, such as, “How did we get to today through these moments of tension in our history?”
Taylor is currently working on a second novel, this one set in 1860 during the eve of the Civil War, which was another period of upheaval and tension. He wants to continue to explore these provocative themes in multiple novels featuring turning points in history.
Since Taylor is well into his career as a successful writer, I asked him how he got to this point and what inspired him to become a writer. He was clearly happy with his choice, as he talked excitedly about his path to doing what makes him happy.
“The impulse to create stories was always in me. In the 5th grade I was writing plays for my English class,” Taylor said. But when he went to college he felt pressure to get a job and thought pursuing writing would be crazy. Since he also loves history, he majored in history as a way to tell stories.
However, he ended up moving to New York City and working in the financial industry – but he said that the impulse to write was always there and it did not go away.
“At a certain point I said, ‘This urge to tell stories, and these places down in Alabama and the stories, are still alive inside me.’ And I thought, ‘I have to take a chance now, I have to put some effort toward making this a reality.’”
We discussed the fear that keeps people from pursuing their dreams and his careful planning to be able to have a career that makes him happy. He says that he went into it with a sense that it might not work, but he had to try. Now, because of taking that risk and acting upon his urge to write, he gets to write, teach creative writing, and live in a community of writers. Looking around the Seven Stars Bakery and the surrounding area, I could see why living in such a community would be so enriching.
“Everything I do has a relationship to writing and making and crafting,” said Taylor.
Taylor is much more than a writer; he is an all-around artistic and expressive person. He explains, “I can look at myself as a maker, and writing is just one component of that.”
When I asked him about how he is a maker, he told me about how the incredible arts community in Providence helped enrich his life. His neighbor is a screen printer who taught him how to screen print and make his own personal book plates. Taylor explained, “There’s a satisfaction to making something with your hands, and learning this craft opened up a new world of creating and making and having fun.”
In addition to screen printing, Taylor also knits, does antique photography, and letterpress printing. He said that these other crafts find their way into his writing, as well as an adorable inspiration of his own:
“I love my dog, Clovis, and I love knitting sweaters for Clovis, and that became the subject of an essay.” The essay about knitting sweaters for his Chihuahua appears in an anthology called Knitting Yarns: Writers on Knitting.
Clovis is featured in Taylor’s other artistic endeavors as well; Taylor hands out Clovis t-shirts and Clovis cards as a personal touch at events or to send thank you notes. Taylor’s career, doing what makes him happy, seems to combine all of his passions: making, writing, history, and Clovis. I was a little disappointed that Clovis couldn’t join us in the coffee shop.
When asked for tips for aspiring writers, he gave advice that reaches beyond just writing: “Being a writer is a form of play . . . that’s true for life. Anything that you do can have that spirit of wonder and play in it, and if you bring that attitude to the thing you’re doing, it’ll enrich your life so much more and open you up to the wonders around you. Then you can take advantage of what life has to offer and relish in living it.”
Come see Taylor as part of the Fall Talking in the Library Series.
Topic: “From the Stacks to the Pages: How Research Tells the Stories from History.” RWU history professor Jeffrey Meriwether and author Taylor Polites will discuss how research has informed and shaped their works in fiction and in scholarship.
When: Tuesday, November 18, 2014 (4:30 PM) in the Mary Tefft White Cultural Center in the University Library
Behind the Book takes an in depth look at the world of the book through articles and interviews about the creative process, issues in publishing, and the writing life.