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For a Scientist Turned Novelist, an Experiment Pays Off

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When he set out to write a novel, Brandon Taylor, a former doctoral student in biochemistry at the University of Wisconsin, approached it like a scientist.

“I have this very technical approach to almost everything,” he said during a video interview from Iowa, where he now lives. “If there is a problem, I first determine the parameters of the problem, and then I try to lay out a very systematic way of doing it.”

He started with a series of lists: Reasons he had failed to write a novel (too concerned with inventing everything, problems with setting and time frame). Things he considered himself good at (tone, dialogue). Scenes he wanted in the book (a tennis match, a dinner party). He gave himself rules, setting a goal to write 10,000 words a day. “It began in this very mercenary place,” he said, “but it moved to a place of genuine artistic interest.”

The result is “Real Life,” which Riverhead is publishing next week, a novel that merges two versions of him: Brandon Taylor the writer and Brandon Taylor the scientist.

When he was a boy growing up in a small community outside Montgomery, Ala., Taylor, now 30, dreamed of a career in medicine. “My entire life, I wanted to be a neurosurgeon,” he said. “Because if you’re a black boy from the South who is good at science, everyone is like, ‘Oh, Ben Carson, you should be a neurosurgeon.’”

[ This book was one of our most anticipated titles of February. See the full list. ]

For just as long, he has been writing. “As a kid, I was always writing little stories, or trying to, but I never considered myself a good writer,” he said. It hasn’t always been easy for him to reconcile these two aspirations. When he signed up for his first creative writing class, he remembers thinking, “They’re all English majors, and I study chemistry.”

But it was Taylor’s life as a scientist that enabled him to write “Real Life.”

He began working on it while he was in his graduate biochemistry program. He spent most of his days in the lab, working on his experiments on nematode worms, so he wrote mainly at night. It took him five weeks to finish a manuscript. At one point, he threw it in the trash after two agents rejected it. “It felt like the universe was telling me that I wasn’t good enough, and that my work wasn’t worth sharing with the world,” he said.

His roommate Antonio Byrd, a fellow Ph.D. student, fished it out. “I told him, I’m keeping this draft in my bedroom until you come to your senses,” Byrd said.

Taylor also deleted the manuscript files from his computer, attempting to scrub the book from his life. A few weeks later, he found out he had received a fellowship from the Tin House summer writing workshop. Encouraged, he went back to his novel, recovering it from one of his rejected queries. “That kind of seems like a sign, too,” he said.

Throughout his undergraduate years at Auburn University at Montgomery and graduate school in Wisconsin, he felt he had to choose between science or writing, and science often won. But when he received an acceptance letter from the Iowa Writers’ Workshop, he decided that, this time, writing would win. “I could survive not having science, but I couldn’t survive not having writing,” he said.

“Real Life” follows one pivotal weekend in the life of Wallace, a black gay biochemistry Ph.D. student in the Midwest. Grappling with the death of his father, a nascent romance with a straight friend, the potential failure of his scientific work and a general sense that he doesn’t fit into the predominantly white cohort of his university campus, Wallace must figure out whether he wants to continue on his path as a student or chart a different course.

Taylor knows that Wallace sounds a lot like him. Both are black gay scientists. Both are migrants to the Midwest by way of Alabama. Both have had confusing trysts with straight men. (“My life, in some ways, is just a series of inappropriate encounters with heterosexual men,” Taylor joked.) And both have stood on the precipice of a scientific career and had to ask whether to walk back or leap.

But Wallace — whose name is based on Mrs. Wallis from Ann Patchett’s novel “Commonwealth,” Taylor said — is not Taylor. Instead, Wallace is an amalgam of Taylor’s own experiences as well as those of other queer black people on college campuses, he said.

“We wanted to see us in a story, and we didn’t have that,” said Christopher Sprott, a friend and former roommate of Taylor’s who is also black and queer.

The academic setting is one that Taylor gravitates toward as a reader — some of his favorite novels include “The Idiot,” by Elif Batuman; “The Marriage Plot,” by Jeffrey Eugenides; “Harvard Square,” by André Aciman; and “Fates and Furies,” by Lauren Groff — but he rarely sees people like himself when he reads them. He hopes “Real Life” changes that. “What I wanted to do was to take this genre and this milieu that I really respond to as a reader and to sort of write myself into it,” Taylor said.

He channeled this desire into his first published piece of writing, the story “Cold River,” which appeared in 2015 in Lambda Literary’s journal Jonathan. He wrote it as an undergraduate student, after he had gone to a bookstore in Montgomery but couldn’t find the queer books he was looking for. When he asked the clerk if they had them, he said, “the guy was like, ‘We’re a family store, we don’t stock that kind of stuff here.’”

Taylor considers himself primarily a short-story writer, but the desire to see people like him represented in literature led him to make his book debut with a novel. “I had this feeling no one was going to take me seriously until I write this novel,” he said. “I’m going to write a novel so that people will let me write short stories in peace.”

Stories are on the way. His next book is a collection, “Filthy Animals,” which will also be published with Riverhead.

But now that Taylor has made space for himself in the world of novels, maybe he’ll stick around, he said. “Over the summer, I was like ‘Oh, maybe I will write another novel.’”

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Editorial

A London ‘Fidelio’ With a German Twist

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This season, opera in London speaks with a German accent.

At the Royal Opera House, the director Tobias Kratzer wants to tap into the spirit of Beethoven with a fresh production of “Fidelio” in a year of celebrations that mark 250 years since the composer’s birth.

In just a few years, Mr. Kratzer has shot to prominence with a string of acclaimed productions across Europe. His recent triumphs include an emotionally wrenching production of Alexander von Zemlinsky’s “Der Zwerg” at the Deutsche Oper Berlin and a mischievous “Tannhäuser,” which won near universal acclaim at the 2019 Bayreuth Festival.

“Fidelio,” with sold-out performances through March 17, marks Mr. Kratzer’s debut in the English-speaking world. In London, he is one of the youngest practitioners of a German stage philosophy sometimes known as Regietheater (literally, “director’s theater”) that often takes liberties with plot details and can subject canonical works to strenuous deconstructions.

Speaking between rehearsals in early February, he sounded unfazed by the challenge of bringing his avant-garde sensibilities to London’s main opera house, even if doing so rubs up against local traditions.

“The idea of having a director not only arrange things, but really to interpret pieces, is more or less a German invention, dating back to the time of the Weimar Republic,” said Mr. Kratzer, 40. If London or New York audiences expect more from a production than mere window dressing, the influence of German directors is part of the reason.

“The British theater tradition is still much more based on a narrative level, while the German tradition starts from a more deconstructive point of view,” he explained.

But Mr. Kratzer’s productions show that a director can approach a well-known opera from an unusual angle without destroying it. His Bayreuth “Tannhäuser” turned Wagner’s minnesinger into a prankster whose anarchist pals include a dwarf and a drag queen; his Berlin “Zwerg” read between the lines of the libretto to construct a portrait of the tortured composer.

Such approaches may prove refreshing to audiences for whom German opera productions often carry a stigma as chaotic spectacles.

Mr. Kratzer feels a primary responsibility to communicate a piece’s emotional weight in order to connect with his listeners even as he surprises them. “This doesn’t mean that you have to fulfill an audience’s expectations,” he said, “and it doesn’t mean that you need to break them at any price.”

Over the past decade, London has seen more examples of German theatrical styles, and this season, some of Mr. Kratzer’s compatriots have been tasked with new productions. At the Royal Opera House, Claus Guth stages “Jenufa” later this month, followed by Christof Loy’s new “Elektra” in May. At English National Opera, Tatjana Gürbaca directs a new “Rusalka” in late March.

Oliver Mears, the Royal Opera House’s director of opera, invited Mr. Kratzer to direct “Fidelio” after seeing Mr. Kratzer’s 2018 “Les Contes d’Hoffmann,” Jacques Offenbach’s opera about a hard-drinking poet and his sad love affairs, in Amsterdam.

In “Fidelio,” a devoted wife assumes a false identity to break her husband out of prison. Like “Hoffmann,” it is an opera that is easy to be jaded about.

Part of what fascinated Mr. Kratzer about “Fidelio” was how Beethoven, writing in the aftermath of the French Revolution, used opera as a medium capable of delivering a political and personal message. “He’s really trying to use this art form almost as a philosophical tool,” he said. “And this is a starting point for a tradition that goes through Verdi and Wagner, up to Helmut Lachenmann,” he said.

The contemporary challenge for a director, Mr. Kratzer said, is to find a way to present Beethoven’s only opera that expresses its idealistic message. A searing ode to the Enlightenment and to marital love, “Fidelio” is a piece whose faith in lofty ideals can easily seem naïve and dated.

In his productions, Mr. Kratzer seems to purposely avoid any sort of instantly recognizable, signature style, preferring to approach each work on its own terms. In the case of “Fidelio,” he said, he was aiming to convey something of the piece’s radical idealism in a production that fused modern and traditional elements.

“I think even in a period piece there can be completely modern, psychological investigations,” he said. “For me, it’s not primarily a matter of setting an opera in modern times or not. For me it goes deeper. You can have quite a modern production in a period staging, and a pretty old-fashioned production in 20th or 21st century settings.”

“The specific challenge of this piece is that it has a very optimistic, utopian message,” he continued. He added that it is very easy now for directors to fall into the trap of actively undermining the opera’s message (and many have). “Looking at the world today, it’s quite easy to be cynical about this opera,” Mr. Kratzer said.

“Times are difficult for utopia,” the director added. “In this anniversary year, I’d like to recapture the spirit Beethoven intended for this opera,” he said. “It’s a hard goal, but worth aiming for.”

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Editorial

What to See and Experience in New York City This Spring

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Afrobeats isn’t a particular rhythm, like dancehall or dembow. It’s more like a magnet, drawing on and realigning possibilities from across Africa and the African diaspora with a Nigerian sensibility. Davido’s songs have elements that are familiar to American audiences: crisp programmed drum-machine sounds, computer-processed vocals, guest rappers and R&B singers. Like rappers and reggaeton artists, he devotes most of his songs to bragging and romancing.

But in Davido’s music, the programmed beats also mesh with African percussion, twisty guitar and keyboard lines and rhythms from across Africa and the Caribbean. Lyrics in English share space with African languages. And even with Auto-Tune, the personality in Davido’s voice still comes through. His Afrobeats is world music with an African aesthetic of smooth omnivorousness and calm mastery. JON PARELES

STAGECOACH Of the many mainstream country music festivals that pepper the United States each spring and summer, Stagecoach has historically been the least preoccupied with orthodoxy. In part, that’s because of where it’s held — the Empire Polo Club in Indio, Calif., the same field that hosts Coachella — and who throws it: the Coachella promoter Goldenvoice, which isn’t unreasonably beholden to Nashville’s illuminati.

But also, in recent years, country has been loosening up at the fringes, a movement well captured by the 14th iteration of this festival, which runs from April 24 to 26. At the superstar level, it offers an unlikely blend: the soaring Carrie Underwood and the swaggering Alan Jackson, the snarling Eric Church and the genial Thomas Rhett.

But the middle section of the bill is most intriguing — the Southern rock titans ZZ Top; the soft-rock crooner Brett Young and also the hip-hop-conversant LoCash; the unerringly sincere Dan + Shay and the pitch-perfect ironists Midland. Stagecoach also showcases an impressive array of female singers: Gabby Barrett, Ingrid Andress, the Haden Triplets, RaeLynn, Nikki Lane, and naturally, Tanya Tucker, still collecting her flowers.

And finally there are the outliers, acts that might not be booked at any other country festival, but make plenty of sense nonetheless, like the D.J.-producer carpetbagger Diplo and the queer country performance artist Orville Peck. And also the viral country-rap phenom Lil Nas X, who is a pop star though maybe not a country star (or for that matter, a rap star), but makes complete sense at a festival that’s an open-eared revue of the genre and the directions in which it may someday venture. JON CARAMANICA

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Editorial

Review: ‘The Unsinkable Molly Brown’ Has Its Ups and Ups

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Let us survey the many moods of Molly Brown: She is perky, chirpy, spunky, bubbly, cheerful. Even stranded on a raft after the Titanic sinks, she can’t help being, ahem, buoyant.

The resilient heroine of the Meredith Willson musical “The Unsinkable Molly Brown” was always an upbeat go-getter, with an action-packed journey that took her from a hardscrabble Rockies mining town to the Denver upper crust. But the Transport Group revival that just opened at Abrons Arts Center has turned Molly (played by Beth Malone, a Tony nominee for “Fun Home”) into a human exclamation mark. The production is simultaneously busy and lifeless — a feat of sorts, if not a desirable one.

The 1960 show was Willson’s follow-up to “The Music Man,” and lightning did not strike twice: There was a Hollywood adaptation four years later, but the stage steered clear, and “The Unsinkable Molly Brown” doesn’t appear to have been revived on Broadway or Off in nearly 60 years.

The choreographer/director Kathleen Marshall and the book writer/lyricist Dick Scanlan must have seen an opportunity to give vintage material a fresh start, so they went back to the drawing board: According to the production notes, “none of the characters in the 2020 version appear in the 1960 version. Both have characters called Molly, but she says and does different things. The two versions share three lines of dialogue.”

Fewer than half the songs are from the original show, including the fine “I Ain’t Down Yet” and “Belly Up to the Bar, Boys.” The rest are pulled from Willson’s catalog with a mix of tweaked and entirely new lyrics by Scanlan. (This revisal has been in the works for about 10 years, with productions in Denver and St. Louis.)

The title character is based on the actual Molly Brown (1867-1932), though both Scanlan and his predecessor, Richard Morris, have played fast and loose with the facts. Which is fine, since musicals tend to believe that if the legend becomes fact, it’s best to sing the legend.

The problem is that Scanlan and Marshall give us a one-note dynamo whose needle never leaves a positively aggressive red zone.

Molly, née Tobin, is now a fearless, progressive woman speaking truth to power. The tone is set when, facing an all-male Senate hearing in an introductory scene, she is told, “You have been warned, nevertheless you persist: Settle down.”

That is how the show rolls: with all the subtlety of a Hummer.

And there is plenty more where that came from in this protracted tale of resilient feminist pluck.

Newly arrived in Leadville, Colo., the young Molly wins over the local workers; befriends a pregnant widow, Julia (Whitney Bashor); and ends up marrying J.J. Brown, the manager of a silver mine (David Aron Damane).

“I can be anyone I wanna be, why not be a queen?” Molly muses. She and J.J. don’t achieve royal status, but they do strike it rich. Her folksy, rough-hewed attitude appalls Denver’s ladies who lunch until — you guessed it — she charms them, with an assist from some spiked tea.

And so it goes. Molly becomes a women’s suffrage activist. Molly fights for workers’ rights and helps the needy (“Why shouldn’t one of Denver’s ‘better families’ help Denver’s families do better?,” she says).

Although Malone almost never leaves the stage, she is not given much to work with by either Scanlan or Marshall and compensates with unbridled “I’m auditioning for Peter Pan” enthusiasm.

Eventually Molly learns J.J. had an affair (which took place offstage, lest the audience be subjected to anything vaguely resembling moral ambiguity or dramatic stakes) and decamps to Europe. Neither the decadent old continent nor the Titanic can bring her down, however. Soon she’s back in New York, where she stands up for an indigent immigrant whose entry is blocked by an immigration officer, while a repentant J.J. waits in the wings. You may never have yearned so much for a show’s heroine to calm down, even for a second.

The Unsinkable Molly Brown
Through March 22 at Abrons Arts Center, Manhattan; 866-811-4111, transportgroup.org. Running time: 2 hours 30 minutes.

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