Monday, September 14, 2015

Twenty Questions With Art Taylor

Art Taylor receives—and earns—more recognition from the crime short story community than Donald Trump at a sycophants’ convention. Art has won two Agatha Awards, a Macavity, and three consecutive Derringers for his short fiction, in addition to being twice named a finalist for the Anthony Award. Stories have appeared in Ellery Queen’s Mystery Magazine, in the Chesapeake Crime anthologies This Job Is Murder and Homicidal Holidays, and in other journals and anthologies. His novel in stories On the Road With Del and Louise released this week from Henery Press. Art teaches at George Mason University and contributes frequently to the Washington Post and Mystery Scene. He is also the editor of the Bouchercon 2015 anthology, Murder Under the Oaks.

One Bite at a Time: Tell us about On the Road with Del & Louise.
Art Taylor: Del’s a small-stakes crook, and when he robs the 7-Eleven where Louise is working, it’s love at first sight for both of them. But as with any relationship, there are bumps along the road to happiness—and in this case there are a couple of other roads the couple is travelling: a road from crime to honest living, for example, and then a literal road, beginning Route 66 and then taking the couple to Victorville, CA, Napa Valley, Las Vegas, Williston, ND, and finally back to Louise’s hometown in North Carolina. None of these journeys is easy for them, of course.

OBAAT: You’ve won more short story awards than I have time to type, and describe On the Road With Del & Louise as “a novel in stories.” It is—and isn’t—an anthology, and it’s not a straight-up novel. What the hell is “a novel in stories?”
AT: Writing short stories seems to come naturally to me: the size of the narrative arc, the immediate interplay between character and conflict and resolution, the pacing. Each time I’ve tried to write a traditional novel, however, I find myself stumbling—in part because I haven’t been able to keep the full thing in my head. The novel in stories serves as a middle ground there. On the Road includes six stories, each of which could ultimately stand alone to some degree; Del and Louise are at the center of each of them, but the places change (each story another stop on that longer road) and the larger circumstances and conflicts change, each of them resolved to some degree, for better or worse, by the end of the story—same as with a traditional collection. But there are other bigger conflicts that provide a longer narrative arc and thematic concerns that thread through all the stories—conflicts and themes that aren’t resolved until the very end: How do you build a family? How do you build an honest life? What does honesty mean anyway? Hopefully it’s those overarching concerns and that thread that helps to fold these together into something more than a collection of adventures—weave them into single adventure with various stops along the way.

OBAAT: Where did you get this idea, and what made it worth developing for you? (Notice I didn’t ask “Where do you get your ideas?” I was careful to ask where you got this idea.)
AT: Part of the “novel in stories” approach was actually embedded in the genesis of all this. When I wrote the first story, “Rearview Mirror,” it was actually never intended to be the first of anything! And honestly it wasn’t written as a lark of sorts. The Washington Post used to run an annual fiction contest, posting a photo and inviting writers to pen a story in response to it. The 2008 contest photo was of a woman in a convertible somewhere in a desert landscape. (The photo is here: ) My wife—Tara Laskowski, who’s also a writer—challenged each of us to write a story and enter. The year before, she and I had taken a trip to New Mexico ourselves, so I used some of the locales as a backdrop to the story I wrote. When I blew far past the maximum word-count for the Post contest, I submitted to Ellery Queen’s Mystery Magazine instead—never thinking that their publication of it was the start of another long road for me as well!

OBAAT: How long did it take to write On the Road, start to finish?
AT: I wrote “Rearview Mirror” in 2008—again only thinking of it as a standalone story. It wasn’t until years later that I began to wonder about what happened next with these two. Janet Hutchings, my editor at EQMM, has said several times that “Rearview Mirror” is her favorite of my stories, so I also felt sure she’d welcome a follow-up. I finished the first draft of “Commission” in 2012, and some of the outtakes from that draft carried over into notes for a third story—all of that momentum generating ideas for those additional adventures and for that longer narrative arc I was talking about. I finished the last story in January 2015, right up to the deadline set by my publisher, writing the last stories at a much faster, more frantic pace than I usually write.

OBAAT: In what time and place is On the Road set? How important is the setting to the book as a whole?
AT: Del and Louise’s journey across America is set against the backdrop of the most recent recession, with the troubled economic times part of what keeps thwarting Del’s plans to put aside crime and make an honest living. In terms of how the novel came to be, there’s an interesting twist to all that. In “Rearview Mirror,” Del and Louise are on the road away from their supposed last heist in Taos, New Mexico—but I needed a place they were heading to as well. I picked Victorville, California completely at random and had Del looking toward work with his sister in real estate. One story, so what did it matter? That part of the ending was a throwaway really. Then, years later, when I started the second one, I was stuck with…Victorville, a place I knew literally nothing about. The twist—a fortuitous one—came when I actually researched Victorville and found that it was one of the cities hardest hit by the real estate bubble bursting, in some ways sort of the representative town for the troubles inherent in that crisis. Bad news for Victorville, of course, but good news for me. My plot fell out of the city’s troubles and fed further into the growing thematic concerns of the bigger story—that growing novel in stories.

Another fortuitous twist: I picked Williston, ND, for its different place in this history, as a boom town in the midst of nationwide bust, but the landscape contributed to the mood of the story, and the state’s very specific take on a relatively new law helped to determine the plot, and as the plot was rolling out, I discovered a news story from the same place, same time frame that served as a counterpoint to Louise’s own struggles and decisions in the story. Here too, place helped to form the story instead of just being backdrop to the action.

OBAAT: How did On the Road come to be published?
AT: Several years ago, I ended up sitting with some of the folks from Henery Press at the Agatha Awards Banquet at Malice Domestic—before I’d ever heard of Henery Press. We kept crossing paths at other events, and then two years ago at Malice, the editor and I sat down and she said, “When are you going to send us a book?” I told her about my ongoing plans for Del and Louise, and she said, “We’re interested.” One thing led to another.

OBAAT: What kinds of stories do you like to read? Who are your favorite authors, in or out of that area?
AT: I read pretty widely in short stories, literary and genre both and in all varieties of mystery, from cozy to noir. The stories that stick with me most usually have some moral weight to them—choice and consequence, some hefty decision to be made—and crime fiction just generally lends itself to those kinds of stories. Tops on my list, always, is Stanley Ellin: masterful prose, crisp and clever plotting, and frequently that sense of moral weight I’m talking about.

In novels, my favorite are usually structurally layered stories and with some dense layering to the prose too. Mario Vargas Llosa has long been a favorite (from decades before he won the Nobel Prize, I should add). I love Ian McEwan. In the mystery genre, Tana French is a favorite.

OBAAT: What made you decide to be an author?
AT: Ever since I was a little boy, I’ve been an avid reader, and I think that my love of reading lead to an interest in writing—as with so many writers, I guess. Immersing myself into the world of the story, creating stories of my own—there’s a natural connection for me.

OBAAT: How do you think your life experiences have prepared you for writing crime fiction?

AT: I think this is a fascinating question—especially since my first thought was “nothing.” I’ve seen so many folks who carry over professional credentials into their crime writing—was just at an event recently with Allison Leotta, who spent years as a federal prosecutor working with sex crimes and domestic violence; inevitably, she’s drawing on those experiences for her novels. One of my favorite novels from recent years was Red Sparrow, whose author, Jason Matthews, was a veteran CIA officer—and his experiences infuse the book with authenticity. I’ve had nothing like that in my background—and no run-ins with the law myself to speak of (speeding tickets don’t count, do they?)—so I’m not sure what authority I bring to any of this. When I was writing my story “The Odds Are Against Us,” I realized I’d never been in a bar like the one I wrote about, that I knew nothing about the small slice of organized crime looming in the background of the story, and that I had no experience growing up on the streets that these men had grown up in, the neighborhoods that formed them. About the only thing I had going for me was some sense of the different ways that men treat women—which is ultimately one of the cores of the story. Maybe that’s enough. What was it Flannery O’Connor wrote? “The fact is that anybody who has survived his childhood has enough information about life to last him the rest of his days. If you can't make something out of a little experience, you probably won't be able to make it out of a lot.” Add her to my list of favorite authors; should’ve mentioned her before.

OBAAT: What do you like best about being a writer?
AT: I like the ability to let my imagination roam. I love those moments where ideas just come tumbling out—a plot twist, a few key scraps of dialogue, the little details that suddenly bring scenes into focus. Those are few and far between, however—and usually come to me in the shower. I need one of those waterproof notepads you can stick to the wall.

OBAAT: Who are your greatest influences? (Not necessarily writers. Filmmakers, other artists, whoever you think has had a major impact on your writing.)
AT: I was a crazy avid reader when I was younger, and it’s hard not to go back to those first influences as some of the greatest ones—Nancy Drew and The Three Investigators right there in those first, most formative years, then leading up to some favorite “grown-up” series that I tore through, including John D. MacDonald’s Travis McGee books, Harry Kemelmans’s Rabbi Small novels, and then all those Agatha Christies I read all through my teens (and reread today). But I was also an avid film buff, and I think there are tremendous things I learned about storytelling—and continue to ponder about storytelling—from watching Hitchcock’s Vertigo and Martin Scorsese’s Raging Bull, for example: texture, pacing, mood and tone.

I also want to mention the sculptor Alberto Giacometti—whose work was revelatory to me in terms of process. His Women of Venice series includes 10 different sculptures that were all cast (as I understand) from the same mass of clay. He just reworked it and reworked it and then paused to have a cast made when it had reached something he liked. That’s freeing to me—that sense that there are many different ways to craft a work of art, many different forms it can take, and all of them can approach their own sense of completeness and even perfection. Too often we writers work and rework and rework the same passages or sentences like there’s one way of getting it right and we need to find it—but really there’s a lot of different ways, which helps to ease up on the pressure, for me at least.

OBAAT: Do you outline or fly by the seat of you pants? Do you even wear pants when you write?
AT: I write best when I have things mapped out in my head—and then sketched out on the page—before I begin writing. I do a lot of planning in advance, but a lot of that mental work is still just trying things out, considering where a plot direction might go, backing up, rerouting. And in the best circumstances, significant shifts are still underway in the revision stage, where most of the real writing is done anyway. 

As for the second question, I’m gonna go back to what I said about the best ideas in the shower.

OBAAT: Give us an idea of your process. Do you edit as you go? Throw anything into a first draft knowing the hard work is in the revisions? Something in between?
AT:  Despite a lot of that mental work, I’ve still figuring things out on the page. I do edit as I go along, in addition to significant revisions (plural) after a first draft is finished. But on that first draft, I don’t always write in order—if that makes sense. If there’s an idea for a scene that seems clearer to me later in a story, I’ll write that first—or go to where the energy is or where the ideas are coming—and then come back and build connective tissue. And then shuttle back and forth throughout, smoothing, fixing.

It’s probably not the most efficient process, I know. I wish I worked more quickly.

OBAAT: You’re as well-decorated a short story writer as I can think of, certainly among your contemporaries; One the Road with Del and Louise is your first excursion into a longer form. What are the virtues and drawback to you, as a writer, of each form?
AT: I’ve been very fortunate with the awards and accolades I’ve received—and I don’t use that word fortunate lightly. When people tell me, “Oh, it’s not fortune, it’s not luck, it’s hard work and talent and…” well, I appreciate that, because I do work hard, but there are a lot of fine stories being published out there, stories which more than deserve similar attention, and I’ve felt lucky to find readers and fellow writers who’ve found and appreciated my work.

It helps, in many regards, that I’ve focused on short fiction—and I do think of On the Road as being short fiction first. I think I’d still struggle with trying to write a traditional length novel without building it out of those component pieces. Short stories are just the way I think, so I don’t really know another way.

OBAAT: As a writer, what’s your favorite time management tip?
AT: Time is the biggest issue, of course, but I’ve given up trying to fight it too much. My main goal is to make some progress each day, touch base with my current project each day. I’m not a 500-word-a-day writer. Some days I don’t manage any finished sentences at all. But I try to keep my hand in—and my thoughts focused. A few notes, an openness to ideas, keeping it all percolating at the back of my mind—and a notebook handy, of course.

OBAAT: If you could give a novice writer a single piece of advice, what would it be?
AT: Find a reader who believes in your work but doesn’t believe in it blindly. A good first reader is a friend indeed. Then just keep writing. Overnight success does happen, but usually it’s the result of years and years of work. 

OBAAT: Generally speaking the components of a novel are story/plot, character, setting, narrative, and tone. How would you rank these in order of their importance in your own writing, and can you add a few sentences to tell us more about how you approach each and why you rank them as you do?
AT: Hmmm…. Honestly, I wouldn’t know where to begin with ranking these. Sometimes character dominates, and I kind of follow his or her reactions to things to determine the plot. Other times, I’ve come up with a situation first and then I try to figure out who the players are in the situation. Setting, at times, has been a real determination, as I mentioned about the new book, of course, but also with other stories. And tone is a chief concern for me throughout—both trying to maintain a certain tone or trying to shift tones….

In short, I think that each of these have pushed ahead the initial stages of different stories, but by the time I finish writing a piece, they all have to work harmoniously.

Quick example, I just finished a pieced that I submitted to Ellery Queen—an idea that was sparked by something a student said in a fiction workshop at George Mason, a misstatement that twisted a well-known phrase into something odd and striking and provocative. That mangled phrase sparked an idea for a situation, and then a character popped out of it who seemed appropriate to the situation—and then from there several characters who would be interacting with him. And then they needed kids, which were key to the situation as it turned out. And they needed a nice house in an upwardly mobile neighborhood, because it wouldn’t work anywhere else. And then there needed to be an abrupt plot twist at the end—which would spark an equally abrupt shift of tone—which required maintaining a different tone more evenly for the balance of the story.

So all parts turning together—hopefully with enough precision that my editor at EQMM will ultimately accept it.

OBAAT: If you could have written any book of the past hundred years, what would it be, and what is it about that book you admire most?
AT: Plenty to choose from here, but I’m going to go with Raymond Chandler’s The Long Goodbye. You can argue plenty about which Chandler book is the best (most folks would say The Big Sleep), and I’ll agree that Long Goodbye is a shaggy story in a lot of places—indulgent here, discursive and meandering there—but it’s a beautiful book, hard-earned and with this rueful, mournful quality suffusing every page of it.

OBAAT: Favorite activity when you’re not reading or writing.
AT: I love to cook—and to eat, of course. It was actually one of our New Year’s resolutions this past year to let our son help more with the cooking, to make him a part of the process. Food brings folks together, both the sharing of it and the making of it. And it moves the brain in a different direction from writing, of course (while at the same time there’s resonance: you bring ingredients together to form something much greater than sum of parts).

OBAAT: What are you working on now?
AT: Right now I’m in the middle of writing three interconnected novellas that I hope might become my second book. The stories center on an agoraphobic bookseller and a spunky young accountant who find themselves solving mysteries. I know, I know: an accountant? Well, we’ll see where it goes.

On the Road with Del & Louise launches Saturday (September 19) at 6:00 PM at  One More Page Books, 2200 N. Westmoreland Street #101, Arlington, VA. See you there.


Art Taylor said...

Thanks so much for including me here, Dana! It was such a pleasure chatting—some fun questions and some challenging ones. So much appreciated being part of this series!

Alan Orloff said...

Nice interview, gents! I always enjoy hearing about a writer's process and find it amazing that, with everything going on in a writer's head, a story eventually finds its way onto paper (or the screen).

Art Taylor said...

I'm always amazed myself that anything gets written!

Dana King said...

We've been on a roll lately, with authors routinely providing thoughtful, and thought-provoking, answers. I love doing these, not just because they're a lot less work for me than writing 600 - 1,000 words myself, but because of how much I learn from them. Thanks to both of you, and to all who participate.