Monday, September 21, 2015
An Interview with Art Taylor
INTERVIEW WITH AWARD WINNER: ART TAYLOR
By Pamela James
MM2: Art, I am going to get right to the point. Tell us about all of your awards and nominations you have won?
I've been very fortunate with the recognition my stories have received. In the mystery field, my short fiction has won two Agatha Awards, a Macavity Award, and three consecutive Derringer Awards. My story "The Odds Are Against Us," which was originally published in Ellery Queen's Mystery Magazine and which won this year's Agatha, is currently a finalist for both the Macavity and the Anthony, both of which will be presented at this year's Bouchercon. Fingers crossed in both cases!
MM2: Let's talk about your short stories.
Well, that would be easier than talking about my novels—since I've never figured out how to write a traditional one! I do have a couple of failed ones tucked away in the drawer—figuratively speaking, of course, since everything's on my hard drive these days…. The short story form basically seems to work best with how my mind puts stories together: the tighter narrative arc, for example, and the focus on the significance of a single moment or quick series of moments and decisions as opposed to a larger span of rising conflicts and resolutions. With my new book, my first book, On the Road with Del & Louise, I've tried to capitalize on what I see as my strengths—writing individual, mostly self-contained stories—but also build a larger overarching narrative out of the connections between those stories. Whether Del and Louise are getting into trouble in Napa Valley (trying to mastermind a wine heist) or in Las Vegas (victims of a wedding chapel hold-up), those stops are part of a longer journey: toward stability, toward building their relationship, toward building a family. Hopefully it all adds up to a fulfilling story—greater than the simple sum of its parts.
For me, reading and wanting to write have always gone hand in hand. I was a big reader as a child—something magical about the whole process, I think—and I wanted to be able to create the kinds of characters and adventures myself that I enjoyed reading about. I loved the idea of letting my imagination roam, but then there's also the desire to connect—to have the same impact on a reader that I felt reading myself.
MM2: Where you live, be our tour guide on why you like your area?
We live—my wife Tara Laskowski (also a writer) and our three-year-old son—in Northern Virginia, close enough to DC to be able to take advantage of all that the city offers but also far enough away to get at least a little taste of a slower pace. These days I see most everything through my son's eyes. We have four playgrounds within quick walking distance of us, a lake nearby with four bridges to cross en route to one of those playgrounds, and the big park down the road has both a carousel and a train. The pizza place in the shopping center next door has a big windowsill that's perfect for a three-year-old to use as a seat, and the best ice cream place around not only puts sprinkles on top of the ice cream but also a layer at the bottom, which is always a nice surprise as you're working your way down.
MM2: Where is your favorite place to write?
Lately, I've varied it up. Mornings, I'm at my office at George Mason University; I'm very lucky (you don't know how lucky) to have an office of my own, decorated so it feels like home. Afternoons, I've been working at one of the local library branches—usually the Burke Centre Library, which is my home branch, so to speak. I love libraries generally, and something about the books and the level of the ambient noise helps me to stay focused, push ahead.
MM2: Take us thru your typical writing day?
I live on routine to a great degree—getting to the office, making a cup of tea, checking email and Facebook, reading a quick craft essay (jump-starting my brain) then trying to settle down to work. I don't set daily word quotas and I don't set the timer; I'm usually more task-oriented: draft this scene, revise this passage, figure out this plot point. Sometimes days are productive more than others, but to my mind, whatever is forward-moving counts as progress—even if it's just a note or two, an insight about character jotted down, a turn of phrase that helps to illuminate a passage better. Those accoutrements—the tea, the craft essay, etc.—are part of what get me going. At this point, I'm a two-cups-of-tea a day person—vanilla keemun in the mornings these days, and then darjeeling or lapsang souchong in the afternoons—and I usually listen to the John Coltrane station on Pandora when I'm in the office, ambient noise in the library. Sadly, my biggest distraction is social media, and I'm working to be better about turning it off and focusing.
MM2: What has writing taught you about life? What has life taught you about writing?
Good question! I think that writing—same as reading—opens a person up to broader perspectives, forces you to engage with the larger world and with the other (other people, places, cultures, outlooks, whatever) in constructive ways. Trying to express something coherently and comprehensively on the page necessitates at least an attempt at thinking and understanding.
As for the second part, raising an infant into toddler has given me perspectives on the writing process—and this will explain some of what I wrote above. I used to despair about those days when I didn't make "enough" progress on a project. But watching my son learn, for example, how to walk changed that perspective; even the smallest step was a big one, and with enough patience, you'll get where you're going.
MM2: Now tell us what some of your characters would tell us about you?
I think all of us writers draw on some parts of ourselves with all of our characters. Some of Del and Louise's adventures are inspired by trips that my wife and I took (no crime in our travels, though!), and some of their character traits and backstory are drawn from my own life… but we're very different people in the end. I wonder sometimes if they'd like me at all in real life! They'd probably just find me a little fussy… bossing them around, trying to tell them what to do all this time.
MM2: Do you have a hobby?
I love to cook! In fact, many days I like that more than writing—but there's something similar about the processes: gather ingredients together, combine them in the right way and right proportions, and eventually you can get a satisfying final product that's more than the sum of its parts. (Sometimes you also end up with a dud of a meal, but that's part of the learning process, right?)
MM2: Now for more fun questions. What is your favorite meal, place to vacation, dessert, song, movies, television series?
In order: sushi; San Francisco; dark chocolate cake; Vertigo, Chinatown, and Raging Bull; and Andy Griffith, Frasier, Buffy, and The Wire. A mix there, I know… and I stumbled over the vacation one. Many places I'd love to visit, though have enjoyed San Francisco so much when I've been there!
MM2: If you could sit down with three authors dead or alive who would they be? What would you talk to them about and what meal would you have?
I'd love to meet Dashiell Hammett—for a variety of reasons. I've learned the most about writing from reading Anton Chekhov. And I keep coming back in my own thinking to Walker Percy's novels. That'a s male-heavy dinner part, I know, so might love to let each of them bring a date and see who they brought! I think I've serve roasted duck—hearty fare, and another of my favorites—and plenty of bourbon. And I'd keep my fingers crossed that they'd talk craft, so I could just soak it in.
MM2: What would you like to say to your readers?
Thank you! It's an honor just to be read—the most any writer should hope for.
MM2: What are your future writing plans?
Right now, I'm working on (read: struggling with) a series of three interconnected novellas about an aging and agoraphobic bookseller and a spunky young accountant who end up solving crimes together. I do not know if my plans for them will work. Fingers crossed on that too! (I'm running out of fingers to cross at this point, and it's affecting my typing…. Maybe that's why I'm struggling with the new project?)
MM2: Is there a mentor, writing group, teacher, author or family member you would like to thank for their support?
I've been lucky to have such a tremendously supportive writing community: from writing professors over the years to writing peers in various critique groups to my fellow members in the local chapters of Mystery Writers of America and Sisters in Crime—and it's tough to single out a specific person from all that. When I wrote the Acknowledgements for On the Road with Del & Louise, I kept thinking of more and more people to thank—and I'm still afraid I missed someone.
MM2: Leave us with a quote by either you or one of your characters?
As Louise says about a troubled time between her and Del: "The way I see it, if a man can't fess up to his woman that he's been out stealing small appliances…well, that relationship is just not working." That's Louise in a nutshell—and maybe some greater wisdom to take from her perspective too.
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