A review of R.J. Rubadeau’s Bound for Cape Horn for the Four Corners Free Press.
A review of John Gilstrap’s Crimson Phoenix for the New York Journal of Books. Full review here.
Call it a memoir-novel mashup? Call it odd, unusual, witty, breezy, and different. Homeland Elegies is about Trump, about our sharply divided cultural and political landscape, about wealth, art, American opportunity, xenophobia, identity in a racist culture, and a dozen or so other topics.
Ayad Akhtar is the author. He’s written plays and novels. The book is about Ayad Akhtar, who writes plays and novels. The author is a son of Pakistani doctors, so is the character in the book/novel/story. The author has written a Pulitzer Prize-winning play about a Muslim-American. And so has Ayad Akhtar in the book/novel/story.
And Homeland Elegies doesn’t read like a novel. It reads more like, well, a memoir. Like autobiography. My advice: enjoy the blur. I don’t know Ayad Akhtar’s life well enough to sort fact from fiction. But once you get into the flow it doesn’t really matter. What’s clear is Ayad Akhtar drew heavily from family and relationships and conversations with friends for his earlier plays and novels and he’s essentially doing the same thing here.
Akhtar’s father is a heart specialist. (Now I’m recounting details from the “novel.”) He once treated Trump. His father is enamored with the stable genius. The father-son conversations are priceless and Akhtar tries to make sense of the appeal. “I think Father was looking for an image of just how much more his American self could contain than the Pakistani one he’d left behind. I think he wanted to know what the limits were. In America, you could have anything, right? Even the presidency? If an idiot like Trump could get hold of it, couldn’t you? Even if you didn’t want it?”
Akhtar’s not-a-memoir mingles essays and novelistic moments. It’s all in the context of Akhtar’s effort to examine himself. “Mark Twain doubted there was a writer yet born who could tell the truth about himself. You’ll have to make up your own mind about me.”
There are stories of Akhtar’s relationships, the money behind modern medicine, gambling, anti-trust, and money, money, money rears its head at every turn—right down to a deconstruction of the movie “It’s A Wonderful Life.”
“I run the risk of drawing too strong a conclusion here, but only because I’m trying to balance what I come to understand with what I still couldn’t see: that this most enduring of American Christmas tales, among the most popular of all American works of art, had already envisioned the nation we would become—impoverished, indebted, a place where our softer stewards had succumbed to the hard pinch of profit for its own sake, where our fates had been subsumed by the owners of property, where the American dream was suffering literal foreclosure, where even our most affective dilemmas could only find true resolution through the accumulation of cash. Not to see this picture of the country was, in fact, to choose not to see it.”
The pages of Homeland Elegies are chock full of these essay morsels; Akhtar flows seamlessly from story to observation to dialogue; there’s even a scene from a play. The scenes with the Muslim hedge fund manager are tasty. Allure, temptation, greed. Akhtar studies his heritage, he contemplates his essence as an American. Is he a sellout? Should he pine for his homeland? Is he pretending to feel what it means to be an American? Has he exploited his own heritage for art?
I’m going to quote Ron Charles in the Washington Post. His summary is far better than anything I could come up with:
“After years of trying to imagine he’s welcome here, he (Ayad Akhtar) finally forces himself ‘to stop pretending that I felt like an American.’ Ironically, by embracing that conflicted position, Ayad attains the success that is the American Dream. To mainstream white culture, he’s a Muslim willing to say what needs to be said; to some Muslims, he’s a self-loathing sellout who cashes in on ethnic stereotypes. That paradox runs like a wire through this book, which so poignantly expresses the loneliness of pining for one’s own homeland.”
Yeah, what he said.
Water and The West.
The future of the Western United States is in inextricably linked to how we share this precious resource. We can think a healthy snowpack for a year or two might mean we don’t really have to worry, but the supply of water is under enormous, long-term strain.
Zak Podmore takes an up-close look at water issues in the west in Confluence, a series of essays that combine journalism, personal reflection, and lots of time on rivers all over the west. My full review for the Four Corners Free Press is here.
Zak was also kind enough to answer a few questions about his work by email (below).
Zak is a Utah-based journalist and film producer who covers conservation issues and Utah politics. His work has appeared in Outside, Slate, Sierra, USA Today, National Geographic Traveler, High Country News, Four Corners Free Press, High Desert Journal, Canoe & Kayak and HuffPost.
He has also produced films that have been selected for the Wild & Scenic Film Festival, the Vancouver International Mountain Film Festival, and the Colorado Environmental Film Festival. As if that’s not enough, his magazine writing won a 2018 Folio Eddie Award and a 2019 Top of the Rockies Award from the Society of Professional Journalists. He is currently serving as a Report For America corps member covering conflict and change in San Juan County, Utah, for The Salt Lake Tribune.
Confluence: Navigating the Personal & Political On Rivers of the New West, was selected for Outside magazine’s 12 Favorite Earth Day Reads and the Pacific Standard‘s 25 Must-Read Books for the Fall of 2019.
Question: I’m curious about the challenge of “navigating the personal and political on rivers of the new west.” How hard was it to balance your personal background, your upbringing, your perspective with the issues you wanted to cover? What was the hardest thing about writing Confluence and balancing the personal and the political?
Zak Podmore: I tend to be more comfortable writing in the third person — whether it’s reporting on events or discussing theory — than I am sharing personal stories. Several of the essays that ended up in the book started as magazine articles with more of a news focus. But when I started collecting the stories into a book, I took a writing course with Amy Irvine, one of the best memoirists and nature writers working in the Southwest, and she pushed me to include my personal story throughout Confluence. It was difficult to open up about some of those issues, especially the loss of my mom to cancer in 2014, but Amy’s influence is the single biggest reason Confluence is a book now and not just a manuscript sitting on my hard drive.
Question: The issue of “parasites,” of newcomers in the New West. What did you mean by that?
Zak Podmore: The section on “parasites” comes from something a politician in San Juan County, Utah, posted on his Facebook a couple of years ago. He called environmentalists “parasites” and said it was time to drive them from the state. I riff on that idea in the book by agreeing with the assessment: taking only pictures and leaving only footprints (as the old Sierra Club motto goes) is a form of nonproductivity, especially compared to other ways of interacting with the landscape. Many Indigenous cultures developed ways to sustain their societies without fundamentally degrading the land. Pioneer culture completely reshaped the landscape in the West in a century and a half, but early settlers and their descendants tend to rely on the land in a more direct manner than late-comers to the region like me. (My parents moved to Colorado in the early 1980s.) As I say in the book, it’s most often non-indigenous environmentalists who convince themselves it’s possible to have a purely aesthetic relationship with the land and not rely on it for sustaniece. I think that is unsustainable in its own way, and it’s one of the many reasons environmentalism and climate activism needs to continue to recognize Indigenous leadership — which it has been doing more frequently from Standing Rock to the nomination of Rep. Deb Haaland for Interior Secretary — in order to counter its historic shortcomings.
Question: You bring along (idea-wise) many philosophers and writers on these trips. If you had to pick just one, who would it be?
Zak Podmore: I majored in philosophy in college and Confluence is in some ways a meditation on environmental ethics from the seat of a kayak. Thoreau, Heidegger, Hannah Arendt, Vine Deloria Jr., and Georges Bataille all make appearances in the book. But if I had to pick just one for all future trips, I’d probably have to go with someone who I’ve tried to read but whose writing pushes the limits of the comprehensible: maybe Jacques Lacan or Emmanuel Levinas.
Question: It still seems inconceivable that a river as powerful as The Colorado doesn’t flow all the way to the ocean. What would you do with the reservoirs—Lake Powell and others? From your kayak-level view of the flowing waters, what’s the answer to figuring how out to share what’s there?
Zak Podmore: My friend and I kayaked down the entire length of the Green and Colorado rivers from Wyoming to Mexico in 2012, and I’ll never forget what it was like to arrive in Yuma, Ariz., where the last remnants of the river are diverted into a canal and the river bed runs dry. But it’s also inconceivable in some ways that the river runs as long as it does. The majority of snow that falls in sections of its headwaters is diverted out of the basin to Denver and other cities. Phoenix, Las Vegas, Los Angeles and San Diego all rely on Colorado River water; in fact, 40 million people do across two countries, seven states, and 29 tribal nations. Given those demands and reduced runoff due to climate change, Lake Powell isn’t really needed for storage anymore, and it seems likely to me that it will be decommissioned sometime this century. But that won’t solve the bigger problem. I just hope that as all the cities, governments and agricultural interests wrangle over the ever-diminishing water in the basin, people continue to advocate for the river itself. I don’t know what the ultimate solutions need to be, but as a water manager recently told me, the idea of building more diversions out of the Colorado River — like Utah wants to do with the Lake Powell pipeline — is growing increasingly insane. We’re already using all the water, so the first thing that needs to stop is the idea that there is more to divert.
Question: Along the same lines, one of the undercurrents (ha) of your book is the idea of sharing as embodied by many Indigenous worldviews. How do we get back to a more communal spirit?
Zak Podmore: I think that’s the question for the twenty-first century. I just finished an excellent work of climate fiction called Ministry for the Future by Kim Stanley Robinson which envisions what an effective global climate response would look like, and most simply put, it means more sharing. We’ve known for a long time that infinite growth on a finite planet isn’t possible, but we have yet to reckon with what an alternative economy would look like. We remain, ecologically speaking, in that liminal space often summed up in Antonio Gramsci’s famous phrase, “The crisis consists precisely in the fact that the old is dying and the new cannot be born.” In my view, the most plausible way out of the crisis (that doesn’t involve complete breakdown and chaos) is to find a way to more evenly distribute finite resources among people — and to share with the planet itself — as opposed to the continued, maniacal clutching and hoarding that the current system rewards. John Wesley Powell once said that what separates Europeans from Indigenous cultures (he used a derogatory term for the latter I’ll not repeat) is the Europeans’ belief that only humans have consciousness. I think he was right about that being a major dividing line, but I think it’s a fatal shortcoming, a kind of disease, among Western worldviews, not a mark of superiority. Remembering how to grant ethical standing to the natural world is the major task of this century.
Question: Let’s say you’re quite unfamiliar with riding rivers around The Four Corners. Say you’re new to the area. What would you recommend someone do or where they should start? With what kind of gear? Asking for a friend. Guide recommendations welcome, too.
Zak Podmore: Stand-up paddle boarding on the lakes in the area or taking an inflatable kayak down some of the flatwater river stretches around, like the Durango day run, are great ways to become more familiar with water sports. There is enough used gear circulating on Craigslist that with a little patience it’s possible to get an affordable first set-up. As for guides, I’m thrilled about a new tour business on the northern Navajo Nation in Montezuma Creek, Utah. Its founder, Louis Williams, is an experienced and highly recommended guide: https://www.tourancientwayves.com/
Question: As a newspaper reporter, you recently covered that weird art thing, that shiny obelisk thing that was found in a remote desert canyon. And you got to see it up close. What’s your theory on it? Or have you been sworn to secrecy?
Zak Podmore: Ha, monolithmania was an interesting few weeks last year, and I’m glad it passed. My takeaway is that anyone with a few scraps of sheet metal and a rivet gun can set off an international sensation if they play their cards right.
Question: Favorite, most inspirational writers?
Zak Podmore: Two writers that shaped Confluence were the late, great Borderlands journalist Charles Bowden and maybe the Southwest’s finest essayist, Ellen Meloy. Both were nominated for Pulitzer prizes, and I believe both deserve to be as widely read as their more well-known contemporaries, Edward Abbey and Terry Tempest Williams, who also shaped the book.
Question: Working on another book? In other words, what’s next?
Zak Podmore: I’m working full-time for The Salt Lake Tribune right now, but I have a book project in its early stages. The topic? On that, I’m sworn to secrecy.
Thank you, Zak!
The New Yorker raved. Last summer’s buzz was deafening. Barack Obama touted it on his 2020 reading list. Zadie Smith (Leilani’s tutor and mentor; she gets thanked in the acknowledgements) raved.
Luster is pulpy. It has a get-a-load-of-this kernel at the center of the plot (and I use that term loosely.) A young black woman has an affair with a married white man, Eric. He’s twice Edie’s age. He’s in an open marriage with his wife, Rebecca. Edie ends up moving in with the couple and their daughter. Who is adopted. And black. Akila. Edie lives in Bushwick, works in Manhattan. Eric and company live in New Jersey.
It’s a whopper premise. Your plausibility meter may wilt. Edie befriends the daughter after a prickly start, and goes to work with the wife of her lover. But her lover’s wife has no ordinary job; she does autopsies. She’s a medical examiner. Edie is already extremely conscious of body parts and shapes; Rebecca gives her a chance to look inside. The triangle of Edie-Rebecca-Akila carries more risk, it seems, that Edie-Rebecca-Eric.
The writing has energy to burn. The novel is a master class in narrative voice. Vocabulary. Slang. Idioms. Edie, our narrator, dispenses opinions at a rapid clip. She works in publishing. That is, until she is fired for sexually inappropriate behavior. Edie knows writing—and her descriptions are frothy 100 percent cream. Edie is in near constant state of motion and her thoughts race, too. We hurtle along in a tumble of commentary on race, sex, work, class, relationships, and art. Edie wants to be an artist. A serious one. She does self-portraits. She paints Rebecca, too. Edie constantly studies her image in mirrors. Every body part is a potential metaphor.
Edie’s wit is sharp. She can riff on any subject under the sun. At others, however, it’s overwrought. “I restore the room to its original form and listen to the suburban quiet, the soft hybrid hum, the monastic baying of land-protecting dogs, the laughter of clear-skinned kids, a chorus of perpetually unlatched screen doors, and all the bugs, trying in earnest to fuck before they die.” Monastic baying? Clear-skinned kids laugh differently than others? Edie snoops through Akila’s room and decides it smells like “body butter and Hot Pockets, like a rank, pubescent Yankee Candle.” Pubescent candle? What?
The writing tries too hard, like this 151-word sentence while Edie is still checking out Akila’s room: “Because of my sexless career as a high-school studio art kid, I was frequently adjacent to the prototypes for girls like this, girls who were horse-girls except with cats, girls with patches and pins who uploaded their Suicide Girl auditions with the translucent computer lab Macs, girls who were Goth-lite, in and out of Hot Topic and Torrid with their weepy, sallow boys, shy dabblers in anime and D&D, though in the years I have been away I see it has gotten sexier and more bleak, the interludes between Akila’s shrines to Guillermo del Toro and Tim Burton dripping in intermediate sorcery and sex, bloody grindhouse stills framed next to fishnets and a wilted go-go boot, all of the hairless CGI men with their hips canted, corollaries of the comic stacks and spell scrolls and everything else exalting the perfect and unreal.”
Phew. You feel like you’ve just swum a few laps all underwater—and you wonder what to end? The ending of the story, with all the complications for Edie that one might anticipate, will leave you asking the same question.
The four simple words in that title do a lot of work for this powerful memoir, which is nearly impossible to put down. The title applies to so many moments in Baca’s harrowing life, whether a search for home and family as a youth or whether it’s the size of the miserable dark cells in solitary as Baca serves time in prison for selling drugs.
Harrowing. You see that word in a lot of the reviews and I used it, too, above. Torturous. Excruciating. Terrifying. Horrendous. Take your pick. What Baca endured in prison is hard to grasp. Baca lays it all out in such matter-of-fact detail that it’s hard to stop reading—even as you wince and wonder at Baca’s ability to endure. To persist.
Today, Baca is a prominent poet. His talent with words is obvious. He’s a clear writer. The fact that an artist of such talent emerged from such a dehumanizing experience is breathtaking.
By Baca’s own account, he was “trained to feel nothing.” Baca was born in New Mexico. His father was a “vulgar and abusive” alcoholic. His mother had affairs. At seven years old, Baca was living with his grandparents and then off to an orphanage when his grandfather died. Schools were not a good fit. Baca ran away. He became a tough streetfighter. There’s a stop in a detention center. Baca drifted to California and got a job as plumber, but lost It in a case of bad luck. Along the way there are some good friendships, girlfriends, and then he drifted again to Arizona, where life as a drug dealer along the border with Mexico (scenes right out of Breaking Bad) led to the five-year sentence in Florence State Prison.
Baca’s accounts of prison life—in particular, prison hierarchies—are detailed. Baca gets in fights and administers his own share of misery. “The key was to survive prison, not let it kill your spirit, crush your heart, or have you wheeled out with your toe tagged.” There are shanks and fists. There is Baca’s nemesis, a brutal guard name Mad Dog Madril. Another guard nicknamed Five Hundred. Baca gets punished and punished again. He refuses to go to work. A fellow prisoner tells Baca that the hurt in his heart will turn to bitterness and urges Baca to take care of his heart. “Here, you have no feelings, no soul; only your heart will help you survive.”
Baca teaches himself to live outside his immediate surroundings.
“Lying on my cot, staring at the concrete wall for hours on end, for the first time in years my mind’s eye drifted back over my shoulder, down the bleak road that had led me here. Remembering was a novelty. The territory I began to explore seemed just as fresh as anything I could dream up but free of the exhausting, overpowering ache of longing. Most of all, it helped fill the void stretching out in front of me, which was not nearly so black and terrifying this time around. It was just empty time. My first stint in the hole had been a nightmare, but I’d survived it, and I could do it again … my memories were saving me from becoming a zombie in this place with no color, no stimulation, nothing to feed my senses … I knew that my imaginary life was reviving my defenses against the numbing effects of isolation time in the hole.”
We are watching a creative mind come alive. The emergence of the poet from such misery is gradual. There are exchanges of letters and ideas. Baca reads and studies. Mostly, he lets his imagination go to work. Even in this dark place, surrounded by so much violence, Baca develops a creative process.
On the day he leaves, even as he wonders what life will be like on the outside, he realizes how far he’s come.
“My cell was my monastic refuge. Instead of closing in on me, shutting me off from life, and cannibalizing me, my cell was he place where I experienced the most abject grief, in which I yearned to the point of screaming for physical freedom. Through the barred cell window I saw lightning and thunder and rain and wind and sun and stars and moon that mercifully offered me reprieve from my loneliness. There I dreamed and kept intact my desires for love and family and freedom.”
A powerful, moving read.
Wikipedia page on Jimmy Baca Santiago.
“We’ve been defied by everyone else and continue to be slandered despite easy-to-look-on-the-internet facts about the realities of our histories and current state as a people.”
“We did not move to the cities to die. The sidewalks and streets, the concrete, absorbed our heaviness. The glass, metal, rubber, and wires, the speed, the hurtling masses—the city took us in.”
“We know the sound of the freeway better than we do the rivers, the howl of distant trains better than wolf howls, we know the smell of gas and freshly wet concrete and burned rubber better than we do the smell of cedar or sage or even fry bread—which isn’t traditional, like reservations aren’t traditional, but nothing is original, everything comes from something that came before, which was once nothing.”
Three quick excerpts from the searing, brisk prologue—a series of essays, really—to There There. Plain. Direct. Clear. The prologue alone is worth the price of admission. (A brief “Interlude” at the mid-way point, too, with a similar tone that basically tells us what tragic events lie ahead.)
Tommy Orange is setting the context. Telling us stuff we should know. Telling us easy-to-look-up-facts about the realities. Telling us about a population we overlook. And he’s setting up a novel but the calm, matter-of-fact style won’t change as we shift into fiction and meet a dozen characters. Yes, a dozen. It’s challenging at first to keep track of them. Orange shifts from first person to third person as he paints his portraits. Like the non-fiction opening, it’s unusual. Jarring, but not really. We can keep up.
The hardscape visuals are familiar—the backdrop could be the urban jungle setting of any hardboiled crime fiction. The first character we meet would certainly work as an antagonist—a 21-year-old drifter. Tony Loneman has been selling weed since he was 13. He’s into the rapper MF Doom. He’s got a drone. He has a plan to rob the pow-wow at the Oakland Coliseum. He’s angry and he knows it. “My face heats up and hardens like It’s made of metal, then I black out.”
Orange switches to third person to introduce Dene Oxendene, a filmmaker who wants “Indian people” who have lived in Oakland for a while and some newcomers, too, to tell their stories. How did they end up in Oakland? What’s it like living in Oakland?
There’s obese Edwin Black (told in first-person) who lives in his mother’s house and listens to “A Tribe Called Red,” a Canadian outfit that makes electronic music with samples from powwow drum groups. Edwin wants to restore his former self. He wants to do one sit-up. “Maybe it’s too late to come back from what I’ve done to myself. No. Being finished looks like sitting back down at the computer. I’m not finished. I am a Cheyenne Indian. A warrior. No. That’s super corny. Fuck. I get mad at that thought, that I even thought it.”
Issues of identity are rampant. A teenager asks Google what it means to be a real Indian. Another, Thomas, is the offspring of a white mother and father who is “one-thousand” percent Indian. “You’re from a people who took and took and took and took and took. And from a people taken. You’re both and neither.” Characters frequently study their own images in reflections, looking to see what they can discern about themselves. This is particularly true for Orvil Red Feather, who dons his regalia and studies himself in a full-length mirror. “The word stupid often sounds in his head when he looks at himself in the mirror. He doesn’t know why, but it seems important. And true.”
Opal Viola Victoria Bear Shield, a mail carrier for USPS, doesn’t step on cracks when she walks. “She walks carefully because she’s always had the sense that there are holes everywhere, cracks you can slip between—the world, after all, is porous.” Lives in the cracks …
You get the feeling any of the dozen characters could work as the basis for a novel. Orange gives us the essence of each. Yet the characters stand apart. Where there are specific or family connections among them, the relationships become clear.
The final destination is the big Oakland powwow and we know, because Orange telegraphs it, that we’re heading for violence. Opal’s awareness of the “porous” nature of the earth becomes clear after Tony gets shot. Once. Twice. “Tony rolls onto his back and right away he’s sinking. Quicksand slow. The sky darkens, or his vision darkens, or he’s just sinking deeper and deeper in, headed for the center of the earth, where he might join the magma or the water or metal or whatever is there to stop him, hold him, keep him down there forever.”
In that powerful opening essay, Orange asserts that “Everything is new and doomed.” By the end of There There we know exactly what he means.
The story about Edge of the Map is as intriguing as the narrative itself.
First, the many ways in which Christine Boskoff’s family was intertwined with Johanna Garton’s family–including parallel/coincidental stops in Wisconsin, Colorado, and China.
And how many non-fiction books out there were started by a parent and finished by one of their children?
Even without those factors, Johanna Garton’s Edge of the Map is riveting in its own right–and the backstory about family interconnections and how the book project got started are all downplayed in favor of shining the spotlight as much as possible on an extraordinary athlete.
Johanna Garton was kind enough to answer a few questions by email. A full review of Edge of the Map follows.
Question: Lots of questions about Christine Boskoff coming right up, but what was it like to pick up a project your mother started? Did she have a narrative approach already in mind? Any initial chapters drafted? Did your mother consult with you after the baton was passed?
Johanna Garton: A mix of emotions, from sadness that she’d no longer be able to continue herself, to exhilaration knowing that I was now holding onto a story which I could craft into something unique within the mountaineering narrative genre. She had intended to write a book that would have read more like a traditional biography, while I was more interested in writing an adventure story. She hadn’t drafted any chapters, though had done a ton of research that took many months to sort through. After I began writing, I consulted with her occasionally when I needed advice on direction or character development. She was able to read the final, published version of the book when it was first released six months ago.
Question: I read books about mountain climbers who go into extreme situations and I start each book thinking, maybe this time I’ll understand the appeal. It all comes down to “why?” I admired Christine’s repeated interest in getting to know foreign cultures and distant lands, but it still comes down to wanting to put your body into those brutal conditions and, of course, risking your life. Did you have a good sense of those motivations going in? Did you understand them better at the end?
Johanna Garton: I had very similar questions when I started, and this is one of the reasons I found the project so compelling! I wanted to understand the motivations and drive, and though I think this is a timeless question that can be answered a hundred ways, I do feel I understand parts of this mentality better now. It’s become clear to me that, like a passion ANY of us may have, the desire to climb high peaks is something that makes mountaineers feel most alive. Such that it is truly the opposite of the death wish that it’s perceived to be by outsiders. Because there’s this elevated level of risk or perceived risk, I think the sport draws people who feel entitled to criticize choices climbers make in a way that the passions that the rest of us have rarely ARE. That became a source of frustration for me, as I think it can be for climbers/mountaineers. Quite simply, they believe that without climbing, they wouldn’t be living their authentic lives, just as the rest of us would feel if we were not pursuing more conventional passions such as parenting, fostering animals, worshipping God, traveling the world, etc. Certainly families and children add a complicating factor, but I do believe most climbers take into consideration those in their lives when weighing what level of risk to accept within their sport.
Question: Did your own trek to the Lenggu Monastery make you want to climb higher, or was that enough? Did you consider putting yourself into the narrative or including the story of your own trek as part of the book itself?
Johanna Garton: That was plenty! I am ten times LESS likely to try to summit Mount Everest now than I was before writing the book. I just know far too much! I briefly considered putting myself in the story a little more, but it felt so rich with characters already that I decided it best to include just a small portion of my trek in the Author’s Note and leave the rest for discussion after the book was released if there was interest!
Question: What would you ask Christine if you had the chance?
Johanna Garton: I’d ask her why she and Charlie continued on that final ascent of Genyen. There were a number of questionable factors and it seems a wild convergence that was atypical for their usually-conservative judgement.
Question: What do you think you brought to the story as a female writer profiling a female mountaineer?
Johanna Garton: Prior to Edge of the Map, almost no books existed in the category of mountaineering lit which focused on an American female mountaineer. In addition, it was very clear to me that most books in this genre are written by men. I knew that what I wanted to write was going to have humanity and depth of personality, something I think can be lacking in other mountaineering narratives.
Question: Why hasn’t her story been told in book form until now? It’s kind of hard to believe. Do you think that’s an extension of her humility?
Johanna Garton: It IS hard to believe! I call it the greatest unknown story in modern mountaineering and absolutely it’s an extension of her deep humility. Some of it may have to do with the fact that she was at the top of her career when men, too, were in the heyday of 8000 meter peak expeditions and tending to be much louder about their accomplishments. And then of course I believe that ultimately the story was waiting for me. Many people had considered writing it, but hadn’t for various reasons. It seems clear to me now, and to readers, that it landed in my lap for just the right reasons.
Question: How much did your first book, Awakening East, help you prepare for this one?
Johanna Garton: I was well-versed in the process of putting the pieces together once the manuscript was written. I knew things would always take longer than I hoped. But in terms of the actual writing, it was a completely different process, involves scores of people and a ton of research. A process much more grounded in my journalist roots.
Question: What did you feel you needed to do to prepare to write Edge of the Map? What did you want to do differently, given that there are many books in this vein?
Johanna Garton: Often times writers come to a project like this with a framework that they’re very attached to before they start talking to others or doing research. I was quite the opposite. I had a few threads I knew I wanted to cover, but I very much let the research and interviews drive where I decided to go. My outline was written in pencil, not pen, shall we say! And aside from weaving in more humanity as I mentioned above, it was also critical for me to write in a style that would feel accessible to people who love adventure stories, but NOT all the technical details that sometimes accompany these
Question: What are you working on next?
Johanna Garton: I’m in the process of seeking my next story, and I hope it will be a similar work in terms of a female-driven outdoor adventure story. I’m also actively working to see if I can have Edge of the Map made into a film or TV series, which would be a dream come true!
Johanna Garton’s website.
Watch the book trailer for Edge of the Map here.
The first chapter is titled “Missing.” We have a pretty good idea where this is heading.
The opening scene in Edge of the Map involves finding a way inside two oversized—and locked—duffel bags. The duffels belong to Christine Boskoff and Charlie Fowler from Norwood, Colorado (just west of Telluride).
The search is being led by 32-year-old mountaineer named Ted Callahan. A CNN crew had tagged along with Callahan to cover the effort to find the missing climbers, but the trek to Litang, China led to the crew’s altitude sickness and their departure. Litang is at 12,000 feet. The dread is palpable.
We are given the quick backstories. Charlie is a “superstar” in the climbing community. “Among his greatest feats was walking away from a 1,500-foot fall during a winter climb in Tibet in 1997. The accident left him without several toes, lost to frostbite after he’d crawled for several days to the safety of the nearest road.”
And Christine Boskoff, at 39, “the only woman owner of a major climbing outfitter in the Pacific Northwest.” Not just any “major climbing company,” though. Specifically, the Seattle-based Mountain Madness that was smack in the middle of the 1996 disaster on Mount Everest (covered by Jon Krakauer in Into Thin Air). For Chris, training might mean one-day sprints up and down Mount Rainier. “Chris was always laughing, constantly in motion, radiant and down-to-earth. She drew a crowd of admirers everywhere, though she barely noticed.”
At the end of chapter one, Callahan uncovers the pair’s rough itinerary—to climb Mount Genyen, a holy mountain rising to 20,354 feet on the Tibetan Plateau.
So we know how this will end. Nobody goes missing for weeks at extreme elevation and survives.
But we gobble up the pages nonetheless. It’s not about the plot. Edge of the Map is one of this books—and this version is as fabulous as they come—that make us wonder if we can understand the allure of extreme mountaineering and why enthusiasts repeatedly put their lives at risk.
Johanna Garton’s focus is Boskoff. She’s likable, kind, and humble. And smart. A degree in electrical engineering. A job with Lockheed Aeronautical Systems guiding a team “designing software for a lighted control display for the C-130 Super Hercules, a military cargo plane.”
But a drop-in visit to talk about climbing in the Andes leads Christine down a whole new path and soon she is taking a crash course in mountaineering (in Colorado) and then it’s off to Bolivia. Less than a year after taking up the sport, she’s on the summit of 19,341-foot Mount Kilimanjaro.
Garton’s fast-paced narrative places Boskoff’s off-the-radar rise to the top of her sport in the context of all the changes that were happening with climbing—the commercialization of expeditions that led to the 1996 cluster and subsequent deadly traffic jam on Mount Everest. We see Boskoff manage relationships, personal tragedies, and the business of running a high-profile outfitting business. Often, Garton quotes directly from Boskoff’s letters and journals—notes that reveal Boskoff’s gentle spirit and kind view of the world.
But Boskoff was a monster—tireless, determined, and apparently light on her feet. She summited six 8,000-meter peaks. She is the only American woman with that many 8,000-meter peaks (and there are only 14 such peaks in the world). Clearly Boskoff was driven, in her own modest way, to prove that women could accomplish as much as men at extreme elevation. That theme makes for a fabulous undercurrent to Edge of the Map.
Garton recounts several expeditions where discretion and savvy meant turning back. Boskoff survives a major tragedy in her life—and carries on in positive fashion, picks herself up, and keeps doing what she loves to do. The last section of the book, after Christine and Charlie disappear, is a compelling sequence in its own right as Callahan & Co. follow the breadcrumbs to a high monastery.
Boskoff and Fowler tackled Mount Genyen off the radar. That is, they didn’t go through the normal hoops of securing a permit. The lack of a permit meant a longer search for their bodies, but it certainly would not have prevented the avalanche from falling.
Garton looks at the morality of climbing sacred mountains and the “sliding scale of individual logic.” Fowler, for one, believed the mountains to belong to everyone. It’s hard not to think that there are plenty of non-sacred peaks to conquer, but the avalanches don’t care one way or the other.
And the question keeps resonating: why? And why do we read these books when we know the outcome? Because the people inside all that winter climbing gear are all different and all have their own reasons for heading up those peaks over and over again. Edge of the Map is a gripping read (and you might feel your fingers start to freeze as you turn the pages).
Final note: Edge of the Map is a book that was started by Garton’s mother. The Garton family and the Boskoff family had overlapping Wisconsin roots and Johanna’s mother became friends with Christine’s mother after Christine’s disappearance. But Parkinson’s Disease prohibited Johanna’s mother from finishing the book so Johanna, who had her own deep relationship with China and who had trekked the Annapurna Circuit in the 1990’s, picked up the project and completed the book. Despite the deep personal connections, Garton’s eloquent narrative stays in reporter/journalist mode throughout. Don’t miss the Author’s Note on this one!
Each sentence in Underland, Robert Macfarlane told The New York Times, was rewritten at least 20 times. And up to 40. Macfarlane said he needed to come up with a new language for a topic that is about “what we can’t see and don’t know.”
The underland, writes Macfarlane, “keeps its secrets well.”
Underland is Macfarlane’s effort to uncover them. The globe-trotting result is beautiful, enticing, immersive, palpable, rich. And, quite often, claustrophobic.
Macfarlane goes deep—both pondering the physical details (the nature of subterranean life) and all the resulting metaphors we live by. Height, for instance, Is celebrated. Depth is despised. The word “catastrophe” literally means a “downwards turn” and “cataclysm” a “downward violence.”
The underland “is vital to the material structures of contemporary existence, as well as to our memories, myths and metaphors,” he writes. “It is a terrain with which we daily reckon and by which we are daily shaped. Yet we are disinclined to recognize the underland’s presence in our lives, or to admit its disturbing forms to our imaginations.”
Macfarlane is not disinclined (there’s that high/low thing again). In fact, he’s inclined to go down. He is keenly interested in the effect that the current Anthropocene is having on the underland. In the case of the glaciers and Greenland and elsewhere, it’s not a pretty picture. Clearly one of the reasons for writing this book was to encourage those “lotus eaters” in denial to snap out of it. He wants “action not apathy.”
A “deep time awareness,” he argues, “might help us see ourselves as a part of a web of gift, inheritance and legacy stretching over millions of years past and millions to come, bringing us to consider what we are leaving behind for the epochs and beings that will follow us.”
Macfarlane lets us sense every tight-squeeze space in three parts—Seeing (Britain), Hiding (Europe), and Haunting (The North). And off we go to the limestone Mendips mining country near Bristol. “Sean leads, lowering into a six-foot shaft. I follow, drop into darkness, and find him on his knees. There is just space for the two of us hunched together here. A head of us is the shoulder-wide entrance to the ruckle.”
And we are off to an underground lab more than a half-mile below the surface in Boulby, Yorkshire. “The young scientist is trying to catch the faint breath of a particle wind sent blowing across space from a constellation called Cygnus, the Swan, many light years distant from Earth.”
Off to the Epping Forest in London and to the “invisible city” of the Paris catacombs. “That one night, or perhaps it is one day, we listen to ‘Dig for Fire’ by the Pixies, laying a phone against the wall of a tunnel so the limestone booms the track back to us and lifts our spirits and makes me smile.”
To the Starless Rivers in Carso, Italy, to the Solvenian Highlands, and to Norway, Greenland, and Finland.
The writing is extraordinary.
“Snowfall like static when the wind drops, like warp-speed when it blows. Double-layer chain-link fencing. Three huge structures showing through the blizzard, across the bay, towards the inland’s tip. Great grey outlines emerging and fading: dome, tower, slabbed walls. The sea has melted clear around them; the sea should not have done so. Two trucks crunch past on ice tyres … The pirate radio plays ‘Disco Inferno’ by The Tramps.” Snow flurries in the headlights. I have to see a burial site and to bury something of my own. It will be dark when I reach the end of the world and it will be dark when I return to the surface.”
We’re off to a tomb, of sorts, on Olkiluoto Island off Finlnad—a tomb that is “intended to outlast not only the people who designed it, but also the species that designed it.”
It’s a tomb for high-level nuclear waste, “perhaps the darkest matter we have ever made.”
Macfarlane devotes the last chunk of this chapter to the issue of how those in charge of the dump will communicate to the future that what’s inside should be left alone. Macfarlane is focused on language—and what form of communication will get the warning message across.
“The challenges … were formidable. How to devise a warning system that could survive—both structurally and semantically—even catastrophic phases of planetary future. How to communicate with unknown beings-to-be across chasms of time to the effect that they must not intrude into these burial chambers, thus violating the waste’s quarantine?”
As Terry Tempest Williams put in her review for The New York Times (it’s pretty hard to top her take on this fabulous book), “Robert Macfarlane asks us not only to consider but to face the haunting and crucial question, ‘Are we being good ancestors?’”
The fact that we have to contemplate signage across the millennia—to whatever alien invaders end up running Earth or to whatever humanity looks like after an apocalypse or three—should make it clear that the question only has one obvious answer.
It’s the suffering.
“More than any other sport, baseball is suffused with suffering. The best batters fail to get a hit 70 percent of the time. The scoreboard in every stadium each day displays a giant E (for errors). Relief pitchers ae judged not by their wins but by their saves, the number of times they avert disaster. A team that loses four of every ten always goes to the playoffs; a team that loses five of every ten games never does. The season seems endless—162 games—many endured in ‘the dog days of August.’”
If only the 2020 season was 162 games and not the pandemic-shortened 60 games, I could suffer more.
Donald Lopez Jr. makes a case—and it’s a convincing one—that baseball is a Buddhist game. “Like Buddhism, baseball has its own elaborate universe, with good karma leading to rebirth as a god in the major leagues, an abode of private planes and luxury suites. Bad karma leads to rebirth in one of the trifling hells of the minor leagues, with names like ‘Low A,’ with smelly buses and cheap motels.”
Buddha Takes the Mound: Enlightenment in 9 Innings is wry and insightful. (It’s also very funny.) The thesis, in case you’re wondering, is not a gimmick. Lopez means business. He is the Arthur E. Dink Distinguished University Professor of Buddhist and Tibetan Studies at the University of Michigan and he’s the author, editor, and translator of many books on Buddhism, including by the Dalai Lama.
Buddha Takes the Mound provides us baseball fanatics a quickie course in Buddhism—and a better grasp on the strange fixation with the peculiar sport and its deep layers of history, culture, codes, and unwritten rules.
Lopez analyzes baseball through the lens of various concepts fundamental to Buddhism—impermanence, suffering, no self, karma, and Vajrapani (“the bodhisattva of power”).
“In The Baseball Sutra, the Buddha reveals that the true meaning of the name ‘Vajrapani’ is not ‘he who holds the club,’ but rather ‘he who holds a bat.’ ‘Vajrapani’ means ‘batter.’ He reveals also that this bodhisattva appears in the human world as a great hitter. He further reveals that one of the human incarnations of Vajrapani was Ted Williams.”
To give Williams the Vajrapani mantle (ahem) is really saying something here because Lopez is a lifelong and ardent fan of the New York Yankees (a character flaw that cannot be overlooked). But Lopez deserves credit for recognizing this essential truth about the Red Sox legend. “His home runs, runs batted in, and slugging percentage all make it clear that he had tremendous power, as one would expect of the bodhisattva of power.” Lopez even gives Williams a pass for his grumpy public persona—and for killing animals; Williams was a legendary hunter, too.
As a true Yankee fan who seeks to display the depths of misery that are possible for the truly devoted, Lopez takes us all back to the World Series in 2001. Yankees vs. Diamondbacks. Game 7. Clemens vs. Schilling. Lopez is not afraid to revisit the pain and misery of it all (as a lifelong Red Sox, I wish he had stretched these pages out; maybe a full chapter). Yankees take a 2-to-1 lead into the ninth inning and the world falls apart. A single. A bunt. An errant throw into center field by Mariano Rivera, the greatest relief pitcher of all time. A poor decision by the Yankees third-baseman. A double down the right field line. A hit batter. A bloop. Diamondbacks win.
“How could this have happened?” asks Lopez, clearly still befuddled by the notion that the Yankees occasionally must also endure the cruel winds of baseball fate. “Fielders make errors, both errors of commission and omissions. Hitters get clutch hits. But for all manner of cosmic reasons, the Yankees seemed fated to the win the game, and to win the World Series. They had the greatest relief pitcher in the history of baseball on the mound, they had a future Hall of Famers at short, and they had a rock-solid MVP of the 1998 World Series and Gold Glove winner at third. During the 200 regular season, Rivera had seven wins and thirty-six saves. In seventy-five and two-thirds inning pitched, he had not committed a single error. And yet Rivera threw the ball into center. And yet Brosius held the ball. And yet the Yankees lost. There must be an explanation.”
Yes, Buddhism. Rebirth. Past Lives. Karma. The Buddha knows.
And a lesson for everyone outside baseball—about not dividing the world into friends, enemies, and “those to whom we are indifferent based merely on the experiences of this single short lifetime.”
Buddha Takes the Mound will have you yearning for more baseball. During this challenging year, we could all use a little more suffering … of the old-fashioned kind.
If you insist, I’ll dig up the tweet from the summer of 2018 to prove my immediate ‘wow’ reaction.
The story (the full title is “English 398: Fiction Workshop—Notes from Class & A Partial Draft By Brittany Wallace, Plus Feedback, Conference & More”) went on to win a slew of awards, including the Edgar Award for Best Short Story. Let me just say, those awards were deserved.
There’s a huge world of mystery short fiction, of course, but Art Taylor is clearly one of the best in the game. A quick check of all the shiny objects on his shelf will tell you all you need to know.
The decision to read Art’s new anthology, The Boy Detective & The Summer of ’74, was a no-brainer. The Four Corners Free Press this month published my review of the collection (click on the image to read the full review). The collection includes one story set right here in the Four Corner region–“Rearview Mirror,” which begins in Taos.
Art was kind enough to answer some questions, in thoughtful detail, via e-mail. Very honored to have Art stop by the blog!
Question: First, thank you for doing this! Starting out with a general question. Can you give us a little background on how long you’ve been writing short stories? When did you realize you had talent for short stories—specifically in the suspense / crime fiction realm? What was the intrigue of the form?
Art Taylor: I was first drawn toward short stories as a reader more than as a writer, though I imagine the two are inevitably linked. While some of the mysteries I loved as a child were novels—the Nancy Drew mysteries, The Three Investigators series—there were also the Encyclopedia Brown books and the five-minute mystery collections, all of those short stories ultimately. Sometime in late elementary school, early junior high, our school ran a fundraiser, with kids going door-to-door to sell magazines, and that was when I first subscribed myself for Ellery Queen’s Mystery Magazine—adult short stories then, and formative reading for sure. Add in Flannery O’Connor and Ernest Hemingway and John Cheever and more to that mix too—both in school and out. In part because of immersion in reading short fiction, both genre fiction and literary, I think my mind more naturally thinks in that form—the shapes of short stories, the tightness, the efficiency, the way a good one gestures toward a wider world. It’s amazing how much can be folded into such a small space, and I’m always trying to figure out ways to pack in more—that’s the ideal.
Question: In a few of the stories in The Boy Detective & the Summer of ’74, you don’t merely reference the classics, you embrace them—Caroline and Edward reading a copy of Murder on the Orient Express in a story called “Murder on the Orient Express” and Philip in “An Internal Complaint” copying Chekhov “as an exercise,” and Cooper Hobbes in the title story wanting to be “Encyclopedia Brown.” In a way, this could be taken as saying that there is really nothing new in crime fiction, short stories or otherwise. And in another way, the references give us a solid anchor to the story. Similarly, “Ithaca 37” references classic movies, from The Godfather to Taxi Driver and others. It’s a pretty nifty technique. Was it daunting to name a short story after an Agatha Christie classic? Is it daunting to reference Chekhov and nonetheless plunge ahead with a story? Why does this work so well, do you think?
Art Taylor: Here too I think that reading (and watching!) helped lead to writing in many ways. Often, other people’s storytelling—stories or books or films—prompt my own imagination into gear. My story “The Odds Are Against Us” was, in fact, directly inspired by a David Goodis story, and then, after writing it, I also realized I’d unconsciously folded in a little bit of Raymond Chandler’s The Long Goodbye, my favorite of his novels. And I mentioned earlier my own love of Encyclopedia Brown, so there’s a layer of autobiographical content in the title story of The Boy Detective too—and some additional layering, I guess: me reading Encyclopedia Brown, being inspired to write my own stories, then writing about a character reading Encyclopedia Brown, and him being inspired to become a detective and…
There and elsewhere, I’ve recognized the way I’m influenced by what I read and watch, and I’ve passed that along to my character too: people who see the world through the lens of the books and movies they’ve consumed.
Honestly, it wasn’t entirely intentional. Apparently, it’s just the way I see the world.
As for being daunted by conjuring up classic writers and classic texts… “An Internal Complaint” takes off on Chekhov’s “Lady with a Dog”—one of the most famous short stories of all time—and while I wouldn’t even joke about my work being in the same company as Chekhov—yikes!—I do hope that I’ve learned something from reading his stories and hope I’ve begun to apply some of what I’ve learned. It’s not meant as overconfidence or overambition in those cases, but more like nods of appreciation.
Question: Since I live out here a stone’s throw from the New Mexico border, can you tell us what led you to place Rearview Mirror in the west? What is it about the wide-open landscape and thieves-on-the-run that makes such a compelling combination? There’s a great fit here between setting and story. And how did “Rearview Mirror” grow from one story into a series that became a novel-in-stories format? What was it about Del and Louise that made you think there was more to discover?
Art Taylor: Oh, yes, there’s a story behind the story there—one particularly related to setting in several ways. The backstory is a little extensive, but I hope you might enjoy.
My wife and I took a fall trip to New Mexico many years ago—a week-long trip, our first visit to the Southwest: Albuquerque to Taos to Sante Fe and back. A great trip, one of our favorites. Several months later, the Washington Post announced its annual fiction contest—write a short story based on a specific photograph, and that year the photo was an overhead shot of a woman in the passenger seat of a convertible, kicked back, her legs up, and a desert scene in the background. My wife—Tara Laskowski, also a writer—said that each of us should enter the contest, and given that desert scene in the background, I ended up drawing on a lot of details from the trip we’d just taken.
Once I’d overlaid the idea of a getaway over the route my wife and I took, bringing in bits and pieces or our own adventures, and once I’d heard the voice of Louise, the narrator, in my head, talking about how she and her boyfriend Del were putting their life of crime behind them… well, I felt like I was following Louise as she traveled some of the same routes we had.
I ultimately blew past the maximum word-count for the contest, so I never submitted my story to the Post. It ultimately appeared in Ellery Queen’s Mystery Magazine.
But then there’s more to settings.
The ending of the “Rearview Mirror” opens up toward another beginning in some ways—a real estate job ahead in Victorville, California, a town I’d just picked randomly from the map; I didn’t think too much about it, because I never planned on following these characters anywhere further. It was only years later that I began to wonder what had happened next to Del and Louise, and I began to tinker around with a second adventure—which I decided to move to Napa Valley, because that was another trip I’d taken with my own wife. But then I actually started reading about Victorville and learned how it had been kind of a model for everything that went wrong when the housing market bubble burst and… and in the first story, I’d unknowingly sent my characters toward a real estate job there? In a manuscript I wrote before that bubble burst?
Serendipity—from a writing standpoint at least. I started fresh on that second story, relocated back to Victorville now… but then I still had all the leftover adventures from the Napa Valley story I’d been writing too, so a third story was loosely sketched out.
Ultimately, those stories were joined by three more—in Las Vegas, in South Dakota, and back in North Carolina (Louise’s home state and mine too)—to form my first book, the novel On the Road with Del & Louise. These individual adventures added into a longer road trip of a story, following both their physical journey across the U.S. and also their emotional journey, figuring out what those two title characters mean to one another, where they’re going in a bigger sense.
(And for me, writing a book this way helped me work within my comfort level and hopefully toward my strengths—using individual short stories as building blocks toward a bigger story.)
Question: Back to “Ithaca 37”— about a guy who pays a bit too much attention to movies about people who take the law into their own hands. There’s a low-grade creep factor to this story because we don’t know whether our narrator can tell the difference between stories and real life, even if we want to like him because he likes the same movies we do. Yikes. It’s a great technique. We know from the get-go that he takes his movies much too seriously. I’d love to know how this idea came about—especially the voice for the story itself.
Art Taylor: I often begin stories with the idea of an experiment or a challenge—and in this case the challenge involved an unreliable narrator: Can I tell a story where the narrator sees one thing and the reader sees another? More than seeing really: a story where the narrator says one thing and the reader understands another, with some levels of uneasiness and pity and pathos in the mix—that was the goal.
The idea came from a movie night and a Facebook post. On August 24, 2009 (I just looked it up to verify!) my wife and I watched Get Carter, the Michael Caine version (not the Stallone remake)—named by critics as the best British film of all time. I posted about the movie on Facebook, including a photo of Caine, and a friend of mine commented “Ithaca 37”—the kind of gun Caine’s character Carter carries in the photo. (I have friends who know these things.) The next day on FB, I made a second post: that the film and my friend’s comment had given me the idea for a new story—and I thank Adam Firestone again for that.
I love crime movies myself, and it was fun to use some favorites as the structure of a story where someone lives his life according to the lessons he’s taken from films like that—or the lessons he’s mistaken, that would be more the case.
Question: “English 398: Fiction Workshop” is one of those stories that leaps off the page as highly original. What was the moment of inspiration for this beauty? I’d love to think it came to you while you were teaching a class in writing. I have a hunch it might be one of those stories that almost wrote itself, but … maybe not? Did it take revision (as the story instructs its own author to do)?
Art Taylor: “English 398: Fiction Workshop” was another experimental story—more structurally experimental initially, in this case, rather than in terms of perspective and narration. And the inspiration was directly from the classroom. In fact, English 398 is the actual course number for the fiction workshop I teach at George Mason University.
The goal here was initially to tell a story by following the kinds of writing advice you’d get in a fiction workshop—explicitly having that advice interrupt the story in progress and shift either the prose or the plot as it’s unfolding.
It ultimately also became a different challenge—layering different storytellers against one another and folding in different voices (six ultimately, if I’m counting correctly) to narrate or comment on or even complain about the story.
The revision of all that was key, of course—following the writing advice itself, fine-tuning the sections and the voices, and then trimming it back to leave room for the reader to project their interpretation onto the story. The final section, told from the perspective of a writer for the student newspaper, also required a fair amount of work, trying to get that young woman to sound right, slang and swagger and all.
Question: Looking back on your early stories to what you’re writing now, has there been a change in your writing style? Your approach to the form?
Art Taylor: Stylistically, I’m not sure. I sometimes set out to try different things stylistically—as with the voice of that final narrator in “English 398”—and yet other people have said that my stories have a certain feel or style that stands out as mine. So maybe… not?
Formally, I do tend to veer from more traditional storytelling to more experimental—back and forth, almost one story to the next—and overall, I feel like I’ve gained more understanding of potential structures and approaches, more confidence about how stories might work. Hopefully there’s been growth.
Question: Does it get easier and easier to find ideas for short stories? Or harder and harder? When an idea comes to you, do you know early on whether you’ll be going first-person or third?
Art Taylor: Ha! Despite that last thing I said—greater understanding, more confidence—the truth is writing always seems hard: every story starts with a blank page, every one feels like I’m figuring it all out again. I just hope I’m bringing better perspectives to it. And I’m a super slow writer, so… while finding ideas might be easy, the writing itself usually feels hard.
Question: You’re editing the next short story anthology for Bouchercon, California Schemin.’ (Obviously, too bad there will be no actual conference to celebrate its publication.) But it’s not your first time taking on this role. Can you give us an idea how hard it is to winnow down the submissions? How much work goes into these collections? Given your teaching and writing schedule, what’s in it for you to take on these projects? What do you learn from reading others?
Art Taylor: The couple of times I’ve edited anthologies, I’ve tried to schedule a lot of the reading and editing around some gaps in my teaching schedule—but I still don’t always manage my time well. Solid deadlines help motivate.
I read 44 stories for the new anthology and selected 13 for publication, in addition to the stories contributed by the conference guests of honor: Cara Black, Anthony Horowitz, Catriona McPherson, Walter Mosley, Anne Perry, and Scott Turow. (More than 150 stories were submitted in total, and an initial panel of judges narrowed those down to the 44 I read—reading all of them blind, without my knowing who wrote them.)
So many of the stories I read were terrifc, and so many could’ve made the final cut. In addition to quality, I was looking for a good mix overall in many directions: traditional mystery, hard-boiled mystery, domestic suspense, noir, etc.; some humor here, something more serious there; diversity of characters too, of course. I was keeping one eye on the qualities of an individual story and another on the emerging feel of the anthology overall.
I’ve loved editing both these anthologies—and hope that the reception for California Schemin’ this fall will be as strong as it was for Murder Under the Oaks five years ago.
Question: Final question—the tried and true question: who are your favorite short story writers and who is one writer out there who might be a bit under the radar but who you think could use a bit more attention?
Art Taylor: I always come back to Stanley Ellin as a favorite. Back in 2011, at the St. Louis Bouchercon, Janet Hutchings, editor at Ellery Queen’s Mystery Magazine, mentioned that my writing reminded her of Ellin’s (I can now think of no higher compliment), and I went back and read all of the stories he published in EQMM. He set the bar for any short story writer to aspire toward: meticulous and elegant prose, clockwork-precise plotting, thematic depth, and some daring too—just look at “House Party” or “The Moment of Decision” to see what I mean.
I started out this interview talking about Ellery Queen’s Mystery Magazine and the writers there who influenced me—Ellin, Mignon Eberhart, Ed Hoch, Hugh Pentecost… These are the names that stand out in memory as ones I followed. But I also read Flannery O’Connor in school and Eudora Welty and Hemingway and… that list could go on.
As for contemporary writers I admire, there are many I could name here, but I hesitate to start for fear I’d leave out a friend I should mention. As for newer writers, stories newer to me, I want to give a special shout-out to Hector Acosta’s “Turistas”—a stunner of a tale from Angel Luis Colón’s collection ¡Pa’que Tu Lo Sepas! …though with Acosta’s story having been named a finalist for this year’s Edgar, Anthony, and Thriller Awards, I don’t know that he’ll be under anyone’s radar anymore.
I’m looking forward to reading more of his work and to seeing where his career goes next.
More information about Art at his website here.