When I first read Art Taylor’s “English 398: Fiction Workshop” in Ellery Queen Mystery Magazine, I was blown away at the idea and the execution.
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.