I first met Art Taylor at Bouchercon 2015 in Raleigh, at the luncheon for members of the Short Mystery Fiction Society, but I’ve been a fan of his for some time. It would seem I’m not the only one! Art Taylor has won two Agatha Awards, the Anthony Award, the Macavity Award, and three consecutive Derringer Awards for his short fiction. Stories have appeared in Ellery Queen’s Mystery Magazine, in the Chesapeake Crime anthologies This Job Is Murder and Homicidal Holidays, and in other journals and anthologies. His novel in stories On the Road With Del and Louise was published in September 2015 by Henery Press. He teaches at George Mason University in Fairfax, Virginia, and contributes frequently to the Washington Post and Mystery Scene.
Judy: Tell us a bit about your novel, On the Road with Del & Louise.
Art: While I’ve has some success in the short fiction department, I’ve struggled in the past to write a traditional novel; basically I have trouble modulating the pacing and properly interweaving plots and subplots—navigating that longer narrative arc. So my first book, On the Road with Del & Louise: A Novel in Stories, tries to build on my greater facility with short form fiction—the book comprises six individual stories—but to use those stories as building blocks toward a larger narrative arc.
Del is a small-time criminal and Louise is his lover (and the narrator), and the individual stories take them from Taos, New Mexico (an art gallery robbery) to Victorville, California (real-estate shenanigans) to Napa Valley (plans for a wine heist) to Las Vegas (a wedding chapel hold-up) to Williston, North Dakota (a kidnapping—sort-of) and finally back to Louise’s home town in North Carolina—to meet Mama, which might be the most dangerous adventure of all. So six stories, as I said, but in the process, these stories contribute toward a longer, overarching tale of two people trying to figure out what they mean to one another, and to build a life together—find direction, find a home, find themselves.
Judy: You’ve won a number of awards for your short crime fiction, and you’re very prolific. What’s the key to making a short story work?
Art: I’ve been very fortunate with the recognition my short fiction has received—and I’m glad that it looks like I’m prolific! I feel as if I write very slowly, and while other writers are publishing many short stories a year, I’m lucky if I have one or two on any given year. Part of my slowness is that I’m always tinkering and tightening (trying to tighten) my stories—and trying to figure them out, what the story is, what needs to be there, what doesn’t. Compression is the key word for me—compressing time, compressing description, compressing the plot to its central elements—but even knowing the key, I struggle to actually do it.
Judy: How difficult is it to sell short stories? Do you have any advice for others trying to break into that market?
Art: I think there are two ways of looking at the question. First, if your goal is to sell (with some emphasis on money) a short story to one of the two best-known, most-established markets these days—Ellery Queen and Alfred Hitchcock—there are challenges, solely because of the number of submissions they get and the amount of space they have in their issues.
However, a second point should be more encouraging: the market seems to be broadening with other print publications, anthologies (specifically the Sisters in Crime anthologies), and online venues for short fiction. Not all of these are paid, but they are read—and read widely—and readers are what we want, ultimately: folks who might be impressed by our writing and follow us to the next project.
As for advice, some of my suggestions are probably tried and true (but hopefully not trite): read the publications and familiarize yourself with them; hone your craft first and foremost; be patient—both with that craft and with the market.
Judy: What or who inspired you to become a writer?
Art: I think I’ve thought about being a writer for nearly as long as I’ve been reading—the two things so hand in hand in my mind that it’s hard to separate the two. I loved books and stories, and the idea of writing one myself seemed the highest calling. But definitely there have been folks along the way who’ve encouraged me as a writer, pushed me higher—maybe first and foremost Betsy Travis, who was my junior high school English teacher for three years and who introduced us to a foundation in the classics (on the one hand) and who always pushed us to be better, better, better in whatever we were writing. I’d coasted along, I think, through other English classes, and one of my first big assignments for her earned me a C—the worst grade I’d ever gotten, the whole page marked up with places where I could’ve expressed myself with greater clarity and precision. That marked for me a turning point, I think, in the idea that writing isn’t simply filling the page with words but really involves careful craftsmanship. I still have that assignment, red marks and all, on my bookshelf, these several decades later.
Judy: Can you describe your writing process for us?
Art: It’s funny. Back during the summer, I’d developed what I thought of as a productive routine: dropping my son off at pre-school (he’s three), going to my office on campus, making a cup of tea, logging into a jazz station on Pandora, answering emails, then settling in for several hours of writing; also on the routine: reading a short story at lunch—reading and writing going hand in hand always, the former informing and inspiring the latter. Now that the new semester of teaching has gotten underway, that schedule has imploded a little bit. I still have my tea (need the caffeine!) and I still put on Pandora, but the emails are coming faster and more furiously, and lesson prep, teaching, and grading are dominating much more of the day. I try to keep on top of some writing schedule, but it’s much more fragmented these days!
Judy: What’s the best writing advice you have ever read or been given?
Certainly in light of that imploded schedule I mentioned, I always have to remind myself of Anne Lamott’s great book Bird by Bird. It’s easy to feel overwhelmed by how much there is to finish on a given writing project, but it’s all bird by bird, word by word, step by step—and as long as you’re making some movement in the right direction, you’ll ultimately get where you’re going.
That’s good advice not just for individual projects but also in a larger sense; aspiring writers should remember that publication, success, etc. all takes time. As I said above: patience with craft of writing, patience with the business of writing—that patience and steadfast determination is the key to success.
Judy: What’s next for you?
Art: I’m working right now on two projects. First, I’m trying to finish a story that I hope to submit to EQMM; it’s one I’ve been working on for a while—one with a long history: started out as a too-short short story (not enough weight), grew into one of two strands in a failed novel (a strand that suddenly weighed in too heavy, at nearly 190 pages), and is now being trimmed, trimmed, trimmed back into shape (an arduous process). Second, I’m about halfway done drafting a series of interconnected novellas that I hope will be my next book for Henery Press. They’re about an agoraphobic rare book dealer and a spunky young accountant. I’m sure Henery’s marketing team is jazzed up for that combo, right?
Thank you, Art.