BCW interview with short story master Art Taylor

Love short stories? Ever wanted to write one? You could do no better than to take advice from award-winning short-story artist Art Taylor. Art’s with us today to give us an inside look into his process and journey to publication. But first, a little background:

Art Taylor

Art Taylor is the author of the story collection The Boy Detective & The Summer of ’74 and Other Tales of Suspense and of the novel in stories On the Road with Del & Louise, winner of the Agatha Award for Best First Novel. He won the 2019 Edgar Award for Best Short Story for “English 398: Fiction Workshop,” originally published in Ellery Queen’s Mystery Magazine, and he has won three additional Agatha Awards, an Anthony Award, four Macavity Awards, and four Derringer Awards for his short fiction. His work has also appeared in Best American Mystery Stories, and he edited Murder Under the Oaks: Bouchercon Anthology 2015, winner of the Anthony Award for Best Anthology or Collection, and California Schemin’: Bouchercon Anthology 2020. He is an associate professor of English at George Mason University

The Boy Detective & The Summer of ’74 and Other Tales of Suspense features 16 stories that have collectively won an Edgar Award, an Anthony Awards, four Agatha Awards, three Macavity Awards, and three Derringer Awards. From his first story for Ellery Queen’s Mystery Magazine in 1995 to his latest for Alfred Hitchcock’s Mystery Magazine — the title story, 25 years in the making — this collection charts the development of Art Taylor’s career so far, and turns the page toward more stories still ahead.

Connie Berry, BCW: Art, welcome to Buckeye Crime Writers! You’ve won just about every award there is for your short crime fiction. Who are the writers who inspire you, and what first attracted you to this particular genre?

Art Taylor: I’ve been extremely fortunate for all the generosity the mystery community has shown my work — and I’ve felt fortunate too for all the many writers throughout that tradition who’ve guided my own work. Whatever I might know about plotting and pacing, about surprise and suspense, it probably stretches back along some indirect line to my own early favorites: Encyclopedia Brown, Nancy Drew, The Three Investigators. (And I’ve enjoyed re-discovering that last series again now, reading them to our 9-year-old son, Dash). My teenage years were fed by Agatha Christie, Ian Fleming, John D. MacDonald, and a lot of issues of Ellery Queen’s Mystery Magazine, and more recently I find myself coming back again and again to Stanley Ellin and Patricia Highsmith and, just lately, some of Ruth Rendell’s short fiction. And there’s a whole batch of literary authors too who’ve inspired; my wife and I recently watched the Hemingway documentary on PBS, and I was reminded how influential he was on my idea of how short fiction could work.

These are all older writers, I know, and there are others today too who both wow me as a reader and urge me onward from a writer’s perspective as well — year after year new discoveries and delights! — but I hesitate to name any for fear of leaving out too many great writers and great friends.

CB: How would you describe the differences between short fiction and full-length novels? Some people assume writing short fiction is easier than writing longer works. In your experience, is this true?

AT: Ha! Given that I’ve never successfully written a traditionally structured novel myself, it seems like I’d have to say short fiction is easier! But the truth is, I’m not sure that’s the case.

Because of my own reading and love of short stories, my mind just seems to have geared itself somehow toward thinking in the short form, and I do like the idea of being able to keep in my head the various parts of a story I’m working on — something I simply can’t do with a longer narrative. But I’ve heard the opposite too from well-known, prolific novelists who’ve told me they struggle to write short stories — it just doesn’t come naturally to them, not enough space to do what they want to do.

The novel seems to me a work that relies on accumulation — whether more characters or more depth into some characters or more plot lines and more subplots and more… words, obviously.

The short story, by comparison, relies on subtraction, trimming and condensing and compressing — or at least that’s the way I work, usually writing longer drafts and then deciding what really needs to be there for the story.

I recently wrote the essay “The Short Mystery” for the new Mystery Writers of America handbook How to Write a Mystery, and as I emphasized there, short fiction requires a little more concentrated focus, as well as attention to economy and efficiency. Instead of a full portrait of a setting, what’s the detail or two that will bring it alive? Instead of a long conversation, what bits of dialogue are necessary to develop character, push the plot forward, or — ideally — do both at the same time? I personally like all that folding and compressing and distilling.

CB: Has your writing changed over the years? If so, how?

AT: I’ve actually had the chance recently to reflect on this very question. The hardcover of my new collection, The Boy Detective & The Summer of ’74 and Other Tales of Suspense, comes with an extra perk: a separate pamphlet with the earliest draft of the title story; that earliest draft, titled “Burying the Bone,” dates back to the 1994 — more than twenty-five years before the final version, “The Boy Detective & The Summer of ’74,” was published in Alfred Hitchcock’s Mystery Magazine. (You can read the AHMM story for free at my website right now.) Looking at the two stories side by side, the other one looks thinner to me, and not just because the final version is three times longer than the original. I hope I’ve become a better writer when it comes to crafting characters who are more complex and plots that have more layers to them and folding in some thematic weight to the whole thing too. Plus there’s the whole question of endings — the hardest thing for me to write, always, but I do hope I’m better now at getting them tuned right, not just easy wrap-ups but some image or action or statement that resonates a bit more, carries the reader forward beyond the last line, giving them something more to think about.

I started to say I think I’m in general better at the whole economy, efficiency, focus thing too, but “The Boy Detective” is nearly 12,000 words long, and the draft of a story I’m revising right now —  “The Adventure of the Castle Thief” — is more than 18,000 words, so what the heck do I know? I’m still learning — always!

The Boy Detective & The Summer of ’74/Art Taylor

CB: You recently collaborated with your wife, Tara Laskowski, on a short story entitled “Both Sides Now” for The Beat of  Black Wings: Crime Fiction Inspired by the Songs of Joni Mitchell (Untreed, 2020). Is that the first time you’ve written together? How did that work?

AT: Tara and I were really pleased with the end result, a series of letters between husband and wife — “both sides” of their story, to echo the song — with the husband in prison trying to encode messages about where his wife can find a stash of stolen money and the wife having some plans of her own. There’s a playfulness to the story, I hope — both in the codes and in the twistiness of the relationship — but the writing process was a little more grueling, I have to admit. Tara is a much quicker writer, while I spend too long staring at the page, trying to figure out what this character should want or do or say next. Tara would send me her section and then wait and wait and wait and… and when I sent finally sent my section back, she’d whip up her next one and shoot it back my way and… her wait would begin again.

Despite the differences in our process, we did write another story together, one that we really love, actually, but it’s a kind of fan fiction, using some well-known, well-loved characters, and we have no idea if we’ll ever get permission to have it published.

CB: As a teacher in the English department of the George Mason University, you meet young people aspiring to be writers. What is the best advice you can give them?

AT: It seems simple, but: Keep writing!

I’m consistently amazed by the imagination and the dedication of students in my classes — and their productivity too. In any given creative writing course, I regularly require students to write two stories a semester — a pace I could hardly keep myself — and yet they step up to the challenge time and again, with drafts that often still need a lot of polish but that nearly always show great creativity and energy and potential, something on the page that wasn’t there before, something they can work with. One of the great joys of my work is following students in our BFA program in creative writing from their first semesters at Mason through their last — watching their writing evolve and improve so much in such a short span of time. And I always hope that they’ll carry that momentum forward, keep writing, keep growing.

That’s good advice for all of us, of course: keep getting words on the page, keep trying to make the next story better than the last, don’t put down the pen, even if it seems the easier thing to do.

And I’ll add “keep reading” too, because that’s another way I learn — by seeing how other writers have done it and trying to make some of those same moves myself.

CB: What’s coming next for you?

AT: Needless to say, the past year has been difficult for nearly everybody, and in 2020, I wrote very, very little — despite my own advice above to “Keep Writing!” More recently, though, I’ve been gaining traction again. I’m revising one big story now — “The Castle Thief,” as I mentioned — and have a couple more already out on submission. Fingers crossed that I’ll have good news before long.

And I’ve got a few novels ideas lurking around… just trying to figure out how to regear my brain in that direction too.

CB: Art, thank you so much for stopping by and sharing your story. I’m looking forward to “The Castle Thief!” Best of luck — and keep writing!

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