By Wendy Tyson
I first met Art Taylor last year at Bouchercon in Long Beach, California. It was the opening ceremony, and Art, who was up for an Anthony Award for his short story “The Care and Feeding of Houseplants” (Ellery Queen Mystery Magazine, March/April 2013), struck me as bitingly funny, unerringly gracious, and remarkably calm (particularly for someone nominated for a prestigious award). Those first impressions have proved true. I’ve had the great fortune of getting to know Art over the last year, and I continue to be struck by his depth, sense of humor, and genuine humility, especially impressive coming from a man who has six literary awards and two new nominations to his name. He deserves the accolades. Just sink into Art’s latest work, On The Road With Del and Louise: A Novel in Stories, and you will be treated to a fresh voice in crime fiction.
The Thrill Begins had the chance to catch up with Art recently.
Congratulations on the recent release of On the Road with Del and Louise: A Novel in Stories. This book constitutes an unusual twist on the mystery genre—a complete novel told in a series of six interconnecting short stories, each of which follows the two main characters, Del and Louise, as they make their way across the United States on a madcap road trip. Along the way, Del and Louise are involved in a series of criminal acts, including a Vegas wedding chapel hold-up and a kidnapping in North Dakota, but it’s the progression of Del’s and Louise’s relationship, and their attempts to go straight, that will also intrigue readers. Can you share a little bit about Del and Louise, including how they began this journey together?
The first of Del and Louise’s stories, “Rearview Mirror,” detailing Del’s supposed “last” crime, was actually inspired by a trip to New Mexico that my wife, Tara, and I took back in Fall 2007. Our adventures were nothing like Del’s and Louise’s, of course—no art gallery robbery, and at no point did Tara consider pulling a gun on me (I don’t think!)—but the places we travelled and the places they travelled overlap quite a bit. How that happened: In its Valentine’s Day 2008 issue, the Washington Post Magazine announced that year’s fiction contest inviting short stories inspired by a specific photo, and my wife, who’s also a writer, challenged each of us to enter. The photo showed a woman in the passenger seat of a convertible, her legs kicked up out the window, and a desert-looking landscape in the background. So I drew on both the photo and our own recent trip to the Southwest and just started writing. Pretty quickly, my story blew past the maximum word-count for the contest, so when I finished it, I submitted to Ellery Queen’s Mystery Magazine instead and was thrilled when they took it, and thrilled too at the response to it, including the fact that it won me my first Derringer Award.
But even with that reception, I had never thought about following these characters any further, at least not until a few years had passed, and I began to wonder about what might have happened next, at that next destination of theirs, the job that Del’s sister had promised him, and what troubles the two of them might get into with that. All that in mind, I wrote a sequel (of sorts) to one of my stories for the first time, and then my imagination started rolling out further, picturing not just other adventures for them but also a longer narrative arc, a longer overall journey that wasn’t just the next stop along the way but really addressed the questions of “Where are we going, the two of us?” and “Where do we want to end up?” and maybe “Who are we in the middle of all this?”
Do you envision Del and Louise continuing in future works?
Currently, I don’t have any plans of revisiting them. I do feel like their story has been told in full at this point, the story as I envisioned it. But obviously I once had that same thought about the first story, and you can see where that eventually led. And in the final pages of the book, Del and Louise are indeed contemplating another kind of employment…one which at least provides the potential for other adventures sometime down the road. Never close a door, right?
On the Road with Del and Louise: A Novel in Stories is your first full-length book, but you’ve been writing mysteries for some time, primarily in the form of short stories. In fact, your short stories have won two Agatha Awards, a Macavity Award, three Derringer Awards, and you have been named a finalist for an Anthony Award twice. That’s quite a list of accolades. What do you enjoy about writing short fiction? How did you get the idea to write interconnecting short stories that read like a novel? Do you see a “traditional” novel in your future?
Maybe it’s having come through so many fiction workshops in school—including not one but two graduate programs in creative writing, yikes!—but I’ve come to think more naturally at the scope of short-form fiction. Often, if I’ve got an idea for a short story, it’ll brew in my head for a while before I start writing anything, and I like being able to keep the entirety of a short story in my imagination, at least in terms of its shape and plot twists and whatever. Anytime I’ve tried to write a traditional novel, I keep stumbling over the pacing or fumbling with this amorphous mass of scenes that never seem to join together right. So the idea of six self-contained tales, each of which contributed building-block style to a larger story—well, that seemed a good fit, good way to trick myself, and hopefully I was also building on some of my own better skills, putting them in service of a full book.
I do sometimes envision a more traditional novel, though each of the projects that I have in mind now are tending again toward short-form fiction or some assemblage of short stories in service of a larger design. Maybe I am indeed simply conditioned to think that way now, but the short story community is also a terrific one, a great one to call home.
While parts of On the Road with Del and Louise are funny, the book also deals with some heavy topics. What themes do you find yourself drawn to again and again?
This probably seems too general, but for me, it’s all about relationships: whether that’s husband and wife or lovers or other kinds of family relationships (mother and son or brother and sister or whatever) or just best friends. What fascinates me is the intersection where responsibility to the relationship meets responsibility to the self or where various kinds of betrayal might find their way into a relationship’s dynamics, by which I mean both betrayal of another person (betrayal of a trust in some way) or betrayal of oneself, one’s own beliefs or values or decisions. While some of my fiction would likely be categorized as pretty dark, On the Road with Del & Louise is much, much lighter in several ways, but to my mind, most all of those stories circle around the same questions and concerns, even if the tone or the circumstances may seem to shift fairly widely.
In addition to writing mysteries, you are a full-time college professor and have a family, which is a lot to balance. What does your writing routine look like? Where is your favorite place to write?
Oh, I wish I did have a solid routine these days! Ideally, I’d dive into my writing first thing in the morning before any of the other distractions of the day have irreparably frayed my attention. Once I do get started, the momentum builds and I feel like I can accomplish something, and I always keep “Write First!!!” (with just that many exclamation points) as the top item on the to-do list on my iPhone. But more often than not, writing for myself might be the last thing I get to, if I get to it. Right now, that item is six days overdue…but it’s start of semester and my first book out and…well, dishes to be done or whatever.
Worst case scenario, I at least try to “check in” on my writing every day—jot down a note about what I might do next, or read a passage to stay “in” the draft somehow, or even just give my mind time to wander over what I’m working on, to stay in touch. Best case scenario, I try to meet specific goals for a draft-in-progress; I don’t work by word count (500 words a day or whatever) and I don’t work by some time quota (two hours, say), but instead try to stay task-oriented: finish drafting this scene or revise this scene or brainstorm more about this character’s motivation or consider alternative endings or….
I write these days in my office on campus usually, though sometimes at the local library if I need a change of venue. I have tea. I play the John Coltrane station on Pandora. I try to avoid Facebook, no matter how it calls to me.
How did your journey to publication begin? Along the way, what was the best piece of writing advice you ever received? The worst? What would you, in turn, tell aspiring authors?
I was writing even as a kid—entering poetry contests back in elementary school—so maybe I always had my eye on this career, even though it’s ultimately taken me a long time from there to my first book publication. While I had success in school, winning a couple of fiction contests in high school, for example, I too often treated writing as a hobby, and it took the shift toward thinking of this as a real career probably later than I should’ve, in my 30s, to help move my writing along in a real way.
Best advice: I always go back to Anne Lamott’s Bird by Bird and especially the chapter on “Shitty First Drafts.” I’m a very, very slow writer at times, and I muddle through a lot of stuff that doesn’t work, and it’s easy to feel pretty lowly when things are going right. It’s helpful to remind myself that even the crappy stuff is part of the process and that in the long run if you take things one step at a time while keeping the bigger perspective it should all work out OK.
Worst advice: “Write first thing in the morning every morning”—not because I think it’s wrong for me (I actually think I work best that way, as I said) but because the person giving that advice steadfastly dismissed the idea that any other approach might be suitable. I firmly believe writers need to find the process that works best for them: writing morning or night, writing every day or not, writing to music or in silence, or….
My advice: Find that best writing process for you; find three writing peers who will give you constructive criticism, supportive but not blindly supportive, and always criticism that respects what you’re trying to do and then stick with it. Maintain patience both with developing your craft and then with how long it may take to get published.
Author Jenny Milchman hosts a fabulous blog called “Made It Moments” in which authors share the moment they knew they’d made it in the publishing industry. What did that pinnacle moment look like for you?
I am not at all being coy when I say I don’t feel that I’ve “made it” in the publishing industry. I’ve been very fortunate in so many, many ways: in terms of being a regular contributor to Ellery Queen, for example, and in terms of the awards and honors I’ve received, and now with a new book from a fine publisher. But hardly a day passes without the lurking fear that I’ll never write anything worthwhile again, that whatever I’m currently working on is destined for failure. I’m patient, I’m always patient, I always maintain hope. But it’s never a feeling of “I’ve arrived!” as much as a feeling that I hope no one turns around and asks me to leave.
Short answer time!
Coffee or tea? Tea! Morning, late afternoon, and sometime after dinner too. We have a toddler who’s a night owl.
Online news or old-school newspaper? I subscribe to the Washington Post and read the front page and the Style section in print, but usually the rest online.
Cats or dogs? Can I go with “c”? Our cats have recently started terrorizing us in the middle of the night.
M&Ms or Skittles? M&Ms with peanuts, not plain. (And have you tried the ones with almonds? Killer good.)
Laverne or Shirley (come on, I know you know who they are, Art…) Shirley. Also, Mary Ann on Gilligan’s Island. I mean, just in case you were wondering.
Island resort or off the beaten path? Off the beaten path for sure. My wife says I don’t know how to just sit and relax, though beachy cocktails would probably help.
Romance or horror? My wife likes horror movies, but I’m drawn more toward romantic comedy. It shows in my work, I know.
Chaucer or Byron? Chaucer! I can still recite most of the opening passage of The Canterbury Tales in Old English, though with a poor accent, I’ll admit. “Whan that Aprill with its shoures soote, the droghte of March hath perced to the roote….” My seventh-grade teacher had us all memorize it and recite it, and it’s stuck with me pretty well. (I typed most of that correctly before having to go back and fix the spelling of shoures and droghte.)
What’s next for you?
I’ve been juggling a couple of projects: a novella-length piece that I’m hoping to submit to Ellery Queen’s Mystery Magazine—their 75th year next year!—and then a trio of interconnected novellas about a reclusive book dealer and a young accountant who team up to solve crimes connected with (or resonant with) works by classic crime writers. It’s, um, coming along… sort-of. I’m patient, like I said.
Art Taylor has won two Agatha Awards, a Macavity Award, and three consecutive Derringer Awards for his short fiction in addition to being twice named a finalist for the Anthony Award. 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. On the Road With Del and Louise was published in September 2015 by Henery Press. He teaches at George Mason University and contributes frequently to the Washington Post and Mystery Scene.
Wendy Tyson has written four published crime novels, including Dying Brand, the third novel in the Allison Campbell Mystery Series, which was released on May 5, 2015. The first in the Campbell series, Killer Image, was named a best mystery for book clubs in 2014 by Examiner.com. Wendy is also the author of the Greenhouse Mystery Series, the first of which, A Muddied Murder, is due to be released in spring 2016. Wendy is a member of Sisters in Crime and International Thriller Writers, and she is a contributing editor for The Big Thrill, the International Thriller Writers’ online magazine.