Thursday, December 10, 2015

The Art Taylor Interview

By Steve Weddle

By the time you read this, author Art Taylor has likely overtaken drummer Art Taylor on internet searches.

This week Kirkus Reviews called Taylor's On the Road with Del & Louise one of the year's promising debuts. (They also had high praise for the newest from our own John McFetridge.)

As for Official Art Taylor stuff, here you go: Taylor's short stories have won two Agatha Awards, the Macavity Award, an Anthony Award, and three consecutive Derringer Awards. His fiction has appeared frequently in Ellery Queen's Mystery Magazine,

On the Road with Del and Louise is Taylor's first book, a novel in stories.
Del’s a small time crook with a moral conscience—robbing convenience stores only for tuition and academic expenses. Brash and sassy Louise goes from being a holdup victim to Del’s lover and accomplice. All they want is a fresh start, an honest life, and a chance to build a family together, but fate conspires to put ever-steeper challenges in their path—and escalating temptations, too.
A real estate scam in recession-blighted Southern California. A wine heist in Napa Valley. A Vegas wedding chapel holdup. A kidnapping in an oil-rich North Dakota boomtown. Can Del and Louise stay on the right side of the law? On one another’s good side? And when they head back to Louise’s hometown in North Carolina, what new trouble will prove the biggest: Louise’s nagging mama or a hidden adversary seemingly intent on tearing the couple apart? Or could those be one and the same? 
I recently caught up with Art Taylor at a rest stop east of Lexington. Well, I was at the rest stop, because of some questionable dietary choices (Chicken Florentine, "Mama's Egg Nog," etc) I'd made a few hours earlier at a place that used to be a Texaco but is now just called "The Gas Up." I don't know where Art Taylor was, but he was somewhere answering my emails. It went something like this--

DSD: Donna Andrews said your book was “warm yet unsentimental.” That seems a difficult balance. How do you manage that?

Art Taylor: I appreciate Donna saying that—and I hope she’s right, because it does indeed strike me as a difficult balance, and I’m not sure how well I pulled it off. I do hope that readers will feel the same warmth and affection for Del and Louise as I felt myself—I like them, and I’m rooting for them—but I think it’s awfully easy for affection and admiration to veer into sentimentality. I often stress to students in the fiction workshops I lead at George Mason that we want to keep overt emotions off the page as much as possible—that such moves risk being shrill or maudlin or melodramatic or whatever, ultimately alienating readers; instead (I tell them) we simply need to leave space for the reader to project his or her own emotions into a situation—sketch out the situation objectively enough but clearly enough that some emotional response is sparked. Warmth for characters, coldness of artistic approach—that subjectivity and objectivity in equal measure, I guess. Again, I’m not sure I pull it off well, but I appreciate Donna’s own warmth and generosity with her assessment.

DSD:  Why did you choose this form for this book? Why not a more standard novel?

AT: The “novel in stories” approach wasn’t entirely a choice—not in the sense that I had planned this project in full from the start. “Rearview Mirror,” the first story in the book, was originally intended as a standalone story: Del, a small-time crook, and his lover Louise on the road after a final heist and en route to an honest life—but at the same time struggling with one another about whether to splurge a little with that big windfall or save it all, an investment for the future. The couple found themselves at a crossroads (to keep that road metaphor alive a little), and that single story resolves whether they’re going to stay together or part ways. Where they are at the end of the tale seemed to me a fully resolved—a happily-ever-after kind of ending.

But after a couple of years, I began to wonder what did happen at that next stop of theirs—the start of that honest life. I liked Louise as a narrator, liked her voice, and I found myself percolating over their life beyond the end of the story. One thing led to another, and I’d ended up writing another adventure, with notes toward a third stop too. The more I considered their lives, the more I realized that these individual adventures were indeed simply legs on a longer journey—toward each of them understanding themselves more, toward figuring out their relationship, toward that search for family and for home.

I think better at the length of the short story—I can keep it all in my head while I construct it, and I can handle the structure and the pacing more easily than a longer narrative. But I liked the idea of using those short stories as building blocks toward a bigger story, and I hope that it worked, the way I stumbled into it all.

DSD: What is it about these characters that makes them interesting for you, as a writer?

AT: Louise’s voice was always one of the biggest draw for me. I’m not entirely sure where that voice came from—where she came from—but I liked her attitude, her perspective, that sassiness and that heart. Del may be the one literally behind the wheel, but Louise's voice drives the story, every step of the way.

Beyond that, however, the question of morals fascinated me. Del’s a criminal, and Louise has no hesitation about being part of the criminal lifestyle, but they also have a complex approach to right and wrong, and the question of ethics dominates their actions with greater intensity as each story unfolds; by “The Chill”—for me the make-or-break story here—Louise wonders openly about the cost of their misdeeds, about how their crimes may be catching up to them. I hesitate to say that the stories become more philosophical, but there is indeed some hint of existential querying here, some sense of ethical dilemma, and for me, those dilemmas and that querying prove pivotal.

DSD: In a recent interview, Ian Rankin said he begins with what he calls "themes" --
"My books begin with a theme that I want to explore or a question I want to find an answer to. It can be something like racism, xenophobia, human trafficking, immigration."

Whether topics or themes, most of the old masters of crime fiction worked with recurring themes in their stories. Loyalty. Isolation. Greed. I'm thinking about Hammett and Chandler here, though similar themes appear in much of the great crime fiction. Agatha Christie works with this pallete, plus the idea that anyone who has traveled to India is likely the killer, of course. Do you find yourself coming back to some of the same themes from story to story? Do you find yourself revisiting topics? If so, how do keep these themes from becoming tropes?

Art Taylor
AT: I always enjoy writers who set out to tackle big themes in their work—search out and provide deeper insights on some aspect of the wider world and pervasive troubles. One of my own favorite mystery writers, Margaret Maron, has devoted novels to various social and economic issues of concern to her native North Carolina: racism, gender prejudices, real estate overdevelopment and the loss of agrarian traditions, the plight of an aging population.

But I have to admit that I’ve generally tried to avoid in my own work writing toward such themes—and I regularly caution writers in my student workshops at George Mason University from starting with a theme themselves in their fiction (instead of starting with character, situation, conflict). I think it’s too easy, when starting with theme, to end up writing toward our beliefs on a theme or issue instead of illuminating that theme/issue in its full complexity—too easy to become didactic or preachy. At the very least, I’ve feared that for myself.

Let me stress, however, that I do think writers can accomplish great things working like Rankin says he does—but I also think powerful themes can evolve out of character and situation and plot. It’s that latter that seems to me the better path maybe. I think back to some of the power of Eudora Welty’s writing and her own comments about writing toward a theme. Here’s how she answered a question about all that in the book Mississippi Writers Talking: "I think that would’ve paralyzed me. No, the thing at hand is the one…. I didn’t have an overall idea about working toward something. I think such things evolve of themselves out of the work. It sort of teaches you as you go. You learn what you’re writing about, in one sense, through the work.”

In my own work, I do see certain themes recurring—more general than specific maybe. My characters are generally struggling with relationship questions, whether in terms of romance, friendship, or family: the responsibilities at the heart of being in a relationship, in conflict often with other responsibilities, whether relationships in other directions or responsibility to self or to some point of integrity. Many possibilities for missteps, for betrayal, and it’s those conflicts, those moments, that I seem to keep gravitating toward—even as I feel like I’m always starting out crafting unique characters and unexpected situations or whatever.

DSD: Many authors avoid social media. Many authors use social media to do little more than share positive reviews of their own work. Do you find social media helpful to authors in general? To you in particular?

AT: I’ve always enjoyed Facebook in particular for connections and for conversation—with friends and fellow writers and now, suddenly, increasingly, with readers too (a new development with the book). I worry with these new developments, especially around launch week back in September, that my posts have become too promotional at times. What’s the line between sharing good news with friends and promoting your work to potential buyers? It’s a fine one, and I’ve caught myself thinking more about when I’m oversharing stuff about myself.

To my mind, to echo my earlier phrase, I think that the first goal should be connection and conversation, not promotion, and I’ve tried to limit things like “buy links” (Amazon, whatever) to my author page, where I feel like it’s more acceptable. And even then, I have no clue how such overtly promotional efforts might impact sales or other kinds of success—no faith that it will and no disappointment either if it doesn't. (And overall, my bigger concern is how much Facebook and social media in general becomes a distraction—eating away at focus and writing time.)

DSD: In talking about short stories, I’ve begun to think of ‘conflict’ as the most important element, at least on the structural side of things. Conflict causes tension, of course, but it also induces movement. For you, what are the most important elements in successful storytelling?

AT: The genesis of most of my stories lies in character or situation—not in a fully mapped-out plot. In fact, with one of the first of my stories that got big recognition, "A Voice from the Past," I wrote half of it following through on a situation and then had no idea what to do next. I ended up just setting it aside for a couple of years, letting it sit, letting the ideas sit, and then diving back in with fresh perspective on how the conflict might escalate.

I emphasize that story to separate out where stories start for me and where they have to go. I don't chart out plots as part of my prep in the classical sense that we might study plot in the classroom (rising action, climax, denouement, whatever), but I do think about such peaks, locate and analyze them, between draft and revision: where a story moves, where it needs to move, where it falters. That's not to say that every scene should end on a cliffhanger or even that every section of a story has to escalate the stakes somehow. There's a lot that can be accomplished by a reflective pause or by dialogue that's not plot-driven or even by description (whatever Elmore Leonard says about it). But overall, plot and storytelling ultimately go hand in hand for me—plot is the scaffolding on which I hang a lot of other stuff.

DSD: Finally, you've written mostly in the mystery genre. Gun to your head: You have to write a novel in one of the following slots. Which way do you go -- Space Opera, Historical Romance, non-fiction study of the Kardashians?

AT: Space Opera—no hesitation. But I'd want to add some actual opera into it—not just the high adventure and big melodrama, but singing too, you know? Darth Vader could've put that deep baritone to interesting use in a barbershop quartet, after all.



Art Taylor said...

Thanks so much for hosting me here, Steve. Fun questions! And hope I held up my end of it with the answers. :-)

Kristi said...

Great interview!

Paula Gail Benson said...

Wonderful interview. Art, if you need collaboration on your Space Opera, I'm available.

Anonymous said...


Kathleen A. Ryan said...

Thanks, Steve, for interviewing Art. Interesting questions and terrific responses. I was fortunate to meet the talented Art Taylor at Bouchercon in Raleigh this year. His book was sold out, but I was able to get a copy from another table, and I was thrilled to get it. I've been a fan of Art's writing for years, and so happy for him with this book, and all his worthy awards!

Art Taylor said...

Aw, Kathy! Thanks for the nice comments on me and my book! It was great meeting you and spending time at Bouchercon--and looking forward to getting together again before long!

And Paula--catching up, but let's talk about that space opera, right? ;-)

Happy holidays to all!