Holly's note: Last week, I wrote a post about the woman who inspired my Anthony Award-nominated short story, "Queen of the Dogs, and I realized I wanted to hear what inspired some of the other nominated stories and novels. Art Taylor's short story, "Parallel Play," is also nominated (and recently won the 2017 Agatha Award) and he kindly agreed to tell me the story behind the story. The setting feels a bit like BIG LITTLE LIES for the Gymboree set (one of my favorite novels last year), and the story itself is straight-up, scary suspense.
Read "Parallel Play" for free here
As much as I hope “Parallel Play” succeeds as a story of suspense—a young mother’s struggle to protect both her child and herself against escalating threats—for me it’s ultimately a story about the anxieties, fears, and frustrations that often seem inherent in new parenthood, with some of those common and even everyday feelings and challenges amplified here, really taken to life-and-death extremes.
“Parallel Play” opens in a children’s activity center, and that’s where I first got the inspiration for the story. Because of my more flexible teaching schedule (I’m an associate professor of English at George Mason University), for the first couple of years of our son’s life, I took care of him during the day—teaching evening and online classes after my wife got home, relying at other times on babysitters for a few hours a week. One of my regular routines with our son was an hour-long class at Gymboree, where it turned out that I was the only father who showed up week after week. The mothers in the class bonded quickly with one another, but while they were all polite and even welcoming to me, it did seem like some distance persisted—likely for a variety of very understandable reasons—and watching those dynamics in action got my imagination percolating toward the dramas and troubles of the story here: subtle lines drawn, then crossed, and all of it underscored (again) by those usual struggles of being a new parents, including figuring out roles and responsibilities, what it means to be responsible for another human being and how to take care of yourself in the process.
The anthology where “Parallel Play” appears is CHESAPEAKE CRIMES: STORM WARNING, and that anthology’s theme was another prompt. In the story’s opening section, the young mother Maggie has one eye on her son Daniel and another out the big windows of the children’s play area—watching the storm brewing on the horizon. I myself remember looking out the windows of that Gymboree one day and watching dark clouds massing and rolling while I wondered—like Maggie—whether the class would finish and we could get back to the car without our umbrella. In the story, a forgotten umbrella helps set the plot in motion, and the storm’s growth and intensity ultimately mirror the rising drama and conflict—an old trope, I know, but I enjoyed playing with it here!
Finally, there’s an twisty, hilly road near our home in Northern Virginia which was very much the inspiration for the road Maggie drives home in that pouring rain—a treacherous road generally and one that serves as a larger (likely heavy-handed) metaphor as well, foreshadowing the rest of Maggie’s unfolding story, the new dangers potentially waiting around each twist and turn.
While my own young parenthood—thankfully!—lacked any of the intense struggles that Maggie endures here, it was various observations and bits and pieces of real life experiences and encounters that planted the seeds for the story, and I’ve been grateful for how all of it grew together so nicely.
Art Taylor is the author of ON THE ROAD WITH DEL & LOUISE: A NOVEL IN STORIES, winner of the Agatha Award for Best First Novel. He has won three additional Agatha Awards, an Anthony Award, a Macavity Award, and three consecutive Derringer Awards for his short fiction, and his work has appeared in BEST AMERICAN MYSTERY STORIES. He also edited MURDER UNDER THE OAKS: BOUCHERCON ANTHOLOGY 2015, winner of the Anthony Award for Best Anthology or Collection. He is an associate professor of English at George Mason University, and he contributes frequently to the Washington Post, the Washington Independent Review of Books, and Mystery Scene Magazine.
Thanks for hosting me today, Holly—and congrats on your own nomination. "Queen of the Dogs" is such a fine story!
Thanks, Art. I think this "story behind the story" is a great example of how authors don't get their ideas in one place. We often weave them together, adding fictitious plot elements as necessary, to create a unique narrative.
Great to have you as my guest today!
Really interesting, Art, to see where the story idea came from. It's all those little day to day things that writers turn into drama. Great story by the way!
Great post, Art--interesting insights into the genesis of the story. And I love the story too, of course!
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