Wednesday, May 31, 2017

The Story Behind the Story: Parallel Play by Art Taylor

Guest Post by Art Taylor

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

Here's what Art has to say about "Parallel Play:"

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.

Tuesday, May 30, 2017

Clues and Solutions

In Dennis Potter's great TV miniseries, The Singing Detective, the main character Philip Marlow, a mystery writer, talks about the public's yearning for works of art that yield to easy undestanding: "People want all solutions and no clues," he says. "What I want is all clues and no solutions."

Though he writes mystery stories, Marlow doesn't believe in their basic premise. They have everything backwards, he argues. Getting clues and hints and suggestions that lead to guesses and doubt and a constant measure of uncertainty is how life actually works on a daily basis, he says. 

I'm reminded of this quote because of Twin Peaks: The Return, of course, and how the idea of clues being predominant over solutions is basically a guiding principle in the work of David Lynch.  I'm a huge Lynch fan and I couldn't be happier that Twin Peaks is back. Not everyone loves Twin Peaks or Lynch's films, and I get that, and I don't want to get into a sweeping analysis of Lynch's work in general and Twin Peaks in particular (the old show or the new one) here. But it's curious to think about how the idea of creating work centered more around clues than answers and solutions is so rarely explored in television, even in this age when so much good stuff is made.  

First off, let's be honest: Marlow in The Singing Detective overstates the case by saying he wants "no solutions." A book, film or TV series that has no solution whatsoever after an abundance of clues and questions would prove frustrating. It's precisely the movement from puzzlement to clarity and understanding that makes mystery stories forever popular and satisfying.  So a work with a lot of clues should provide some answers.  That goes without saying.  But the answers don't necessarily have to be spelled out or easily digestible or readily apparent to the viewer (if we're talking film or TV).  And it's here that Lynch excels like nobody else.  A narrative can proceed structured around a number of simultaneously unfolding mysteries (which each have their clues), and the viewer, instead of making linear, rational, point to point mental connections among the clues, makes more intuitive or subconscious connections. Some of the mysteries in the drama may be answered clearly while others remain murky.  What's certain, though, is that the viewer has to have the sense that the creator(s) behind the drama knows exactly where things are going and why. This is what is so remarkable about Lynch at his best (as he is in the new Twin Peaks): scene by scene, you may not understand the why behind everything, but you get the undeniable impression that Lynch does.  In Twin Peaks, there is a plot unfolding (with detours and zigs and zags, yes, but there's a definite plot with many strands developing), and you feel that purposefulness strongly.  I'd say, in fact, that this is where his work seems most dreamlike. It's not just in the mood of overall "weirdness" or the often surreal imagery. It's also in that sense you get when you awake from a dream and there are gaps in your memory of the dream and you may not be able to put your finger on the dream's entire meaning, but you know - know without question - that the dream meant something important.  You know that each image your subconscious conjured up was there for a reason.  Your mind didn't throw images at you arbitrarily, as it were.  This is exactly the feeling one gets watching Twin Peaks, except that you're inside somebody else's dream, trying to decipher a stream of images coming from somebody else.

I'd love to see more works on television that structure their narratives around the principle of mystery.  Not a mystery story, per se (there's enough of those obviously), but a story built around the idea of mystery, something akin to Dennis Potter's formulation of more clues than definite answers. Lost tried something like this, and pulled it off quite well until its last season, though it must be said that as the seasons went by, you started to wonder whether the writers knew for sure where the story was going.  The sense of absolute purpose and control that Twin Peaks has did not come through as firmly in Lost.  At least in part, that could be because you can't sustain this sort of mystery for as many episodes as Lost did without getting tangled up.  

Also in this vein was the late 1960's British TV show, The Prisoner, co-created and starring Patrick McGoohan.  Way ahead of its time when made, this show was part spy story, part psychological thriller, part science fiction, and part Kafkaesque nightmare.  It had a 17 episode run that was filled with tension and enigmas, and its last episode most certainly left a number of plot points hanging. Unlike with Lost, you do not get the impression that the writers lost control of their narrative. McGoohan wrote the final episode, and though he avoids giving clear answers, he does leave the audience room to provide different interpretations.  Still, it must be said, this method runs risks; after that episode of The Prisoner aired in Britain (it had a large audience), viewers were so angry about the unanswered questions that they came to Patrick McGoohan's house and demanded explanations.  As he later said, "There was a near-riot and I was going to be lynched.  And I had to go into hiding in the mountains for two weeks, until things calmed down."

So I guess the moral is, you do the more clues than solutions thing at your own peril.  And it may help if audiences have the appropriate expectations going in.  I just wish there were more TV people and filmmakers out there who had the vision and temerity to attempt this type of narrative. And to do it well.  The fact is, we don't.  But so be it. In the meantime, we've got David Lynch and Twin Peaks. 

Monday, May 29, 2017

You be Thelma. I'll be Louise.

"You've always been crazy, this is just the first chance you've had to express yourself."

                                                                                                   Louise Sawyer

Twenty-five years ago, THELMA and LOUISE blazed from Callie Khouri’s brilliant and beautiful mind and into theaters. Initially controversial the film grew to become a classic in many respects, receiving six Academy Award nominations in 1991 and induction into the Library of Congress Film Registry in 2016.  

I thought it would be fun to ask a few of the brightest women writers in our community their thoughts and memories about the iconic film.

LynDee Walker, author HEADLINES IN HIGH HEELS MYSTERY series.

Jumping to rash action to protect someone she cares about? I'm totally Louise. This movie came out when I was in high school, and even then, I got that it was more than a dead guy and Brad Pitt's backside and friends till the end, but watching it again as a thirtysomething mom who's been blessed by deep friendships with strong women, I see the freedom and the beauty in the story. I can't wait to watch it with my daughters.

Shawn Reilly Simmons, author RED CARPET CATERING MYSTERY series.

Being the daughter of a single, hard-working mother, and two very strong-willed great-grandmothers who both worked full-time jobs to care for their families on their own, I very much responded to Thelma & Louise. Finally, in this film were women I recognized, and could relate to, who reminded me of the women in my own family. Thelma & Louise are often called non-traditional, but life is relative to your own experiences. And I love that they go up and down together in everything...and IMO share one of the best onscreen kisses in film history, right there at the end.

Jen Conley, author and editor CANNIBALS.

I saw "Thelma and Louise" with my dad. We were both movie buffs. I was 21 and yes, it was awkward during the Pitt/Davis sex scene, but back in those years, most movies had that awkward sex scene where you just had to tough it out until it was over. Actually, I remember my dad getting up to get more soda or something, which was a relief. But I also remember my dad noticing the metaphoric details I hadn't thought about--the oil fields, the vast roads, the 18-wheelers, the wild west. All of it "masculine."

I wouldn't say it's one of my favorite films, but I'd say it was a great film. I hated the ending, though. I thought it was a cop-out. Yet if you think about it, they had nowhere to go but jail. I suppose I wanted to see them on a Mexico beach, like Shawshank would do a few years later.

Sarah M. Chen, author CLEANING UP FINN.

When I first saw “Thelma & Louise” I think it hit me so hard because it had such a “fuck you” attitude that I immediately responded to, yet it was essentially, a fun feel-good road trip movie. No other film had done that before with two female leads, and as far as I know, has done it as well ever since.

I loved this movie. I remember the drive home after leaving the theater. I couldn’t stop thinking about the ending. How both Thelma and Louise truly believed driving off the cliff was better than returning to the patriarchal society that pushed them to the brink in the first place. In this, it reminded me of Kate Chopin’s THE AWAKENING. The only path to freedom was death. As a mother of two girls I’d like to think death is no longer the brightest option.

Yes, we’ve made strides, but we still have far to go. THELMA AND LOUISE started something. BOYS DON’T CRY. PRECIOUS. THE HOURS. KILL BILL. All powerful and varied examples of movies with strong female protagonists as leads. The movie inspired Tori Amos to write “Me and a Gun” and still it feels as though we have yet to fulfill the promise that began with two wronged women in the desert so many years ago.

THELMA AND LOUISE gave us a momentum that perhaps we squandered. Or perhaps it was quietly stepped on in boardrooms and sales offices. We should be farther along. Our leaps have been small and beautiful, but not nearly far enough.

The march continues. Every woman who was inspired by THELMA AND LOUISE will move forward and inspire someone else and that is how we advance. One friend at a time.

Oh. For the record. I started as Thelma. Excited about the world and pretty sure it was gonna be excited about me but, over time I evolved into Louise. Wary, but holding onto hope until the end and always looking out for her friend.

Sunday, May 28, 2017

Memorial Day

Photo By: Petty Officer 2nd Class Patrick Kelley, U.S. Coast Guard
I write novels for a living, but today I thought I’d traffic in truth.
We all know it’s important to remember those who gave their lives for our country. But that sentiment can become an abstract notion on a long, sunny, barbecuing weekend. If you want to pause for a bit and delve deeper into the sacrifices our servicemen and women make, any one of these phenomenal non-fiction books will take you into their lives in vivid, personal detail.
Unbroken: A World War II Story of Survival, Resilience, and Redemption, by Laura Hillenbrand (2010). The life of Louis Zamperini reads like a novel. But it’s heartbreakingly, astonishingly true. A young troublemaker turned U.S. Olympian becomes a WWII airman. He’s shot down over the Pacific, and then things start to really get bad. Hillenbrand captures his life with such grace and devotion to facts that her book is a non-fiction accomplishment nonpareil. Although nothing matches the
A Rumor of War, Philip Caputo (1977). Caputo was a U.S. Marine in 1965. He served a 16-month tour in Vietnam. He survived and came home. And wrote about it. About, as he says, “the things men do in war and the things war does to men.” The impact this book had when published can’t be overstated. It shook the country’s indifference toward the servicemen and women who fought there. I read this book in college. I think it should be required reading for everyone – a lesson that wars are not abstract, and the people lost to the killing are not statistics.
Black Hawk Down, by Mark Bowden (1999). This is a riveting read that rips along like the latest thriller. But we know it’s true. Bowden’s book chronicles a 1993 battle in Mogadishu, Somalia, that was not part of any official “war,” even though it was the most intense firefight for American servicemen since Vietnam. I’m including it because it serves as an important reminder that U.S. service men and women are put in danger – and many die – even when there isn’t an official war on. They deserve just as much recognition as those casualties of better known conflicts.