Art Taylor says he was quite confident, even as a boy in school, that he would grow up to become an author. “I distinctly remember telling my third-grade teacher before Christmas break that I was writing a book and that it would be in bookstores sometime in the spring,” he recalls. In fact, Taylor was off by…oh, almost four decades.
Only now, after a career spent in journalism, academia and short-story writing, has the 47-year-old Taylor finally seen his first book reach print. “A novel in stories” titled On the Road with Del & Louise, it comprises half a dozen linked tales about a generally optimistic but trouble-attracting couple who meet by the oddest chance, when Delwood Grayson, wearing a too-hot wool ski mask and toting a pistol, comes to rob the 7-Eleven in New Mexico where Louise has been clerking. It’s the most polite robbery imaginable, with the bored Louise even giving the thief her phone number, hoping he’ll call sometime. Incredibly, Del does just that, and the next thing you know, this pair have set off in his old Nova on a cross-country odyssey that will include their stealing a painting, getting involved in a real-estate scam, peddling hot microwave ovens, planning a major wine heist, getting trapped in a Las Vegas wedding chapel holdup, falling into a kidnapping in North Dakota and…well, didn’t I say they were magnets for trouble?
Twenty-seven-year-old Louise, an often-funny and mercurial dreamer, is the narrator and principal driver of these adventures, her goals and persistent self doubts tied in large measure to the criticism expressed—with no limits or hesitation—by her cynical mother, to whose North Carolina home the young lovers are ultimately bound. While the somewhat older and more methodical Del plans out ways to build new, sustainable lives for them both, Louise swings from glee to disappointment as circumstances allow, determined to pluck contentment from the chaos and misdeeds and moments of jeopardy they share. Their escapades are at once criminal and comical, supported by players who compete to be the most memorable.
Taylor, an assistant professor of English at George Mason University in Fairfax, Virginia, has already made an enviable rep for himself as a writer of mystery short stories. He’s also the editor of Murder Under the Oaks, an anthology of yarns commemorating next month’s Bouchercon World Mystery Convention in Raleigh, North Carolina. I recently took the opportunity to ask him about his authorial background, his development of On the Road with Del & Louise and what’s next on his to-do list.
What was your first work of fiction to see publication?
As part of some countywide contests, some of my poems were published as early as elementary school—and I still have those journals filed away! When I think of a more serious short story, I’d date it to my first year [in high school]: a story called “Games” that was heavily, heavily influenced by [Ernest] Hemingway and whose acceptance for the school literary journal, The Daemon, still stands today as my most exciting acceptance ever. I’d very nervously placed the story in the mailbox for the faculty advisor, Grant Kornberg, and that afternoon, he came thundering down the hallway of our dorm, calling my name, telling me how great it was, how the issue was full but he was planning to include my story anyway, and how he wanted me in his senior fiction workshop the next semester and…well, no one today comes beating down my door for my writing, so that stands as a special moment.
As an adult you’ve found success as a short-story writer, winning two Agatha Awards, a Macavity Award, and three consecutive Derringer Awards for your work. But had you always intended to move from short-story writing to novels? And did you ultimately find that transition hard to make?
There are still several failed novels under the bed, metaphorically speaking—stored away in file folders or on computer files somewhere in the dusty corners of my hard drive.
The short story, I always tell people, should never be considered an apprenticeship toward writing novels; while they share many aspects, the novel and the short story are ultimately different forms entirely, but it took me a while to see that. I struggle with managing the pacing of a traditional novel, with interweaving plots and subplots and various characters at that length. In writing a short story, however, I can keep the narrative arc visualized in my head—can tinker mentally with lines and scenes even before I put them down on the page or later while revising. The short story is more manageable for me, more comfortable—even while I’ve heard many novelists tell me that they simply can’t write a short story, can’t work that way.
I find it interesting that On the Road with Del & Louise is described as “a novel in stories.” Did you actually write the book piecemeal, as linked tales? Was that the trick you needed in order to approach a work of this length?
Part of the trick, yes, finally—though even then I hadn’t originally planned it that way. I wrote the first story here, “Rearview Mirror,” in 2008 on a lark of sorts. The Washington Post for several years was running an annual fiction contest around Valentine’s Day, and 2008’s prompt was a photo of a woman in the passenger seat of a convertible, her heels kicked up on the door as a desert landscape drifted by. My wife, Tara Laskowski, also a writer, challenged us each to write a story and submit. The previous fall, she and I had taken a trip to New Mexico, and I drew on some of those locales in my story—which quickly ran past the maximum word length for the contest. Instead of the contest, I submitted to Ellery Queen Mystery Magazine, who took it and published it; the story won me my first Derringer Award, and Janet Hutchings, my editor at EQMM, has said that it’s still her favorite of my stories.
But even with that reception, I didn’t immediately think of following Del and Louise’s adventures further—not until a few years later, when I wondered what might’ve happened next with them…which resulted, after a couple of dead-end attempts, in “Commission,” also published by EQMM, and led to further musings about their longer journey. It was right after “Commission” was accepted that Kendel Lynn at Henery Press approached me to ask when I was planning to submit a manuscript to them. The timing couldn’t have been better, and the rest of the stories in the book are brand-new, coming out of that discussion.
How do you look at the characters of Del and Louise?
I like Del and Louise, I do. I find myself cheering for them, and I hope others might feel the same way, since the success of the book almost certainly relies on readers’ connections to them. While luck is hardly on their side, I think they’re good people, and it’s the tension between their luck and their circumstances and then a sort of shifting and second-guessed morality that I hope adds up to interesting conflicts.
Obviously, I’m not sure what readers will respond to, but for me, I kept keying in on those possibilities for potential change for these characters, those moments where decisions have to be made about who they are, what they want—usually near the climaxes of stories (I think about what Del reveals as he and Louise view the video from inside the church in “The Queen’s Party”), but sometimes at the outset. The opening to “The Chill” reveals both of them having made and making hard choices, and then much of the story is devoted to showing what brought them to that point.
When someone asks you about On the Road with Del & Louise, do you tell them that it’s a crime novel, or that it’s a novel with some crime in it?
That’s a fascinating question. I’m teaching a course now that’s basically an intro survey of crime fiction: a Sherlock Holmes novel, a Golden Age mystery, a hard-boiled detective tale, a police procedural, and a novel from the perspective of the criminal herself. (Much left out there, obviously.) I was talking about this course with a reporter from the local paper, The Fairfax Times, and she asked, “So which of those [categories] would your book fit into?”
I do think that some of the individual stories could potentially be categorized; the last one, “Wedding Belle Blues,” for example, is the closest I come here to a more traditional mystery: crimes, clues, an investigation of sorts. Each of the other tales pivot on one crime or another, with the characters’ roles shifting—perpetrator, victim, investigator, etc.—but at times those crimes are indeed simply pivots on which other aspects of their relationships turn. “Commission” is about a rash of burglaries tied to a crumbling real-estate market, but it’s also about how trust works in relationships and about how people navigate the conflicts between their desires and those of the people they love.
Short answer, though: I call it a crime novel—then try to give an elevator speech so potential readers will know more what they’re in for.
This is a very lighthearted book. Did it start out that way, or was it brassy, unpredictable Louise who led you in that direction?
She led the way, no doubt about it—both in terms of some of the more lighthearted approaches (for all her fretting at times, she can also be remarkably no-nonsense) and in terms of the darker moments (“The Chill” strikes me as the book’s make-or-break story).
A couple of years ago, novelist E.A. Aymar interviewed me for his blog and brought up a question that’s stuck with me—one about the range of my stories, from lighthearted romps to much darker, edgier fare, and the trouble I might have branding myself (an unavoidable phrase, I guess, in today’s publishing climate). Was that a problem? Maybe so, I realized, though as a short-story writer, I’ve felt fortunate to go in a lot of different directions with my fiction: both occasional experiments with style and then that range of tones that I’ve been able to explore.
I anticipate that readers who’ve responded to a story like “The Care and Feeding of Houseplants,” a story with some dark strands running through it, might be surprised by the lighter subject matter in On the Road, and yet to my mind some of the struggles of the characters in each are fundamentally the same.
You’re an assistant professor of English at George Mason University. Does your interest in crime and mystery fiction ever come out in your teaching, or are you restricted to telling students mostly about mainstream literature?
The administration at George Mason University has been incredibly supportive of me and my work, and they regularly give me opportunities to teach courses in crime fiction—classes which have routinely filled to capacity, I’m happy to say. I’ve taught literature courses in subjects including “The Mystery Short Story,” “Hard-Boiled Detective Fiction as Social Documentary” and “True Crime Writing,” among many others, and there’s talk afoot now about a graduate-level class in writing suspense fiction, which I’m very much looking forward to. I’m in a great place with all that, fortunate across the board.
I read that you’re currently working on “three intertwined novellas that may become my second book.” So you’re sticking with the “novel in stories” approach? At what stage do you think you might trust your ability to tell a longer tale?
While I think better, operate better, at the size of the short story, I do like the idea of longer narrative arcs, so this approach helps balance my interests and abilities—what I think of as my abilities. But it’s telling that my stories keep getting longer. The first story in On the Road hovers around 10,000 words; the final one is about double that size; and a story I’m working on now—hopefully for EQMM—is currently around 16,000 words. So I think I’m generally pushing into longer narratives.
The intertwined novellas circle around an agoraphobic bookseller and a young accountant whose paths first cross when they end up investigating a death that may have been intentional and possibly inspired by Patricia Highsmith’s The Talented Mr. Ripley. Each of the novellas will circle around a classic crime story in the same way—some inter-textual playfulness, if I can pull it off—and having these as separate novellas gives me the chance to vary up the structure and approach of each story. At least that’s the current plan I’m laboring under!