Award-winning mystery writer Art Taylor has been “riding the rails” a lot these days, thanks to his toddler son’s fascination with trains, especially the miniature one in a park near their Virginia home, outside Washington, D.C. As he enjoys these first lazy days of summer, Taylor’s work continues to attract attention. His story, “When Duty Calls,” published in Chesapeake Crimes: This Job Is Murder, has been nominated for both a 2012 Agatha Award and a 2013 Derringer Award. Taylor has won the Derringer Award three times in a row (twice for Best Long Story, once for Best Novelette).
His short stories have appeared in magazines and journals including Ellery Queen’s Mystery Magazine, Barrelhouse, Needle: A Magazine of Noir, and North American Review and online at Fiction Weekly, PANK, Prick of the Spindle, and SmokeLong Quarterly. Since 2005, he has been a book reviewer for the Washington Post Book World, concentrating mainly on mysteries and thrillers. An assistant professor of English and writing at George Mason University in Fairfax, Virginia, Taylor also works on the university’s annual Fall for the Book Festival. He is married to writer Tara Laskowski, and they have one son.
Colleen Kearney Rich: You have seen a lot of success in recent years, winning the Derringer Prize for a third time and being nominated for an Agatha award. Do you see yourself primarily as a short story writer?
Art Taylor: I’ve felt really fortunate for the success I’ve found as a short story writer, but I’ll admit I didn’t purposefully set out to work primarily in that form. I’ve tried several times over the years to write a novel (there are four, in various stages of ugliness, lying around), but I generally feel more comfortable working in the shorter form where I can visualize the structure, manage the pacing, chart the rises and falls of the conflict and the changes in character a little better — see it all in my head in ways that I just can’t do with anything longer. So I guess I’ve begun to think of myself as a short story writer first and foremost, rather than seeing short fiction as something I’m doing while waiting to get a novel out.
CKR: What are you working on now?
AT: I’m finishing up a story that’s a first for me: the sequel (of sorts) to a story I published a few years ago. Del and Louise, a couple who were on the lam after an art gallery heist in New Mexico in “Rearview Mirror”(Ellery Queen’s Mystery Magazine, March/April 2010), are now making a fresh start up in Napa, California; Del has his real estate license and is starting work at his sister’s agency. The story is called “Commission,” and with the double-meaning there, you can imagine that further crimes aren’t too far around the corner. I’m revising that one now. And yes, I’ve already wondered if I might write a series of these and somehow trick myself into completing a novel-length series of stories. We’ll see!
This summer, I also want to continue work on what will perhaps be a longer story in its own right — novella-length at least, perhaps more. The killing of a student at an all-boys boarding school (much like the one I went to) prompts two other students, big Sherlock Holmes readers, to embark on an investigation of their own. Needless to say, they quickly find out that real life is very different from the stories they’ve been reading.
CKR: You also review books for publications like the Washington Post. Do you have a philosophy about reviewing?
AT: It’s been really nice to have my long-time interest in mystery and suspense build in three different directions: in my own writing, in my reviewing, and then in my teaching at George Mason University, where I regularly teach courses focused on crime fiction. With reviewing, while I think it’s inevitable that my own take on a book — thumbs up, thumbs down —comes through, I think it’s equally, if not more, important to represent the book on its own terms so that readers can make their own decisions. In fact, the best feedback I ever got on a review was from a friend who asked me, “I can tell you really didn’t like this one, but is it bad that it sounds like something I’d really love to read?” Nope, not bad at all! In that case, I felt like I did my job.
CKR: You write some very dark stories. Have you noticed if fatherhood is affecting the content of your stories?
AT: I’ve only worked on a couple of stories since becoming a father. Except for a couple of afternoons when we have babysitters, I take care of my son during the day while my wife works and then I teach at night, so writing time has been at a premium. There’s some darkness in those in-progress pieces, for sure, and I don’t think I’ve pulled back from that darkness — but those stories haven’t ventured into subject matter that I think would hit me as a father in a tough way.
I have seen that in some of the stories I’ve read, however. Just recently, for example, I read a story where a couple kept calling their son “the kid,” and both my wife and I thought the term was a little cold. Doesn’t he have a name? I was offended a little by it. And then a couple of months ago, I read a story about a father trying to come to terms with the kidnapping and abuse of his son, a tough story in any circumstance. Thinking of it in terms of my own child … well, just trying to talk about the story with my wife — the decisions the father faced, the choices he made — I found myself torn up inside, almost unable to finish my sentences.
CKR: How has becoming a parent affected your writing in general? How do you make time for it?
AT: Well, as I said, time has been at a premium, and since my wife, Tara Laskowski, and I are both writers on top of our “day jobs,” we’re doubly struggling for writing time. There have been weeks and even months at a time where I’ve turned hardly any attention to writing, and other stretches where I manage to at least “check in” with a story each day — add a paragraph or maybe just some notes or at the very least read through what I’ve written to keep it all fresh and percolating in my head. To that end, I’ve also been trying to do some mental work even when I’m not able do any actual writing, working on a plot point in my head, for example, or conjuring up dialogue, so that when I do find time in front of the computer, I’ve got a little bit of a head start.
Over the past 18 months, my son has been learning to do a lot of things — sitting, standing, walking, talking. He’s a determined little man. He takes everything step by step, a little at a time, keeping at it until he gets it right. I think it’s a good lesson. Any progress I make on my writing, even a little, is a step in the right direction.