Interview: Art Taylor

Please welcome Art Taylor, author of On the Road with Del & Louise.

What’s your idea of a perfect day?
I really hesitate to say that my days are perfect already, but I’m such a creature of routine already that I think any shifts to the schedule would be ones of degree.

Weekday mornings, I take my son to pre-school then head to the office, make a cup of tea and check through emails and social media, then settle into writing. Lunch is more routine: I eat a salad at my desk almost every day. Afterwards I try to read a little—my aim is at least one short story a day—write some more, have another cup of tea, then pick up my son from school and we have some adventure (the library, the train atON THE ROAD front under 2mb the park, or maybe just the grocery store) before coming home. A cocktail (for me and my wife, not our son!), a nice dinner, some stories before his bedtime, and then a movie or show or reading a story aloud to my wife… what more could you ask for? During the semester, I have to fold my teaching and grading into that, of course, which adds time pressure. But really “perfect” would just be a matter of adjustment: less time on social media (an addiction!), more progress on writing (sometimes I just can’t get traction), and maybe an easier time getting our son to sleep (he’s a night owl).

Weekends, we have more adventures, of course, but routines play a role in that too: Saturday morning almost always means Farmer’s Market, of course, and Sunday dinner usually means more elaborate or time-consuming recipes than weeknights. No matter what the day is, I can’t seem to escape Facebook.

Do you have a signature accessory, color, fragrance, phrase, or meal?
Can I go with signature alcohol? Bourbon—most frequently in an Old Fashioned. And following up on the recipe comments above, we now infuse our own cherries as a garnish (infuse them with more bourbon, of course).

Excluding family, name three people who either inspired you or influenced your creativity.
Betsy Travis, my junior high English teacher, first taught me how to read deeply and write precisely—and how to diagram sentences too, which still helps me to see the essence, the rhythm, and the full dimensions of a line of prose.

Grant Kornberg, one of my high school English teachers, gave me the best “acceptance letter” of my life in my first year of boarding school. About an hour after I nervously tucked a short story into his faculty mailbox, he came pounding down the hallway toward my dorm room, tracking me down to congratulate me on the story, to say he was going to publish it in the school literary magazine, and to offer me a slot in his senior creative writing workshop. Not only was that a thrill and an honor, but what I learned from him and in that class is still foundational to my writing today.

And Angela Davis-Gardner, one of my writing professors at NC State University, who broadened my perspectives on the many shapes and structures available to writers of short stories—and who’s generally one of the most thoughtful and generous teachers and writers I know.

Do you listen to music when you write? 
I have to have some sort of noise while I write. I’m in a coffee shop as I write this, and that’s perfect ambient noise, but in my office or the library, I always have music on—usually the John Coltrane station on Pandora, great mix of jazz. For one big piece I was writing, I played the same CD every day when I wrote—Oliver Nelson’s The Blues and the Abstract Truth—in hopes that the music would trigger something about the writing process…and it worked! But after I finished that manuscript (unpublished), I didn’t find another signature bit of music for the next project, so it’s been more general since.

If your latest book were chocolate, what kind would it be and why?
Can I go with Whitman’s Sampler? On the Road with Del & Louise carries the subtitle A Novel in Stories, and the six stories inside offer not just different plots but also a variety of tones—from the occasionally madcap to the pretty intensely melancholy. Each time, you have to take a couple of bites before you really know what you’re getting.

What made you interested in writing this particular story?
My wife—Tara Laskowski, also a writer—and I took a trip to New Mexico back in the fall of 2007, travelling in a Mustang convertible from Albuquerque to Santa Fe to Taos and back. The following spring, the Washington Post announced their then-annual fiction contest; each year, the Post printed a picture and asked writers to submit stories inspired by it, and that spring, the photo showed a woman in the passenger seat of a convertible, her feet kicked up on the door, and a desert landscape in the background. Tara challenged each of us to submit a story, but mine ran way too far over the maximum word length, so I submitted to Ellery Queen instead, which accepted and published it. That first story was “Rearview Mirror,” and all the other stories here—the bigger adventures of Del and Louise—just rolled out of that first one.

What themes do you regularly (re)visit in your writing?
Most of my stories are about love—not necessarily romantic love, but familial love and even close friendship—complicated by some internal or external danger. Related to that, betrayal is fairly common in my stories, and the guilt that sometimes goes hand in hand with betrayal. Most of my stories also involve some question of morality, important choices and the consequences falling from those choices.

Tell us about your main character’s psyche or personality. What led her (or him) to be the person s/he is today?
Louise would probably point to her mama on this one and to her dad’s exit from the family when she was just six. That failed relationship and her mother’s bitterness has colored Louise’s own attitudes toward relationships, and part of the reason Louise fled North Carolina for the American Southwest was because she couldn’t stand to see her mother flailing through another relationship, everything going bad. But much as she wants to escape her mother, Mama’s words and attitudes shadow over a lot of Louise’s decisions, and often Louise sees her mama in herself: both a sassiness and a melancholy. She’s not sure how she feels about this.

Describe your protagonist as a mash-up of three famous people or characters.
Oh, I’m so very bad at questions like this…. Is there a “pass” button I can hit? A card I can submit to forfeit my turn? NEXT! 🙂

If you could host an author dinner party, who are the six writers (living or otherwise) you’d include?
I loved hearing the BBC radio interview between Raymond Chandler and Ian Fleming—two masters talking, often at slight odds, about craft and character, etc. So I’m going to think pairing that might be dynamic because of differences in perspectives. Let’s bring Dashiell Hammett and Dorothy L. Sayers from the mystery world, Walker Percy and Anne Tyler (both leaning philosophically in their books), and heck, Tolstoy and Chekhov—masters each and all.

What’s next for you?
Right now I’m working on a series of three novellas centered around an oddly matched crime-solving duo. Emerson (Emmery) Royce is a 57-year-old, agoraphobic bookseller, and Zoe Jacobs is a spunky accountant three decades his junior. A bookseller and an accountant? All of us are finding our way with their adventures.

***

Art Taylor, author of On the Road with Del & Louise: A Novel in Stories, has won two Agatha Awards, a Macavity, and three Derringers for his short fiction; his story “The Odds Are Against Us,” which won this year’s Agatha, is currently a finalist for both the Anthony and the Macavity. He teaches at George Mason University and writes frequently on crime fiction for both the Washington Post and Mystery Scene. Find him at www.arttaylorwriter.com.

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17 thoughts on “Interview: Art Taylor”

  1. Oh, my! What a difference a few weeks make! I looked at my answer about the “perfect day”—written back during the relative serenity of summer—and I hardly recognize myself. These days it’s all madcap lesson prep and grading and six days now (and counting) since I’ve written anything with my own fiction….

    Thanks, Cynthia, for hosting me here! Hope folks enjoy the interview.
    Art

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  2. Ah yes, the change in seasons brings a change to the perfect day, doesn’t it? i love the smell of bourbon, but I can’t drink it. You might be able to tempt me with one of those cherries, though. Congrats on all the awards and good luck with the Anthony at Bouchercon this fall.

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    1. So true, Mary! ….though I’ll settle into the routine soon and be back on a more even keel, I’m sure. Hard to complain as well, of course, about the many “distractions” of having a new book out! It’s been a fun few weeks amidst all these changes, for sure!

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  3. Hi Art, My ears perked up with all your North Carolina connections. I fled NC myself, but enjoy visiting. Your answers did sound relaxed–a bit summer like. Loved all your English teachers who made a difference in your life. Good luck juggling teaching, writing, and family. Thanks for stopping by.

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    1. Hi, Theresa, Diane, and Keenan—
      Thanks for the comments here! Just getting back to the computer after a few hours away, and so much appreciate the conversation.

      Theresa—I’m up in Northern Virginia these days, but do enjoy visiting NC myself—still family and many friends down there, of course, and I’m looking forward to Bouchercon in just a few weeks in Raleigh. What part of the state are you from? Thanks for the well wishes!

      Diane—Thanks! And yeah, that turned out to be a pretty apt answer (Whitman’s Sampler), though I’m not smart enough that it came me immediately….

      And yes, Keenan—I’m fortunate in about 18 million ways…even during the busiest parts of the teaching year! As for cross-country, I’ve always wanted to do that myself! One of these days for sure. (Our three-year-old already has his eye on an Airstream….)

      Art

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  4. Thanks so much for visiting us. Fantastic interview, Art! Loved it all, especially the story behind the genesis of ON THE ROAD WITH DEL & LOUISE. (It’s kinda like the story-challenge that led to Mary Shelley’s amazing FRANKENSTEIN.) Best wishes on your new book!

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    1. Thanks, Theresa! I was more Eastern North Carolina generally, various spots between the coast and Raleigh. Asheville is one of my favorite places, though—and keep telling my wife we need to go there!

      Thanks, Pamela, for the kind words on the interview. So nice to hear!

      And Cynthia: Thanks again for hosting me. I like the comparison to Shelley! …if only any of my writing were ever to find such a long life…. 🙂

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