I first encountered Art Taylor through his work. His story, “English 398: Fiction Workshop,” was one of hundreds I and my colleagues read while judging the short fiction entries for last year’s Edgar Awards, and while there were many (so many) wonderful entries, Art’s stood out. (My colleagues agreed. The story, published in Ellery Queen Mystery Magazine, won.) When I met Art and his wife, novelist Tara Laskowski, at Malice last year, I found he was a lovely person as well (as writers of crime fiction often are – do we work out our worst impulses on the page?). At any rate, that just made me happier to introduce him here.
How does a story start for you?
The sparks for my short stories come from various places: travel, dreams (or nightmares), overheard conversations, even other stories and books triggering something in my imagination. With “The Boy Detective & the Summer of ’74,” the idea for the story came from a specific event in my childhood: a large animal bone some friends and I found in their backyard—a bone that got plopped down complete into a story I first drafted during my early years as a writer. Surprisingly to me as well, that story had a long path toward publication: What was a 3,500-word draft in 1994 (the earliest file I’ve found—on a floppy disk, in fact!) grew and shrank in many different forms until it found publication, more than a quarter-century later, as a 11,000-word-plus novella in the January/February 2020 issue of Alfred Hitchcock Mystery Magazine.
Who in your latest story has surprised you most—and why?
While the questions surrounding the strange bone keep the plot in motion, “The Boy Detective & the Summer of ’74” is basically a coming-of-age tale about Cooper Hobbes, the two boys next door who are his best friends, and the new girl in the neighborhood: Christine, herself a mystery for Cooper to figure out.
Over those 25 years I kept tinkering with this story, Christine’s role shifted slightly—not only her role in the plot but also who she was as a character, as a person. In an earlier version of the story—when it became one strand of a full-length novel I tried to finish—I included a scene with her all grown-up, many perspectives earned. I wish there had been a way to include that glimpse of her in this final novella, but a lot had to be left on the cutting-room floor, clearly.
When and/or where is your latest story set and is there a story behind that setting?
“The Boy Detective & the Summer of ’74” is set in rural North Carolina, in a small town—a small self-enclosed neighborhood within that small town—that looks very much like the neighborhood where I grew up in Richlands, NC—geographically, at least. But beyond basic geography and the layout of the neighborhood, similarities end pretty quickly.
My hometown was a great place to grow up in, a warm and generous community, both then and now. The conflicts inherent in the story—long-standing sexist attitudes and the long legacy of racial prejudice—don’t draw directly from anything I ever experienced or witnessed during my own youth. Instead, those conflicts come from having studied and thought about Southern history, culture, and literature from a more distant perspective: in boarding school, at college, and in graduate school (with only that last bit of my educational career back in North Carolina itself).
The South is a complicated place, and while my story doesn’t deal directly with the full burden of Southern history (as C. Vann Woodward called it), that’s the backdrop against which much of it unfolds.
What are you working on now?
My writing is a mess these days, honestly. I’ve got three major projects in various stages of completion (read: various stages of incompletion), and I don’t know which one to pursue to the end. They’re each very different: a boarding school novel—dark and noir-ish—that draws on my own years in boarding school; a more traditional mystery revisiting the father and son characters from my stories “A Drowning at Snow’s Cut” and “Better Days” (the latter published earlier this year in EQMM’s May/June 2019 issue); and then another novel featuring the reclusive owner of a used bookstore and a young woman who discovers more mystery than she’d bargained for while browsing his shelves.
Which question didn’t I ask you that I should have?
“You and your wife, Tara Laskowski, are both writers. Do you think your son, Dashiell, will follow in your footsteps?”
Dash turns eight this month, but he’s already been to more book events—readings, signings, library programs, and conferences—than we can count. One morning in pre-school he kept trying to tell his teacher he’d been to a book launch and got confused when she didn’t understand what he meant. (“You went to lunch and brought a book?”—that’s what she asked.) And he now has his own collection of badges from Malice Domestic—an event he looks forward to each year.
Fortunately, he finds it all exciting, and he’s embracing both the writing life and the writing itself. One morning, Tara and I were walking him to school, and he kept rushing us along, because if he got into his room early enough, he could work on the book he was writing—a chapter a day!—before class got started. (We’ve read that book now, and it’s great.)
Rather than asking whether he’ll follow in our footsteps, I need to start following his: drive, enthusiasm, and not a hint of self-doubt. I wish my own writing went so smoothly!
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, and of the collection The Boy Detective & the Summer of ’74 and Other Tales of Suspense, forthcoming February 2020 from Crippen & Landru. His short fiction has won the Agatha, Anthony, Derringer, Edgar, and Macavity Awards. He teaches at George Mason University. Find out more at his website: www.arttaylorwriter.com.
That story about Dash’s writing enthusiasm is delightful.