...Interview Art Taylor

This is Art.

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First, I wanted to give you a quick update about my debut thriller. 

Over the past few months, the novel went through the editing stages, I saw the galley proofs and just received the ARC (Advanced Reader Copy). I was happy with the edits and really excited to see the proofs and ARC; essentially, you get to see the book in a nearly-finished stage. It was hard for me to imagine what the pages would look like, but it's really cool to see your writing professionally formatted. The folks at Black Opal Books do nice work.

That said, reading the ARC is nerve-wracking. It's too late to make changes, and the idea that an error somehow slipped through makes me die inside.

But no errors found, and now I'm doing things like finalizing promotions, getting the launch event ready, contacting media and reviewers, all that stuff. The good news is that we're on target for 11/16. Again, I'm thrilled about this, and I hope you enjoy my work. It's been years in the making.

It should be able for pre-order in days. Check back here for more information.

On to the interview...

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Art Taylor is one of today's best short story writers working today, and his particular emphasis is in the mystery and thriller fields. His short fiction has appeared in a number of publications, including Ellery Queen's Mystery Magazine, a variety of celebrated anthologies, and has been nominated and/or won the Agatha, Macavity, and Derringer awards. He reviews mysteries and thrillers for the Washington Post and, most important of all, teaches at GEORGE MASON UNIVERSITY, home of the 2006 Final Four Men's Basketball Team. Which you should know, if you're a student of American history.
 
So, taking all that into account, you can imagine how excited I was to interview him for my blog. What I ended up with was one of the most informative and open interviews I've had the pleasure to host.

What’s your favorite joke?

I'm not a good joke teller, I'll admit. I hardly ever remember the jokes I hear, and even when I do, I always screw up the delivery. The first joke that popped into my mind here was one which actually was voted the best joke ever. I'm just cutting and pasting it, but I do think it's great:

Two hunters are out in the woods when one of them collapses. He doesn't seem to be breathing and his eyes are glazed. The other guy whips out his phone and calls the emergency services. He gasps, "My friend is dead! What can I do?" The operator says "Calm down. I can help. First, let's make sure he's dead." There is a silence, then a gun shot is heard. Back on the phone, the guy says "OK, now what?"

(Ed. Note: HA!)

What do you consider your top priority as a professional reviewer?

Ultimately, I'm not sure that anyone cares whether I personally enjoyed a book or not. That may be the case with more regular reviewers, where a reader develops some knowledge of how a columnist's tastes line up with his or her own, but I certainly don't approach my own reviewing thinking that I'm going to sway folks solely by whatever pleasure or displeasure I take in my own reading. Instead, I want to do two things: first, to provide some larger context on a book (not just thumbs up, thumbs down but some larger sense of how it fits into a tradition or the trends of a moment or whatever), and second, to represent a book in a way that readers can judge whether it's something they should pursue or not. One of the best comments I got on a review was from an acquaintance who said something along the lines of, "I got the feeling from your review that you didn't like that book, but it sounds like just my kind of thing." I think that's a great compliment to a critic. 

Is it difficult to provide a harsh criticism of someone’s work?

On the one hand, recognizing how much work it takes to write a book and revise it and get it agented and sold and revised again and published and…. well, it's hard not to feel a little guilty being negative about someone else's pride and joy. Contrary to popular belief, I don't think that critics in general take great pleasure in trashing someone else's work—in being clever in their own right at the expense of somebody else. Still, I do think there's an obligation to be honest about what's not working in a novel and to try to let readers know (as I said above) if a book might just not be right for them. That's part of the reviewer's responsibility to his/her own readers, and it's not a responsibility to be taken lightly. No one is served well if you just give a little pat on the back to everything you read. 

Do your other professional obligations ever interfere in your writing (for example, regarding the amount of time you can dedicate to writing)?

Absolutely. Reviewing is a lot of fun and I'm obviously reading things in my field, enriching my knowledge and perspectives, but focusing on writing a review means not focusing on writing my fiction—at least for the length of time it takes me to write the review, of course. But I'm not reviewing regularly enough that it poses a tremendous conflict. More conflict—in terms of time and mental energy—comes from teaching, especially during the heavy grading parts of the semester. Everything is a choice, of course.  

Your fiction tends to change its identity according to the story, but many crime fiction writers do the opposite, and work in a recognizable or distinctive prose. Do you think your approach could potentially delay building an audience, considering it plays outside of standard genre conventions?

A good question. Yes, I've thought about that myself. I like playing with different voices, different tones, different subgenres, so my stories range from pretty dark noir to much lighter fare. I've been very lucky to have had attention for my stories in terms of honors and awards, and I've had a couple of publishers approach me about a story collection, but I have serious concerns that my stories so far wouldn't entirely be cohesive enough to gather into a collection—troubling to say the least. And in terms of writing a novel someday… well, I know in today's publishing climate, brand means almost everything.

Here's a telling anecdote: I spoke with an editor at a major publishing house last year about several ideas for novels, and she said that I really needed to think about not just one book but a series, projecting ahead into the future—no big surprise there. But here's what's telling: When I mentioned the idea of working in various directions as I've done with my stories—and hearkened back to a writer like Donald Westlake, who wrote some of the funniest mystery novels ever as well as some of the coldest and bleakest—the editor said that she felt certain those choices had compromised his career (read: "sales") tremendously. I'm not likening myself to Westlake, of course—that was never my point—but the conversation was sobering, and a little intimidating. And I'm not sure what any of that means for the way that I've been approaching my career here. Perhaps not good news.

Is there an average length of time it takes you to write a short story?

I'm generally a very slow writer. I tend to write long and then concentrate my revision in stages on big cuts and then seemingly endless trimming, so I usually write no more than about three stories a year, at most. That said, I've occasionally had a flash of insight. One of my stories, "Mastering the Art of French Cooking," came to mind one night during a Chicago concert at Wolf Trap. I made notes on my phone during the concert, wrote the entire draft in one rush early the next morning, let my wife read it immediately, then revised it and had it submitted it to a journal by noon. By 1 p.m., they'd accepted it. I wish they were all so easy! But in contrast, I've also had stories that I've tinkered with over a period of years before finally finding that right balance of elements that left me feeling fully satisfied.

What are your thoughts about the changing state of publishing and the different avenues that have opened for writers?

The rise of both small press publishers and of online journals strikes me as extremely encouraging. I know some folks still hold out for nothing less than being published by one of the bigger, better known publishing houses, but I think there are more ways than ever these days to find someone willing to champion your work and get it out there for an appreciative audience. That audience may be in the hundreds OR thousands instead of the hundred OF thousands, but to many folks—me included—maybe success isn't necessarily in finding the MOST readers but in finding the right ones.  

What’s the best piece of advice about writing you’ve come across?

Anne Lamott's advice about taking things bird by bird sticks with me. It keeps me focused, keeps me from feeling overwhelmed.

What’s your best moment in publishing (so far)?

Back in high school—in my first year of boarding school over in Alexandria—I very nervously slipped a short story I'd written into the mailbox of the faculty advisor for the student literary journal. Later that afternoon, he came bounding into my dorm hallway, calling my name, telling me how much he loved it, how they wanted to publish it. Not that it's all been downhill since then, but I'll admit that I haven't had any other editors come literally knocking at my door like that in the years since.

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Thanks so much, Art. For more information about Art Taylor, you can visit his web site here. You can also find him on his blog, Goodreads, Twitter and Amazon. And while you're at it, follow me on Facebook and Twitter.

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