Husband and wife writers' Art Taylor and Tara Laskowski join us today to tell us what it's like to have to authors in the family. Tara and Art, write the column Long Story Short at the Washington Independent Review of Books.
You may also remember Art from his recent Drinks with Reads post where he matched his 2015 Agatha and Anthony Award-winning short story, “The Odds Are Against Us” (Ellery Queen’s Mystery Magazine, November 2014 - you can read the full story is available online here.) Art’s debut book, On the Road with Del & Louise, won this year’s Agatha for Best First Novel and is currently a finalist for the Anthony and Macavity in the same category.
Tara is the author of the short story collections Bystanders
and Modern Manners For Your Inner Demons. Her fiction has been published in the Norton anthology Flash Fiction International, Ellery Queen’s Mystery Magazine, Alfred Hitchcock’s Mystery Magazine, and Mid-American Review. She was awarded the Kathy Fish Fellowship from SmokeLong Quarterly in 2009, and won the grand prize for the 2010 Santa Fe Writers Project Literary Awards Series. She is currently the editor of SmokeLong Quarterly.
Art: Tara and I were each writers independent of one another; in fact, we met as writers, both of us pursuing MFA degrees in creative writing at George Mason University and critiquing one another’s work when we had fiction workshops together. To a great degree, the writing was both our introduction to one another and the foundation of the relationship: mutual admiration for one another’s work, which led to a deepening of our friendship, and then ultimately to romantic relationship.
Tara: And now we’re married! And with a four-year-old son!
Art: And each of us has books too. Those other kind of children.
Tara: Those other kind of children are pretty important, though. I think we've tried really hard to strike a balance between family life and writing life, although it's a constant battle. And one filled with much guilt, when we're trying to divide our attention between several different areas.
Q: What do each of you prefer to write?
Tara: This is a good question because I've been asking myself this very thing for a while now. If you're talking about length, it's easy. I hands down prefer to write very short fiction. Stories 1000 words or less. It's my favorite form to read and write and I think it's the best form out there. However, sadly, I'm in the minority because you rarely see flash fiction collections on the NY Times bestseller list.
If you're talking themes, my short stories tend to be on the darker side. They are a mix of domestic suspense, urban legend, crime, and family/women literary fiction. But now I'm beginning to work on longer, novel-length projects and trying to figure out where I might fit in the marketplace. Which is harder than you might think, and the verdict is still out as to what's going to play out for me in long form fiction. Stay tuned!
Art: What’s interesting is that Tara’s work and my own might sometimes seem to overlap in theme and tone—I’d also say that some of my stories edge toward darker subjects, and I’d also point toward domestic suspense to define many of my stories, and crime certainly is at the core of most all my work. But while I’m generally categorized as a crime writer, Tara is more likely to be tagged as literary. Various ways to explain that: the vagaries of marketing classifications, the blurring of genre borders, the slight differences between us in the balancing of plot and prose. (Tara has sometimes said she can’t plot, while I always think her prose is richer than mine.)
Like Tara, I generally prefer short stories—though longer short stories. The novella, to my mind, may be the perfect length for a story. But like her, I’m also increasingly writing longer works, both in terms of the length of individual stories and then in terms of book projects, as with the architecture of my first book, On the Road With Del & Louise, which is built out of short stories that cohere as a novel.
Q: Do you ever want to write the same stories?
Art: I’ve said several times that we should actually write the same story—the exact same story, collaborating on a project. But we haven’t done it yet. I haven’t given up hope on that.
What’s funny is that one story I’ve drafted and been tinkering with involves a man who went missing on a fishing excursion and his body was never found, and now his girlfriend begins to wonder if he’s still alive. But when I showed it to Tara—
Tara: I pointed out to him that one of my own stories—which he'd already read—was about a woman whose dead husband starts writing her letters eight years after—wait for it—he went missing on a fishing expedition and his body was never found.
Q: How is your approach to writing similar and how is it different?
Tara: I've never been one who could get up every day and write at the same time for a certain period or word count. I'm a random writer. I would blame having a child for that, but I was a random writer even before we had our son. It's just the way I work, in fits and bursts. What's difficult is when I get on a writing streak but don't have the time to carve out to work through that streak. So I have to take what I can get and make my time as productive as possible. Lately I've been getting most of my writing done on the train during my commute to and from work.
Art: Like Tara, I’m not a writer who tried to write toward a time quota or word count each day—make sure I put in my two hours or get down my 500 words or whatever. But I do believe that there’s value in what I call “checking in” each day. My goal is to make some forward motion, whether that’s a scene or a paragraph or a sentence or even just some notes toward any of that. And I believe that by keeping some connection with a work-in-progress, then even when you’re away from the notebook or the computer, your mind is still brainstorming and processing and imagining—keeping that momentum. The worst is when you don’t work on something for even a small stretch, and you come back to a project having to reorient yourself, gear up the machinery from a stalled position, get a firm foothold…. That mixes a lot of metaphors, I know, but I hope I hope one of them makes sense.
Q. Do you write together or separately?
Tara: We used to write together—sometimes sitting on the couch together, or even heading to a coffee shop for an hour or so. Now it's often a trade-off, fitting it in when we can, where we can.
Art: Much of that is because of our son, of course—and then time demands generally. And then some of that is driven by who’s really making progress or who needs the time most; with both of us being writers, we try to respect the other’s needs there—give where it’s needed.
One thing to add, however, is that we’re also planning ahead for a writing retreat next year, both of us at the same place for a week, which would be great for a number of reasons.
Q: What projects are you both working on now?
Tara: My first story collection, Modern Manners For Your Inner Demons, is being re-released by Santa Fe Writers Project in February, and I'm really excited to see that book out into the world again (the first print run by Matter Press sold out). It is a collection of dark etiquette stories—etiquette guides about things like homicide, obesity, adultery, and other topics you wouldn't find in an Emily Post book. The new version will include two new etiquette stories that weren't in the original: “The Etiquette of Voyeurism” and “The Etiquette of Gossip.” Exciting!
Other than that, as I mentioned earlier, I'm turning my attention to a novel right now. I'd rather not say too much about it at this point because it's all still churning around in my head, but I'm trying to take all the themes and interests that crop up in my short fiction—women's issues, some crime and mystery, and a little hint of the supernatural—and stretch them out book-length-style. If I can pull it off, I'll be the happiest lady on the block.
Art: Like Tara, I’m hesitant to talk too much about works-in-progress. One book idea may have turned into a short story—or series of short stories—and I have a few other short stories in various stages of being finished (or unfinished, depending on how you look at it: glass half-empty, half-full). I’m also working on another book project, though at my own slow pace. In the meantime, I’ve had one story published this year—“Parallel Play” in the anthology Chesapeake Crimes: Storm Warning—and a second, “The Great Detective Reflects,” is scheduled for an upcoming issue of Ellery Queen’s Mystery Magazine. A third, “A Necessary Ingredient,” is also forthcoming in the anthology Coast to Coast: Private Eyes from Sea to Shining Sea.