|Art Taylor, Dash, and Tara Laskowski|
I feel so
very privileged to have met Art Taylor and Tara Laskowski at Malice Domestic.
We’ve developed a friendship through email conversations. Both are extremely
talented writers of short fiction. Art won the Derringer last year for “When
Duty Calls,” which also was nominated for an Agatha and Macavity. This year,
his “The Care and Feeding of Houseplants” is
nominated for an Agatha and in the top ten for EQMM's 2013 Readers
Choice Awards. Tara’s
collection, Modern Manners for Your Inner
Demons, is witty, whimsical, and poignant all at the same time, and it sold
out on its first print run! Their young son Dashiell (Dash) is captivated by
motor vehicles. With his Lego set, he builds parking spaces. So, how does a
busy, two-writer household function? Read on and enjoy hearing about this
each of you first know that you wanted to be a writer?
Tara: I read "A Perfect Day for
Bananafish" by J.D. Salinger and thought, "Oh my god. I want to do
this." This was reaffirmed by other key short story writers in high school
like John Updike, Joyce Carol Oates. But even before then, I remember writing
“books” in middle school and crafting an author bio and photo and making my dad
take them to work to bind them in his printer (which back then was the size of
an entire room.) So I guess it's always been there, somewhere.
Art: The same holds for me—and I actually
remember telling my third grade teacher that I was going to finish writing my
book over Christmas break, “so it should be out in the spring sometime.” (I
even made up a pen name, Anthony Twigg, so I wouldn’t be mobbed by fans.) But
seriously, it does seem like a love of reading and desire
to write has always gone hand in hand. The experiences I’ve gotten from
reading, the adventures, the emotions, the revelations—those are experiences
that I’ve always hoped to deliver to somebody myself.
How did you
Art: Tara and I met as students in the MFA
program at George Mason University. We took part in the same workshops, and in
addition to becoming good friends, each of us become admirers of one another’s
work—which at that point seemed to be the make-or-break about whether a person
was really attractive or not.
Tara: We later bonded over Twin Peaks and cherry pie, Golden
Girls, and bourbon. The stars aligned.
brought each of you to George Mason University?
Art: I’d been taking some fiction workshops at
NC State University in the late 1990s and early 2000s while working in
marketing and public relations for the North Carolina Museum of Art; my goal
was to focus on my writing in a more structured way, not just dabbling in it,
but devoting myself to it with some frequency, with deadlines, with feedback
from peers, etc. After completing the program there, one of my professors
suggested that I apply for an MFA—really immerse myself in my writing—and she
specifically suggested Mason as a good program. Within a year, I was here.
Tara: After college, I moved back home
(Pennsylvania) and started working as a feature writer for a weekly newspaper that
was inserted into one of the daily papers. However, I missed the writing
community in college and being around other fiction writers, and I knew I
wanted to go back for graduate school. Mason seemed like a great fit for me in
a bunch of different ways—and I got accepted there—so that's how it happened.
You each come from
different parts of the country, Tara from Pennsylvania and Art from North
Carolina. How have you blended traditions from your pasts to create your lives
Art: We now eat our barbecue with a side of
pierogies. It’s a better combination than you might think!
Tara: He's totally sold on NEPA pizza! And I'm
totally sold on mint juleps.
How do you juggle two writing careers and a
young son in one household?
Tara: Juggle is the appropriate word here.
Sometimes it feels like an intricate balancing act, and sometimes we drop many,
many plates. (CRASH!) The key is carving the time out for each other and for
ourselves—even if it's only 10 minutes (often it is). We know how important writing
is to each of us, and so that's a massive priority for our family—not losing
ourselves in the day-to-day maintenance of life and work and toddler. It's
hard. REALLY hard. But we're working, we're surviving. We're very fortunate in
so many ways, so it's all about keeping your chin up and keeping that
Art: I used to think that I needed several
hours of uninterrupted time to get any work done, but my perspective has
changed on that—and on the idea of what progress means too. Even a day’s work
is just making a few notes or writing a single sentence or two… well, that’s
some sentences or some notes that I didn’t have before, right? And watching our
son Dash has helped with that—watching him learn to walk or talk or do all the
things he’s doing. Even the smallest accomplishment puts him one step closer
(literally sometimes!) to his goals. Perseverance is the key.
Art, how have your
experiences (1) outside academia (working on The Spectator and as a reviewer); (2) teaching (as an Assistant Professor
in Literature at George Mason University); and (3) developing conferences (like
Fall for the Book) enhanced your writing abilities?
Art: I have to admit that I’ve sometimes wondered
if all those experiences may have inhibited
rather than enhanced my writing—if
only from the standpoint of time and energy and maintaining some sort of focus
on crafting my own fiction—and as we were just talking about, adding fresh
parenthood into the mix has brought a lot of delight into our lives, but it’s
also layered in extra duties and distractions as well. But from a professional
standpoint, I do believe that teaching and reviewing and helping out with Fall
for the Book have all contributed both to broader and to sharper perspectives.
Teaching and reviewing, for example, has kept me not just thinking critically
about a wide range of mysteries but also articulating and defending my
thoughts—which in turn can help clarify what I want to do and don’t want to do
in my own fiction. And Fall for the Book has helped to immerse me in that big
community of writers, exposed me to wide world of talent and ideas, and also
given me the chance to give back to that community. It’s been said that being a
writer is a lonely profession, so much time alone in front of the computer—but
I think that a big part of being a writer these days is also being a good
literary citizen, and that can happen in a number of ways: encouraging young
writers, providing a forum for other writers to reach their audiences,
celebrating great works whenever you find them. In each of these roles, I’ve
had some great opportunities.
Tara, in addition to your
own writing, you served as Senior Manager, Media and Public Relations, George
Mason University, which meant that you prepared press releases and informational
articles about university activities. In fact, on the George Mason website,
you’re included with other examples of people who have used their English
degrees in unique ways. What advice would you give to people who want to pursue
both creative writing and a day job with writing responsibilities?
Tara: I worked at George Mason for 11 years, but
late last year I took a new position with Good360, a national nonprofit, as
their director of communications. I think the "creative" of the
creative writer part of me enjoys working in media and communications because I
can write a wide variety of things—this week, for example, I created an ad for
a magazine, wrote some articles for an Annual Report, brainstormed on a new
social media campaign and pitched reporters on a disaster relief platform—but I
wouldn't necessarily recommend it to someone who wants to write fiction. I've
often dreamed about taking a job as, say, a mail carrier, where writing and
meetings are nonexistent, where I can use all my creativity towards my fiction
and not divide it up amongst all different areas.
Tara, how has being an editor influenced
you own writing?
Tara: I really like being the editor of SmokeLongQuarterly because I feel like I can keep on top of the trends of what is being
written. I also really like the connections I make through my role there—I meet
so many interesting people, great writers, other editors. It makes me a better
person, a better writer, though it definitely takes time and commitment! But
feeling a part of that community, in whatever capacity, keeps me grounded,
keeps me connected, and guilts me into producing my own work.
Art, you are well-known and
lauded for your short award-winning fiction. Is there a novel in your future?
Why do you like to write short stories?
Art: A lot of writing programs once focused on
the idea of writing short stories as a kind of apprenticeship toward tackling a
novel—learning character, scene, setting, plot, etc. in that microcosmic way
and then applying those skills to a bigger canvas. But I think that short
stories and novels are ultimately two completely different things—even before
you begin to account of how different flash fiction is from the traditional
short story. I’ve never had much success with the novels I’ve attempted—getting
the right narrative arc and pacing the plots appropriately—and I used to worry
about that, as if getting a novel published was the ultimate barometer of
success. But lately, I’ve begun putting that worry aside. It’s not that I
wouldn’t like to write a novel someday—I would—but I’ve also grown to
appreciate more and more the short story in itself: the precision, the
efficiency, a whole world condensed into a short space. I’m not sure my own
stories always succeed on those counts, but I do admire so much the capacity of
the short story to succeed on those very strict terms. It’s also nice these
days to see more writers who write only short
stories succeeding on a very big stage: Alice Munro and George Saunders come to
mind immediately, of course, and their works are obviously great models of all
that the short story can accomplish.
Tara, I see on your
website that you have two novels as works in progress. You also are an editor
and contributor to SmokeLongQuarterly, which publishes flash fiction of 1000
words or less. What impact did winning SmokeLong’s 2009 Kathy Fish Fellowship
and writer-in-residence have upon your writing? Why do you think flash fiction
has gained so much interest?
Tara: As I mentioned before, I love working at/with
SmokeLongQuarterly. It is no exaggeration to say that winning the Fish Fellowship
changed my career path dramatically. Before then, I was fumbling around, trying
to find a voice, trying to get a publication or two. Winning the fellowship
immediately put me in touch with a bunch of amazing writers and editors—Randall
Brown, Dave Clapper, Beth Thomas—to whom I owe so much. And I LOVED writing
flash. It was fun. Writing was suddenly fun again. Out of that fellowship
bloomed so many amazing things. Not only did I produce a ton of writing that
year, but I also found a lot of wonderful online journals and met a ton of
people. And later that led to my manuscript Modern
Manners for Your Inner Demons, my first short story collection.
Now, I say writing flash is fun for
me, but it's certainly not easy. Some writers I know can get lost in their pure
joy of writing hundreds of pages of a novel, exploring their characters,
wandering down side alleys and relishing in long scenes. I like a quick shot in
and out. I like to see my story on one page. I like to craft each word and
image, sew each stitch. That's fun for me. It's not for everyone, though.
Tara, you have an interesting Twitter
handle. Would you explain its meaning?
Tara: In college, I had a friend who called me
"Bean." I wanted it to be my nickname, but it never stuck beyond that
one friend. However, I combined the 'bean' with my major 'English' and started
using beanglish for account names (like AOL, back when it was all dial-in and
paying for minutes). It just stuck. I thought about changing my Twitter to my
name instead, but I never have.
Currently, I know that your
son Dash has a great interest in cars. What do you see for his future? If he
decided to be a writer, what advice would you give him?
Art: When Dash was born, his nursery was
decorated in a farm theme: artwork of a cow and a horse and pig, a little farm
scene on his lamp, even sheets with barns and tractors on them. Slowly, that
room is gathering a lot of transportation imagery, as we try to follow his
interests wherever they take him. One of Tara’s big questions, however, had been
whether he would enjoy reading—and I’m happy to say that he loves his books
tremendously! (However, everything still circles back to that central interest:
Make Way for Ducklings, for example,
is about cars in Boston and the ducks that are blocking the road, not the other
Tara: I don't really care what interests he picks
up as long as he's passionate about them and happy. It would be great if he
loves books and writing as much as we do, but if he's equally happy painting
model cars or playing tennis or dancing or robotics or collecting baseball
cards—more power to him. However, he must let us read the Harry Potter books to
him. When he was like two weeks old, I told him one night that he has to
promise me to let me read Harry Potter to him, and to pretend he likes them
even if he doesn't (he will). He couldn't do much more than gurgle at that
point, but it was an agreeable gurgle. So…in a few years…I can't wait!
E.B. Davis always asks our
guests if they prefer the beach or mountains. Where are your and Dash’s
favorite vacation spots?
Art: The mountains are great, but I enjoy
hardly anything better than sipping a cocktail with a view of the water.
Tara: I like exploring new territory—we took a trip
to New Mexico years ago and it was awesome to see the desert and the canyons.
Dash isn't picky. He's happy taking a short ride in a golf cart or running
through a field.
Art: Or, hopefully, spending the night in a
refurbished caboose… which is the next trip we’ve got planned for him!
Art and Tara, thanks for
being with us at WWK. Best wishes to you and Dash in all your future endeavors,
whether mobile or stationary!