|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 wonderful family.
When did 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 meet?
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.
What 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 together?
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 perspective handy.
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 way around.)
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!
Art Taylor’s website is: http://www.arttaylorwriter.com.
Tara Laskowski’s website is: http://taralaskowski.com.