Wednesday, September 9, 2015

On The Road with Art Taylor by E. B. Davis

“Del,” I said through clenched teeth,
putting some bite into his name, same as he always did me.
“I love you, and when I say that, I mean it.
But sometimes, Del, sometimes, I could just kill you.”

Art Taylor, On The Road with Del and Louise,
“Rearview Mirror” (Loc 390)

On The Road with Del & Louise: A Novel in Stories by Art Taylor marries the short story and the novel. If you don’t know Art’s work, click to  Six stories comprise the novel; “Rearview Mirror,”  “Commission,” “Provenance,” “The Queen’s Party,” “The Chill,” and “Wedding Belle Blues.” Each story marks a milestone for Del and Louise.

The stories flow like a roadmap of Del and Louise’s relationship. They meet at an unlikely intersection. The reader wonders at the driver’s identity. We’re unsure of their values, question their actions, but their intentions restore our faith, pedal to the metal, as they cruise.

The progress of their relationship compels the reader to turn the next page to see what’s around the next bend. The stories stop when they arrive. But is that their destination or another roadside break? The end leaves the reader hoping to ride with Del and Louise as they continue their journey.

Please welcome Art Taylor to WWK.                E. B. Davis

I was intrigued that you chose Louise’s POV. Why not Del’s?
Louise seemed the natural storyteller here as I drafted that first story; I liked her voice, I liked her attitude. For whatever reason—and this would probably take more space for me to explore myself—I’ve written a number of short stories from female perspectives, and those have tended to be the ones that are more widely embraced by readers. I considered switching up perspective in one of the stories, but then decided that would be off-putting instead of balanced, unless I turned over, say, half of the stories to Del, which I didn’t want to do. (I did get the chance to write briefly from Del’s perspective for an upcoming “Day in the Life” column at Dru’s Book Musings—and it was a blast! I hope folks will enjoy when it comes out.)

The stories take place in New Mexico, California, Nevada, North Dakota, and North Carolina. Have you traveled to those places? Car trip?
“Rearview Mirror” was actually directly inspired by a trip my wife, Tara, and I took to New Mexico back in fall 2007—and we ourselves had rented a car (the kind of convertible Louise wanted to rent) and travelled to several of the spots that became settings for the story. A few months after that trip, the Washington Post ran a fiction contest—inviting stories that responded to a photo of a young woman in the passenger seat of a convertible, her heels kicked up on the door, and a desert landscape drifting past—so the story was sparked by two things there, since Tara challenged us each to write a story and submit. Mine ran well past the maximum word count for the contest, so I sent to Ellery Queen instead, and was pleased when they accepted.

At the time I never thought that I’d follow their adventures further—so the end of that story, when Del mentions that they’re headed to Victorville to work at his sister’s real estate company…well, that was just picked at random off a map and the occupation too. But these were fortuitous picks as it turned out—maybe the universe telling me something—because when I decided to revisit their adventures, I found that Victorville was one of the hardest-hit cities in the country whenever the real estate bubble burst, sad for them but perfect for my story. I’ve never been there, so much of that was research—fairly extensive.

In other stories, it was a mix of drawing on research and drawing on personal experience. Napa Valley and Vegas I’ve been to before, and I grew up in North Carolina, just like Louise did. The Dakotas I’ve been to, but never so far north as Williston where they settle briefly in the fifth story—but there too, three real-life aspects of the place contributed to that setting becoming integral to the story, aspects I’d hesitate to discuss since they become plot points. 

Louise sometimes goes from being passive to active, submissive to dominant. Do Louise and Del share the driving?
Ha! Good question! Louise takes the wheel at several points in the book when she’s driving alone, but Del is generally in the driver’s seat—at least physically and maybe sometimes figuratively too. Louise is tough at times, no nonsense, and I always enjoyed best those scenes when she asserts herself. But other times—usually where family is concerned—she tries to curb her immediate instincts. She’s polite to Del’s sister when she really wants to lash out at her, and when she’s dealing with her own mother, she’s more likely to try to keep the peace. My wife, who’s also my first reader, kept saying, “Wow, if my mother were acting like that, I’d just leave.” But that didn’t seem to be Louise to me, at least not in those specific situations. I think it goes back to the idea that who we are shifts according to the circumstances we find ourselves in. The whole thing about what the elder child is like versus the younger one or the middle one—well, some of that only holds true when the siblings are in the same room, interacting one with the other. Outside of the family dynamic, character shifts.

The ghost of Louise’s long-gone Daddy haunts her. How does Louise gauge Del?
From the first story, when Louise talks to Del about how her father abandoned her mother and her, that father figure looms over their relationship. Her own mother’s troubled relationship with men—especially with Louise’s father—casts a shadow over Louise’s understanding of men generally and of her own relationships with them. Who do you trust? Why should you trust? Del proves himself time and again, but it’s maybe equally important the fact that he needs to keep proving himself to her, that she keeps expecting that—or expecting him to disappoint maybe.

“Because that’s something else I learned from Daddy: the difference between reality and realness. You can try to fix that last one most anyway you want.” How can you “fix” realness? Wouldn’t you just trick yourself?
Maybe so, maybe not—by which I don’t mean to be wishy-washy but simply to say that it’s a fine line between one and the other and likely easy to cross. In the immediate scene where she talks about that, Louise is referring to the idea of how we present ourselves to others, what looks real, even if it’s only a kind of con game. And many of the characters in the book—the title characters included—are playing roles at times, with one another to some degree, with other characters to a greater degree. At times, those are simply roles meant to deceive: Del as an ATF officer in the wine country in “Provenance,” for example. Elsewhere, as in “The Chill,” Louise finds herself forced to pretend something that she’s not—and yet that role is one she secretly wants to embrace in a different way. (Sorry to speak in abstraction, but dodging spoilers in the story that—for me—is my own favorite from the book.)

In short, I hope that there’s tension between all this role-playing, those veneers, and the idea of these characters trying to build something substantial between them and then between themselves and the real world. Who I appear to be may shift, but who am I really? It’s that deeper truth—that “realer” reality—that really matters.
Louise differentiates between disillusionment and disappointment. She states in “Rearview Mirror” that she is disillusioned with Del, but she is not disappointed. Doesn’t one necessarily result in the other? What about Del’s feelings about his sister, Brenda, in “Commission”?
Some of this may connect to the reality/realness aspect of this as well. Louise has a tendency to idealize things—to indulge in fantasies—and when she’s brought down to earth, when small illusions are stripped away, she can still appreciate Del for other reasons, for who he really is rather than who she might ideally expect him to be.

With Del and his sister, however, there’s clear disappointment. He sees something about her that he not only didn’t expect but that changes his fundamental understanding of who she is. He wasn’t just indulging in fantasy with her, romanticizing her in any way; he believed in her, and she betrayed that faith.

Why does Louise need symbols like a ring, a sock monkey, a dress, a painting?
An easy answer here might be that there’s something materialistic about this couple’s aspirations generally; success is represented by certain accouterments—the same way that Louise wants to splurge on small luxuries with the money from that supposed “last” heist in the opening story. They’re aspirational, clearly.

But from a craft perspective—my perspective—it’s more than that, and I’m the one who tried to let certain objects thread through the stories in ways that represent key aspects of the characters, their desires, and their connections with one another. The sock monkey and the painting particularly get imbued with a different kind of meaning because the characters invest them with something. Louise talks about the sock monkey representing love, and while there’s a little role-playing there at first, it does come to represent a connection between Del and her. 

There are many objects in my own life—maybe in most people’s—that have tremendous emotional significance for me, because of the memories they’re imbued with or the thoughts they conjure up. I wanted to find what objects would mean something to Louise, how they would accumulate meaning, and why.

Explain the contradictory statement—We get older but we really don’t.
That’s a refrain that runs through the book—and maybe is central to whatever themes hold these stories together. “Fresh start” these characters keep talking about, as if they can start over and do things right the next time, as if they’ve learned from previous experiences and can avoid or correct missteps next time. But at the same time, they can’t get away from themselves, of course—from who they really are (there’s that realness versus reality again).

We expect that as we grow up, we’ll learn more things, experience more things, and those learning experiences will change who we are. Simply put, we’ll mature. But at the same time, Louise sees how static other aspects of a person can be, from childhood right on up. I don’t think that Louise would quote Wordsworth, but it’s one of his phrases that come to my own mind: “The child is father to the man.” Some of those core aspects of who were at 8 or at 18 might well be found in us even when we’re 80, no matter how we’ve grown.

Are grand gestures empty?
Some are, certainly—poor Del! When he tries the hardest, he fails—even if he means well, or thinks he means well. But then he can redeem himself other times, in those seemingly less dramatic gestures. Maybe it’s that feelings sometimes get lost in staginess, but they fill up those smaller moments—those moments when people truly connect—fill them to the brim.  Or echoing back with the difference between realness and reality: You’re better successful when you’re trying so hard to make an impressions, to engineer appearances or experiences, and instead just let the truth of something—a feeling, a fear—reveal itself more naturally.

Del loves, as Louise says, “high-dollar” words. Does he realize that Louise not only understands his words, but also questions his use of them? Is he pompous or does he strive for clarity?
Del would indeed be surprised to find that Louise makes such a big deal about his vocabulary when she’s telling these stories! I don’t think of him as pompous myself, but see this as going hand in hand with his early goals of finishing his degree and his continual aspirations to keep learning. I always think of those “Word Power” quizzes in Reader’s Digest—the challenge of them, and the pride in scoring high on the quiz. I think Del would enjoy those.

Louise measures success by her dreams becoming real. Del measures success by his plans becoming real. Are dreams the feminine version of male plans?
Louise is dreamier, sure, and Del is more grounded, more practical in most cases. But that’s their specific personalities. I’d never make those kind of gendered assumptions across the board.

I loved the phrase, “affective communication.” Can you explain what this means?
I picked up this phrase from Malcolm Gladwell’s The Tipping Point, a book I teach in some of my classes at George Mason University. Gladwell, in turn, picked it up from a test administered by psychologist Howard Friedman, and all of it is discussed in the context of the book Emotional Contagion by Elaine Hatfield and John Cacioppo. In short, a lot of this is about the idea that emotions can be contagious—that we can, as Gladwell puts it, “infect each other with our emotions. In other words, if I smile and you see me and smile in response…it’s not just you imitating or empathizing with me. It may also be a way that I can pass on my happiness to you.” Gladwell doesn’t talk of this in manipulative ways—though for the character in the book who latches on to the idea, it seems mainly a potential control tactic, purposefully persuasive at the very least.

How does the prospect of becoming a father change Del?
Being responsible for yourself—and to yourself—is one thing. Being responsible to Louise gives Del a different perspective—and different problems at times. But the prospect of fatherhood…well, let’s take it out of the second person: When I became a father, I began to consider in deeper ways who I was and who I wanted to be for the little boy who was going to look up to me, expect me to be a role model, expect me to set the standards. The child is father to the man, as I said—but any parent’s first job should be to help build that first foundation for that growth. It’s not a responsibility that should be taken lightly.

Louise on nostalgia:
“Nostalgia is funny. You can even get it for something you never really had.”
“Nostalgia felt a lot better when you were reconnecting with the past instead of walking away from it.”
“And something about that smell of cut grass when it’s moist…it’s nostalgia, I know, but somehow that’s what pops to mind. It’s a good memory.”

Is nostalgia a combination of memory and sentimentality?
I think that’s as good a description as any—and it ties in with the dreaminess, the fantasizing that Louise admits she sometimes succumbs to: wishfulness plus wistfulness. In the beginning, a lot of Louise’s romanticizing is directed at the future, but over time, she begins to indulge as well in romanticizing some aspects of her past—seeing them in a softer light. This is part of the continual pull homeward in the book.

So what are you nostalgic about, Art?

My own high school yearbook quote was from Woody Allen’s Manhattan—“He romanticized it all out of proportion”—so I recognize I’m prone to a lot of the kinds of thinking Louise is. And interesting, another story I’m working on right now dives down deep into nostalgia for summer days as a child: building ramps to jump bikes over Tonka Toys, playing in a treehouse, running back and forth through the smoke billowing out from the grill at a backyard barbecue. Those are maybe standard childhood memories, but there are others that are more specific for me: pretending the leather recliner in our basement was the Batmobile; grilled steaks and Solid Gold on Saturday nights; those times when all of us, my parents, my brother and I, ventured off on bikes around town on Sunday morning instead of going to church; the first New Year’s I stayed up til midnight, listening to Billboard’s countdown of the biggest songs of the year, and dancing with my mom when Kim Carnes’ “Bette Davis Eyes” took the top spot.

Having a son of my own now, watching him grow up, I find myself looking at every experience through several lenses: one eye on the immediate experience, living in the moment, but also with an eye toward how he might remember specific events, what will stick with him in later years.

How does luck and faith (or their opposites) play in relationships?
Louise muses a lot over luck and faith and karma too in the course of the story—struggles with those ideas. For me, good fortune involves a number of factors. I’ve been more fortunate than I could ever have hoped for, in so many ways, and I feel lucky for that, and sometimes I’ve had people tell me, “Oh, but it’s not luck. You’ve worked hard.” And I have, I appreciate that, but lots of other folks work hard—at work, at relationships, at whatever—without those investments always paying off in the same proportion. In short, it’s a combination of things that can lead to success—things you control, things you can’t—in the same way that various factors can trouble endlessly, no matter how hard you try to dodge that trouble.

By the end of “Wedding Belle Blues,” Del and Louise have changed. Is it time and maturity—or have they created their own reality?
Building off that last question, I do think it’s a combination of things: They’ve grown, they’ve learned from their experiences, they’ve worked hard—in various senses of that phrase: worked at work, worked at the relationship, worked at improving and understanding themselves and one another. I won’t go so far as to say they’ve created their own reality, but they’ve built something together and built it in the context of a lot of other things they’ve made peace with, come to terms with.

How much of this book is autobiographical?
I think all of us fiction writers draw on our own experiences to some degree—whether it’s a scene or situation picked up wholesale from real life or simply drawing on the types of human behavior we’ve encountered, constructing character from the types and variety of people we’ve known. The first story in the collection was explicitly inspired by that trip that my wife Tara and I took to New Mexico, as I mentioned before, though mostly in terms of setting; nothing that happened in that story was drawn from anything I’ve experienced. Though Louise’s upbringing was almost nothing like my own, she’s like me in some ways, as I said—that romanticizing—and some of her memories draw on my own life, even as simple a memory as sipping the nectar from honeysuckles. But I think folks would have to hunt in many cases to figure out what’s autobiographical and what’s not. 

Are you a beach or a mountain man, Art?
Tara and I have done a couple of trips this past year more toward the mountains (or at least foothills), one with our son and one on our own, and had a terrific time. Yay Berkeley Springs, WV! But really I’m more of a beach person. Just seeing the water, hearing the surf—it’s restorative.

Is your son a Tonka truck, Nerf gun, or Super Soaker guy?
Everything is cars for Dash—morning, noon, and night. He enjoys nothing more!



  1. Thanks, Elaine, for another great interview. And thanks, Art, for once again being so inspiring. I've been revising a story that technically works but that I haven't been satisfied with. You've just helped me see my character in a new way that may ultimately enable me to bring richness to the story that its been lacking. So thanks. I'm looking forward to reading the book and hopefully being inspired some more.

  2. Art – a very interesting way to write a novel as a series of short stories. All the best for the collective works as well as your other short stories.

    ~ Jim

  3. I agree with Jim. You have an interesting structure for a novel. Thanks for sharing with WWK.

  4. Art's working through the female main character fascinates me. The mental wrangling Louise engages in is so thoroughly feminine--I think. I'm unsure if men do this or not. Well, Art, tell me, do men assess, test, re-hypothesize, retest, reassess (lol) in the field of male/female relationships?

  5. great interview, looking forward to reading your book.

  6. Hi, everyone! I'm late to the party myself!

    Thanks so much, Elaine, for hosting me this morning here and indulging my chattiness! (Even if I write short stories, I apparently tend to answer long.)

    Barb: Glad to hear that your new story is going well. Can't wait to read (always!).

    And thanks, James, Warren, and Margaret for kind words and interest in the book too. Hope you'll enjoy!

    As for that last question, Elaine: Not sure how all men (or women) indulge in mental wrangling, but I identify with Louise myself on that--probably too much!

    Thanks again, everyone. Looking forward to more conversation and to seeing several folks at Bouchercon next month too!

  7. Interesting premise, the linking of road stories. Can't wait to dig into my Kindle copy. Looking forward to seeing you at B'Con and picking up Murder under the Oaks.

  8. Thanks, Kait! And hope you enjoy both books! See you in Raleigh for sure!

  9. Welcome to WWK, Art. I love the idea of linking short stories to one novel, and especially the theme of "On the Road" and placing them in small towns. I look forward to reading it.

  10. Thanks, Gloria! Glad you like the idea, and looking forward to hearing what you think of the adventures themselves!

  11. I really enjoyed "hearing" you go into all those aspects of your stories with such depth of understanding. It's reflected in your characters and situations--they feel so complete and unique.

  12. Thanks so much, Kathleen! That really makes me feel great to hear. :-)