Monday, March 30, 2020

An Interview with the 2020 Agatha Short Story Nominated Authors!

by Paula Gail Benson

Even though we mourn the cancellation of this year’s Malice Domestic, that’s no reason not to celebrate with the Agatha nominated authors! This year’s nominated short stories offer intriguing characters facing unique situations and are written by masters of the craft. While we all have a little extra reading time, why not check out each of these delightful tales (listed in alphabetical order) at the following links:

"Alex’s Choice" by Barb Goffman in Crime Travel (Wildside Press)
"Better Days" by Art Taylor in Ellery Queen Mystery Magazine
"Grist for the Mill" by Kaye George in A Murder of Crows (Darkhouse Books)
"The Blue Ribbon" by Cynthia Kuhn in Malice Domestic 14: Mystery Most Edible (Wildside Press)
"The Last Word" by Shawn Reilly Simmons, Malice Domestic 14: Mystery Most Edible (Wildside Press)

Welcome Barb, Art, Kaye, Cynthia, and Shawn to Writers Who Kill!

How important is a plot twist in a short story?

Barb Goffman
Barb Goffman:
A plot twist can be a great way to make a short story work. You want your story to linger in the reader’s mind, and a plot twist can certainly help make that happen. That said, a plot twist isn’t essential. A great short story can have another type of ending, as I address in the next question.

Art Taylor:
Honestly, I think it can be a mistake to focus too much attention on crafting a last-minute plot twist—writers aiming for something O’Henryesque maybe but instead delivering a punchline. And to stick with that metaphor, once the punchline is delivered, the joke is over. I’ve suggested before the idea of a character twist instead: some revelation at the end of a story that helps readers to see not just a character in a new way—some submerged desire or fear, some twist of motivation—but also the entire story with a renewed perspective, letting a story linger a little longer in the mind.

Kaye George
Kaye George:
Very, very, very important. I don’t ever like to write a short story without one. Or a novel, either, for that matter. If I can do a double or triple twist, that makes me a very happy writer. To me, this is how you keep the reader interested. I never want them to be bored.

Cynthia Kuhn:
Stories without twists can be fulfilling if we admire the voice, structure, style, theme, etc. But I do adore a good twist—love being surprised. If I can guess everything that is going to happen, it often leaves me wanting more, somehow.

Shawn Reilly Simmons:
I love a good plot twist and it’s a goal of mine to always try to come up with ways to surprise the reader—I’ve always been a fan of stories where I think things are going a certain way and then they end up heading in an all new direction—that’s the most fun, I think.

What makes a satisfying conclusion to a short story?

Barb Goffman:
All of these can make a satisfying ending to a short story: A plot twist that makes the reader’s mouth drop open; a revelation that allows the reader to see the story from a different light; character growth; justice; and, simply, a conclusion that makes the reader feel something.

Art Taylor
Art Taylor:
It’s a cliche, but I think that the best endings are ones that seem both surprising and inevitable at the same time. Some of my favorite stories are ones where, when you reread them, you see the groundwork for the endings laid right there in the first lines of the story. Poe championed the idea of the single-effect story, where every aspect—every word—of a story offers service to a single effect on the reader. A satisfying ending—whether happy or sad, inspiring or tragic—is one where it’s connected to everything else in the story, all the elements working in some kind of harmony.

Kaye George:
What I strive for is a last minute twist that makes them jerk up their head and open their mouth. (Yes, I’ve embraced the singular “they” pronoun—see how useful it is? I can’t assume my reader is a male or a female, an alien, or anything else.)

Cynthia Kuhn
Cynthia Kuhn:
There’s a sense of completion—not necessarily in the protagonist’s situation but in the rightness of that final moment, image, or phrase.

Shawn Reilly Simmons:
I’m satisfied if I’ve answered at least one question the character is asking. It might not be the answer they were looking for when they got things underway, but it’s an answer that makes sense.

If a movie were made of your nominated short story, do you have an actor/actress in mind to play one of the characters?

Barb Goffman:
When I think of Maxwell, the dog in my story, I picture my late dog Scout, who was a lab/shepherd mix. But I can’t think of any famous lab/shepherd dogs. That said, if Buddy the dog from the movie Air Bud were still alive, I think he could do justice to Maxwell’s part, which requires being both athletic and cute as a button.

Art Taylor:
Oh, I’m so bad at this kind of question! But in an attempt to play along: Paul Rudd as my journalist narrator (or some slightly younger Paul Rudd? I don’t know who that would be) and Emma Stone as the bar owner who’s his love interest.

Kaye George:
My movie knowledge is rather dated, so you’ll have to reach back for these. Oscar Madison/Walter Matthau of the Odd Couple should be my MC, Kevin Grady. His neighbor could be Ellen Burstyn if she could stoop to being a cranky old woman. Okay, any two cranky old actors, one male, one female.

Cynthia Kuhn:
Allison Janney could transform into either one of the main characters. Not that she resembles them but because she’s incredibly talented!

Shawn Reilly Simmons
Shawn Reilly Simmons:
If it could be anyone (alive or dead), I’d want it to be John C. Reilly and Phillip Seymour Hoffman as the two friends from culinary school who are meeting over a special dinner to discuss the various events that have happened to them over the years. When I was living in New York many years ago, they starred together on Broadway in True West and they would switch roles from time to time throughout the production. “The Last Word” has a similar dynamic to it, where there are two characters who know each other very well, mostly talking—I think those two actors would really be great in the roles, if they could be together again.

What is the most intriguing crime you have heard of, written about, or thought of writing about?

Barb Goffman:
My story “Christmas Surprise” from my collection Don’t Get Mad, Get Even involves someone trying to break into a house by climbing down a chimney, which was partly inspired by news stories of similar attempted crimes with similar outcomes. Hint: Don’t try this yourself!

Art Taylor:
I have two here that I’ve thought before about writing. The first is the 1994 murder of Beth-Ellen Vinson  an aspiring dancer who became an escort/private dancer to help pay her way from North Carolina to New York, dreams of Broadway on her mind; her murder remains unsolved. The second is darker: the 2014 murder of a British woman by two young teens, who took Snapchat selfies and posted pictures on social media while they tortured her for several hours; coincidentally, there’s a recent film based on that murder that looks at some of the issues which drew me to this case—the social media angles specifically.

Kaye George:
I watch a lot of Dateline (love Keith Morrison’s voice!) and 48 Hours, so probably every other one. A few of my short stories were written in response to particular events. “Twelve Drummers Drumming” is supposed to be an exposure of and protest against big game hunting. “The Bathroom” was inspired by Kait Carson’s experience of getting shocked by the faucet and thrown across the bathroom, just before I took a nasty fall in the tub (using new, very slippery gel junk) and tore my rotator cuff. A lot of my stories are written for the theme for an anthology, but most of them have an origin in my own experiences…somewhere.

Cynthia Kuhn:
The 1843 double murder upon which Margaret Atwood’s amazing book Alias Grace is based. It was sensationalized in the news of the day and involved multiple love triangles, a case of amnesia (perhaps), and even a potentially supernatural explanation. I wrote about her fictionalization of the real events in my dissertation—it is an unforgettable story.

Shawn Reilly Simmons:
This is a tough one because I’ve been fascinated by crime, both true and fictional, for as long as I can remember. I listen to True Crime podcasts and have seen every episode of Forensic Files…and my bookshelves are 98% crime fiction… I’d have to say the case that I’ve read the most about, and still wonder about on a frequent basis is Elizabeth Short, the Black Dahlia. I continue to hold out hope that someday her killer will be revealed.

Thank you all for taking the time to be with us, answering questions, and all the wonderful stories you have written! And, thank you for letting us celebrate with you digitally until we can be together in person!


Barb Goffman:
Barb Goffman edits mysteries by day and writes them by night. She’s won the Agatha, Macavity, and Silver Falchion awards for her short stories, and she’s been a finalist for national crime-writing awards twenty-eight times, including thirteen times for the Agatha (a category record). Her work has appeared in many magazines and anthologies, including Ellery Queen’s Mystery Magazine, Alfred Hitchcock’s Mystery MagazineBlack Cat Mystery Magazine, and the 2019 anthology Crime Travel, which Barb also edited. To support her writing habit, Barb runs a freelance editing service, specializing in crime fiction. She lives with her dog in Virginia.

Art Taylor:
Art Taylor is the author of the story collection The Boy Detective & The Summer of ’74 and Other Tales of Suspense and of the novel in stories On the Road with Del & Louise, winner of the Agatha Award for Best First NovelHe won the 2019 Edgar Award for Best Short Story for "English 398: Fiction Workshop," originally published in Ellery Queen's Mystery Magazine, and his other awards have included the Agatha, the Anthony, the Derringer, and the Macavity.  He is an associate professor of English at George Mason University. 

Kaye George:
Kaye George is a national-bestselling, multiple-award-winning author of pre-history, traditional, and cozy mysteries (latest is Revenge Is Sweet from Lyrical Press). Her short stories have appeared online, in anthologies, magazines, her own collection, her own anthology, DAY OF THE DARK, and in A MURDER OF CROWS. She is a member of Sisters in Crime, Smoking Guns chapter, Guppies chapter, Authors Guild of TN, Knoxville Writers Group, Austin Mystery Writers, and lives in Knoxville, TN.

Cynthia Kuhn:
Cynthia Kuhn writes the Lila Maclean Academic Mysteries: The Semester of Our Discontent, The Art of Vanishing, The Spirit in Question, The Subject of Malice, and The Study of Secrets. Her work has also appeared in Mystery Most Edible, McSweeney’s Quarterly Concern, Literary Mama, Copper Nickel, Prick of the Spindle, Mama PhD, and other publications. Honors include an Agatha Award (best first novel), William F. Deeck-Malice Domestic Grant, and Lefty Award nominations (best humorous mystery). Originally from upstate New York, she lives in Colorado with her family. For more information, please visit

Shawn Reilly Simmons:
Shawn Reilly Simmons is the author of The Red Carpet Catering Mysteries featuring Penelope Sutherland, an on-set movie caterer, and of several short stories appearing in a variety of anthologies including the Malice Domestic, Best New England Crime Stories, Bouchercon, and Crime Writers' Association series.

Shawn was born in Indiana, grew up in Florida, and began her professional career in New York City as a sales executive after graduating from the University of Maryland with a BA in English. Since then she has worked as a book store manager, fiction editor, mystery convention organizer, wine rep, and caterer. She serves on the Board of Malice Domestic and is co-editor at Level Best Books.

Shawn is a member of Sisters in Crime, Mystery Writers of America, the International Thriller Writers, and the Crime Writers’ Association in the U.K. 


GoMovies said...

 This is a great article and your blog is also very interesting. Thank you.

Paula Gail Benson said...

Thank you, GoMovies. Please join us any time.

Cynthia Kuhn said...

Thank you or hosting us today! So much appreciation to you, Paula and Writers Who Kill!

Loved seeing everyone's responses--especially the plot twist question. :)

Cynthia Kuhn said...

Correction to previous post (sigh): Thank you FOR hosting us! :)

KM Rockwood said...

Such a great set of stories by such talented authors. Hard to chose a "winner," when they are all "winners."

Grace Topping said...

They all sound like terrific short stories. Thank you, Paula, and all the authors for the interesting interviews.

Paula Gail Benson said...

Cynthia, we are so happy you all could be with us. Kathleen, Grace, and Warren, aren't these stories terrific?

Barb Goffman said...

Thanks again, Paula. In this time of anxiety and reduced concentration, short stories are the perfect reading length. I'm glad all five nominated stories are available free online.

Kaye George said...

It's great to be here! Thanks, Paula, for this interview. Until we connect somewhere, someday, hugs to all my fellow nominees, Paula, and everyone who appreciates short stories. (Okay, typing "fellow nominees" was really fun! But seeing you would be better.)

Paula Gail Benson said...

Barb and Kaye, it's so great to have you here, but I am really looking forward to seeing you on a live panel in the future. Many congratulations!

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