We are so thrilled to host the incomparable Art Taylor today, winner of many awards – including the 2019 Edgar Award for Best Short Story – writer of fantastic mysteries, be-er of great human beings. Share with us, oh, awesome Art!
This week, the annual Malice Domestic convention takes place in Bethesda, Maryland, uniting writers and readers in their shared love of the traditional mystery. Both my wife, Tara Laskowski, and I are finalists for this year’s Agatha Award for Best Short Story, along with three additional writers: Leslie Budewitz, Susanna Calkins, and Barb Goffman. (You can read all our stories for free, linked from the Agatha Awards page at Malice’s website.)
This marks the first time in Malice history that a husband and wife are competing against one another in the same category (and some have speculated perhaps a first for any mystery award), and many people have asked how Tara and I are navigating the inevitable tension and animosity. I wrote a column for the Washington Independent Review of Books goofing around on the competitiveness between us, but in fact, neither of us has a stronger supporter than the other, and we both count the other finalists as fine friends as well. We’re all sharing a couple of tables at the Agatha Awards Banquet, cheering one another on right to the finish.
The other question we’ve gotten lately is about our son, Dashiell: Has Dash, growing up in the shadow of two writers, shown any interest in writing himself? Maybe even writing crime fiction?
The answer to both is: Yes.
Dash is seven now, and for many years already, he’s been producing his own books. The first was Creatures of the Sea, which he wrote and illustrated in the backseat on a long drive to visit Tara’s parents. More recently, he’s written The Chase, which he submitted last week to a contest sponsored by our local PBS affiliate, and Cold Bottom Bart and the Ship of Fire, which has just been published as part of the “Fridge Flash” series at SmokeLong Quarterly (co-edited by Tara, full disclosure, but don’t blame nepotism; as I think you’ll agree, it’s really fun).
Watching Dash work through his storytelling and illustrating is fascinating, really—seeing where his ideas come from, how he makes them his own, and where he works kind of naturally through the same processes that I teach in composition classes at Mason: drafting, revising, editing, perfecting.
Dash first wrote The Chase over several weeks as homework for his own first-grade class: a series of entries in his writing journal, the first few ending with the words “To Be Continued.” (As soon as we started reading chapter books, Dash quickly learned the word “cliffhanger.” When he was in kindergarten, I overheard him explaining to a friend how cliffhangers worked, and how irritating they were, because then you had to wait to find out what happened next. “Just one more chapter, Daddy. Please!”)
The Chase was inspired by elements from a long-time favorite Lego book, Need for Speed, and the movie It’s a Mad Mad Mad Mad World, which we’d recently watched, and maybe a little bit of the old TV show CHiPs (he’s a huge fan, and Team John all the way). The last installment of the story took a slightly dark turn (crime fiction, after all), which he ended up reworking and softening a bit for a happier ending.
Later, transcribing the story from his journal onto nicer paper and adding more elaborate illustrations—all for the contest submission—he suddenly took greater care to correct the misspellings in his original draft. Tara was overseeing much of the process, but when I asked how much she was guiding him on those corrections, she said he was taking the lead in catching and correcting his own mistakes, striving to get his writing just right.
I’m a slow writer, as I’ve said many times, and too often I’m fretful about the progress I’m making on a project (or not making, to be honest) and my own worst critic about how I’ve crafted a character or shaped a scene or structured a plot. Several times on panels and workshops, I’ve credited Dash with having indirectly given me new perspectives on these problems. Watching him learn to walk and celebrating even the smallest steps he took offered me some insights on that question of progress; some days, maybe I’m making only baby steps on my own work-in-progress, but even the smallest steps are bringing me closer to my destination. And as for inevitable missteps or swerves in the wrong direction: Seeing Dash work on a LEGO project—building up, reconsidering, tearing down without hesitation, building again, building better—has emphasized to me that each stage of the creative process should be fun and light, even when you have to throw away a paragraph or a page or more and move in a fresh direction.
And now with his new book projects—drafting, revising, editing, perfecting….
Circling back to the original question: “Has Dash, growing up in the shadow of two writers, shown any interest in writing himself?” It does seem we’ve been an influence on him, hopefully a good one, but in a better plot twist, he’s been an influence and inspiration in the other direction too.
I hope he never loses that sense of creative joy and that determination to see a project through. It’s a good model for us all.
Readers, what gives you Dash’s sense of creative joy and determination?
BIO: Art Taylor is the author most recently of the story “Better Days” in the May/June issue of Ellery Queen’s Mystery Magazine. His previous EQMM story, “English 398: Fiction Workshop,” has been named a finalist this year for both the Edgar Award and the Agatha Award for Best Short Story. His work has won four Agatha Awards, an Anthony Award, two Macavity Awards, and three consecutive Derringer Awards. Find out more at http://www.arttaylorwriter.com.