Short story writers always rejoice in any publication of their work, but to be included in Otto Penzler’s Best American Mystery Stories (this year selected by Elizabeth George) is a special honor and distinction. I was thrilled and delighted to hear two good friends and excellent authors had received that distinction. Art Taylor’s “Rearview Mirror” was the first adventure in his novel told in short stories On the Road with Deal and Louise (Henery Press). Georgia Ruth’s “On the Mountaintop” was the first tale in the third Sisters in Crime Guppy Chapter anthology, Fish or Cut Bait (Wildside Press). Thanks to them both for telling us about themselves, their work, and this extraordinary shared experience.—Paula Gail Benson
How did you learn that your story would be included in the anthology?
Art: I was on the road from Virginia to North Carolina for an event at N.C. State University, and I’d stopped for a quick lunch at a Chick-Fil-A—so, of course, was scrolling through email. When I saw one with Best American Mystery Stories in the subject line, I did a double-take, and then had to read it several times before I believed it was real! I sent my wife a text message with about a dozen exclamation points in it—and needless to say, I won’t pass that Chick-Fil-A again without fond memories. It was a great day all around, and the event that evening at N.C. State was much fun too; having graduated from there with a master’s degree in creative writing, I’d been in the audience for their reading series many times before—and such a thrill to be on the other side of the podium this time and to chat with the current students about their work.
Georgia: When I heard the news, I was in Florida with a daughter recovering from surgery. I was checking email and saw a message from an unfamiliar name and almost deleted it before I noticed the subject was Best American Mystery Stories. I held my breath and clicked. And screamed, disturbing my daughter’s nap. She kept asking “What’s wrong?” but I was speed reading and stuttering. When I gained control of my tongue, I read the letter to her twice, and cautiously whispered, “This is huge.” She texted her siblings, while I went into denial. For two days, I expected a hook from the wings to jerk me off stage, or a second letter advising me of a mistake, or a request for money and my social security number. Then I read in an online group where I lurk that talented Art Taylor and Rob Lopresti had also received this letter sent out to twenty writers. That’s when I celebrated!
Tell us about your story and what compelled you to write it.
Art: “Rearview Mirror” was originally written as a dare—my wife Tara Laskowski, who’s also a writer, challenging each of us to write a story for a fiction contest hosted by the Washington Post. The contest used a photograph as a prompt, and a description of that photograph is basically embedded in the 12th paragraph of the story, and then I also drew on a trip to New Mexico that Tara and I had taken the year before, so there were a couple of factors that spurred me on and influenced the shape of the story…though I have to stress that Tara and I got along much better than Del and Louise, and neither of us committed any crimes during our time in the Southwest!
Georgia: It was this same daughter’s deployment to Iraq that put into motion my thoughts for this speculative story, “The Mountain Top.” I kept her two sons, and I also kept my job selling diamond engagement rings. She returned safely to continue a traditional American lifestyle, but mine was permanently askew. With the bailout of Freddie Mac and Fannie Mae, the skyrocketing national debt, and rumors that social security could no longer be funded, I was fearful for the future. When I retired to a log cabin in the North Carolina foothills, my characters came to life. Their story is about fear and greed, handled with a fierce devotion to family.
Why do you write short stories?
Art: Even since I subscribed to Ellery Queen’s Mystery Magazine when I was about 10 years old or so, I’ve loved the form of the short story—and particularly the mystery short story—and because the short story is at the core of the workshop-model that drove the creative writing programs where I studied, I’ve devoted more time and attention to honing my craft in that direction. On the Road with Del & Louise is a hybrid of sorts—a novel in stories that at once capitalizes on the pleasures of the short story (and on what I hope are the strengths I’ve developed as a short story writer) but also builds those stories together into a longer story, an overarching narrative, in which the whole is ultimately greater even than the sum of those parts. That was my goal, and the fear has been that it would fail on both counts—working neither way. With those fears in mind, it’s been a joy this month to have the overall book named a finalist for the Agatha Award for Best First Novel and to have this individual story as published in the book singled out as one of the best short stories of the year—dreams come true in each case, absolutely.
Georgia: I write stories of all lengths, and I have seven shorts published. If I can express my theme in 5000 words, I am thrilled but often I have to write the story to identify the theme, a whydunit rather than whodunit. I have a short story of 15,000 words that I submitted for publication. In my heart, I know it deserves a more satisfying ending. Three years ago I awoke with a vision for a historical suspense story of 10,000 words, but it was not completed until recently. Now it has 89,000 words. The story itself determines the stopping point. My goal is to layer each story with subplots that will generate discussion among characters and readers. When I mumbled “This is huge,” I was referring to the honor that my story was chosen by one of my favorite authors, Elizabeth George. She is the queen of psychological suspense.
Congratulations, Art and Georgia! Looking forward to reading your wonderful stories in a new venue!