Monday, March 23, 2020

An Interview with the Authors of the 2020 Agatha Short Story Nominees!

by Paula Gail Benson

Each year, it is such a delight for me to welcome the authors whose short stories have been nominated for the Agatha award, presented at Malice Domestic. This year, the event may have been postponed, but that's no reason not to celebrate the authors and their nominated stories! These authors are not only expert at the craft of short story writing, but also dear friends. Their nominated stories offer the depth and emotion that fine storytelling always evokes. Please take time to read each of the stories at the following links:

"Grist for the Mill" by Kaye George in A Murder of Crows (Darkhouse Books)
"Alex’s Choice" by Barb Goffman in Crime Travel (Wildside Press)
"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)
"Better Days" by Art Taylor in Ellery Queen Mystery Magazine

Welcome Kaye, Barb, Cynthia, Shawn, and Art to the Stiletto Gang!

How do you decide the point of view or who will tell your short story?

Kaye George
Kaye George:
The theme of the anthology was animal group names. You know, those odd ones, like a Murder of Crows (not coincidentally, the name of the anthology)? I looked up a bunch and discovered a Grist of Bees. I got the go-ahead to use that group and so my MC had to be a beekeeper.

Barb Goffman:
This is usually an organic issue for me. I don’t come up with a plot and then think about who would be the best person to tell the story. My stories are character driven, so once I know a character’s story—his/her situation that I want to tell—the point of view to use has already been decided. This was true of my Agatha-nominated story “Alex’s Choice.” That said, sometimes for a story to work, I need to tell it from multiple perspectives, so I do so. (You may be thinking, stories with multiple POV from Barb? I don’t recall those stories. That’s true. They haven’t been published—yet!)

Cynthia Kuhn
Cynthia Kuhn:
Seems to depend on the story—some require access to the protagonist’s perspective and some require more distance.

Shawn Reilly Simmons:
For me every story is different, but I do tend to focus on one POV of a character with a strong motivation to move the story forward. For this particular story, the character driving the story has a strong motivation to take inventory of his friendship with one of his oldest acquaintances.

Art Taylor:
I’ve used a variety of points of view across my stories—both in terms of prose point-of-view (I, you, he, she) and in terms of character (a detective’s perspective, a criminal’s, whoever’s). The narrator of “Better Days” is a journalist who was downsized from a major newspaper and has picked up a job at a small coastal North Carolina newspaper—in the same town where his father now lives, father and son both trying to build better relations in the years since the narrator’s mother died. That father-son relationship is core to the story, and it was important for me to show that relationship through the eyes of the son—both some of the frustrations about the relationship and also some redemption too. While the narrator sets out to investigate the crime here, the dad is the one who steps forward as the detective solving the case—not quite a Watson-Sherlock relationship, but certainly echoes of that, and there are many reasons that Watson is the narrator of the Sherlock stories, of course.

Each of your stories take place in a unique “universe” that becomes an important part of the plot. Which came first, your characters or the setting, or, if they were somehow melded, how?

Kaye George:
My characters were first, and the setting is just their homes and yards in Anywhere USA. I think people have backyard gardens and keep bees in a lot of places, so I didn’t specify where it is, exactly. I’d love for the reader to imagine this is their town.

Barb Goffman
Barb Goffman:
Combo for me. Sometime in the year before I wrote my story, I read a newspaper article about a tragedy involving a California family. They had been on the beach, and after their dog went into the ocean and didn’t come out, the father went in to save him. When he didn’t come out, another family member went in after him, and it went on and on until they all were gone—only the dog survived, eventually crawling out from the water. It was a horrendous occurrence, and I wished I could change things for those poor people. And then my beloved dog Scout died, and I wanted to bring him back. Both of these terrible events were the springboard for my story “Alex’s Choice,” which involves a couple who die in the ocean after their dog is swept away. Thanks to time travel, their child has the chance to go back and change what happened but is unexpectedly forced to make a choice that no one—let alone a child—should have to make.

Cynthia Kuhn:
For “The Blue Ribbon,” the setting came first—in fact, the moment that I read the description of the anthology project, the bakery and competition popped into my head. It doesn’t usually happen that vividly; typically I only get a wisp of an idea that has to be coaxed out of hiding.

Shawn Reilly Simmons
Shawn Reilly Simmons:
It was both in my case—for “The Last Word” I wanted the setting to be a high end restaurant in New York City, a location I can picture very well from my own experiences of living and working there, and a chef who is seasoned enough to have been through the ups and downs of a culinary career—praise, wealth, hunger, professional jealousy, failure. Maybe it’s because I wrote this story very quickly, but the setting and characters came to me simultaneously, I think!

Art Taylor


Art Taylor:
“Better Days” is the sequel to an earlier story that was also set on the North Carolina coast: “A Drowning at Snow’s Cut.” To that end, characters and setting both were already in place for the new story. But I will say that setting helped to determine to a great degree what happens here: a coastal town, a newcomer on a big yacht, the cocktail bar where this newcomer begins to move in on one of the local women, and then the narrator interested in the same woman—relatively new to the area himself and still trying to make peace with his life after having been laid off at the big-city newspaper. Character, plot, and place come together here in key ways.


If you had a spirit animal, what would it be?

Kaye George:
Some kind of beautiful bird. I’m afraid of heights and would love to be able to soar like they do. Maybe a hawk or an eagle.

Barb Goffman:
I had to look up what a spirit animal is. I’ll go with the badger, whose attributes apparently include focus on the task at hand, self-reliance, persistence, and strategy.

Cynthia Kuhn:
One psychic told me that my spirit animal was a butterfly; another said it was a giraffe. Still confused.

Shawn Reilly Simmons:
I had no idea so I just took an online quiz! The result: I’m a Turtle: The turtle totem wisdom teaches us about walking our path in peace and sticking to it with determination and serenity. Yeah, that sounds about right. While I do have a lot on my plate, I do keep a Zen attitude about it, and am always seeking balance in all things….I’ll take Turtle any day.

Art Taylor:
I took two quizzes to try to figure this one out. The first determined that my spirit animal was a whale, because I listen to inner voices and embrace my emotions. The second said that it should be a snake, because I’m “powerfully connected to life force and primal energy.” Also, my sign is Pisces, and my Myers-Briggs is INFJ. Somewhere in all that, that’s where you’ll find me.

What shoes will you (or if you prefer, would a character from your nominated short story) wear to the Agatha Banquet?

Kaye George:
Hmm, Kevin isn’t much for dressing up. He’ll probably wear leather tie shoes and slacks, though, after I stress to him that we are being honored there. If Vivian, the protagonist, shows up, she’ll wear low heels and a dress, I’m sure. These are not young, stylish people, see.

Barb Goffman:
I wear the same shoes every year. They are black. They are flat. They are comfortable.

Cynthia Kuhn:
Are flip flops allowed? If so, that would be my first choice.

Shawn Reilly Simmons:
Most likely something way more fancy with a higher heel than I normally wear, which is no shoes at all when I’m writing or doing yoga, or trainers when I’m running or lifting weights at the gym….yeah, I’ll have to acquire something more appropriate for an elegant event!

Art Taylor:
I’ve leaned toward more formal or more flashy in previous years—black wingtips, white bucks, this pair of hand-crafted blue-and-tan suede shoes from Portugal (no lie). But I’ve got a new pair of brown Clark’s—which my wife Tara says looks like every other shoe I wear on regular basis—and I think I’ll wear those. My character would appreciate too: down-to-earth, nothing flashy, just who he is.  

Thank you all for taking the time to be with us and answer questions. And, many thanks for all the wonderful stories you have written! During this time of social distancing, it’s grand to have terrific reading material!

AUTHOR BIOS:
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.

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.

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 cynthiakuhn.net.

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.

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. 

7 comments:

  1. Thanks for hosting us here, Paula--and so interesting to hear everyone else's answers to these questions. And funny how many of us scratched our heads over that spirit animal question!

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  2. Art, thank you all for answering and contemplating spirit animals. I enjoyed reading all the responses, but that one in particular. Please be well and safe as you begin online instruction.

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  3. Thanks, Paula, for the spotlight! Art, I thought everyone knew about spirit animals--glad you know now! Although you don't know what yours is. We're both Pisces, so we can swim around together anyway.

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  4. Kaye, it is wonderful to have you all here. Now, I have to find out what my spirit animal might be!

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  5. Thank you so very much for hosting us today! Very fun to read everyone's answers. I would LOVE to know what all of your spirit animals are, Paula and Stiletto Gang members.

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    1. Me, too, Cynthia! Thank you so much for being here. I want to know more about the psychics you consulted!

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