Tag Archive for: Otto Penzler

An Interview with TWO Best American Mystery Story Authors

story writers always rejoice in any publication of their work, but to be included
in Otto Penzler’s Best American Mystery
(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
did you learn that your story would be included in the anthology?
Art Taylor
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 Ruth
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!
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.
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.
Art and Georgia! Looking forward to reading your wonderful stories in a new

Finding Gold among the Dross

I had a wonderful time last week visiting the Pequannock library. Rose Garwood, the librarian, and her staff, had decorated the room for Halloween – a perfect setting for my talk: How to Commit Murder – A Mystery Writer Offers Some Clues. There was a terrific turnout, delicious refreshments, and a lively discussion.

Knowing the vagaries of the New Jersey Turnpike at rush hour, I arrived at the library about an hour early. It gave me time to wander throught the mystery section. I squealed with delight, earning astonished looks from other patrons, when I discovered a copy of Rest You Merry, the first book by Charlotte MacLeod, in her delightful Peter Shandy series. I think this was the first mystery that I ever read that included humor as part of the storyline. Dame Agatha and Arthur Conan Doyle always presented a first-rate whodunnit, but as might be expected, humor was not their strong suit.

In contrast, I was laughing hysterically when I finished the first chapter of Rest You Merry, perfectly envisioning the scene she’d drawn. There was the sweet curmudgeon, Professor Peter Shandy, exacting delightful revenge against his neighbors who insisted he decorate his home for the holidays. So before stealing away in the middle of the night, he pays for an over-the-top Christmas decoration extravaganza, including flashing lights and a taped recording of I Don’t Care Who You Are Fatty, Get Those Reindeer Off My Roof. Too bad – or maybe too good for us readers – but when poor Professor Shandy slinks home, he discovers a dead body in his over-decorated house.

I enjoyed skimming the mystery, but found myself intrigued by the introduction that Charlotte MacLeod had penned for this edition, published by the legendary Otto Penzler fifteen years after the book’s original debut. She described how she originally created the first chapter as a short story which she submitted to Yankee magazine “and waited for my check. What I got was my story, by return post, with a stiffish rejection. Yankee was not amused.”

I had one of those aha moments. Charlotte MacLeod, who at the time of her death had published 30 novels and won countless awards, understood exactly what happens when you send off what you think is prose that would make Willy Shakespeare weep – and get back a rejection that hints that you might instead consider a job in the great outdoors, herding sheep or something.

Ms. Macleod, who died in 2005, is described, in the Wikepedia entry, “as a ‘true lady’and often seen with hat and white gloves.” She had her own rituals for the creative process: She “began writing at 6 a.m., continued through the morning, then used the afternoon for rewrites. She only started new books on Sundays and during writing would stay dressed in a bathrobe to avoid the temptation of leaving the house for an errand.” I too often stay dressed in my bathrobe, but alas, mine is a result of slovenly habits.

In any case, ten years after that original rejection, Ms. MacLeod decided that the short story would make a wonderful first chapter…and Rest You Merry was born.

It made me think that it was time to go through the virtual drawers of my computer and pull out some of those early rejects. I’m not sure I’ll find gold like Ms. MacLeod, but who knows?

Evelyn David