Author Caroline Taylor Dishes On Westerns, the Writing Process and Eudora Welty

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Were you a voracious reader as a child?

My mother would read us stories about Winnie the Pooh. My father used to tell us bedtime stories involving a rabbit named Jam who lived in San Francisco and had one red ear and one green ear, which caused all sorts of problems, the resolution of which (if indeed there was one) usually occurred after we had fallen asleep. I read a lot, beginning with the Ruth Fielding series and Nancy Drew, but also including “Alice in Wonderland,” “Little Women,” “The Three Musketeers,” “The Adventures of Tom Sawyer” and any other adventure stories I could find at the local library. Later on, I read lots of Westerns and stories where the horse was the central character, and in my teens, I always had my nose buried in a science fiction book.

What was your career trajectory like?

After a brief stint in the Foreign Service, I took a course in editing and graphic design and switched careers. I eventually became a publications director for nonprofits and a couple of federal agencies. These positions required a lot of writing, including magazine and newsletter articles, one-time publications and almost always copy for various annual reports. I became a bit of an expert at the latter and [wrote] my first book, a how-to manual titled “Publishing the Nonprofit Annual Report: Tips, Traps, and Tricks of the Trade.” The successful publication of my first short story, “Beginner’s Lessons,” encouraged me to pursue writing a novel, using the same person as the lead character, and the result was “What Are Friends For?”

How did that work help you with novel writing?

I learned early on that copy had to be colorful and that meant it had to be specific. The difference between writing nonfiction and fiction became apparent when I received a rejection notice from a magazine, informing me that my short story read “more like an essay.” In other words, I was telling readers something that I should be showing. Nonfiction lays out the facts; fiction reveals the truth but “tells it slant,” as Eudora Welty put it.

Where do you find your inspiration?

Mostly from my own life experiences, but also from current events and the novels that I still voraciously read. My novel “Loose Ends” was inspired by Thomas Perry’s Jane Whitefield series, which features an American Indian woman who knows the woods of northern New York and also how to obtain false identity papers so that the people she helps can go off the grid. “What Are Friends For?” was inspired by a desire to spoof hard-boiled fiction with a story of a rank amateur who admires Philip Marlowe but doesn’t have the first clue about how to save herself from an unwarranted murder charge.

How did your experiences living abroad inform your writing?

We lived for a year in Central America when I was a teenager. It was a real eye-opener for me to learn that rights we take for granted as U.S. citizens do not extend beyond our own borders. Many Americans are unaware of this and have suffered from thinking that their U.S. citizenship protects them from falling prey to justice systems that are sometimes far from just. My own experience made me identify with novels touching on this theme, such as Paul Theroux’s “The Mosquito Coast,” and I used that idea in “Loose Ends” to explain why the two central characters are so fearful of the authorities.

Where do you write?

I have a home office and prefer to write in the morning. I only drink water and usually snack on a raisin-nuts-cranberry mix at about mid-morning. Depending on what’s happening in the fiction I’m writing, I listen to music that fits the mood – either classical music on WCPE or my favorite rock songs.

What’s the cure for writer’s block?

After fruitlessly trying to just keep on writing, it finally dawned on me that getting stuck is a signal that I’ve been overusing that part of my brain, and it needs a rest.

Do you know the plot from the beginning or gure it out as you go?

Once I get an idea in my head, I take the plunge. … I let the characters take me where it seems they want to go. If I don’t like where they’re headed or think they’re going to wind up in a boring cul-de-sac, I will change the path. I believe that’s what they’re talking about when they say the writer can play God.

What can readers learn from the strength of “Loose Ends” protagonists Cam and Carson?

They are both named after heroes (real and radio) of the Old West. In that way, they are throwbacks to a time when circumstances had no mercy for a woman who fell apart or became immobilized by fear. She had to pick herself up and press on, against whatever odds she faced, because surrender meant certain death.

If you could have lunch with any two writers from history…

Could I have lunch with three of them? I would ask Eudora Welty how she managed to make the rhythm and cadence of the words in her short story, “Powerhouse,” so uncannily resemble the blues she was writing about. I would ask Elmore Leonard how he managed to write such spot-on dialogue for his low-life characters. Olivia Manning’s Guy and Harriet Pringle are unforgettable characters … I would ask if they were based on people she knew or an amalgam of people she knew, or did they spring solely from her imagination?

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Jessica Stringer

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