When Strangers Meet (by Art Taylor)

Art Taylor made his fiction debut in EQMM’s Department of First Stories in 1995 and he’s gone on to become one of the most celebrated short-story writers in the crime/mystery field. He won the Edgar for his EQMM story “English 398: Fiction Workshop”; he received the Agatha Award for Best First Novel for his novel-in-stories On the Road With Del and Louise (a book largely composed of stories from EQMM); and his short stories have also earned multiple individual Macavity, Agatha, and Derringer awards, as well as an Anthony Award. Readers can find a number of standout stories in his latest collection, The Boy Detective & The Summer of ’74 and Other Tales of Suspense. What some of our regular readers may not know is that Art is also a teacher of creative writing and an associate professor of English at George Mason University. This post brings together some insights derived from his writing and teaching. It also gives some background to his story “We Are All Strangers Here,” which appears in our current issue (September/October 2022). —Janet Hutchings

My story “An Internal Complaint” (EQMM, June 2007) took direct inspiration from Anton Chekhov’s “The Lady with the Dog” (1899), explicitly echoing that famous story of infidelity and its consequences.

In “An Internal Complaint,” Philip—an aspiring writer studying Chekhov’s story to hone his craft—begins to suspect that his wife is having an affair. The story shuttles between 19th-century Russia—Philip’s retelling of scenes from the perspective of the cuckolded husband of the lady with the dog—and present-day North Carolina as Philip begins surveillance on his wife and her lover. (The manuscript title of “An Internal Complaint” was “Episodes from the Story of Evgeniy von Diderits,” which editor Janet Hutchings wisely asked me to change; the ultimate title is drawn from a key passage about the title character’s deception of her husband.)

While “An Internal Complaint” broadcasts its connections to “The Lady with the Dog,” my latest story for EQMM—“We Are All Strangers Here” in the September/October issue—owes an equally strong debt to Chekhov, even if the inspiration is so indirect there’s zero chance anyone would recognize it.

The Chekhov story in this case is “In the Cart” (1897), in which a schoolmistress is driven back to her village after collecting her small paycheck in town. Along the way, she has brief conversations with her driver and reflects on her late parents and estranged brother. She meets a local landowner and wonders what it would be like to be married to him, then dismisses the idea. She stops at a teahouse, where some of the patrons are drinking vodka; the driver reprimands them for speaking vulgarly. Back on the journey, they have to cross a river, the driver nearly tips the cart, and the schoolmistress gets her boots wet. While stopped at a railway crossing, she glimpses a woman on the train who looks like her mother, and she begins to cry, but then has a passing moment of happiness in which she imagines that the hardships she’d endured might have been a dream—before the driver calls her back to reality and they return to the village.

(If you’re waiting for what happens next, I’m sorry. That’s it.)

In “We Are All Strangers Here,” an attractive woman is sipping an amaretto sour in a hotel bar when a man claims the open seat beside her, obviously hitting on her. She surprises him by admitting that she’s married, then admitting she’s grateful for some diversion from her husband. Soon, the conversation turns to the subject of open marriages, and when the two of them are joined by another young woman, there’s a hint that the encounter might evolve into a threesome.

I’m skipping a key bit of information here—strategically, for reasons I’ll explain in a moment. But I’m pausing to emphasize that it might be tough to connect that schoolmistress in the cart to a woman in a bar chatting about open marriages. Not once does Chekhov’s schoolmistress consider a ménage à trois with her driver and that landowner.

Though both women do reflect throughout their respective stories on their lives—where they’ve come from, where they’re going—the connection between the stories is more structural, with all credit to George Saunders and his terrific craft book A Swim in a Pond in the Rain: In Which Four Russians Give a Master Class on Writing, Reading, and Life.

While I’ve taught fiction workshops for many years at George Mason University and feel like I know a few things about the craft of short fiction, Saunders’ book proved an eye-opener—pointing me toward new perspectives on crafting character, plot, style, and structure and inspiring my own work in the process.

The first section of A Swim in a Pond analyzes “In the Cart” one or two pages at a time—twice as many pages of analysis after each printed page of the story itself. That analysis tries to chart what readers know at each point in the story, what they might be curious about, and what they might expect from the next step of the schoolmistress’s journey. Importantly, from a writers’ perspective, Saunders also explores how Chekhov builds on and twists (“exploits” even) those reader expectations at every turn. For example, the meeting with the landowner suggests that this story might become a romance of sorts, saving the schoolmistress from her accumulating disappointments, emotional and financial both—but after weighing this idea, both character and plot move in a different direction, to the story’s great credit.

Building on this analysis, Saunders writes more generally, “A story is a series of incremental pulses, each of which does something to us. Each puts us in a new place, relative to where we just were.”

Thinking about that analysis, thinking about short fiction as a series of small segments which deliver information, build reader expectation, and then move in unexpected directions with awareness of potential reader expectations . . . all that led me to try this out myself, systematically—an exercise that eventually became “We Are All Strangers Here.”

The key bit of information that I strategically withheld above is also one that I strategically withheld within the story—at least til the end of the opening scene, where I hope it provides a nice jolt of surprise. After that, I tried to take this new information and complicate it further, then parcel out fresh reveals, with their own fresh complications, a bit at the time. To quote Saunders again, I hope that each subsequent section of my story does indeed offer a new “incremental pulse” and bring the reader to a surprising “new place” in their relationship with and understanding of the characters.

Another writer at the EQMM blog explored this same idea in a different way—also with reference to Chekhov. In “Chekhov for the Gun-Shy” (an essay now regularly on my syllabi at Mason), Reed Johnson talks about the idea of “ghost plots” and writes that “the fictional narrative, and the mystery story above all, is not one story but two: The first is the plot as it actually exists on the page, and the second a sort of ghost plot that consists of anticipated but unrealized events—a chain of otherwise that exists in a sort of a continually evolving dialectic with the actual.”

We often think of stories as a series of escalations: a character in a crisis or quandary facing increasingly steep troubles as the plot works toward its climax. (Google “Lester Dent’s Master Plot Formula”) But Saunders and Johnson emphasize that in addition to wrangling with plot and character, we writers also need to maintain a focused awareness on the reader and on the various potential readings of our story in order, in Reed’s words again, “to constantly innovate both within and against the conventions of the genre to avoid giving the mystery a predictable solution.”

I know there are other writers in our genre who are fans of Chekhov and draw inspiration from his work—Travis Richardson stands out, for example, with his excellent “Chekhov Shorts” project—and Saunders’ book draws also explores stories by Gogol, Tolstoy, and Turgenev to explore other aspects of short fiction writing: the pattern story, for example, and the importance of what’s left out as much as what’s included in a short story.

All this may seem very far from modern mystery and suspense fiction, but sometimes appearances deceive . . . which may be a clue to reading my own new story as well. And hope you enjoy! 

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5 Responses to When Strangers Meet (by Art Taylor)

  1. Art Taylor says:

    Thanks for hosting me! Hope folks enjoy—both the essay and the story itself!

  2. Pingback: On Chekhov at the EQMM Blog – Art Taylor

  3. Pingback: The First Two Pages: “We Are All Strangers Here” by Art Taylor – Art Taylor

  4. Christine Poulson says:

    This is so interesting, Art! I have ordered the Saunders book, and have just read your story. It succeeds alright! – and I enjoyed the jolt, which I didn’t see coming. Chrissie

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