Friday, July 23, 2010

An Interview with Ann Littlewood

Ann,how and when you began your writing career?
When I was a zoo keeper, I wrote scientific papers based on research at the zoo and hand-rearing protocols, such as how we raised a baby hippo. When I moved into technical writing, I wrote software instructions and business processes. I started writing my first long fiction, Night Kill, while I was still in the corporate world. Fiction is so different from all the other writing I’ve done! What a challenge.
Please explain how your writing schedule works?
Short answer: it doesn’t. I write in bursts. Now I am focused on promoting Did Not Survive, so I’m writing guest blogs and letters to book reviewers and emails, not fiction. I miss having my head immersed in a story, but I can’t do it all at once.
This is an age old question but I am going to ask it anyway. How long does it take you to write your books?
The last one took nine months. The one before that—five years. The next one? Beats me!
Let's talk about your zoo mysteries and how you came to write the series?
Zoos have so much going on—people dynamics, animal events, the great American goofy public, and lots of actual or narrowly avoided accidents. I saw plenty of opportunity for a mystery series set in a zoo and, at the time, no one was doing it. (Betty Webb started her zoo series about the same time I started mine.) It’s been great to put my head back into that world. All the fun and none of the exhaustion or back injuries or wet feet!
How much research goes into your books?
I am paranoid about animal experts throwing up their hands at some stupid error I made. So I read books and get on the web and talk to the experts. I try to research every single thing. But zoos are so complex, with such a variety of animals, I’m sure I’ll blow it someday. Zoo professionals have been very generous with their time—they want the information to be accurate. The elephant experts I interviewed for Did Not Survive were fascinating. I love talking with biologists of all sorts. My goal is that the animals have every super-power that nature endowed them with and none that I invented. I’m going for authenticity.
What other books do you have in the works?
I have two rough plots to continue the Finley Zoo series. The next one might focus on orangutans in a thriller plot. Or it may be a combination of parrots and snakes in a more traditional mystery. I don’t know much about parrots or snakes, so that should be interesting to research. Finley Zoo will continue to improve, even as its staff members have their problems. My protagonist, Iris Oakley, will mature and change as she raises her child and gains more experience in the world, but she will remain wedded to her job. As to whether she ends up wedded to another person, we’ll have to see.
Now for a few fun questions. What is your favorite meal, dessert, book, movie place to vacation and your favorite way to spend your nonwriting time?
·         Meal: steak, baked potato (none of that foil!) with butter, asparagus, chocolate torte. This is a guilty meal. My real meals feature beans and chard.
·         Book: Can’t pin that down to just one!
·         Movie: Magnificent Seven or maybe Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon—I love that scene with the Bactrian camels.
·         Vacation: I would love to see the African game parks. Belize is closer to striking distance, however.
·         Non-writing time: I spend most of it reading, of course!
What would you like to tell your readers?
I write zoo mysteries in hopes of drawing people into the natural world and encouraging them to care about it. I hope to motivate readers to protect the world from any more human damage. None of us can fix deforestation, ocean acidification, or climate change, but we can all do our part. So do it! Then do a little more. Any profit I earn from Did Not Survive will be donated to organizations like the ones listed at the back of the book.
Tell us about Ann, the author, the woman and the friend?
I’m a life-long environmentalist with a full life. I engage with an extended family, keep up with a boatload of friends, volunteer with Portland Audubon Society and with a local reading program, garden, teach my dog cute tricks, and read.
Do you have a writing pet peeve?
I do not read mysteries and thrillers about sadistic killers of women. Life is too short to have those images in my head.
Who is your publisher and what would you like us to know about them?
Poisoned Pen Press has won heaps of awards within the mystery community. They are beyond “small press”, more like middle-sized. They do a wonderful job.
What writing words of wisdom would you like to give aspiring writers who want to become fiction authors?
This business is a mix of talent, hard work, and pure luck. Keep learning, keep writing, and be sure to stick your neck out—submit your work, get to know other writers, and socialize. You need to be out in the open for the lucky chance to strike. If you hide, the random lightening won’t find you.
Do you believe in writer's block and if so how do you handle writer's block?
I suffer mightily to outline my books and endure the writer’s (plotter’s?) block then. Once I have an outline, I rarely have writer’s block. I don’t necessarily write what I’ve outlined, of course!
Do you have a website or blog ?
Yes, I do. and
I know you have a book coming out August first and so this must be an exciting time for you. Do you have book signings scheduled?
See the events page on my website for the latest: I’ll be in Washington, Oregon, and Arizona, as well as Bouchercon in San Francisco.
What is it like to be an author in 2010?
Promoting a second book is so much easier than promoting the first one! Authors have an awful load of promotion, kind of like homework or house cleaning in that it’s never totally done. I buzz around, like most authors with a book coming out, aiming for signing events, reviews, guest blogs, etc. This time I even have a trailer, a very cool one! It’s up on my website.
Can you break down for us how you plot, name your characters, how many times you rewrite your book, pacing, background and tell us about the worst and best writing day you ever had to date?
·         As I mentioned, I outline the plot and subplots in advance, although that always changes as I write. I try for a dramatic kick-off, a varied pace through the book, then rising tension to an exciting climax, and a quick wrap up. That’s the goal, anyway.
·         Naming characters is fun. Iris Oakley, my protagonists, is “Iris” because her mother is a gardener and it is her job to see. The last names of almost all my characters are from famous biologists. The first names are chosen partly so that they are all different enough to avoid confusion.
·         I am in a writers’ group and I edit (rewrite) based on the members’ responses to each chapter. I also read the whole manuscript out loud to myself at least twice. I’ve found this to be very helpful. I always run the whole thing by at least two zoo people.
·         It’s always a challenge to decide how much background to include, both about the zoo and about the characters. I struggle with it. The detail about animals and their care is fascinating to me, but it slows down the plot. Fortunately, in both Night Kill and Did Not Survive, the behavior of the animals provides important clues for Iris, so I get to leave that in.
·         As for the worst and best day writing, all days that I write are good days! I have good and bad days promoting, but not writing. Well, plotting can be gnarly. I have bad days plotting now and then.
Leave us with some words of wisdom from either you or one of your characters.
Next time you go to the zoo or are otherwise near animals, try erasing yourself from the scene. Just watch quietly and patiently. I can almost guarantee you will see and learn things that you would miss if you did the usual thing and tried to get their attention and interact with them. Watching quietly is very powerful.
In closing I hope you will share with us a small passage from your book.
Damrey turned toward Sam and draped her trunk over his shoulder. He rubbed the trunk, his hand moving firmly over the rough, wrinkled hide. It looked like old friends comforting one another in a tough time, trying to get each other through. Would she really turn on a person she knew, who’d been careful and gentle with her? It could happen, I knew it could happen. But this particular elephant? “See?” Sam said. “She hasn’t got a mean bone in her body. Wait till you get to know her.” … I wished he’d get out of her reach.

Ann, thank you for the interview.

Pamela James

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