DEBORAH CROMBIE: I did a happy dance a few months back when I saw that Susan Conant had a new mystery featuring Cambridge, Massachusetts dog owner, dog trainer, and dog columnist Holly Winter and her beautiful malamutes, Rowdy, Kimi, and Sammy. It's called BRUTE STRENGTH, and first off I have to say it's has the most GORGEOUS cover! If I saw this book on the shelf and had never heard of Susan Conant or Holly Winter, I'd buy it in a second just so I could sit and look at it.
But I've been a fan of Susan's books since the very first entry in the series, A NEW LEASH ON DEATH, and happily, many of the earlier books are now available on Kindle.
In BRUTE STRENGTH, when Dog's Life columnist Holly Winter rejects applicants who want to adopt homeless dogs, she makes a lot of enemies. In dogs Holly trusts, and the dogs she trusts most are her beloved malamutes, Rowdy, Kimi and Sammy. But right now she could use a human friend. Lately, it seems wherever she turns, things go wrong: an anonymous call turns vicious, her husband is keeping secrets, and acquaintances die under mysterious circumstances. Then Holly's own life is threatened. Can the brute strength of Rowdy, Kimi, and Sammy protect her?
DEBS: Susan, as much as I love dogs and anything about dogs, I think it's Holly herself who appeals to me the most in your books. Holly is one of the original feisty female sleuths--smart, independent, and wickedly funny. Can you tell us what--or who--was your inspiration for Holly?
SUSAN: When I began writing the first book in the series, A NEW LEASH ON DEATH, I started with the plot. The characters didn't even have names. They were called A, B, C, D, and so forth. Once I had an idea of what was going to happen in the book, I began to worry that my letters of the alphabet wouldn't come to life. At that point, I sat down with a notebook and, in effect, found myself taking dictation from Holly Winter, as I've been doing ever since.
I felt as if Holly had appeared out of nowhere, but it's simply not true. Holly has some obvious and specific sources in my own life. Although my dog mysteries are far less autobiographical than readers sometimes suppose, she and I bear a certain resemblance to each other. In particular, she and I make fools of ourselves over dogs in identical ways. For example, when I was in a phase of always putting water through a Britta filter before I used it to fill the dogs' bowl, I realized that I was filtering the dogs' water but drinking my own straight from the tap. Pure Holly Winter!
Holly is also a composite of many friends and acquaintances of mine who are "real dog people," as it's said. By about the fifth book in the series, GONE TO THE DOGS, I began playing a little game with myself by having Holly define the phrase by example: real are people are people who can go to a party and discuss impacted anal sacs without gagging on their Brie——as real dog people certainly can and do!
So, in preparing to write as Holly, I've become something of an anthropologist of the culture of the dog fancy and dog love. I especially enjoy hearing people, including myself, speak in ways that reflect the unity of people and their dogs. At performance events, it's routine to hear someone waiting for a turn in the ring say,"We're the next dog," and when people discuss breeding programs, they say, "He bred to her" in a way that makes it impossible to tell whether the pronouns refer to human beings or canines. The other day, I heard someone say of a breeder, "She is a working kennel," a statement that might have come out of Holly Winter's mouth. And probably will!
I also want to acknowledge the influence of Nancy Drew, who has inspired almost every American woman writing mysteries today. In admiring Nancy, I learned that a girl could be strong, independent, resourceful, brave, and admirable all at the same time. So, Holly owes something to Nancy. In my series, Nancy Drew grows up and goes nuts about dogs.
DEBS: Oh, I can so see myself giving my dogs water from the Britta filter . . . Um, I have actually done that . . .
When I knew Brute Strength was coming out, I re-read half a dozen of the early books in the series (I'm missing a few in the middle, but only because I made the mistake of loaning out my copies) and although the first book was published in 1990, the early books seemed as fresh as ever. Have you given much thought to the fact that series time doesn't run at the same rate as real time and how to handle that challenge?
SUSAN: If you're asking me to kill off Holly's dogs, the answer is no! Seriously, all of us who write long-running series have to make decisions about real time and series time. If dogs weren't central characters in my series, I'd handle time just as you do. (I'm a fan!) But I can't. In reality, dogs have very short lives. If series time were real time, Holly would now be on her fourth or fifth generation of malamutes. So, my books take place in book time. Rowdy, Kimi, and Sammy are immortal, as my readers and I want them to be. I'm sure that my readers don't want to have their attention directed to the dogs' immortality, so I take care not to let my readers down.
DEBS: I absolutely couldn't bear to have anything happen to Rowdy, Kimi, or Sammy, so thanks for the reassurance.
Can you tell us about your first malamute? Who inspired Rowdy? And who are your current dogs?
SUSAN: I grew up with dogs and had loved dogs all my life, but my first malamute, Natasha, was a revelation. At the age of eight weeks, when I brought her home, she promptly taught me that there was more to dogs than I'd ever dreamed. I'd known a lot of dogs, but I'd never known one like this before!
Natasha was my original model for Holly Winter's Rowdy. In my first mystery, A NEW LEASH ON DEATH, Holly walks into her bedroom to discover that Rowdy has removed all of the socks from her sock drawer, has distributed them throughout the room, and is waiting there to observe her reaction. Rowdy is, in effect, conducting an experiment designed to assess Holly's character. That scene is drawn from life. What amazed me when I entered my bedroom to find myself a subject in Natasha's sock experiment was that she had used the distribution of my socks as a means toward an end that had no inherent connection with socks. The point was to size me up! Her aim was practical——to evaluate her bipedal partner——but the way she'd achieved her aim suggested a capacity for abstract thought that I'd never before encountered in a dog.
I was utterly loopy about Natasha, who got me into obedience training and trials. With her, they were indeed trials! But no matter what, I simply worshiped her. A NEW LEASH ON DEATH is really a love story——a story about my great love for Natasha.
Incredibly, at the moment, I'm without a malamute. My Mandy is the first mixed-breed dog I've ever owned. At a guess, she is a malamute x Sheltie cross. Two years ago, my husband and I offered to foster her for malamute rescue. She was eleven years old. Two weeks after she entered our lives, we celebrated our wedding anniversary by adopting her. She will turn fourteen in October. She is a peach.
DEBS: I know you've been busy writing The Gourmet Girl Mysteries with your daughter, Jessica Park. (These are going on my To Read list. If there's anything I like almost as much as dogs, it's food . . .) But are there more Holly Winter Books in the works? (Please say yes!)
SUSAN: Yes! I have reams of scribbled notes for the next Holly Winter book, but I haven't made much progress this summer. I broke my right wrist in early June, and typing was painful. Also, I've been busy preparing electronic editions of two early Holly Winter books, A NEW LEASH ON DEATH and A BITE OF DEATH. With luck, Kindle editions will available soon.
DEBS: As you may have noticed, we have GSDs (German shepherd dogs, for those who are not up on doggy parlance.) So as much as I love the malamutes, I always hope that India, Holly's (hunky) husband Steve's German shepherd, gets a little bigger role. Not that she would outshine the malamutes, of course!
I love this last picture, which you've told me was taken at the Cambridge Armory (with you and Mandy on the left), where Holly's fictional dog club trains. With the focus on dogs, and on Holly as such an appealing heroine, I don't want to miss emphasizing that one of things I've always loved about your books is their strong sense of place. They've made me feel I know Cambridge, street by street, and if I ever get to take a Holly Winter tour, I'll have fun trying to find Holly's fictional house.
And in the meantime, I'm looking forward to the next Holly--and I may have to find my missing volumes . . .