Wednesday, April 29, 2009

On canine narrators

It was a mystery.

Who the heck was Spencer Quinn -- this Cape Cod author with a debut novel, Dog On It, that skyrocketed to the New York Times Bestsellers list, had ten overseas publication deals and the film rights sold? None other than New England's own, Peter Abrahams, the author of eighteen novels, including End of Story, Oblivion, and Lights Out, which was nominated for an Edgar best novel award. He also writes the best-selling Echo Falls series for younger readers.

JAN: I have to admit, when Hallie first started raving about this book, with the dog protagonist, I was skeptical. I didn't know about it making the New York Times Bestsellers list, but when Hallie figured out that you were the real author, I gave it a try. I absolutely loved it. I’ve been raving about it ever since. The brilliant thing about the book is the voice, how effectively you write from a dog’s point of view. Please tell us how you went about that?

Peter: First, I’m glad you liked the book, Jan. I’m a big admirer of your work, as I’m sure you know. As for the voice question, I guess from a technical standpoint we’re talking about writing with a limited narrator. I’ve messed around in that area before, but always in third-person close (Oblivion, for example, after Nick Petrov’s brain damage sets in.) With Chet I used first person, which I’d never done, by the way. Always good to try new things! But enough technical blah blah. The true answer is I sat down and started writing the thing and what happened happened. I’ve lived with lots of dogs during my life, and osmosis is one of a writer’s best friends.

JAN: There are obvious limitations to a dog’s experience, analysis he can’t make, and human events he can’t understand. These are all handled deftly, but I’m wondering were their any points in the plot where you worried the dog point of view wouldn’t work? Or any maneuvering you had to do, to keep in Chet’s voice? And with Chet’s unique doggy attitude?

Peter: In a way, writing a novel is all about maneuvering, isn’t it? I didn’t sense any more of that happening than usual. I liked the idea of setting a dog loose in a classic sort of P.I. story – it’s almost like playing a piece of music with a non-customary instrument. (Remember when Jimi Hendrix played the Star Spangled Banner with his electric guitar? That worked!) But what interested me most, and what I always kept my eye on, was the relationship between Chet and Bernie.

JAN: I love that Chet is not simply K-9 trained, which gives him some necessary skills in bad guy detection, but that he’s a K-9 Academy drop out. Did you do that to explain why he’s not working for the police force and adopted by Bernie, or was that to give him dimension, a dark past like a human drinking problem or divorce?

Peter: Both. I like to have one thing do two jobs, or even more. Call it paper-saving, my little contribution to the green movement.

JAN: The scenes I love the most are when Chet’s own explanation of events is interrupted by his lack of impulse control and the human scolding that follows. But what was your favorite part of writing Dog On It, or your favorite scene?

Peter: I was writing the beginning of Chapter 5, where Chet, Iggy and the she-barker all get going, when a couple of people stopped by my office. I read it aloud to them, and their reaction was very gratifying. I laughed a bit myself, like someone else had written it.

JAN: Yes, I actually read that part aloud to my husband, and we both laughed. Why did you write this under the name Spencer Quinn?

Peter: It was so different from my previous work that we wanted it to have a different label.

JAN: What’s up next? Do Bernie and his love interest Suzie have a future? And more importantly, will we hear more about the She-bark that tantalizes Chet from time to time?

Peter: All of that and more! At this point, we’re dealing with at least a 4-book series. #2, Thereby Hangs A Tail, comes out January 2010. (Also, there’s with a new post every day. I’m trying out some things over there – it’s almost like an old-fashioned daily comic strip.)

Come back tomorrow when we ask Peter to take the Jungle Red Quiz and lie to us. And in the meantime, don't forget to go check out, I'm on my way there, right now.


  1. Hey Peter. Congratulations on your wild success! And welcome to JR.

    I have to say, you have some truly truly dependable friends. I mentioned (to someone who will remain nameless) something about "isn't it wonderful about Peter and the dog book?" And s/he looked at me as if I'd breached thermonuclear state scerets.

    "What?" s/he said. I could see s/he was attempting to juggle skeptical, noncommital, terrifed and apprehensive. "Why would you think that?"

    "Um, it was in the Times," I said.

    Oh, whew," the person said. "I had promised him I wouldn't tell."

    So you kept it a big big secret? What was that like?

    And I'm off to ChettheDog...

  2. Hi Hank. Many thanks. And everyone needs a friend. Keeping the secret (which of course wasn't a secret to some, the publisher, for example) wasn't too hard. In fact, I kind of liked it. And I've found that I've been able to say things to people like, "There's a book you might enjoy," in a way I never could about "my own" work. So I guessI even fooled myself! (Not a first for me, God knows.)

  3. And funnily enough, i just noticed that through some google thing, I'm posting from the Spencer account. Now we're getting Orwellian - soon google will arrest Peter Abrahams and he won't be seen again. Should I somehow try to change the account?

  4. Congratulations on what sounds like a terrific series. I very much look forward to reading it!

    -=Susannah Charleson, fan of canine protagonists!

  5. I'm a great animal lover, so Chet has become my favorite sleuth! Keep them coming!

  6. Thanks, Deb. The next one's called Thereby Hangs A Tail. Chet and Bernie are hired to guard a tiny show dog named Princess, work Bernie loathes - at first.

  7. Hey

    About the google thing--in my experience, which includes a lot of confusion and bafflement, you have to sign out as one person/dog, and then sign back in as the other.

  8. Wow, I had no idea it was such a state secret, I thought I just wasn't in the know.

    But what fun to pull it off.

    Hank,we at JR are missing you here at the Connecticut Librarians Conference!

  9. Oh, don't even tell me. I am SO sad not to be there. But it's ratings sweeps here, an I am in the midst of doing some really good

    (Give my love to everyone..and I promise I'll be there next year.)

  10. Hi Peter, I can't wait to read this book. Yes we were all skeptical when Hallie started to rave, but then her taste is generally pretty good. And anything by Peter...

    Was your publisher upset when the secret pseudonym was revealed, or does it not make much difference once the book is sold and launched?

    And can you tell us anything about the potential for Chet Goes to Hollywood?

  11. Hi Roberta - nice to hear from you. No, the publishers didn't care, in fact thought it would come out much earlier. As for Hollywood, there's a deal in place (Universal, Mandalay, plus the Hotel For Dogs writer (natch). But of course you never know until that first day of filming. I try to block all that out. I'm working on a YA now, and in fact my latest YA, Reality Check, came out yesterday.

    Are you at the conference too? Sounds like fun.

  12. Hello Peter, Welcome to JR...I think we met at a Crimebake..not sure..but I totally blew your cover on ...I felt so "in the know"....congrats on the fabulous success of DOI!

  13. Yes, we did. Love Crimebake, myself. Hope to get there again.