Drop Dead on Recall by Sheila Webster Boneham

By Jeremy Burns

Dogs, cats, and other pets are such a natural part of many of our lives that we often take them for granted.  Sheila Boneham, an award-winning author and expert on domestic animals, gives readers a fresh take on Fido as she delves into the world of elite dog shows, pet antics, and, of course, murder most foul in her debut novel, DROP DEAD ON RECALL.  I got to sit down with Sheila for this month’s THE BIG THRILL and ask her some questions about her new book.

Tell us a little about yourself.

The rest of this interview will verify this, but let me start by saying that I’m not good at “either/or” or at choosing one of anything! That’s reflected in just about everything I do — you’ve been warned! Like most working writers, I’m just the tiniest bit goal oriented, but I’ve learned in the past few years to try to keep some balance by making time for “no goal” activities. I have to be ruthless with myself though — those darn goals keep sneaking in (if I add half a mile a week to my walk, how long will it take me to hit marathon distance…). Anyway, my husband and I have been “trying on” different parts of the country over the past three years. Last year we lived in Reno, Nevada. Now we’re on the beautiful coast of southern North Carolina. Next year? Who knows! I suppose I’ve always been a bit of a nomad — I studied, taught, and traveled in the Middle East and Europe in the 70s and 80s, and I’ve lived in different parts of the U.S. I still teach workshops and classes when my writing schedule allows.

Tell us about your new mystery novel, DROP DEAD ON RECALL.

DROP DEAD ON RECALL is the first in my new Animals in Focus series featuring organizationally challenged animal photographer Janet MacPhail, her Australian Shepherd Jay, and her orange tabby Leo. The action begins when a top obedience competitor keels over during the “drop on recall” exercise at a dog show, and Janet is inadvertently pulled into the investigation as events unfold and more members of her dog-training circle are murdered. Janet is fifty-something, self-sufficient, divorced, and happy with her life as is, so she’s not at all sure she wants the attentions of Tom Saunders, a good looking fellow dog enthusiast. As if murders and sudden romance weren’t tough enough to manage, Janet’s elderly mother has declining cognitive skills but isn’t going to leave her home quietly. Janet is a reluctant sleuth, but when someone poisons her dog, kidnaps her cat, and threatens her life, she has to fight back.

You’ve written several award-winning works of non-fiction about dogs and cats. How much of your expertise from those works did you tie in to the writing of your novel?

Oodles! The animals in my fiction are as realistic as the animals in my seventeen nonfiction books. They’re lots of fun, and they are essential characters, but they don’t talk or point out names in phonebooks. I don’t necessarily object to anthropomorphism, but for more than two decades I have been invested in helping pet owners overcome the problems created by seeing animals as slightly deficient little people. To be honest, I think animals are much more interesting when we see them as the brilliant beings they are! My nonfiction writing came out of my own long experience in many facets of the animal, particularly dog, world – I showed horses as a kid, and as an adult I’ve competed in multiple sports with my Aussies and Labs, done dog-assisted therapy work in a variety of settings, founded two rescue groups and volunteered for my local shelter, taught obedience, tested therapy dogs, bred highly competitive Aussies, judge dog shows…. And of course I’ve lived with lots of cats!

What was your initial inspiration for DROP DEAD ON RECALL? How did the story’s premise develop through the early days of your writing process?

I was in a small writing group with three women who were all working on mysteries. They would show up with lovely murders to work on, and I would show up with mange mites and leash training problems! I didn’t think I could create a story, but I wanted to have the fun they were having, so I started reading craft books on fiction. The initial inspiration for DROP DEAD ON RECALL was a bumper sticker that used to be popular among obedience people – “Old dog trainers never die, they just drop on recall.” I popped in “dead” and the idea of the book developed as I drove home from an obedience trial.

At first all I had was the opening scene, which has remained pretty much intact since the beginning. The rest of the plot, as well as most of the characters, went through a number of incarnations as the book developed in spurts between nonfiction projects. Eventually I finished it and put it down to “rise,” like a loaf of bread. About a week later I woke up one morning and said, “Oh crap! That’s not who done it!” Major overhaul! Of course, I was also being “revised” as a writer all the way along. I taught writing at universities for years, and had worked as an editor for several organizations, and of course I had written academic and commercial nonfiction for many years, but I had to relearn my process and my craft, if that makes any sense. Very challenging and great fun!

How much of yourself do you put in your characters? With which character in DROP DEAD ON RECALL do you most identify?

Ha! I’ll never tell! Okay, I will, because anyone who knows me will tell you that there’s a lot of me in Janet. I write and paint; Janet is a photographer. I wrote DROP DEAD ON RECALL with my Aussie Jay at my side, and she has an Aussie named Jay. Her cat, Leo, is a composite of my cats, especially Leo and Malcolm. And I have been known to create some pretty good messes around the house and car! Janet isn’t me, though, and her challenges aren’t the same as mine. Sometimes she does things I would never do, and sometimes she does things I wish I had thought of at parallel times. There are bits of me in some of my other characters as well. Goldie Sunshine, Janet’s neighbor, is an avid gardener, which I was for years, and members of the dog show crowd all share interests and behaviors with me and my fellow dog fanciers. The book was just released, but I’ve already heard from several readers involved in dog sports who say they identified easily with Janet, which I take as a good thing!

Which character was the most fun for you to write? Why?

The animals, of course! Janet’s Australian Shepherd, Jay, and her cat, Leo, are heroic characters. Tom Saunders, the would-be love interest, has Drake, a black Labrador Retriever. Much of the action goes on at the dog show and dog training classes, so there are other canine characters as well. They were all a lot of fun to write into the story because they let me remember fun times with my own animals and the many terrific dogs I’ve known.

What is your favorite book by another author? Why?

Oh, my, that’s a dirty question! And I don’t have an answer. If one magnificent book comes to mind, another immediately lands on top of it. How about this – two books that influenced me as a person and as a writer. Someone pointed out to me several years ago that a prominent thread in all my writing is the idea of responsibility, and I suppose that’s true. When must we step up and assume responsibility? That’s certainly a recurrent thread in DROP DEAD ON RECALL, although I didn’t ask the question consciously while I was writing. So I will hand responsibility for my little obsession to the brilliant Theodor Geisel, aka Dr. Seuss, and specifically to the Horton books: HORTON HEARS A WHO and HORTON HATCHES AN EGG.

What are some of the ways you’ve conducted research for this novel? Any interesting stories there?

A lot of the research was already done before I started. DROP DEAD ON RECALL involves worlds that I know very, very well. I have inhabited the world of dog shows, dog training, canine and feline rescue, dog breeding, and so on for years. The book is set in Fort Wayne and neighboring areas of northern Indiana, where I grew up and then lived again for a few years as an adult, so other than verifying distances and other details, I had what I needed.

There is a scene involving emergency medical response that almost got me in trouble. I had done the basic research on use of an EpiPen to administer epinephrine for a presumed allergic response. When I sent the draft to my writer friend Ronda Wells, who is a medical doctor, she sent it back with a smiley face under a note that said, “Well, he just killed her with the EpiPen.” Rewrite! But by the time the book sold and went out for pre-publication blurbs, they had changed the design of EpiPens. Thankfully, Susan Conant, author of the wonderful Dog Lover’s Mystery series, caught that and we had time to correct. The character had to die, but not by EpiPen!

You are a proud dog owner yourself. Are any of the events or canine characters in DROP DEAD ON RECALL based on experiences with your dogs?

Most of them! One that most dog owners will recognize is a scene in which Jay finds a “treasure” in the brush when he and Janet are walking along the Maumee River. Janet has to step into the muck off the path to wrestle the decomposing thing from her dog’s mouth, and he’s oh so disappointed when she throws it away and won’t let him have it. Ha! I’ve pulled many a disgusting thing out of a dog’s mouth over the years, but that incident was really based on a dead squirrel that my dogs found every day for about ten days in a field where I ran them. Every day I took it away and tossed it into the branches of a tree out of their reach, and every night something dragged it back down to the ground, where my dogs found it the next morning. Yucky though it was, the whole thing certainly had its hilarious side.

What is one animal fun fact you’ve discovered that your readers might find interesting and/or surprising?

Dog have nose prints that are distinctive, like our fingerprints. So if I wanted to, I could figure out exactly who is putting nose prints all over the sliding door!

What is your favorite travel destination? Why?

Other than dog and cat shows? Long distance trains. I think of them as destinations in themselves because, sadly enough, long-distance train schedules in the U.S. are notoriously unreliable. But I love traveling by train, and one of my favorite routes is the California Zephyr, which runs from Chicago to Emeryville, California. Fantastic ride!

What do you find most rewarding about writing?

Two things. For myself alone, it’s that cocoon that folds around me when I’m deep into the flow of writing, of creating. Things I never expected, never planned, begin to happen and I find out why I’m there, what I really think and what I need to learn. On a more outward-looking level, I take great satisfaction in knowing that something I’ve written touched someone, whether it made them laugh, or cry, or say “Aha! That’s it!”

What is one thing that would surprise your fans about you or your writing process?

Hubbub stimulates me. I’ve always done the bulk of my writing in public places in the midst of activity and conversations. I wrote my doctoral dissertation in the library cafeteria at Indiana University many years ago, and these days I write mostly in cafes. Right now my favorite haunt is the Panera Bread in Wilmington, North Carolina — so here’s a nod to baristas everywhere who are kind to writers.

What is one piece of advice you would give to aspiring/new authors who look up to you?

Three! (I warned you!)

  1. Read every day, in your genre(s) and beyond.
  2. Write a lot. Don’t expect everything to work Throw away more than you keep. Put writing time on your schedule and keep that time sacred for writing, even if you begin with just ten minutes a day. You don’t apologize for the time you spend at your day job, so don’t apologize for your writing time.
  3. Toughen up. If you’re serious about publishing, you’re going to get rejections, bad reviews, critiques that suggest changes. You can whine and take it all personally, or you can listen calmly, weigh the value of what you receive, toss what doesn’t help you, and learn from thoughtful reader. I suggest the latter.

You are clearly passionate about education and outreach on behalf of dogs and other animals.  Do you have any plans in that regard that tie into your launch of your debut novel?

To launch DROP DEAD ON RECALL, I’m collaborating with two not-for-profit groups and a local Indie bookstore to offer personally autographed copies of the book, with a portion of the price going to support canine health research. The event is on from now through October 11, culminating in a real live Book Launch Party at 7 p.m. that evening at Pomegranate Books in Wilmington, North Carolina. For more information on the groups, the research they support, and the event, please visit www.sheilaboneham.com/dropdeadforhealthydogs.html.

What can we expect next from you, and where can readers go to hear the latest news?

I’m wrapping up the second Animals in Focus mystery now, and it is scheduled for October 2013, with a third book in line for October 2014. I also write narrative nonfiction and poetry, and have some new work coming out, circulating, and in progress. I love to hear from people, and I’m easy to find at the following places:

Whether you’re a dog-lover, a cat-lover, a mystery-lover, or any combination thereof, make sure you check out DROP DEAD ON RECALL, an exciting start to Sheila Boneham’s new series.  Who knows, you may look at your pets in a whole new light afterwards.

*****

Sheila Webster Boneham is best known for her award-winning nonfiction about dogs, cats, and animal rescue. DROP DEAD ON RECALL is Boneham’s debut mystery novel. Boneham writes from her home on the North Carolina coast, and teaches occasional workshops.

To learn more about Sheila, please visit her website.

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