The fifth book in Amy Shojai’s September Day series, HIT AND RUN, is a complex animal-centric domestic thriller.
This novel has the charm of the television series Lassie and cleverness reminiscent of the movie That Darn Cat. None of the animals actually speak, but two are point-of-view characters, each with distinctive thoughts.
An award-winning author of 35 nonfiction books on animal behavior, Amy Shojai is uniquely qualified to write the canine and feline POV. Almost every page is imbued with Shojai’s extensive knowledge and insight into animal behavior, from which readers may glean a new perspective. She is also adept at providing her many human characters with their own unique voices. The close relationship portrayed between all the characters in HIT AND RUN provides non-stop action and suspense throughout the story.
Shojai’s plucky protagonist, September Day, has just started to reestablish a sense of normalcy after tragic personal loss. Thanks to her service dog, Shadow, and cat, Macy, September believes she is almost to the point where she can trust people and move forward. Until her life begins to crumble again, when her past is unwittingly resurrected by her former mother-in-law. When Mrs. Day requests a meeting with September, the situation becomes even more convoluted. Luckily, Shadow and Macy are at September’s side, ready to assist her.
In the following exclusive interview with The Big Thrill, Shojai provides insight into her career, the differences between writing fiction and nonfiction, and what she’s learned about animal behavior.
What steered you to a career in animal behavior, and why did you write your first nonfiction pet book?
I always loved dogs and cats. Growing up, my mom told her friends, “Amy won’t have babies when she grows up, she’ll have puppy-dogs and kitty-cats.” Mom was right. When I got married and we moved to the mountains of Eastern Kentucky for my husband’s work, I applied for the only job available—a vet tech. My interview, conducted during a Chihuahua’s C-section, paved the way for my fascination with all things vet-medicine. That led to educating clients on the job by translating the veterinarian’s medicalese into everyday language, which in turn, led to pitching and writing articles for the pet press dog and cat magazines of the day.
I wrote my first nonfiction book when an editor saw my byline in Cat Fancy Magazine (no longer printed) and contacted me to write The Cat Companion for Bantam/Doubleday/Dell, published in 1992. That coffee-table book sold 45,000 copies and launched my nonfiction book career.
You’ve written over 35 award-winning nonfiction books. What compelled you to write fiction?
I grew up reading fiction and wanted to write mysteries and horror novels. After pitching a horror novel with a young protagonist to countless folks, an agent wrote back to tell me “YA stories don’t sell,” but she’d be interested in working with me to sell nonfiction. We ended up publishing more than a dozen prescriptive nonfiction pet books together. With nearly nonstop contracts and very nice advances, plus a tour with a major pet food company as spokesperson, I had no time for extras and put fiction aside.
Then 9-11 sidelined … well, everything. My agent couldn’t sell anything, and the spokesperson deal canceled. With prescriptive pet information “free” via Dr. Google (even though much of it was bad/dangerous information), New York publishers wouldn’t touch pet nonfiction. I quit writing and took a job teaching high school choir and theater. To keep my sanity, I wrote before class, during lunch, and after work, in 15-minute intervals, and I finished the fiction book I’d always wanted to read.
I joined ITW, attended several ThrillerFest events, met my heroes, and made connections where I found my first publisher and editor. My debut thriller Lost and Found released in September 2012, and I was a ThrillerFest debut author the following July.
HIT AND RUN is the fifth in the September Day and Shadow series. Do you foresee another book in this series, or are you working on something different?
Honestly, I thought that Lost and Found would be a one-off, but readers loved the story and wanted to know “what happens next?” My characters—and especially the furry heroes—have a loyal following. Readers already ask for #6, and I’m anxious to share many more September and Shadow (and Macy) stories.
Shadow (Baby-dog) and Macy-cat are both point-of-view characters in this book, and though they don’t talk, they do each have distinct thoughts and behaviors. Given your extensive background in pet behavior, was it easy for you to compose chapters from a pet’s point of view? What, if anything, do you find problematic when writing a human POV?
I’ve always been hissed off by poorly written animal characters. I’ve spoken on ThrillerFest panels on the subject. Using animals as props, or “humans in fur coats” or for shock value (killing a pet) makes me want to throw something.
But when I wrote my first thriller Lost and Found, the German shepherd character Shadow partnered with a seven-year-old autistic child as a service dog. I hadn’t a clue how to write authentically in an autistic child’s viewpoint. Whenever the pair appeared, the scene came from Shadow’s viewpoint. I loved writing those scenes—and apparently, readers loved them, too. People who love dogs and cats probably already imagine what they might think in a given situation—so based on my animal behavior knowledge and the science behind feline/canine senses and training, I used that to inform the pets’ actions, reactions, and motivations. Yes, Shadow has his own character/story arc.
I enjoy writing human POV as well. In some ways, it’s easier, as in another life, I’m an actor and can put myself into the character. Probably the biggest challenge, though, is limiting the number of characters. Oh my gosh, when I record the audio versions, too many voices—literally—can challenge anyone to produce distinctive characters.
One of the characters’ sons brings home his feline from college. I didn’t know cats traveled well; what else would you like people to know about feline behavior that is unexpected or misunderstood?
Many cats do NOT travel well, because they bond closely with their environment. Anything different than the status quo equals “stranger danger!” to the cat. So trips, if not planned well, often upset cats. That said, show cats travel a lot without becoming upset because they’re introduced to carriers, car rides, plane travel, and the like from kittenhood on. In the story, the cat grew up in the parents’ house, though, and they live in the same city as the university.
People act surprised by my character Macy-cat’s training. Cats train easily. They’re so smart, most cats train their HUMAN rather than the other way around. For instance, they know how to get their human to fill the empty food bowl. Macy takes his pill on command (have you ever tried to pill a reluctant cat? Ha!), fetches objects, and knows many words and commands.
Cats share many of the same sensory abilities as dogs, plus some physical ability dogs can’t match. Feline scenting rivals many dogs’ skills. Plus, cats are small enough and more agile, making them potentially a great choice for tracking or other scent pursuits, climbing high, or entering small cavities. While dogs in service fields can be trained for specific actions and then partnered with a human, cats “perform” more reliably when they have a strong bond with the person from the beginning. Find what motivates a cat, and training is easy.
For your novels, which comes first: characters or story ideas?
The story idea comes first for me. With a series, many of the characters carry over from book to book. With each new novel, though, the story defines much of the personality, abilities, motivation, and more of any new characters.
The plot for HIT AND RUN arose from an unexpected scene in the previous story, Fight or Flight (#4). An accidental meeting revealed a relationship between the mothers of two of my main characters—wow. I had to explore that and come up with an explanation why this relationship had remained hidden and what other secrets from the past might inform the present. Boy, did that uncover a nest of snakes!
When I began plotting the story, my research revealed all sorts of news stories from the past and present that supported the premise. I love “ripped from the headlines” plots, and had a great time bringing back beloved characters from earlier books and interweaving the various character arcs. This also leaves me with even more material to explore for future stories.
There is a line in HIT AND RUN about “Timmy” reminiscent of a scene from Lassie. Are collies really as smart as Lassie is portrayed in the series? Are rottweilers and shepherds the most intelligent canines or better able to be trained for law enforcement?
Rudd Weatherwax, an actor and dog trainer, introduced his dog Pal (a male collie) as the original Lassie. There were nine male collies (all playing girl dogs and descended from Pal) throughout the movies and TV shows. While Pal did his own stunts, you’ll notice more than one collie in many of the TV series shows, with one “fighting the bear” while another “swam to the rescue” and a third “braved the fire.” That’s the magic of TV.
Every dog breed (and mutt) is as smart as s/he needs to be. Each has abilities that lend themselves to certain skills. Oftentimes, the smartest dogs aren’t the best for certain things because the dog argues and “always knows better.” The most biddable dogs (willing to please) are the easiest to train. So for law enforcement, a number of factors go into choosing the best dog for a particular service. Labrador retrievers, one of the most biddable of all canines, often work as stand-out scenting dogs for law enforcement but may not make a great tactical (bite) dog.
Rottweiler dogs and other brachycephalic (flat faced) breeds often are not used in law enforcement, as they can very easily overheat in warm weather. They are incredibly strong, protective, and smart.
A long muzzle increases the scenting ability, which makes the German shepherd a great choice for tracking, bomb detection, and more. Unlike the collie (a true sheep-herding canine), the German shepherd not only served to herd but also protect. That makes them one of the more versatile of the breeds, and a standout for law enforcement.
Many of the best law enforcement dogs come from European breeders and trainers. So some preference has to do with availability, as well.
Are all police dogs considered service dogs, or does Karma have the distinction of being both due to Tee’s personal issues?
All police dogs have the potential since they bond so strongly with their human partner. In HIT AND RUN, the rottie dog Karma has been trained as a police dog. She takes it upon herself to also serve as an emotional support/PTSD dog for the policewoman Tee Teves, and Tee recognizes how much having Karma helps her.
You’ve worked with New York publishers and have self-published. What are the advantages and disadvantages of either option?
What a great question! Publishing has changed so much since 1992, when my first nonfiction title released. New York publishers can help enormously with support, professional editing and cover design, and beneficial promotion. For my first big books with my agent, the publisher flew me into New York for television interviews, and other publishers arranged for television or radio media tours. It can be overwhelming enough to simply write the book, so having a professional team to take care of such things allows the author to concentrate on writing the book. It also can be a huge ego boost to be published by a New York publisher. Just be aware that the author grants the New York publisher a license to control the life and death of the book. That can be very good—or have mixed results. I’ve had New York book contracts canceled or delayed, orphaned when an editor quit, and in one memorable instance, my name removed from the cover (my agent got it put back on).
New York works on a calendar that doesn’t easily allow for “breaking news” (unless you’re an A-list author for an insta-book). Books typically publish a year or more after acceptance. When I published with New York, I received five-figure advances for nonfiction—I had a great agent. Many of the bestselling authors today built careers over decades, and have wonderful relationships with publishers, editors, and agents. First-time authors may not have the same experience, though.
Advances have become rarer, especially for fiction. An advance must be repaid with book sales before the author earns additional royalties—some never do. Books must sell well enough to merit the publisher continuing the relationship, or the author’s work may be dropped. If you plan a series, and only the first book publishes before the series gets dropped, what do you do with the rest of your titles (tied up by the publisher)? An agent as your advocate makes a huge difference, to ensure equitable royalties and as much editorial marketing support as possible. Oh, and to get your rights reverted should the book go out of print, so that you can re-publish in a new way if you wish.
Self-published titles allow the author to publish on his or her own schedule around holidays, for example, or important historical anniversaries, as well as the ability to update content literally overnight. The author also decides on the price of the book, form of the book (e-book, print, hardcover, large print for libraries, audio), and where to sell (exclusive or “wide” to many platforms). The self-published author receives a higher royalty share on sold books, up to 70 percent of list price compared to 10 percent or less offered by some New York publishers.
However, self-published authors also must hire teams of professionals to edit, design covers, help with marketing, and fund marketing themselves. The business of writing books and publishing has many moving parts. Today, I have one nonfiction book still with my agent, but revised and released updated versions of my backlist fiction and nonfiction myself. And I continue to publish new nonfiction and fiction on my own. Bottom line, I’m in control, and earning more today as a hybrid author than back in the day via New York. Your mileage may vary.
All the animals in HIT AND RUN seem exceptionally smart. Is that due to the specific breeds you’ve chosen to be represented in your book, or do most people fail to give their pets the credit they deserve?
I’m actually surprised at this question, because to me, every dog and cat in the world would act very much like the animal characters in HIT AND RUN. Granted, the characters Shadow and Macy, who live with an animal behaviorist/trainer, and the police dog Karm, have special training. The others, however, are pets so closely bonded with their humans they act and react in a very species-specific way.
The readers chose these pet characters. I hold a “Name That Cat/Name That Dog” contest for each book in the series. Readers nominate their own pets to be included in the story, and then the public votes to choose the winners. Sometimes I already know the animal character’s role in the story and can simply change the name, description, and breed once the winner is chosen. But other times, the winner’s own personality and behaviors inform the plot, and I get to add in the fun idiosyncrasies of the reader’s pet and make that part of the plot.
So in answer, many people may not be aware of how incredibly intuitive, intelligent, and emotive our animal companions can be. It’s all about the pet connection, the love we share. Love transcends species.
Amy Shojai is a certified animal behavior consultant and the award-winning author of 35+ pet care books. She was a Debut Author at the 2013 ThrillerFest conference that launched her September Day pet–centric thriller series that includes animal behaviorist September Day, service dog Shadow, and trained Maine coon cat Macy. (No, the animals don’t speak—or die!) She proudly wears a rhinestone “#1 Bitch” pin.
To learn more about the author and her work, please visit her website.