Saving Indian Street Dogs and Writing with Chuck E. Cheese
By K.L. Romo
Just how well does a child really know their parents? In bestselling author Sarah Pekkanen’s newest thriller, GONE TONIGHT, Catherine Sterling had never known much about her mother’s life before she was born. Ruth knows that everything Catherine thinks is true is a lie, and she’ll do anything to keep her daughter from learning the truth—who she really is. Precautions rule her life.
As Ruth tells readers, “I’m good at disappearing. We women do it all the time. We vanish in the eyes of men when we hit our forties. We dive into roles like motherhood and our identities slip away. We disappear at the hands of predators. We’re conditioned to shrink, to drop weight, to take up less physical space in the world.”
The Big Thrill caught up with Pekkanen about having a sense of humor, her prior life, and saving dogs in India.
Your website “about” description of “Future Novelist Syndrome” is hilarious. How important is comedy in the writing life?
I’m not sure it’s necessary for authors to have a sense of humor, but it sure helps. We writers get banged up a bit—through rejection, one-star public reviews, and empty rows of chairs at book signings. Being able to turn those situations into funny stories is a healthy way for me to reframe my perspective. Writers are a sensitive lot, and we’re hard on ourselves. I actively cultivate the ability to laugh at myself because that takes some of the power of criticism away.
Has your prior career as an investigative journalist on Capitol Hill informed your writing? How much has shown up in your novels?
Absolutely! In terms of mechanics, my years as a journalist taught me to get words down on the page—a surprisingly challenging task for all writers. And a theme I developed as a journalist carries through to my storytelling in novels today. I was always drawn to cases of ordinary individuals who were suddenly thrust into extraordinary circumstances and found themselves deeply tested as they fought to overcome something seemingly insurmountable.
Naturally, when one meets a stranger on the Internet from another country who is desperate for money, one immediately buys a plane ticket to that country to help, so that’s what I did.In terms of my investigations, one that comes to mind is the case of a fairly low-level staffer on Capitol Hill who felt he was being discriminated against by a U.S. Congressperson from Detroit. Because he spoke up, I spent more than a year digging into and uncovering astonishing evidence of this politician’s widespread wrongdoing (they have since voted her out of office.)
Tell us more about your passion and volunteer work for rescue animals. What led you to become the U.S. Ambassador for RRSAIndia, an organization that saves abused street dogs in Anand, India?
It’s kind of a crazy story. I was scrolling through social media and saw a video of a group of people risking their safety to save a dog that had fallen into a deep well in India. I ended up corresponding with the founder of RRSA India, one of the people at the well. He told me the organization was in a desperate situation: They couldn’t afford the land they were leasing for the shelter and might have to close. Naturally, when one meets a stranger on the Internet from another country who is desperate for money, one immediately buys a plane ticket to that country to help, so that’s what I did ;).
I spent a week in India working at the shelter, doing everything from catching street dogs and helping vaccinate them, to assisting with minor medical procedures, to interacting with creatures, including a baby owl, wild monkeys, and a goat that was convinced he was a dog since he lived with them in the shelter. When I saw the incredible work the shelter was doing—they treat 70 animals per day—I knew I had to help. I formed a company called India Street Paws and am awaiting 501 (c) (3) approval, at which point I will fund-raise to get enough money to buy some land for the shelter and support it in other ways.
You sent your first manuscript, “Miscellaneous Tales and Poems” (written when you were a child), to NYC publishers on Raggedy Ann stationery, signed with two names. One was yours, but who was Hilary Jordan?
She was a childhood friend. We lived in the same neighborhood, and one day she came over after school and we both wrote stories and poems (I believe they were started and completed in one afternoon, which should give you an idea of the quality) and I sent them off to a publisher. That was a pretty common thing for me to do—I used to write manuscripts (The Lost Gold is another masterpiece, modeled after the Nancy Drew series), illustrate them, and mail them to publishers, fully expecting to see them on the shelves in bookstores. It took a few decades for that dream to come true.
What advice can you give aspiring novelists juggling writing with raising kids and caring for the family?
Write in tiny pockets of time. You don’t need a beachfront retreat and complete silence for a week to start your book. In fact, I believe the opposite. Such settings can provide too much pressure for the aspiring novelist. Personally, when I began to write books, I kept notebooks and pens everywhere—in my nightstand drawer, in the minivan console, and in my purse. I lugged my laptop to Chuck E. Cheese and wrote part of my debut novel there while my kids played nearby. Since I came up in newsrooms, the howls and shouts of Chuck E. Cheese were a familiar soundtrack to my writing.
If you can manage one page a day, you’ll have a draft of your novel in a year. The surprising benefit to being super-busy is that you don’t spend a lot of time second-guessing your writing. If you know you have 20 minutes to write, you’ll likely turn on the gas and fling some words onto the page.
Tell us something about yourself your fans don’t already know.
I used to fear lots of things—like flying in an airplane, getting attacked by a shark, or being buried in an avalanche. I had panic attacks when I flew. I never went more than waist-deep in the ocean. Then, one day, I realized my fears were compressing the contours of my life, and I pushed back. I took a flying lesson and piloted a Cessna. I got certified to scuba dive up to 100 feet, and on my very first dive, I encountered a six-foot reef shark—instead of being frightened, it exhilarated me. I climbed a mountain that some use as training for Everest, using an ice axe and battling 70 mph winds and a temperature that dipped below zero, twice. Now, I’m an adrenaline junkie, and I constantly seek new adventures and experiences. My son and I hope to climb Mt. Kilimanjaro next year, and I’d like to get to several of the other Seven Summits in my lifetime.