Saturday, September 13, 2014
Dog enthusiast, Sue Owens Wright has dedicated her writing career to canines. Her hundreds of articles about dogs have won some awards and she's written three mystery novels featuring a basset hound sleuth and his writer owner.
Sue, as a fellow dog lover, I like your book titles: Howling Bloody Murder, Sirius About Murder, and Embarking on Murder. When and why did you decide to write about dogs?
I’ve had dogs my entire life and had the aptitude and desire to write from a very young age, but I didn’t start writing about dogs until my first basset hound, Butterscotch, died in 1987. Writing about her helped me to heal from her loss. Poems and stories poured out of me, and some were published in pet magazines. From then on I figured I’d do best to write about what I loved most in the world, my dogs.
Tell us about your writing background?
I majored in English in college and took some creative writing courses, but I didn’t write seriously for publication until many years later. In 1986, I attended my first writer’s conference, a weeklong summer camp in the mountains for aspiring writers. That lit a fire in me. I knew for the first time in my life what I really wanted to do with the rest of it. For the next few years, I wrote tirelessly, submitted my work to publishers, and collected a fat folder of rejection slips, just like every beginning writer does. I had some successes, too, which kept me going.
Then I decided to enter a “Murder You Write” contest in Family Circle magazine. As a child I’d once tried to write a mystery similar to the Judy Bolton mysteries I loved reading, so I gave mystery writing another shot. I didn’t win the contest, but I went on to complete my first mystery novel, Howling Bloody Murder, which eventually sold to a publisher. That was the happiest day of my life. When I found out I’d sold my first book, I was howling for joy, along with my two basset hounds, Bubba Gump and Daisy.
That first book sale happened not long after I attended a writing course abroad in 1998. It was a summer study program through Florida International University with acclaimed novelist John Dufresne at Trinity College and University Galway in Ireland and University College London in England. Besides being the best vacation of my life in lively, literary Dublin, I learned the finer points of fiction writing from a master of the craft. I’ve attended other writer’s conferences, but none can compare to that one.
I've read your first book, Howling Bloody Murder, and like your protagonist, Beanie, and her dog, Cruiser. How did you come up with those characters and to what extent are they autobiographical?
Thank you. A lot of people seem to like my characters, especially the hound dog. They came about through that “Murder You Write” contest I mentioned. In a way, I did win the contest because it gave me Beanie and Cruiser, the characters in my dog lover’s mystery series. Some people assume both are dogs, but Elsie MacBean or “Beanie” is the human sleuth, and Cruiser is her canine crime-busting sidekick. I think there’s probably a lot of me to be found in Beanie. I have drawn from my own life experiences for her character, especially where dogs are concerned. We definitely share that passion. She’s a writer, too, although she’s Native American (Washoe tribe) and a vegetarian and has a grown daughter, Nona.
I created Cruiser before I adopted my male basset, Bubba Gump, but he has since inspired much of Cruiser’s character in my books. What happens to Cruiser in the second book was mined from an experience with one of my other bassets, Dolly. Through Cruiser I was able to rewrite a happier ending to a sad chapter in my own life. That’s pretty powerful stuff and part of what keeps me writing.
You've earned special recognition from the Humane Society for your articles about animal welfare. What are the main problems concerning animals today?
The current economy is causing people to surrender their pets in record numbers at already overcrowded shelters, either because they can’t afford to pay for their animal’s care or have to leave their homes to live in apartments that don’t accept pets. I can’t think of anything worse than losing your home unless it’s having to lose your best friend, too. Unfortunately, some owners don’t even bother trying to place their pets in another home. They simply discard them like old furniture and sometimes leave them behind to starve. Budget cuts are causing shelters to have to cut back on their services, and many are filled to capacity. There are fewer adopters and donations to help support shelters and rescue organizations, and we know what that means for homeless animals.
There are so many other reasons why pets end up at shelters. Littering is one big reason. People fail to spay or neuter their dogs and cats before they can reproduce and by so doing increase the unwanted pet population. Buying dogs from backyard breeders or pet shops fuels the cruel puppy mill industry and ultimately creates more homeless pets. The problem is that people don’t bother to research what breed of dog is best for their personality and lifestyle and too often succumb to Fido fads. Can you guess which kind of dog is currently most common in shelters, besides pit bulls? Beverly Hills Chihuahuas. Owners are dumping them in droves, either because they grew tired of their novelty purse puppies or simply didn’t understand the characteristics of the breed. Next will come all the Marleys, I suppose.
Bottom line, pet problems are always people problems.
You've also written hundreds of articles for a number of dog magazines. What's your main focus?
I’ve written everything from breed profiles for Dog Fancy to the plight of stray dogs in Greece to how to host a Basset Hound Picnic, which I used to do years ago in my neighborhood. I write an award-winning monthly newspaper column called "Pets & Their People", which provides me a forum for writing about important issues pertaining to companion animals. I also contribute to the "Healthy Pet" column for the AKC Gazette. The article I most enjoyed writing was “Waddling in Dwight,” the one I wrote about attending the Illinois Basset Waddle. It is posted on my Web site.
Tell us about the Illinois Basset Waddle.
In 2002, I was invited to be a guest speaker at one of the largest canine events in the country, which is held in the little town of Dwight, Illinois, about an hour away from Chicago. The Basset Waddle is an annual event hosted by Guardian Angel Basset Rescue, which has rescued and re-homed thousands of abandoned and abused basset hounds. There were over 1,000 basset hounds and their adoring humans in attendance, and I was staying at the nearby Days Inn Hotel, which kindly housed the hounds during the event. I knew I was in for a wacky weekend when I heard bassets howling down the hallways and even rode in the elevator with a basset pack.
Saturday was the Basset Bash, a fun day of food, raffles, silent auctions, and various basset contests: longest ears, lowest ground clearance, best treat catch, etc. On Sunday was the Waddle through the town, and it’s a sight you really have to see to appreciate. Leading the parade of costumed hounds was a float bearing the Waddle King and Queen, the most deserving rescue dogs that were crowned the night before. The Waddle King that year was Sonny, whose former owner wired his mouth shut with barbed wire to keep him from howling. The scars left on Sonny’s muzzle from that horrendous abuse looked like tears. It’s enough to make you cry.
Your nonfiction books include What’s Your Dog’s IQ?, 150 Activities for Bored Dogs, and People’s Guide to Pets. How can you determine your dog's IQ?
Besides doing the fun tests with your own dog in What’s Your Dog’s IQ?, a dog’s intelligence is the best determined by its breed. For instance, the Border collie is generally considered to be the most intelligent breed. Basset hounds rank nearly at the bottom of the scale. Because of their notorious stubborn streak, which I prefer to think of as tenacity and unflappable focus (not bad traits for writers, either), bassets are not as trainable as terriers or poodles, which also rank high in intelligence. To be fair, though, a dog’s IQ should be rated according to what he was bred to do. Some dogs are not as easily trained as others, but that doesn’t mean they are dumb. You can’t expect a scent hound to do what a collie was bred to do. Bassets don’t herd sheep, but they are doggone good at tracking rabbits (and treats), and in Cruiser’s case, criminals.
You've won some awards for your canine writings. Which one is your favorite and why?
My favorite award has to be the first Maxwell I ever won in 2003 for the article published in Mystery Scene magazine about the Illinois Basset Waddle. To date, that is still my most unforgettable experience on the book promotion trail. I was so thrilled to be awarded the beautiful Maxwell medallion from among so many exceptional entrants in the writing competition. It’s the first award I ever won, and I won it for something I love doing; therefore, it’s very special to me.
What's your favorite way of promoting your books?
Any time I have the opportunity to talk with fellow dog lovers and especially basset fanciers is my favorite way to promote my books. That has included book signings at other doggy events besides the Waddle, such as Dogtoberfests, our local SPCA Doggy Dash and at pet stores. The best part is being around all the dogs. I’ve judged canine costume contests and also judged contests at the Waddle. Another way I like to promote my books is through donations of autographed copies to various fundraisers. Even if I can’t attend every Waddle, Droolapalooza and Slobberfest, donations of my books and also the pastel artwork I enjoy painting of dogs, help raise money for homeless pets. If donating my books and art to these and other welfare organizations helps improve the life of any animal, then I have succeeded far beyond my wildest dreams.
Sue's web and blog sites: