This week I’m thrilled to interview author and fellow ITW member, Amy Shojai. Amy and I share a deep love for animals and adoration for International Thriller Writers!
Amy Shojai, CABC is the award winning author of more than 30 pet care books, and the September Day thriller series.
As a certified animal behavior consultant you have worked extensively as an expert of cats and dogs. From animal health and behavior to challenges for pet owners, you cover it all. As an animal lover myself, what would you most like readers to know about cats and dogs and making them a part of our lives?
What a great question! And hard to offer a short answer. It’s a given that those who share their hearts (and sometimes pillows) with cats and dogs, that these creatures are sentient beings also able to choose (or not!) to share themselves with us.
They are not little humans in fur coats, as much as we like to giggle and humanize them. Cats are cats, dogs are dogs, and each communicates in unique ways, and each wants and needs very specific things to keep them happy, healthy and safe. Aside from providing shelter, food, and veterinary care, the single most important part of living with and loving a cat or dog is to learn their language, and what each wants out of life.
Dogs want to belong to the group. Family is all important to the canine, and most could care less about being in charge. That’s pretty much true across the 400+ breeds and countless mixes. Dog society mirrors human social family groups pretty closely, so most people feel they understand dogs more readily than cats. Even so, the communication can vary between dogs and breeds, so the “grumble-play-growl” of some is not a warning, while it’s a “back off, buster!” signal from others. Body language figures prominently in doggy communication, too—a wagging tail means different things based on how high it’s held, how fast it moves, and how much fur is fluffed. And smell communication is even more important. Since people can only detect the vocal and visual signals, it’s important to learn what these mean, so you don’t “say” something to your dog that’s unintended. (Hugging is a primate signal—but for dogs, it can be a threat, and often gets children bitten!).
Cats want to own territory. Where they live, sleep, play, and eat defines who they are and their social standing within their family. The cat on the highest perch is quite literally the “top cat” in that area. Cat society and social standing among cats is fluid, and may change from room to room, yard to yard, house to house so Top Cat in the bedroom may be different in the kitchen. Scent communication is vital (scratching, rubbing, and licking all leave scent behind), and identify both territory and friendly family groups (including kitty and doggy and human friends) with scent markings. Humans pay attention to the hisses and purrs, chirps, trills and meows (meows are usually demands aimed at people!), but body language communicates even more. For instance, cats control space simply by staring—a Top Cat can prevent other cats from using the communal litter box just by sitting near the pathway and staring.
Understanding and recognizing what’s normal behavior for your pet is vital. A sudden change in behavior often signals a health problem, emotional upset, or both. Folks can learn more about their pets of choice in my DOG FACTS and also my CAT FACTS books, or others.
Your love and expertise with animals plays a major role in your fiction writing. How did you come to marry the two together? How did you become a Thriller writer?
I always wanted to write fiction, but couldn’t get an agent. (Sound familiar?!) I had written extensively for the “pet press” cat and dog magazines, and a New York editor read my work and asked me to write a coffee table book about cats. Meee-WOW! Took me all of 10 seconds to say yes. Once I turned in the manuscript, she asked if I could write a dog version. THE CAT COMPANION and THE DOG COMPANION were both published by Bantam/Doubleday/Dell in hardcover in 1992, sold around 45K and 28K respectively, and then reissued in paperback for more sales. That launched my book writing career. Incidentally, these were work-for-hire projects so I got $4000 each, one-time fee, BUT it garnered attention from other publishers and got me an agent.
“I always wanted to write fiction, but couldn’t get an agent …”
My agent was fantastic. I queried her about a YA horror novel and she turned it down because “YA doesn’t sell.” My, how times change! She was interested in my nonfiction pet expertise, though, and together we went on to sell a dozen nonfiction cat and dog titles to various New York houses: Ballantine, Crown, New American Library, Rodale Press. I was so busy, there wasn’t time to pursue fiction, until eventually, the Internet competed with book sales to such an extent, we could no longer sell pet books.
I quit writing for a while, and took a “real job” teaching high school choir. During that very difficult period, I learned some hard lessons—that I’m meant to be a writer. Because I’d been “professionally published” by New York, I had a pretty low opinion of self-publishing. But I finally had time to pursue fiction, and discovered International Thriller Writers.
WOW-WOW-WOW! I attended my first Craftfest and Thrillerfest to meet and invite speakers to attend the 40th Oklahoma Writers Federation Conference—I’d been elected president. On the email list, I asked to be connected with a possible roommate, and ended up rooming with Jen Talty and Alexandra Sokolov. I made so many connections, including meeting Bob Mayer, James Rollins, Jon Land, J.T. Ellison, D.P. Lyle and so many others.
The classes gave me the kick in my ass-ets to continue writing fiction. So I went home, and re-thought even more things. When Jen Talty and Bob Mayer launched a small indie press to bring their backlist books into Ebooks, I was invited to bring my backlist pet books to their house, Who Dares Wins aka Cool Gus Publishing. That launched my new indie career, and eventually I began publishing my new nonfiction with them or on my own.
Meanwhile, I wrote the thriller I had always wanted to read. LOST AND FOUND features an animal behaviorist and the service dog she has trained for her autistic nephew. I hadn’t a clue how to write in an autistic child’s viewpoint, so when he was in the chapter, his dog Shadow became the viewpoint character. I base Shadow’s viewpoint on the way I know dogs communicate, so he doesn’t talk. His thoughts and perceptions and actions are very dog-like, rather than being that human-in-a-dog-suit stories that others may create. It tickled me, and still does. I’d entered a portion before in a contest, and was slammed and shamed for writing the dog character—the judge said “only kid’s books” did that.
The next year I entered it again into the Oklahoma Writers contest, this time winning 2nd place with some great critiques/comments from the judge—who turned out to be Jen Talty! I hired an editor, revised, and then submitted the manuscript to Jen and the book was published the fall of 2012 with Cool Gus.
I also contacted ITW and was THRILLED to be told I qualified for the Debut Author program for the 2013 conference. Oh, I also got up the nerve and emailed James Rollins and Doug Lyle to ask for possible quotes, and both gave me the best cover quotes any fiction author could wish! Since then, my next two books in the series have been graced with quotes from Jon Land and J.T. Ellison. I’ve even created a box set with the first three books.
None of this would have happened without ITW.
Did you grow up with animals? How did your love and appreciation for them develop?
Yes, I grew up with dogs. My grandmother lived on a farm where I got to spend time with the horses and cows, dogs and chickens. Mom used to say when I was little, I never played with dolls, only stuffed animals. She told her friends, “When Amy grows up, she won’t have babies. She’ll have puppydogs and kittycats.” Mom was right. I worked for several years as a veterinary technician, too, before attaining certification in animal behavior consulting for cats and dogs.
You’ve also worked as a playwright, performer, and composer. How do you work under so many different hats? Do you find you have to focus on one project at a time? or can you easily glide between artistic roles?
Ha! Yes, I’m easily bored. 😛 Believe it or not, in college I got a double major in Theater and Music (vocal performance), and play piano and cello. I find that any artistic endeavor feeds and inspires the Muse and that carries over into different disciplines. I’ve always loved performing on stage, and volunteer with area schools and theaters to teach acting skills. That inspired our latest project, STARZ, THE MUSICAL.
When my nonfiction books stopped selling, I found a way to include dog and cat behavior and care themes in fiction—a whole new audience, sort of a cross-pollination of information. The fiction always includes back matter that provides a “fact or fiction” answer to themes or plot points in the story. Theater also expands the audience. My co-writer and I created, directed and produced STRAYS, THE MUSICAL that helped teach audiences about cat and dog behavior, and the reasons acting NORMAL may get pets kicked out of the house.
Writing nonfiction is much easier for me, probably because I’ve done it for so long. One time, I wrote three different nonfiction pet books at the same time. The biggest challenge was remembering which expert I’d called for each project when one returned my call.
The plays also are more brain-candy to write, with a brilliant co-writer/actor/performer I highly respect. We say that we’re both 12-years-old at heart, and it’s fun to write scenes together, each of us taking one character. Incidentally, play writing is a great exercise for thriller dialogue.
When I write fiction, though, I must have NOTHING else around to distract me. I need to go into that fictional world before it begins to flow. That’s my biggest challenge.
You write fiction, non-fiction, articles … a wide variety of topics and styles. What is your writing process like? How much does it vary between projects?
The nonfiction is quite different than the fiction. For nonfiction book projects, generally I interview a number of experts on the various topics, transcribe those interviews, and cut-and-paste into a rough draft outline of the book. God bless Email…I used to do all phone interviews and telephone tag was a PITA. Then, I edit, edit, edit. My big illustrated titles also require photo searches, and I make a preliminary list of topics I need to cover, like a fat cat for the obesity section, or a dog digging in sand for the digging section. The tone is usually a bit more staid for serious topics, but I like to keep it conversational as though I’m speaking one-on-one with a specific pet lover.
For fiction, I now use the Scrivener program, and give myself permission to write the FUN chapters first. That’s typically the dog viewpoint ones, and the pivotal plot points. Yes, I outline but let myself go off the charts when necessary. Once I have all the fun/big scenes drafted, it’s a matter of writing the parts that connect these chapters/scenes. And then editing. I’m weird—my first draft takes forever and is like teeth-pulling agony, but I love the editing that comes after.
For short nonfiction, I do a lot of plagiarizing myself, LOL! I’ve written a weekly newspaper pet column for years, and there’s only so many ways you can write about “biting back at fleas.” Columns and online articles as well as my blog posts rarely include outside interviews, and I simply write about the topic at hand from my own expertise. These tend to be pretty conversational in tone, sort of like this interview piece.
“…my first draft takes forever and is like teeth-pulling agony…”
What are you working on now?
My co-writer Frank Steele and I will hold auditions in early February and produce STARZ, THE MUSICAL in late April at the Rialto Theater in Denison, Texas. Rehearsals and performance are in the evening, so during the day, I’ll be writing new work.
I’m currently working on a novella, CALLED TO PROTECT (A KEIKI & LIA THRILLER). It’s the third of a trilogy of novellas for Lei Crime Kindle World. If you’re familiar with Toby Neal’s Lei Crime series set in Hawaii, her main character is a cop partnered with a Rottweiler police dog named Keiki. When Toby invited me to write in her world, I decided to write prequels of how Keiki became a police dog, with chapters alternating between Keiki and her trainer Lia’s viewpoint.
The first (BORN TO LOVE) has Keiki as a 4 month old pup helping to save her trainer; the second (TRAINED TO SERVE) finds Keiki at 10 months, nearly finished with her training. This final story completes the tail…er, tale. It will release the end of February 2018.
Final words of wisdom:
Writing as a career can be a difficult path. Finding an agent or selling to a New York House, or going it alone, each has its ups and downs. Indies must hire experts to edit, design covers, and more, and even New York pub’d books require lots of work.
So whatever your path, write what fills your heart with joy. That gets you through any rough patches. Write with passion about subjects and stories that YOU want to read, and in turn, readers will feel and appreciate your excitement.
Finally, if writing truly is your path, don’t let anyone discourage you. The only way you reach your personal star is climbing a rickety-ol’ ladder that sometimes teeters, tries to dump you off, and scares the shitake outta you. But that makes success all the more sweet. Enjoy the journey! And I’ll see you at the bookstore.