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Saturday, June 20, 2009

Author Interview: Ann Whitaker

The Long and the Short of It is pleased to welcome Ann Whitaker whose newest book, Dog Nanny, has just been released by The Wild Rose Press.

Dog Nanny is about a doggy do-gooder named Julie Shields, who has one month to save two delinquent poodles from becoming doggies of divorce. She’s also a self-proclaimed born-again virgin with a biological clock running out of juice and needs to find a husband for a couple of reasons.

When a hunky pilot named Nick Worthington arrives at the Abilene airport to fly her to Waco, he sends her into a tailspin. But he also may be a drug trafficker and smuggler of illegal aliens. Not only that, he’s involved with another woman.

Julie's quest for a suitable husband leads to several misfires—one disgusting, another downright dangerous. Only Nick leaves her panting for more. Will she have to put a choke chain on him before the month is out?

Ann said, "An underlying theme is the importance of pet adoption, training, spaying, and neutering our pets. I didn’t consciously set out to write a lesson in dog-rearing. Those parts of the story are the result of my interest in dogs and living with and training my own two poodles. Both of whom are now senior citizens. If only I could sign them up for Medicare benefits!

"By the way, all the tricks mentioned in Dog Nanny, except one, are tricks both my dogs have mastered. But then, they’re poodles. And as I like to say, poodles are so intelligent they make their owners look smart."

I asked her to share a little about her dogs. "Mardi (our youngest dog) has had a tonsillectomy and was recently diagnosed with diabetes, but he’s doing well on a special diet and two insulin injections a day. Jolie, our oldest, has had one ear and two knee surgeries. We’ve probably put several veterinarians' children through college, but our dogs have been worth every dollar we’ve spent on them," she said. "Someone asked me if I planned a sequel called 'Cat Nanny.' I have nothing against cats, but my husband and I are both poodle-whipped." Ann was a letter writer in childhood, then started writing poetry in high school and continued through college and graduate school.

"Along the way, I wrote an occasional freelance piece for newspapers and magazines," she said. "But when I completed my master’s degree in English, I felt a letdown and asked my husband what I should do next. He said, 'Why don’t you write a novel?' What? A novel is a big assignment. But I’ve never been one to pass up a challenge.

"He also said, 'Put all you have into it.'

"I took him literally. The result was a 1000-page mess that started during the Oklahoma Land Rush of 1889 and ended in the present. I tried culling 400 pages out it for a novel, but I still cringe to think how awful it was. I mean, I was an English teacher! Surely I’d read and studied enough novels to know what it took to write one. After 25 years, I’m still learning."

Dog Nanny is the fourth out of five novels Ann has written. She told me she's learned she writes better if she develops a bare-bones outline before she begins. This helps her avoid writer's block, because even if the muse leads her in another direction, she always knows how the story will end. "Once I get started," she told me, "I can write for hours if I have no interruptions."

Ann's main character always comes first. The character is always female and is always facing some sort of problem or crisis, often involving a man, her job, or both.

"Plot is more difficult for me," she admitted. "Unlike some writers who have numerous plots floating around in their heads, I have to sit down and force myself to outline some of the roadblocks my character will face on her 400-page journey."

"What is the most surprising thing you've learned about writing?" I wondered.

"There’s a lot of talk about an author’s 'voice,' what it is and how writers find it. It’s an elusive quality no one can quite describe," Ann said. "I started writing Dog Nanny in third person point of view because I’d read that’s what most readers prefer and it gives the writer more latitude. I wrote what is now the second scene in the book, printed it out, and read it aloud. It sounded stilted and contrived. So I switched to first person, which for some reason comes more naturally to me. Suddenly, I felt I was in my element, as if I were talking to a good friend. For me, it’s like assuming a persona. I become the person speaking, much like a character in a play. It’s not that my characters are me. Quite the contrary, they say and do things I would never do. And I’m certainly not rich like Julie in Dog Nanny."

She told me she's also learned characters have to feel passionate about something and have to fight for their beliefs, otherwise they will bore not only the reader, but Ann herself.

"I've learned to cut parts that slow down the pace of the story or aren’t relevant," she said. "That’s probably one of the most difficult, yet valuable, lessons a writer can learn."

I asked Ann what she's currently working on.

"I’m working on a collection of essays called 'Born To Be Fried.' The title comes from a comment my mother once made about chickens. She said, 'Don’t you think some things were just born to be fried?' I call it chicken-fried Nora Ephron.

"I’ve also written the first draft of romantic comedy (working title: Desire Daily) that was a result of a Book-in-a-Week workshop. I call it my book-in-a-week-that-took-twenty-two days. It’s about Mahogany Marsh, a nightside editor for the Desire (Texas) Daily Democrat. When she loses a promotion to a good-looking Yankee with Kennedy hair, she thinks she’s getting even by reducing him to hero-fodder for her romance novel-in-progress. But who will get the last word?"

Titles have always been the easiest part for Ann. She told me they usually come to her before she starts writing. In the case of Desire Daily, she changed the title after she'd written the first chapter, because she's also changed the name of the newspaper and the town.

"My titles are almost always from a line in the book and not a generalization, like 'Sullen Surrender' or 'Dark Denial,'" she said, adding, "I had to check Amazon.com to make sure those weren’t actual titles."

I wondered what Ann's strangest habit is.

"Some of my friends would say it’s my love of solitude," she confessed. "I’ve been driving on the same tank of gas for over a month. I do play mah jongg once a week, play guitar and sing with another group of friends every few months, and volunteer at the local Animal Birth Control clinic. So it’s not as if I’m a total recluse. I also have a husband I enjoy spending time with. And now that I’m retired I sometimes (gasp!) watch TV and read for pleasure."

I asked her about her heritage.

"Before they headed off for California in The Grapes of Wrath, the Joad family lived next door to my grandparents," she said. "Seriously, I come from hardscrabble Oklahoma and Arkansas roots now firmly planted in Texas."

She's never eaten a crayon, but admits she used to run her finger across the windowsill and eat the dirt. And, she also at newspaper at one time. "My husband insists I not eat his column," she told me.

And, she not sure if she could tell the difference between Coke and Pepsi. "But I can tell the difference between corked and boxed," she said. "I do have my standards."

She also has a rare talent.... or did while she was growing up. I have to admit, I've never met anyone else who would admit to being able to do this. When I asked her if she could unwrap a Starburst with her tongue, she told me, "I never tried, but in sixth grade I was the only kid in the neighborhood who could blow up a bicycle tube by depressing the stem with an incisor. Since we lived in Big Spring, where there were lots of goatheads to puncture our tires, my services were in great demand."

Finally, I asked Ann, "What is the one question you wish an interviewer would ask you?"

"Q: What’s one thing about you most people don’t know? A: I once ran a six-mile race dressed as a lobster. I’m not boasting when I say that for an hour or so, I was really hot."

You can keep up with Ann on her website, http://annwhitaker.com

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