Author Interview ~ Ann Littlewood

Ann Littlewood worked as a zoo keeper at the Oregon Zoo for twelve years, raising big cats and small ones; mandrills and an orangutan; and native animals. She has been scratched, bitten, pecked, stepped on, and taloned. She left the zoo for the corporate world, but returns, at least mentally, with the Iris Oakley “zoo-dunnit” series. Ann lives in Portland, Oregon, and her series is set in Vancouver, Washington.

What book or project is coming out or has come out that you’d like to tell us about?

My second zoo mystery, Did Not Survive, came out in July. My mysteries are set in a fictional zoo and each features different animals. In Did Not Survive, zoo keeper Iris Oakley tries to save her boss from an elephant attack. No one can figure out why Damrey, a reliable old girl, would trample the foreman. Then animals start disappearing… If you like a good mystery with animals and a behind-the-scenes zoo setting, you might like this series.

Tell us about your journey to publication. How long had you been writing before you got the call you had a contract, how you heard and what went through your head.

It is so hard to get any traction in this business! For me, it took about five years to write the first in the series, Night Kill, then I queried a zillion agencies that handle mysteries. Everyone was interested in the zoo aspect and I got some nice comments, but no offers. Then I did get an offer of representation for Night Kill, but I could find no evidence that this agency could sell books. So I faced the choice of this third-rate agency or no agent at all. It was a tough position. One afternoon in the middle of that quandry, I was walking home from work when my cell phone rang. It was Mollie Glick, an agent who, at the time, was with the same agency as Phillip Margolin and Jean Auel. So it was a terrific agency. Mollie said, “I like Night Kill. I’m willing to take it on.” I floated home, saved!

Do you still experience self-doubts regarding your work?

Not so much anymore. Only once or twice a day. I worry that biologists or zoo professions will find errors of fact, I worry that mystery fans won’t want so much animal information.

What mistakes have you made while seeking publication?

I’m an impatient person and I tried to find an agent before the manuscript was good enough. I rewrote it extensively, several times, before getting that call from an agent. Of course, how can you tell unless you submit it? After the zoo, I worked in a corporate environment on software projects, and I’m geared for a brisk pace. Not going to happen in publishing! It can take a publisher nine months to a year to create a book once the manuscript is accepted. Many people reading this have created entire human beings in less time. I know I have.

What’s the best advice you’ve heard on writing/publication?

Write the best book you can—a book that has something special and unique about it–then make it a better book. After that, move on to another project. Try not to spend the rest of your life polishing the same thing. You will learn faster if you keep trying different things. That’s one great benefit of writing short stories—each one can be an experiment in voice or style or plot or whatever you want. You can always come back to a project you abandoned.

How do you craft a plot?

It’s actually not that hard. Just open a vein and dip in your pen… Sometimes it takes me months, and sometimes I have to just stop plotting and write a scene I’m pretty sure I’ll need to keep from going nuts. I start with an idea or scene that intrigues me, figure out who died and why, and then start layering in other plot elements and themes and characters. I have to be careful not to get wedded to one approach. I keep asking, “What else could happen?” “What’s the coolest thing that could come next?” “What would this character do now?” The up side is that, once I have the outline, which is really a list of scene descriptions, I don’t get writer’s block.

Do you begin writing with a synopsis in hand, or do you write as the ideas come to you?

A lot of people spurn outlines, but I find them essential for a tricky plot with subplots. Also, my publisher requires one, which takes away any conflict about doing it! Of course I don’t follow the outline. I get better ideas and revise it continually. It helps to know the beginning, middle, and end and the key dramatic scenes. I struggle with structure and it’s easier to fight that battle with a ten page outline than with 50,000 pages that aren’t coming out right.

What’s something you wish you’d known earlier that might have saved you some time/frustration in the publishing business?

Patience, young Jedi.

Is there a particularly difficult set back that you’ve gone through in your writing career you are willing to share?

The path to a publisher was hard, hard, hard. Many times I realized it just wasn’t going to happen and I needed to move on. Each time I despaired, something—or someone—offered a smidgen of encouragement and kept me in the game.

How do you think reading the work of others helps you as a writer?

For me, it has to be a subliminal absorption of craft. I say “subliminal” because I have a terribly analytical turn of mind—ask anyone who knows me. But when I’m immersed in a book, my critical facilities are mostly disconnected. I just hang on to the saddle horn, reins flapping loose, and let the story carry me away. I’m a little better now at stopping and thinking—what did that writer just do? What did it accomplish? Do I like it? Can I use it? I recommend reading widely, even outside your interests, to enlarge your database of location and language, as well as facts. Read lots of different authors to expand your toolkit of techniques.

What piece of writing have you done that you’re particularly proud of and why?

I like Did Not Survive because I picked up more courage in this second zoo mystery. While sticking with a traditional mystery, I tackled the issues around elephants in captivity—in zoos, sanctuaries, and circuses. No heavy messages, but I tried to present the differences among these facilities. This is a hot-button animal rights issue. I’m eager to see how readers react.

What is your best advice on maintaining a good editor-author relationship?

Tough question! I would offer two somewhat conflicting approaches: never piss off your publisher’s editor. You don’t want to be the problem author, the one who is easy to drop. The second would be something along the lines of Davy Crockett’s motto—“Be sure you’re right, then go ahead.” Save your bullets for the big issues (and there shouldn’t be very many of those), but don’t roll over on what matters to you. Your name is the one that’s going to be on that book. I know what the issues are in the zoo world and I am grateful my editor seems to trust me on that. As for grammar and word choices and punctuation, I want the opportunity to check those final edits. But I also know I can be wrong!

How many drafts to you edit before submitting to your editor?

I write each chapter, then I re-write it. My critique group comments on it. I rewrite it and move on to the next chapter. At some point, I read a major section aloud to myself and make those changes. For chapters that just aren’t right, I read them aloud again. Then my editor gets it. I don’t turn in the final manuscript until several people I trust and one or two zoo experts read it.

We often hear how important it is to write a good query letter to whet the appetite of an editor. What tips can you offer to help other writers pen a good query?

Get someone with experience to help you. Read Elizabeth Lyon’s book, The Sell Your Novel Toolkit for good examples. It helped me. Have several published writers review the query letter, if you can. Don’t try to do it in a vacuum.

Was there ever a time in your writing career you thought of quitting?

Not really. I love drafting new chapters and stories. That’s the payoff for outlining and for all the work of book promotion.

How much marketing/publicity do you do? Any advice in this area?

Promotion is the writer’s time sink. When people ask me, “Do you write every day?” I want to say, “Do I get to count promotion?” If so, then the answer is “yes.” It takes a lot of time. It’s a difficult balance between working on the next book and trying to ensure that the last one is a success. There is a great deal of information and advice out there and many opportunities for writers. I think each author needs to work out what he or she is comfortable doing. For example, I use Facebook but not Twitter. I hand out a lot of bookmarks. I’ve got a website and a blog, but I don’t do a newsletter. I have a wonderful trailer (video) for Did Not Survive, but only because my son is a video editor. I rarely turn down an invitation to appear at a book fair or whatever.

Have you received a particularly memorable reader response?

Maybe it’s just me, but I think people who aren’t published don’t realize how naked it feels. There’s your book—that you invested so much of yourself in–out there for anyone to criticize, for your friends to maybe say, “Oh, no big deal.” But my friends didn’t say that. They showed up for my first reading. The line at Portland’s Murder by the Book store was out the door, and I was practically in tears. And so many people I respect told me they loved Night Kill, in person and in reviews. Not just friends—I’ve gotten fan letters, often from people who volunteer at zoos or who work in biology or social sciences. I suspect, though, that I will have anxiety attacks with every new book.

Parting words?

Writing and publishing are businesses you need to understand, campers, and they’re both tough. Give it all you’ve got, go at it with energy and curiosity, and savor the positive results. Store those up as antidotes to the hard times.