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Interview: March 5, 2010

March 5, 2010

Susan Wilson is the author of six works of fiction, including SUMMER HARBOR, THE FORTUNE TELLER'S DAUGHTER, BEAUTY and the newly released ONE GOOD DOG. In this interview with's Alexis Burling, Wilson discusses how the plot of her latest novel evolved from its earliest inception as a tale of redemption to its finished product as a "story about a dog" and elaborates on how her main character, Adam, grew over the course of the book. She also describes her family's real-life canine companions who helped shape her writing and reflects on how the novel's theme of second chances applied to her own life and career. What was your inspiration for ONE GOOD DOG?

Susan Wilson: Some books suggest themselves, others are suggested. ONE GOOD DOG was a little of both. I knew I wanted to write a story about a man hitting bottom and finding his way back to his humanity; my beloved agent noted to me that stories about dogs are very popular. I love dogs. I loved the idea of having a dog central to my story. To be given a pass to write about that which I love was golden. And ONE GOOD DOG is the result, a man and a dog both in need of a new life.

BRC: Why did you decide to write Adam's story in third person and Chance's story in first person? As you were writing the book, did you write both points of view in order, concurrently, or did you write Adam's story first and then go back and write Chance's story (or vice-versa)?

SW: Long before Chance opened his mouth and became a narrator, I had been working on Adam’s very bad day. One of the hardest decisions to make when I begin writing is what tense to use. Once Chance got involved, the structure suggested itself: alternating POV: Chance, Adam, Chance, first person and third, which is how I wrote it, each character alternately picking up the baton in the relay. Writing that way is great because the energy expended in third-person/present tense is relaxed with first-person/past tense. Like biking up a hill in second gear and then coasting downhill.

BRC: As we read ONE GOOD DOG, we learn Adam and Chance both had intense back stories. We see how Adam's experiences in foster homes and his reaction to his sister's absence shaped his adult life. With Chance, we see how being raised to fight shaped his attitude towards humans and other pets. Whose story was more difficult to bring to life? Why?

SW: That’s a hard question, with an equivocal answer, neither was hard, and both were hard. I needed to make Adam’s early years difficult, but not slide into melodrama; of Chance’s early years, I needed to make the physical conditions sordid, but keep his outlook positive.

BRC: Why did you decide to make Chance a pit bull? Have you personally had pit bulls as a pet, or known people who did?

SW: I have never owned a pit bull and will confess that I had about as much prejudice against the breed as anyone else who doesn’t understand that the dog is a product of its environment. The story required a dog in a bad situation --- one that might not be given a second chance. As Chance says: he’s not all that cute. If you watch "Animal Cops," you see that these dogs are feared, maligned and chances of adoption are slim. At the same time, the program features dogs of the pit bull type that have encountered heinous circumstances, and yet have the capacity to adjust to a safer life and become good pets. I had the great good fortune to be guided by a devoted pit bull rescue advocate as well as an animal behaviorist, both of whom enlightened me on the breed.

BRC: When Chance gets taken from Adam, Adam is worried that there’s no way he’ll survive: “His breed will be his demise. The prejudice toward his type: the automatic death sentence for animals like him in some cities.” Pit bulls do have a bad rap, yet I know a Pitt who is one of the kindest, most loyal dogs I’ve known in my life. Do you think their reputation is deserved?

SW: I don’t, but let me qualify that. If a dog is raised in a loving home and is a pet, he is a different animal than if he would be raised to fight, living his life in isolation or on the end of chain. Anecdotal evidence suggests that even dogs that have lived this evil have the capacity to be re-trained, essentially socialized; that the inherent nature of a dog like this is to be loyal and to respond to good treatment. Can they all be redeemed? I don’t know. Some are more damaged than others. But it is a testament to the soul of a dog that so many can be.

BRC: ONE GOOD DOG is a book about second chances. Chance (aptly named) gets a second lease on life when Adam “rescues” him from the animal shelter. Adam gets a second chance when he’s assigned to community service at the Fort Street Center homeless shelter, and also in his relationships with Ariel, Gina, and ultimately, his father. Do you believe in second chances? What do you think the criteria are for such a situation?

SW: ONE GOOD DOG is my second chance. It’s been seven years since the publication of my last book and the long dry spell made me wonder if I should just give up the idea and be grateful that I was fortunate enough to have five novels under my belt. I think that second chances aren’t like do-overs; it’s new ground, a new attitude, and best of all, loyal support from friends and friendly strangers. Best of all, the folks at St. Martin’s Press are taking a chance on me!

BRC: In your opinion, what does humility have to do with getting a second chance? Did this influence how you shaped Adam’s growth as a character?

SW: Adam needed to grow up. He had the wrong goals: money, power, status. He’d lost his humanity along the way. My working title for the book was Becoming Human, because that’s what I saw Adam doing. He’d not overcome his tough childhood, he’d become it, and his reaction to Sophie’s error is Adam reverting to his roots. The judge sees this in him, this nattily dressed power-broker needing to be taken down a peg. Adam as an adult has always been in charge, and now he needs to learn the lesson of letting go and letting his innate decency rise to the surface.

BRC: Is Fort Street Center a real place? If not, how much research was involved with creating this shelter?

SW: It’s wholly imagined, with influence from the Pine Street Inn in Boston and stories about the people who care for the homeless.

BRC: We loved the supporting characters at the shelter. Which character was your favorite, and why? (We are partial to Rafe.)

SW: Me too! Almost like Chance, Rafe just showed up and became a lovely strong character. Big Bob is a guy I’d like to know --- caring, tough and gentle at the same time. I love writing secondary characters, they don’t have the weight of the story on them so I can play a little. My Ruby from THE FORTUNE TELLER'S DAUGHTER was like that, I had to make sure she didn’t steal the show.

BRC: After everything that happens, Adam gets his chance to apologize to Sophie. Why did you decide to add this element to the plot?

SW: I literally woke up in the middle of the night and realized that Adam needed to apologize. It was the missing piece from making him a whole man. This is a redemption story, and if all you do is adopt a dog and learn how to be nicer to people, but don’t suck it up and ask for forgiveness…without expecting it…can you really succeed?

BRC: We think we know the answer to this one, but who are Bonnie, Hunter and Sprout? Did they have any influence on how you shaped this book?

SW: Well, Sprout chewed the cover off my ARC of the book. Really. She’s a dickens, that one. Bonnie is our beloved terrier/hound cross we adopted from a rescue seven years ago. She’s one of the lucky ones, a puppy brought north from a kill-shelter down south. She’s never known a moment’s worry. She’s also the smartest dog I’ve ever known who knows how to play tricks on people. Hunter is our daughter and son-in-law’s rescue. An adult beagle-ish dog, he was so quiet the day they brought him home they didn’t think they needed to crate him. He ate their couch. Over the years, they’ve helped him enormously with his anxieties --- separation and stranger --- and he’s one good dog. Their new baby climbs all over him and he’s so patient. Sprout, the aforementioned dickens, is a 10-pound bundle of don’t-mess-with me. My younger daughter rescued her from the streets of Holyoke, MA after the dog was brought by animal control to the vet clinic where she was working. She’d been hit by a car. Interesting story: recently my daughter was walking the dog when she was approached by a man who got too close. Sprout bit him. I’m not an advocate for biting dogs, but this little girl knows a threat when she sees one. As for influencing this story, of course they did. As did so many of the dogs in my life from long-gone pets to the pups at the dog park.

BRC: Can you tell us about the ONE GOOD DOG Facebook promotion? How did this idea evolve? What can our readers do to participate?

SW: My amazing marketing maven at SMP is young enough to understand and embrace the whole online/cyber/digital concept and has, as this online interview suggests, capitalized on the new way the word is getting out. In one of my columns I talk about how authors sometimes slip into bookstores and “face out” their books. Facebook is facing out ONE GOOD DOG in a vastly more effective way than one bookstore at a time. Everyone has their own story about how their pet has transformed them and influenced their lives, and we wanted to give people a chance and place to share their stories. On my fan page, readers can post pictures and stories of pets and other animals. I’m loving the instant communication and making lots of new friends with dogs, cats and other creatures. 

BRC: In addition to writing novels, you also write a monthly column about writing for The Martha’s Vineyard Times. What has this experience been like for you?

SW: When the editor of the MV Times approached me, I was a little skeptical. First of all, how could I find enough to write about and, second of all, if I’m writing about writing, when do I write? I think it’s been four years, maybe five, and I still find things to write about and having a monthly deadline is good for me. What I love about the column is that it’s instant gratification. People read it, see me in the grocery store and comment on what I’ve said. I don’t need to wait 18 months for a book to come out.

BRC: What are you working on now? Is there a "chance" we'll see Adam, Gina and/or Chance in another story?

SW: I’ve never written a real sequel to any of my books, although I’ve used the same setting and allowed a cameo appearance of a former character, so who’s to say. Right now I’m working on a novel that is just evolving, so I’ll say little about its content except that it, too, has a strong dog at its center --- along with some humans who need healing.

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