Monday, May 16, 2011

The Monday Interview -- Ann Littlewood

Ann Littlewood worked as a zoo keeper at the Oregon Zoo for twelve years. She has been scratched, bitten, pecked, stepped on, and taloned. See her website,, for proof and for pretty pictures of animals. Go to her blog for her Deep Thoughts about Life and more pictures. Ann spends many hours at Finley Memorial Zoo, engrossed in exciting adventures with any animal she wants while channeling Iris Oakley, her mystery-solving protagonist.

Tell us about your new novel.

Ah, the rhythms of a writer... Promotion for my second zoo mystery, Did Not Survive, absorbed me all last summer and fall. Then, time to change gears and plot out the next in the series. Now I'm done with most of the research and deep into drafting the third zoo mystery, working title Threatened. I love the fizzy brain I get when I'm writing! So much better than the agony of writing the outline.

How is this novel different than your previous novels?

For each new book, I try to stretch myself in plotting, character development, and what you might call "significance". I'm still figuring out the twists and turns in Threatened, aiming for realistic surprises and plenty of action. Iris Oakley, my zoo keeper protagonist, finds herself in the frustrating situation of facing wildlife crime in her backyard and not being able to do much of anything about it. That's not a position she can tolerate for long. Her friends Denny and Marcie are suffering as their affair falls apart and counting on her to help. And, meantime, Iris has a kid to raise and her job to do. So she's got a lot on her plate, more than ever before, and she will struggle.

Each of my mysteries explores different animals, In Night Kill, it was lions and penguins. Did Not Survive is focused on elephants with clouded leopards as well. Threatened features parrots and tortoises. Doing the research is always fun--top rank experts are usually happy to talk to me. It's amazing. 

As for "significance," Did Not Survive explores the complexities of maintaining elephants in captivity, a hot button for zoos and animal welfare activists. Threatened is built around wildlife smuggling for the pet trade, a significant threat to some species. I hope that the mystery context will allow people to learn about these issues and enjoy doing so.

Do you feel like you have to defend yourself for writing "genre fiction"? 
Nah. Think mysteries are formulaic and simplistic? Go write one yourself, then we'll talk.

Why do you write mysteries?

Mysteries are the chicken fryer of literature. You can take a raw chicken and create thousands of different dishes. Just don't serve it raw or burnt--there are some rules! Mysteries are the same way. A thousand settings, characters, stories--you can do anything with a mystery. Do it well enough and you'll get shelved under "Literary Fiction." True story.

When did you know you were a writer?

That is lost in the mists of time. I've always written something, just not always fiction--research papers for science journals, instructions on how to hand raise a baby hippo, software manuals, speeches for corporate vice presidents, newsletters, poems, short stories, and, now, mysteries. I even wrote one of those mystery dinner games recently. If you write, you're a writer.

What’s a work day like for you?

Erratic. I do not get up at 4 AM and write until noon. I wish I did, but my life refuses to unfold that way. It's a miracle I ever get a book out.

What’s a day off like for you?

All my days are days off. All my days are work days. That's what being self-employed is like, at least for me. But my spouse drags me off to hikes. We are blessed with gorgeous country within an hour or two's drive--coast, mountain, desert, take your pick. It was wildflowers in the Columbia Gorge yesterday.

If you could be anything other than writer, what would it be?

The savior of the natural world. The person who invents a method of birth control that makes sex twice as much fun. (That really might save the world, you know.) The person who boosts human consciousness to a new level (now we're really dreaming) so that we quit expanding our activities in ways that damage the land, air, and waters.

How do you define success?

Well, there's always money... By that measure, I have a ways to go! The royalties from Did Not Survive and future zoo mysteries are donated to conservation, so the money matters. Then there's the pure fun of writing, which I have totally achieved! And every now and then, someone says they learned something from my books. That really counts. And so do kind words from people who simply enjoyed them.

What advice do you have for writers seeking publication in today's electronic world?  Is self-publishing a viable option?

If you are writing mysteries, join the Murder Must Advertise list. Tons of good advice, lots of discussion threads about epublishing. Many authors are choosing that route. It's lost the negative connotations and is even more profitable than conventional publishing for some authors. The trends are fascinating.

What’s next for you?

I want to see Threatened released to the wild, and then perhaps one more zoo mystery. That's as far as my headlights go!

Thanks so much for the opportunity to participate in your blog!


David Cranmer said...

You have to respect anyone who has been taloned.

Terrific interview, both.

Ann Littlewood said...

Thanks, David! Yes, taloned, pecked, trunked, trampled, and, of course, bitten. A lion cub and I once had an argument over a tennis shoe. I won, but still carry a little scar and a vivid memory!