I’m delighted to post the first part of my interview with Spencer Quinn, NY Times bestselling author of Thereby Hangs a Tail, released January 5 (Atria Books/Simon & Schuster). In his prolific writing career, he has had 23 published novels - two as Spencer Quinn, and 21 as Peter Abrahams – yes, we’re related - he’s my big brother.
Of the Peter Abrahams titles, several are children’s books: His most recent YA novel, Reality Check, (Laura Geringer Books) was just nominated for a 2010 Edgar Award for best young adult mystery novel. Before that, there was the bestselling Echo Falls Series - three middle grade mysteries. The first, Down the Rabbit Hole, was a 2006 Agatha Award winner for Best Children’s Young Adult Fiction. The second in the series, Behind the Curtain, was nominated for an Agatha, followed by Into the Dark, also an Agatha nominee.
Peter has two upcoming children’s book: His YA novel, Bullet Point, to be released by Harper Teen April 27, and his first picture book, Quacky Baseball (Balzer & Bray/Harper Collins Children’s Books) illustrated by Frank Morrison, comes out in winter, 2011.
His newest Spencer Quinn release, Thereby Hangs a Tail, is the second book in the Chet and Bernie Mystery Series – which is written for adults but could easily be a YA crossover book. The series is written from the POV of Chet the dog, Bernie’s partner in the Little Detective Agency.
How did you come up with this great idea?
(My wife) Diana said, why don’t you do a thing about dogs? In the Peter Abrahams work, there are a number of dog characters. For example, in the Echo Falls series, there’s Nigel - the sidekick to Ingrid. So I decided to do a buddy PI thing – which has been done a million times – but from the POV of a dog.
Chet is a charmingly reliable narrator – for a dog. In some ways he’s deliberately unreliable. He falls asleep and misses things, etc. That’s convenient for a mystery series and also often very funny. How did you come up with this clever combination of reliability and unreliability?
It flows from the probably the most important decision I made on this – that he was going to be as close as possible to a normal dog – he can’t talk and he doesn’t have human capabilities – which people have done before. The unreliable part just came with it because he’s a dog – of course he’s going to be an unreliable narrator.
In this series you got inside the head of a dog. How were you able to do this so convincingly?
Is there some mixed up DNA in me? Really, this is all about the imagination. I consider it sort of a black box. Which is easy for me. I never have to do any self-searching.
Dog On It, (the first in the series) and Thereby Hangs A Tail, are very funny. For example, when Chet and Bernie are driving through the desert and Bernie mentions that Wild Bill Hickok once passed through the area - Chet figures Wild Bill Hickok must be the perp. Writing humor is sort of a departure from your other work. What’s your approach to this and is it especially fun to write?
In most of my other work, that side of me didn’t really have a chance to come out. It did from time-to-time. - I think there are parts of Their Wildest Dreams that are funny, and other places that are witty – but Chet and Bernie – this is more rollicking. I think it’s the material itself that allowed it to come out.
One big difference is, it’s first person, which I’ve done only once before in a short story. The story I wrote was Phase Two, for an anthology, Up All Night. I liked doing it and almost wished I’d done some of it before. For me, writing in the first person allows my own personality to leak into the story, because you’re saying I. Obviously, I’m not Chet – but I think that just allowed more of that side of me to come into it.
Is it different for you, a writer of many novels for adults, to write for children?
It isn’t different. Reality Check and Bullet Point are very similar to my adult work in tone and content, it’s just that the main character is a teenager and they’re a little shorter and simpler in plot. Otherwise, they’re very similar – dark with pent up violence. (I’m much more interested in pent up violence than break out violence. Hollywood, of course, goes the other way.)
Once I decide on the POV, the POV dictates the attitude, the tone. For example, if the Ingrid books (Echo Falls series) had been written for adults in third person close, it would have been written exactly the same way. There’s no shifting of gears here.
Did it help that you have four children?
Having kids of course, absolutely – living in a kid culture – it rubs off on you. I’m not saying it’s essential for people writing kid’s lit – but it really helped me.
Thank you, Spence/Pete.
Please come back for part 2 of the interview - to be posted soon. Here, Spencer talks about his blog, ChettheDog.com, his daily writing habits, advancing the story, and more.
In the meantime, if you leave a comment, you could win a copy of Thereby Hangs A Tail - signed by Spencer Quinn and stamped with Chet's paw print. Names to be drawn out of a black box.