Robert Crais is one of those rare authors who is both a fan and a critic. Part of this comes from the fact that he is constantly evolving and changing as an author. His latest, Suspect, is a stand alone that deals with a cop who lost his partner and a Marine-trained German Shepard who lost her handler. They’re put together in the LAPD K-9 unit. We caught up with Bob to ask him a few questions about the book and writing from a canine perspective.
MYSTERYPEOPLE: What’s the key to writing a dog as a main character?
ROBERT CRAIS: I’ve always been a dog guy. I have cats, too, and I love them, but I’ve had dogs since I was a boy. I lost my last dog fifteen years ago, a big Akita I had for twelve years. He was my boy, through and through, only, thing is, when he passed–and he died in my arms, me blubbering like a baby–I was never able to get another dog. The idea of replacing him felt disloyal. All these years have passed, and I began thinking about the bond we had. I started thinking, jeez, am I crazy? So I began reading about the special relationship people have with dogs, and dogs have with people, and why dogs are the way they are. Maybe I was doing all this to heal, but pretty soon I had Maggie, and knew I had to write about her.
MP: So much of this story relies on the senses, whether it be Maggie’s sense of smell or both she and Scott working through their PTSD. Did you find yourself really working that writing muscle to do this? Was it a challenge?
RC: It’s always a challenge to write about a character you haven’t written about before, and to make that character true and believable. I did a lot of research on dogs, both by reading the available literature, observing, and asking questions of experts. I wanted to write about a real dog — and was careful not to anthropomorphize her. I didn’t want Maggie to be a cartoon. I wanted my portrayal of her to accurately reflect how dogs perceive the world and yes — that was a challenge.
MP: This was a story that could have been maudlin or precious, but you avoided that at every step. Were you aware of sidestepping over sentimental or manipulative pitfalls or did the story just flow naturally?
RC: While researching the nature of the human-canine relationship, I realized that the bonds between dogs and their human handlers were far closer than most people realize. It’s the purity of that bond that not only inspired me to write this book, but also helped me to avoid being maudlin or precious. When something is true you don’t have to force it. You don’t have to “sell” it and manipulate the reader. You just have to tell the story authentically from your heart.
MP: You did some work with the K-9 unit for the book. What surprised you the most from your research?
RC: I was most impressed by the intensity and dedication of the handlers, and the difficulty of the job they do. Being a police K9 handler is not a job; it is a way of life. The dog lives with the handler, hence, the handler is always on duty and on call. The training never stops. They train their K9 partners every day, and the complexity of the training is astonishing. This is mandatory because of the difficult nature of their job–the handler must maintain precise control of their dog in complex, high-stress situations. The dogs are trained to respond appropriately, even when they are off-leash and operating out of the handler’s sight.
MP: What do the stand-alone novels do for you?
RC: Stand-alones give me the opportunity to create new characters that hopefully my readers will love. Writing this book opened surprising doors for me. It helped me heal in a lot of ways. I have a horrible weakness of falling in love with my characters and now I have Maggie and Scott to add to the list.
MP: Every action sequence in this book pops. How do you approach action when writing them?
RC: The same way I approach any other scene. I never include an action scene simply to have gratuitous action. If the evolution of the story leads to an action scene, this is because the rising emotional tension finally explodes into violence. Explosions are sharp, declarative, and dangerous. The concussion should rock the reader–and the writer.