Sunday, April 23, 2017

How a dead dog led to my writing career


 S. Lee Manning: So, provocative title, eh? But it’s true. A fictional dead dog is the reason I am writing spy novels today – or at least it’s how I got started.

OK, this wasn't my house, but my porch looked a lot like this, at least in my memory.

Like most writers, and especially my fellow Rogues, I spent my childhood wrapped up in novels. My mother taught me to read when I was around 4, and from then on, I was never without a book. We had no air conditioning, but we had a large front porch with an awning. I spent long summer days, basking in the heat, or listening to the pounding of the rain, while I immersed myself in fictional worlds.


In my pre-reading days, with my very young mother and my sister.

I didn’t consider myself a story teller. Still, I did have an active imagination. I was continually pretending to be something or someone other than who or what I really was. A cowboy. A mermaid. A witch. A race horse. A spy – but that was later.

So still waiting on that dead dog, aren’t you?

Despite my love of books and my love of creating worlds of my own, I never thought of becoming a storyteller. Then when I was eight or nine, there was this book. I don’t remember the title or the author, but I vaguely remember the story. It was set in Australia. A boy finds a dog, teaches him to help with the sheep on his farm, and then, somehow, the dog dies. I don’t remember the details. I just remember the dog dying.

Told you I’d get there.

I loved all animals. We had cats and kittens, and I loved them, but I wanted a dog to follow me around and love me unconditionally. Cats love you, but they are a little less demonstrative and a little more independent – and while I adore cats as an adult and actually prefer a little more independence – as a child, I didn’t want independence, I wanted slavish devotion. Hence a dog.

We never had one. Too much work. My mother was a rarity back in those days, a working mom, and neither she nor my father felt the impulse to take on another burden. So I satisfied my impulse towards dog ownership with books and television shows – and fantasy. I watched Lassie and Rin Tin Tin. I read Lassie Come Home by Eric Knight about a dozen times. Then there was the book - and the dog that died.
We tuned into this image every Sunday night, back in my childhood.

I remember closing that book, sad and angry. I decided then and there, I could do better. I wouldn’t kill off the dog.

So I wrote what might be called fan fiction today, which was an alternative version of the book with the dead dog. Instead of sheep herding, the dog herded cattle. Instead of a boy, I inserted a girl. And instead of dying, the dog lived happily ever after – or however long a dog naturally lives -  with his beloved mistress.

My older sister was impressed with my handwritten twenty-page story – until she read it and then read the jacket of the library book about the Australian sheep herding dead dog. She changed her mind and said that I’d stolen the story. I stoutly defended myself – saying the dog didn’t die, so I didn’t steal the story. And there were cattle. Looking back, she was more right than I was. But does it really matter? That was the moment that created the impulse to write stories. That was the moment that I decided I would be a writer.

I could go through the twists and turns of becoming a writer: writing for school newspapers, winning school awards for essays, publishing short stories, but none of those individual moments rise to the significance in my mind of an Australian sheep dog dying. Maybe, given my love of books and words, I would have come to the decision to write sooner or later. But this is the way I came to it.

So now, I write espionage novels. I regularly kill off humans. In the one I’m writing now, a nine-year old child dies in a terrorist attack. But I have stuck to one rule – I have never killed off a dog – or a cat – or a horse.

Dead dogs make bad books.





7 comments:

  1. Oh, S. Lee, what an engaging story about your discovery and evolution as a great writer. I'm with you - don't ever kill off a dog in a novel! In fact, can you think of any other "being" that you KNOW will be overjoyed to see you whenever you arrive home? Thanks for this great post!

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  2. As a child, I always wanted a dog, too! My mom worked and she reluctantly agreed to cats--dogs were WAY too much effort. Do you still have your dog story? What a wonderful start to a literary career!

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  3. Thank you Karna and Sonja. Sadly, or maybe not so sadly, I no longer have that first story. I don't remember if it just got lost with all the other papers from my childhood - or if I threw it out, embarrassed, as I grew a little older and a little more adept at writing. Now, I'd love to have it.

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  4. I loved your blog about your inspiration and then commitment to writing, S. Lee! What a wonderful story, with doggies woven throughout. Thank goodness for these moments, and thank you for inspiring me!

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  5. My inspiration also comes for past pets, but in my case a dog and a cat. They were great friends whom I still miss, but I hope to resurrect them in a children's story I'm working on.

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  6. I remember one wise writer telling me long ago when I was an aspiring writer, "You can kill all the people you want, but never, NEVER, kill an animal." Advice well heeded.

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