Interview with Author Ellen Cooney

The Mountaintop School for Dogs and Other Second Chances releases today! I’m very excited, seeing as I reviewed the book, and gave it 4 out of 5 wagging tails. I’m even more excited that Ellen Cooney has agreed to let me interview her! I must say, I’m a dab hand at this now that I’ve been listening to podcasts all summer, so be careful not to be blown away. 😛

Hi, Ellen! Welcome to Books and Bark. I absolutely loved your book. What inspired you to write The Mountaintop School for Dogs?

In the back of my mind I’d been thinking about writing another novel with a character who’s a teacher. My novel The Old Ballerina is about a ballet teacher and her students, and I wanted to do more with the incredible dynamics that go on in a classroom full of creative, adventurous people. My own experience as a teacher was in creative writing, but I didn’t want to write about writing. Then it happened that I adopted a new rescue dog, a puppy who was probably about eight months old. He’d been abandoned and was pretty feral, since he had lived as a stray for no one knows how long. I became his teacher in a home-school sort of way, and it was the toughest job I ever had. He was a biter and really wild, but eventually he and I began to bond. I’m a mom, too, and I was my son’s first teacher. With my dog, I was no different than I was with my human students, in that I worked with the idea of mutual respect and trust, hard as that can be. It slowly began to dawn on me that I would have to write my ninth novel as a teacher story with dogs.

Ooh, that’s neat! Out of all of your own dogs, who’s your favorite? (Don’t worry—we won’t tell them!)

I have three now and I swear I don’t have a favorite. I love them deeply, but with each one it’s a little different. My youngest is still a baby–she’s not quite two, and she had lived her whole life before her rescue in a cage in a high-kill shelter. She’s developmentally delayed, understandably, so my love for her is more protective, at least for now.
This little guy thinks he should be your favorite! Just look at him!

This little guy thinks he should be your favorite! Just look at him!

I volunteer with rescue dogs, and it’s wonderful that you adopted from a kill shelter! Those dogs often don’t get the second chance they deserve. 😦 Evie does a lot of research on dogs! How much research did you do?

Besides using my own experience with dogs and talking extensively with many dog-people, especially people involved in rescues, I spent six months reading nothing but books about dogs. I watched an awful lot of training videos, too. I had wanted to know about different types of training and different philosophies of animals’ minds. I even did extensive research in areas such as dog fighting and all sorts of cruelty humans inflict on animals. I kept not wanting to know a lot of things I was finding out, but I knew that, if I wanted to write a novel of honesty and caring, I had to know the details about really upsetting things.

Sounds like hard work! Evie meets many dogs in the book. Who was your favorite dog, and why?

Tasha the Rottweiler is Evie’s favorite dog, and mine, too. Rottweilers are incredible animals, so misunderstood, so often feared. Tasha emerged as an interesting, complicated character: a big-size dog who has no problem deciding to use physical strength to her advantage whenever she wants something, yet she is so wonderfully expressive and loving. I happened to have fallen in love with a Rottweiler I met only a few times, but I never forgot her. Tasha’s based on that dog–in fact, all the dogs in the novel have some kind of basis in real life. In the novel, there’s a scene where Evie is almost abusive to Tasha, not on purpose, but something gets out of hand, and she then tells Tasha she is sorry for being awful to her. When Evie realizes that Tasha is doing something to express how she’s forgiving Evie, it’s a big-deal event in the plot, and a real turning point for Evie in her evolution to become a teacher of animals. I just love that scene and feel so lucky it came to me.

And here's an excuse to use my Tasha GIF :P

And here’s an excuse to use my Tasha GIF 😛 I will NOT regret this.

I love Tasha, too! She’s my favorite, if you ask me! 😀 Why did you decide to include the story of Mrs. Auberchon along with Evie’s?

I wish I could say it was a decision! Like so much that happens in creative writing, a writer’s unconscious forces come into play. I had to learn with earlier books to trust my instincts. Mrs. Auberchon originally was supposed to be a minor character! But then I wanted to know her better and she just sort of grew and grew.

Okay, now what I really want to know: who was more fun to write—Evie or Mrs. Auberchon? (I liked them both—but I think I liked Evie better 😀 )

I love that you put “fun” in the question! Evie was “more fun” because she is based on a couple of young women I know (although she’s nothing like either of them, having been put through the process of fiction-making). I loved working with Evie’s voice, and I loved the freedom of her character to put things her own way, in her own style. Mrs. Auberchon is closer to my own age, so that made a big difference. And Mrs. Auberchon is based on a real-life character who is deceased. I really felt, a little bit, the presence of her as a ghost as I was writing! But I think she’d approve of how that character turned out.

Evie often compares Giant George to a Great Dane or a Newfie. What breed would you be?

Well, Giant George thinks of himself as a Great Dane, too, and he thinks of Evie as, guess what, a Rottweiler, even though Evie is a young woman who is fairly small in size. Me? I actually took one of those quizzes that pop up everywhere online now: a quiz that asked the question, what dog breed are you? I answered the questions honestly, with no preconceived idea of what the result might be. I came out with German Shepherd, Go figure!

Ah! German Shepards are gorgeous. Watch out for those cats, though!

Ah! German Shepards are gorgeous. Watch out for those cats, though!

Cool! I like to think of myself as a Border Collie. The concept of divorce plays an important role in the book. Why divorce? Do you have any advice for children of divorce/people going through a divorce?

Evie’s parents divorced when she was a little kid and it was the type of divorce that’s bitter, in which arguments and hostilities go on and on. She was passed back and forth between her parents as if she were more of an object than a person, and she grew up feeling as if she had no family at all. If Evie were asked the question about offering advice to children of splitting-up parents, I think she would say, “Don’t take what’s going on with them personally, and don’t be afraid to seek a new family for yourself, because you don’t have to be related by blood to someone to be in a family with them.” Much of my novel is really about Evie finding that new family unit, where there’s love and support and acceptance.

And now to the actual writing: do you have any advice for young writers?

Yes, I do. Be yourself. Read and read and read. Then read some more, all sorts of things, by all sorts of writers. Spend lots of time practicing your own voice, and make sure you have excellent command of all the basics of grammar. Most of all, don’t fall into the trap of “writing things in your head,” while telling yourself, “oh, I’ll get around to writing this down later.” Learn to think and be creative and write stuff down all at the same time.

I loved The Mountaintop School for Dogs, and can’t wait to read your next book. Are you working on any other books, currently?

I’m just starting a new novel I’m starting to get excited about, even though I’m not sure yet what it will like. But it will be about dogs again, as there are some things I only touched on a little in Mountaintop which I want to do more with. I’m wishing myself good luck with it!

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Oh, that’s awesome! I’ll be sure to read it once it comes out! Meanwhile, I think I’ll just have to sit impatiently and wait. Happy book birthday, Ellen! 

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the_mountaintop_school_ellen_cooney__smallauthorThe Mountaintop School for Dogs and Other Second Chances releases from Houghton Mifflin Harcourt August 5th. You can pre-order the book from Amazon.com for $13.49 on Kindle or $18.00 hardcover. The heartwarming story of Evie, Mrs. Auberchon, and several wild little dogs is one that I will want to keep on my shelves and read again and again.

Meanwhile, I’ll be reviewing A Wolf Called Romeo by Nick Jans. Thank you HMH for the fabulous review copy!

 

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