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  • Women on Wednesday—Susannah Charleson
Women on Wednesday—Susannah Charleson
Written by
July 2013
Written by
July 2013

What was the impetus to write your book?

Both Scent of the Missing and The Possibility Dogs are an insider’s journey into a world many readers may not have experienced — canine search-and-rescue in Scent and dogs that serve psychiatric crisis in The Possibility Dogs. My background is in broadcast journalism, and I’ve always been most interested in being a primary writer — getting out there and getting inside whatever I’m writing about, primary experience well-supported by secondary research. When I began partnering working dogs in 2001, I knew almost immediately that there were powerful stories to be told here.

What were some of the struggles that you faced in the writing process? How were you able to overcome them?

My greatest struggle was probably moving out of the short narrative form I was so used to in radio. Though I wrote very long form serial fiction for AOL for six years, I came to book-length nonfiction as a radio feature writer and essayist. My first book began as a series of search-and-rescue essays (originally intended for radio), and with the exception of one university press editor, every agent and publisher who saw any early version of it said that Scent needed to be a longer narrative — my own story in search-and-rescue— supported by individual search accounts. This was difficult to do, particularly because it grounded the book in memoir. As a journalist, I always prefer writing others’ stories to my own.

I overcame this by paying attention to the professional feedback I’d received. There was an unexpected benefit, too. I found that bringing the search experience to the keyboard also caused me to think freshly about how to approach search problems in the field. My work beside the search dogs was improved through the process of writing about it.

What is the most important piece of advice you can give to aspiring female authors?

Expect that some readers will love your work, some will like it fine, and some will really hate it. They will post this. This is fine. We are not thirteen-year-olds desperate for universal approval.

That said, choose your significant critics carefully. Find that reading group whose members aren’t laden with agenda and will read and respond thoughtfully. Find the straightforward, intuitive agent and the editor whose informed critique is clear. Then bronze what they say and be changed by it. My editor once said in a chapter note on an early draft manuscript of Scent: Why do we need to experience this? That question remains a test of every section of every chapter I still write and will, future forward.  I’m thinking of maybe getting it tattooed.

What was the publishing process like for you? How were you able to bring your book to life?

I had my share of odd moments, like many writers—query and proposal in hand, one of hundreds in front of an agent’s attention for five minutes. Rejections, of course, some false promises. A few outright lies. The oddest experience was probably submitting a proposal for the first book to an agent at the agent’s request. I had not approached her first. A friend of a friend had been talking about my work; the agent was excited about the story, pleased I had a background in radio and television. She mentioned that in her note. “Would love to have the opportunity to read …" it went on. Thrilling!  I sent everything off with great hope. Maybe this was the one that would click.

Ultimately, the agent rejected representation, sending a quick email that she had to decline “due to your lack of media experience."  I’d been working in radio for twenty-five years and had hosted a television show for thirteen. I remember thinking, “Wow — do all writers need to be Katie Couric, then?"  I guessed later that maybe my proposal had been in a stack of other rejections, and I got the email intended for someone else, who may have gotten mine and been really, really puzzled by the reference to dog narratives.

I soldiered on, taking every chance to refine the first book’s proposal and pitch to agents who seemed like a good fit for the work. I think that’s hugely important, finding the right agent. It’s so tempting when on the hunt to go for anyone who will say yes, but that can be disastrous! You want an agent that 1) actually knows who you are, by name and project, 2) represents and sells consistently in your genre/subject area and 3) has an established record with editors and houses that are a relevant fit for your work, as well.  If I had any advice in this regard, it would be to review that proposal or manuscript and  review it again, then pitch face-to-face as often as possible. You’re ultimately going to have to talk your book as well as write it, and it’s good to begin articulating its energy now. Publishing is about advocacy. You have to be the first advocate for your book who finds the second, an enthusiastic agent, who finds the third, an interested editor, who advocates upward to a publishing house, whose sale and publicity departments advocate forward to the wider world. It all starts with the appeal you create.

Tell us about your latest book, The Possibility Dogs.

The Possibility Dogs follows my journey into the world of psychiatric service dogs that partner the disabled, emotional support dogs that calm the anxious homebound, and comfort (formerly “therapy") dogs that serve the community in crisis. What do dogs bring to the hurting human spirit that other therapies cannot reach? I went in to this book with that question. I was surprised, am daily still surprised, by the answers. Dogs can identify depression by posture, feel fear as vibration, scent the happy or terrifying nature of our dreams.

If you had to describe yourself in three words only, what would they be?

Curious, compassionate, caffeinated — not necessarily in that order.

If you could travel anywhere in the world, where would that be and why?

I would very much like to visit the Azores. I love tall ships and the sea, and nautical fiction has brought me close to them in imagination a number of times. I’d like some time to hike the Azores and look out over those waters.




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