By Genevieve Fortin and Celeste Castro
What do you get when two Bella Books authors start chatting about their books and the dogs that inspired them? Well, you get lots of questions (some quite personal), the beginning of a friendship, and a fascinating collaboration! Here is the open and fun conversation between Celeste Castro (Homecoming and Lex Files) and Genevieve Fortin (First Fall, Two kinds of Elizabeth, Water’s Edge and Dingo’s Recovery).
Celeste: Not going to lie, I opened the book and right on the first page, had to consult the internet, as I had never heard of a Basenji (beautiful beast!) Why did you select that type of dog for your story? Have you owned this particular dog breed?
Genevieve: I never owned a Basenji before but I came across that breed when researching dog breeds that are good for people suffering from allergies (like me!). I really fell for their wrinkled forehead and was intrigued by the fact they can’t bark. They also reminded me of a small dingo so when I had to choose a breed for Joyce, the character I created who shares my fascination with everything Australian, the Basenji made sense. I must say I was intrigued by the breed you chose as well for Lex Files. I had never heard of the Karelian Bear dog and I know a lot of breeds. I watched the Dogs 101 bit about the Karelian and it makes sense to use it in your story as partner of a Wildlife enforcement officer, but tell me a little more about why you chose that breed.
Celeste: I can’t take credit for choosing this breed of dog. I modeled everything on a real program at the Washington Department of Fish & Wildlife (WDFW). It’s called the Karelian Bear Dog Program (KBD). A few years ago I heard Officer Richards and Mishka (the bear dog) speak, and I was captivated by their work. Both Officer Richards and Mishka have since retired and the program has grown significantly. When I met them they were the first of this kind. That’s where I wanted my story to start at the beginning, with a single officer and her dog, a one of a kind team, a rare commodity and a strange case.
First thing you need to know is that these dogs are total bad asses. There is no other dog in the world suited to this type of work that requires tracking large game. In the words of the WDFW, “bear dogs are trained to help officers resolve instances of conflict between humans and wildlife (in a non-lethal manner.)” What does that mean? Great question. When a wild animal ventures into a populated area, people try to take matters into their own hands. Animals tend to get killed when that happens. When the KBD gets involved, the animal is captured and wildlife are conditioned to be scared of city noises like horns, gun shots, fireworks, cars, and dogs. When they are later released, the chances that the bear comes wondering back into the city again are low and more wildlife live longer!
Why did you choose to write a May-December age-gap romance (had to look that reference up too) for this story? Is that something you set out to do or something that evolved through your writing?
Genevieve: I’ve always wanted to write a May-December romance. I’ve been in a few May-December relationships myself, including my current relationship. I love reading about them too. Dingo’s Recovery started out as an idea about two women falling in love during the time it takes for a dog to recover before anything else, but then when I started to add layers to those characters, age gap immediately came to mind. I started thinking about how two women could be in a very similar state of mind and learn from each other despite their age difference and Joyce and Amanda went from being simple characters to multi-dimensional people.
My question to you is how you got the idea to write about a Wildlife Enforcement Officer. There are plenty of lesbian novels with women who have a military or law enforcement background. We all know lesbians love women in uniforms (haha) but this wildlife enforcement twist is new to me and I found it very intriguing.
Celeste: When I met Officer Richards and Mishka, me being the impressionable person that I am, proclaimed to my wife that I was going to apply at the Washington Department of Fish & Wildlife. My goal was to work as an enforcement officer and then work my way into handling bear dogs. I did all the research, interviewed officers, read some books, but things didn’t turn out. (Too many things popped-up in my background check wink-wink.) So I did the next best thing, worked this career aspiration into a story.
Your characters had insecurities which made them unique. Looking at the older character Joyce, what was your process for getting into her headspace? How were you able to imagine what an older woman’s insecurities were? How were you able to image what her loss was like?
Genevieve: I think what I enjoy most about writing is putting myself in my character’s shoes to try to experience something as they would, based on the traits I gave them. It gives me such a thrill. I do base my characters on people around me in part but mostly I build them from the inside out. I think I’m a person with great empathy and I always try to put myself in someone else’s shoes before I judge them, try to imagine how I would react if I were them. I think that’s part of being a writer and it’s a part I really enjoy. So no, I’m not 56, I’m not retired, and I haven’t lost a wife, but I think I can imagine what it would feel like based on other painful experiences I’ve lived or people around me have lived. And when it comes to insecurities, I think we all have them and although they might be different from one person to the next, the feelings they stir are similar. Whether you feel insecure about your weight or about your flabby skin, you simply feel shitty about it and when you compare yourself to someone who doesn’t have the same problem, it’s easy to feel inferior until you realize that person has her own insecurities to deal with.
To me, that’s easier than trying to imagine what it would be like to be an FBI officer or a Wildlife Enforcement Officer, which is what you did. Do you have experience in either of those fields or did you build your characters based solely on research? And if you relied on research, do you feel as insecure as I feel about covering everything? I almost go crazy trying to cover every possible gap in my research.
Celeste: Great answer. I did research for both roles. More so with the wildlife officer’s role (because I had an actual person with stories and examples that I could model). For the FBI agent role, I leaned on my robust understanding of shows like Unsolved Mysteries and the X-Files. Once I get the details ironed out, the vernacular etc., my focus is developing the characters, developing their voices, things that make them unique, relying less on what they do for a living and more about their beliefs, what makes them who they are.
I have to know, is Joyce’s sister Barbara based off a real person, a real sister, because she was a real tool (great job creating her!)
Genevieve: Barbara is not based on my sister, thank god, but I’ve known many Barbara’s in my life. I’ve read reviews from people who really didn’t like her, thought she drank too much, or was too much of a bitch. I’m glad about that in a way because she was the antagonist in the story. The reader was not supposed to like her. That said, I like her. She’s controlling, unhappy, and drinks too much, like many women we all know, but if she were my sister I would still laugh at her sarcasm and love her despite her faults.
That brings me to a question for you. Your characters really do not like each other at the beginning of your novel. Were you scared one might appear as too much of a bitch and might turn off the readers? How did you find the balance between your characters being antagonistic to each other but still likeable to the reader?
Celeste: You are correct, the two characters do not like each other at the beginning. I have one woman, the FBI agent, Winifred Ford, weeks away from a three month extended leave to some place sunny. Her boss dumps one more case in her lap, a case that is strikingly similar to the case that defined her checkered career in the FBI. Needless to say, she doesn’t want anything to do with it because of memories, feelings, you know, all of that. To further complicate, the townspeople where the story is set, have perpetuated over the top, fantastical eye-witnesses of what they think is terrorizing their wildlife preserve. She plain doesn’t have the energy or desire to chase up on local incompences. Her M.O. for solving this case? Roller skate through everything, use her badge and be a bully to get what she wants. Add her abrasive personality and she isn’t going to be winning any Miss Congeniality awards in the near future. When she arrives onto the scene and meets my enforcement officer, Daya Soto, she quickly learns that her approach won’t work. Little does she know that Officer Soto is a skilled wild animal whisperer. I hope you enjoy reading about all the tactics Officer Soto uses to tame and subdue the wild creature of a woman, who says things that everyone else is thinking and isn’t shy about vocalizing her beliefs and sailor-like swearing along the way.
I loved the part in your story when you describe the love of a pet.
“Animals didn’t have complicated personalities. They didn’t have secrets. They didn’t lie. Their needs were clear as water. They ate when they were hungry, slept when they were tired, and when they showed affection you didn’t have to wonder if they really loved you or how long it would last. Their love was pure and endless.”
First reaction, have you ever owned a cat? Kidding. This was one of my favorite passages in Dingo’s Recovery. I adored how you used the concept of the love of an animal, as the type of love that the younger character, Dr. Carter, compared ultimate love to. Fitting. I’m not going to spoil the ending, so instead will ask this: What concept would Joyce use to describe finding love again?
Genevieve: I tried so long to have a cat but my allergies simply won’t let me. I thought for a long time I couldn’t have a pet at all but I learned I could find dogs that would let me breathe! Hahaha
What about you? Do you have a cat, or a dog, or both? You have a house full or animals, just admit it.
I liked that part of the book too. Amanda is a person whose past doesn’t let her trust other people. She prefers animals. I think she’s right in many ways. And I think Joyce is at a point in her life where she also has a hard time trusting people. Her late wife, her sister, and her former friends embody everything that’s wrong with humans. They’re fake, play mind games, pay too much attention to appearances, and can be plain cruel at times. Joyce wants to get away from that and I think that’s what attracts her to Amanda so much. Amanda is honest, easy going, kind, everything Joyce’s late wife, sister, and former friends are not and everything Joyce needs. I hope this answers your question. J
Lexy plays a big role in your novel, so I am guessing animals are also important to you. Dingo was kind of an unknowing Cupid in my book. What role does Lexy play in making your characters evolve in Lex Files?
Celeste: Lexy is a professional at the top of her game. She has a track record of solving her fair share of odd cases. However, we don’t get to see her in action until later. In the meantime, Lexy does what other perceptive animals do when they sense tense people in tense situations. She breaks down their defenses with gentle kisses and shakes of her booty. But I do want to say, let it be known, I’m not a dog person. I think it has something to do with when my sister and her husband took our parents on a wedding anniversary trip. I had to babysit their collective pack of three pups. They were so bossy, ordered me around and wouldn’t eat unless I hand-fed them, wouldn’t sleep unless they were touching me. God! And they woke up at the crack of dawn. (Cats on the other hand, pretty much do it all themselves and I appreciate that). Two of these dogs were my sister’s and one of the two was Lexy, a great little lady, a two pound Yorkshire Terrier. (If you saw the size of my sister, it would make a lot of sense. Two pound dogs are about what she can handle). Lexy left this world a few years ago when she had an accident. She never recovered. It was heart breaking, especially to see my sister work through her pain at the loss of her friend of ten years. Lexy had a whole lot of life left in her. I wanted Lexy to be my headliner in this book and for her heart and spirit to endure through this big tough bear dog. There is a lot of Lexy within the pages, how she was and the ways she connected with people. Lex Files is a story about a lot of things, like learning to trust in an age where science and facts rule, but first and foremost, it is a story written for my sister staring her dog’s spirit.
I loved the truffle scene. Pretty hot! (Runs to Costco for a bulk-sized box of truffles). In your dedication, you mentioned the truffles that you shared with Denise. What other parts of your story have scenes based on real life? I’m wondering if you like to paint or hike or if you have a gambling addiction (kidding) but really, what’s the biggest jackpot you’ve ever won?
Genevieve: Hey now, how did you know that? Hahaha .The truffle does come from reality (blushing). So does the casino. But like Joyce, I’m not addicted. We go once in a while. I won $1000 once. That was a thrill! Other than that, the age gap of course is real, although the age difference between me and Denise is not as big as the age difference between Joyce and Amanda. I would tell you, but Denise might kill me. And of course the whole accident and recovery is based on our own little dog’s accident and recovery, although no one fell in love with the vet.
Being that Lex Files is a mystery dealing with spirits among other things it’s hard to imagine that it might have been inspired by real events but I’m sure some parts of your life are hiding in there. Can you share some?
Celeste: A thousand dollars wow. (Hey, can I borrow a hundred bucks?) My wife said she’d be down for reenacting the truffle scene with me, if I had Skippy Smooth on my lips. Ahem. The current theme that runs through all of my stories is the need to elevate voices that aren’t as loud as others, have been kept silent, or have been lost all together. Homecoming, my first work, was a romance, about a woman who found her platform for elevating an issue that was close to her heart (which is also close to mine), a 1979 Supreme Court ruling that prevents the Tribes from prosecuting crimes committed on their own land by non-native people. It has had a horrendous aftermath and has perpetuated a cycle of abuses on Reservations, especially against women. I wanted to tell that story and it happened through a lesbian romance. Whether elevating those voices through romance is an effective outlet for me or not, I don’t know, but it will be the backbone of everything I write. Lex Files is no different, there are voices in there I wanted to rise from the shadows. Other parts of me (and people that I love) are embedded in there as well, like my love of the physical beauty of my hometown. Memories of my childhood and growing up. Cowboy boots and hats and saddles with horns. The feeling that I get when I smell fields of mint and alfalfa lingering in the air after a good watering on a hot day with the remnants of the setting sun pushing against a rising moon fighting for the horizon.
In your acknowledgment you talked about how your story came to be, the play time accident at your house (poor puppy). It’s always interesting to hear how other writers find their inspiration. What is the next project that you are working on and how did you find the inspiration?
Genevieve: My next project started with finding a conflict. I’d attended a really interesting conference on conflicts at GCLS and I wanted a real strong conflict before anything else. I also wanted my characters to dislike each other at the beginning, an enemy to lover kind of scenario. And finally I wanted it to take place by the sea close to my home town. I thought about all the ingredients for a long time before I finally came up with climate changes and rising sea levels and imagined the following scenario: what if a scientist specializing in climate changes tried to convince a woman who’d lived by the sea all of her life that the only solution to fight against rising sea levels is to relocate away from the sea? I really liked the idea and started doing tons of research and I’ve learned so much. I honestly think this research is going to change the way I live my life. I’m in the middle of making serious life changes I would never have done without this book. Crazy, huh? Sometimes our lives inspire our stories but in this case I think this book is inspiring my life. The novel is called White Sheep Inn and it will come out in January 2019. And yes, there’s a dog in it.
But enough about my next project. I want to hear about yours. What is it and what inspired it?
Celeste: Sounds like you are well on your way to another fabulous story. I’m stuck between another story set in Idaho, and which will likely be my last one set in my hometown. It’s called Clown and Gown. It’s about a rodeo queen and a rodeo clown on a summer circuit that team up to solve a mystery. What inspired it? Someone said something like frown and down, and it hit me! I always start with the title and go from there. The other one under development is the opposite of anything I’ve ever written. It’s called The Taking. It is set in a land where Fae and other creatures reside and powerful amulets rule…I’ve already said too much. I’m half way between the two and not quite skilled enough to keep it up and so am doing what any normal writer would do in this situation, working on something else. Poetry is what I am up to at the moment, they keep coming to me, these rhymes, they won’t quit! I’m compiling a manuscript of poetry for a submission opportunity this fall. When that is done, will resume one of those two other projects, probably Clown and Gown, or maybe The Taking. I don’t know yet. I trust that I’ll know when I know.
Genevieve I sincerely enjoyed Dingo’s Recovery, and I enjoyed getting to know you and partnering on this post. I believe that voices are stronger together and appreciate you joining with me. Lex Files, is a paranormal romance and it comes out October 15, 2018, just in time for Halloween! I look forward to reading White Sheep Inn, coming out January 15, 2019. Check out all of our Bella Books sister’s new releases here.
Thank you for reading and thank you to Bella Books for creating a wonderful community of readers and to Dana Piccoli for inspiring this idea.