There’s a myth that most novelists insist on working alone, slamming their office doors to prevent interruptions, even from loved ones. Don’t always believe it.
Although people can be a serious distraction, the same rarely applies to pets. On a recent visit to Hong Kong, British crime novelist Peter James spoke fondly of his dogs, Phoebe and Oscar.
“Phoebe’s a five-year-old German Shepherd with a gorgeous temperament, unless you’re a rabbit or a burglar. One-year-old Oscar’s an incredibly chilled-out Labrador/Border Collie cross,” Peter said.
As Peter works, Phoebe and Oscar “come and go from my study. They’ll look at me as if to ask: ‘Are you coming out for a walk now?’ If I don’t respond, they’ll turn away, as if to say ‘that’s boring’, and then walk off.”
Peter’s dogs supervised as he completed a 2007 novel, Not Dead Enough. In appreciation, he dedicated the book to them. Again, they’re helping as he nears the finish line on this year’s book, Dead Man’s Footsteps.
Until recently, Peter and his wife Helen shared their home near Brighton, in Sussex, with other dogs too. Sooty, a Tibetan Terrier, and Bertie, an aged Hungarian Puli sheepdog with dreadlocks, both died, as pets eventually do. “Bertie, in particular, was cantankerous, but I loved him,” Peter said.
How much do the dogs contribute to Peter’s work? “One important thing is that they drag me out for exercise,” he said. But they have another positive effect too.
Peter explains: “During my research for Dead Man’s Footsteps, I spent several days in New York with police officers who were among the first people on the scene after the 9-11 terrorist attack. They told me how rescue workers spent weeks on the rubble to pull out remains. They said the workers soon started to experience terrible traumas from what they were seeing. Then people began to bring around ‘feel-good dogs’ so that the rescue workers could stop and stroke the animals for a few minutes. Then they’d feel better and continue working.
“There’s a great therapy with dogs. But to me, Phoebe and Oscar mean even more. They remind me that there’s more to life than just sitting at my desk and smacking out words.”
Peter’s novels appear in 30 languages and reflect his interests in medicine, science and the paranormal. His other titles include: Dead Simple, Looking Good Dead, Prophecy, Alchemist, The Truth, Denial and Faith.
“I like dogs a lot,” Peter said. “But I’m not a cat person. I respect cats, but I’ve never connected with them. If I went out and murdered four people today, I could go home and the dogs would jump up and lick my face. But cats would know what I’d done.
“Dogs can be eager to please, but they’re cunning too. I have a friend whose dog learned to open the fridge, take out yogurt pots, eat the yogurt and then bury the pots so they wouldn’t be discovered.” Some of the criminals in Peter’s novels show less ingenuity.
Animal buddies may influence a novelist’s thoughts and plots. “I’m always fascinated by the question of how dogs perceive humans and the universe,” Peter said. “When I go out the door and leave the dogs at home, where do they think I’m going? They don’t know that I may be going to an interview in Hong Kong. They just see me depart and wonder if I’ll return with a bag of biscuits.”
True, canine assistance isn’t always helpful. “Once in the days of floppy discs, a disc ejected onto the floor, Bertie picked it up and ran off with it,” Peter said. “I found him crunching on it. He destroyed about 5,000 words.”
But ultimately, authors’ pets like Phoebe and Oscar play strong supporting roles to fill the pages on bookstore shelves. Frankly, some stars of the literary world have paws.