It's a Dog (Breeder)'s Life
While I love the whole mystery genre, from the hardest boiled to the coziest, I cherish a particular fondness for mysteries that go beyond a well-wrought plot and engaging characters. Mysteries that offer the reader the key to a new and unfamiliar world -- another country, another time, or simply another subculture within our familiar 20th century society.
Frankly, discovering another world was the last thing I expected when I opened the first of Laurien Berenson's Melanie Travis series, set in present day suburban Connecticut. And yet from the first, I was captivated by the window Berenson opens to the strange and wonderful world of purebred dog breeding and dog shows.
Laurien Berenson: Hush Puppy is a little different than the previous Melanie Travis mysteries in that the murder takes place at Melanie's place of work (a private school). Just to add some spice to the plot, a woman from Sam's past appears to throw a monkey wrench into Sam and Melanie's recent engagement.
Crescent Blues: I understand that you're a third generation dog show veteran. Could you tell us a little about your experience breeding and showing poodles?
Laurien Berenson: I bred and showed poodles (miniatures and standards) for about 20 years and was always an owner-handler -- meaning that I did all my own grooming, training, handling, etc. I finished about 15 Poodles to their championships, put obedience titles on three others, and also bred several group and specialty best-in-show winners.
Laurien Berenson: I always wanted to write a mystery series about the dog show world. I thought it was just the perfect setting, and I wanted to make use of it the same way Dick Francis uses horse racing. Besides, anyone who has seen my house, with its six resident poodles, would know that I can hardly write about anything else!
Crescent Blues: Did the fact that one of your romances (Talisman) featured a dog breeder as a heroine help you, either to develop the idea for the Melanie Travis series or to sell it to the publishers?
Laurien Berenson: Writing mysteries was always my goal, because that's what I most enjoy reading. But writing romance was a great way to break into book-length fiction.
Crescent Blues: What characteristics do you share with Melanie, and what are the biggest differences between you?
Laurien Berenson: Melanie and I have the same voice, and the same values, it seems. On the other hand, she and I are different in many ways, too. She is younger than me, and a single mother. (I've been married nearly 25 years.) Also, I've never been a teacher. On the other hand, I never allow her to do anything that I wouldn't do (like walk into a dark, deserted house where the villain is most likely hiding!)
Crescent Blues: Since you write the series in first person, do you find that your readers tend to confuse you with your heroine?
Laurien Berenson: Yes, people do tend to confuse me with Melanie. I'm not really sure why. But I have gotten phone calls for Melanie, and many people assume I'm a teacher.
Crescent Blues: How do you deal with that?
Laurien Berenson: I don't really "deal with" it. I don't mind at all.
Laurien Berenson: When I wrote A Pedigree to Die For, I had no idea that it would be a series (I found out when the purchasing editor asked for two more), so I threw in everything I could think of. Of course, you always find more things to talk about later on.
Crescent Blues: Are there things you did in the first book or two that you now regret -- that you find difficult to work with or that lock you into things that you'd rather have done differently?
Laurien Berenson: Yes, if I had known it was going to be a series, there are several things I'd have done differently. Chief among them: I would not have made Melanie a mother, and I would have set the books in a fictional town, rather than a real one which many readers know quite well.
Crescent Blues: Melanie's love interest, Sam Driver, is a favorite with your female readers. Can you tell us a little about how you've developed Sam and his relationship with Melanie, and your future plans for them?
Laurien Berenson: I can't tell you much about my future plans for Sam and Melanie without giving away more than I want to. I will only say that their relationship is about to go through some big changes in the next two books. I liked Sam a lot but (unlike many readers who think he's great) I've always felt he was too good to be true. So now I've given him some problems to sort through.
Crescent Blues: Was Melanie's Aunt Peg based on a specific person -- a relative, or a fellow poodle breeder?
Laurien Berenson: Aunt Peg is the only character in the books who is (loosely) based on a real person. She's a standard poodle breeder who lives in Massachusetts, who was my mentor when I was getting started in poodles.
Crescent Blues: I'm sure the dog show world is in some ways a very small world -- are your novels ever inspired by real events in that world, or do you try to avoid even the appearance of using real situations?
Laurien Berenson: My books are often inspired by real events in the dog show world. Sometimes, there so much chicanery going on, it's hard to pick and choose. I do try to disguise then events somewhat and often they get turned around to suit my plot, but I love the idea that I'm able to use real happenings in the books.
Crescent Blues: How do the dog breeders, owners and handlers you know like your series?
Laurien Berenson: The ones I've spoken to have loved it. Mostly, they seem to like the idea that someone is writing about their world and getting the details RIGHT.
Crescent Blues: One of the challenges for a mystery writer with an established series is making the books work both independently for readers new to the series and as part of a continuum for the long-time fans. How hard is that for you?
Laurien Berenson: It's very hard. I'm always…