An Interview With Donna Ball
Q. You already have a successful dog mystery series with Raine Stockton. Why start another one?
A. I’m a firm believer in the adage “Find what you’re good at, and do that.” Dogs are such a huge part of my life, and have given me so much, that of course any new series I started would feature a dog. With the Dogleg Island series I wanted to stretch a little beyond the traditional cozy mystery, which is the great advantage of having Deputy Ryan Grady work on the mainland, and police chief Aggie Malone and Flash working on the island. While Aggie and Flash are solving the mystery of a missing cat, Ryan is chasing down crime bosses and drug dealers, and the surprising way in which the two story lines intersect is what makes this series so much fun.
Q. Would you define this series as a cozy?
A. Not entirely. While this series has many of the elements of a cozy that we love—a small town setting, familiar recurring characters, and murders that occur mostly “off screen”-- the main characters are law enforcement professionals who live in the real world, and that presents the opportunity for plot lines that are a bit edgier than you might expect to see in the average cozy mystery. It was a delightful challenge for me as a writer to open FLASH as a thriller, take an abrupt right turn into the land of cozies with Chapter Two, and then sail off into the land of suspense and police procedural for the rest of the book.
Q. Flash is a much different canine character than we’re accustomed to seeing from you. What made you take this approach to telling his story?
A. The first book is called “Flash” for a reason—even though it may not be entirely apparent what a crucial role he plays in this mystery until the last page. Flash is not an ordinary dog. He is an equal partner with his human co-stars in the Dogleg Island series; he has his own point of view, his own challenges, his own problems to solve. I saw this as a unique opportunity to give insight into the extraordinary workings of the canine mind while still remaining connected to the qualities of the family dog that we all love and admire.
Q. Why did you choose to feature a border collie?
A. Border collies are, in my opinion, the most highly evolved breed in the canine species, and also the least understood. I wanted to shine a light on the potential of dogs everywhere, so naturally the border collie came to mind.
Q. Is Flash modeled after anyone you know?
A. I adopted my rescue border collie, Rhythm, ten years ago. He definitely had his issues, but as the days went by I came to realize something extraordinary: this dog understood every word I said. It was not a matter of giving commands, but of reasoning with him. Rhythm gathered information based on what he heard, and he made decisions accordingly. The minute I started to understand how Rhythm’s mind worked, Flash was born.
Q. Who is your favorite character in Flash?
A. From the beginning, Ryan Grady was my favorite. Here is this happy-go-lucky beach bum, living the good life and thinking it will go on forever, the way young men his age do. He carries a surf board in the back of his squad car, he collects girlfriends like seashells, and he thinks he’s going to live forever. Suddenly he is confronted by the kind of traumatic event that would destroy most people, but instead of shattering him, that moment defines him. He steps up, he becomes a man, and he never looks back. I adore Ryan Grady, and perhaps the most appealing thing about him is how unabashed he is in his love for Aggie. He knows how lucky he is to have her, and his mission in life is to make sure she knows that as well, every single day. Who wouldn’t want a guy like that?
Q. What was the hardest part of writing this book?
A. Generally speaking, the hardest part of writing any mystery is the plot! But with FLASH, I didn’t count on the fact that Flash, as an active point-of-view character, would have to have his own story arc, his own challenges and character growth. I was midway through the book before I realized that I had to go back and give Flash his own storyline. But watching that storyline develop was also one of the most rewarding things about writing this book.
Q. After reading this book, few people will be able to resist falling in love with Flash. What advice do you have for those thinking about bringing a border collie into their homes?
A. Inviting a border collie into your life is a huge responsibility and one that is not to be taken lightly. Border collies are a master class in dog-human relationships. I trained dogs, worked with dogs, studied dog behavior and competed with dogs in every sport on the venue before I finally, timidly, considered myself almost ready to own a border collie. I then sought out every expert I knew, some as far away as Australia and the U.K., some who trained Borders for Hollywood, some who competed for top prizes in agility and obedience, with one question: Am I ready? Only after getting all their expert opinions and advice did I adopt my sweet Rhythm, who, as it turned out, is a classic example of Border Collies 101. My point is that if I would go to that much trouble before adopting a border collie, the average pet owner should give the subject as least as much thought before making a decision. I would be horrified to discover that one of my books had resulted in the unfortunate placement of a border collie because of misplaced expectations (and I will track you down, I promise...). Flash is a fictional character; real dogs are a lifetime commitment.
Q. The characters in FLASH are not without their flaws, and this book explores some dark themes. Flash himself has some scary moments. What can you say to readers who are afraid of violence in their dog mysteries?
A. No dogs ever die onscreen in my dog mysteries, and while they are occasionally threatened or even injured in the line of duty, I don’t write scenes in which animals are tortured. Flash is a continuing character and this is only the first book, so relax! Things get tight, but Flash survives. One of the reasons we read fiction is to go to that dark place and then come out on the other side unscathed, and my books, like the dogs who are featured in them, are all about hope. So trust me. Everything is going to be okay. I promise.
Q. When can we expect a new Dogleg Island mystery?
A. I hope to have one book out a year. The next one will be in the spring of 2016.