Questions for Susannah

Time to ask your questions so get them ready. Β She’ll be available throughout the weekend.

What do K-9 search-and-rescue and book tours with a dog have in common? Fast pace, sudden changes of plan, and unexpected kindness at the hands of strangers. Author Susannah Charleson has toured North America beside her search dog, Puzzle, across the past 18 months. Charleson describes the lessons taught by a book tour that have impacted their work together in the search field.


37 comments on “Questions for Susannah

  1. Aimee says:

    I have been following Puzzle’s progress on Facebook – Puz is home and recuperating nicely. She is wearing a t-shirt to keep her from worrying at her incision, but she’s getting better every day. Susannah (and of Puzzle’s canine siblings) are taking great care of her! πŸ™‚

    • debutauthors says:

      Thanks for the update on Puzz. I’d never heard of a t-shirt to protect the stitches; however, it does make sense. Cat’s are our pet. Can you picture a cat in a t-shirt? What an image!

  2. Robin Yaklin says:

    Was skimming my FB News Feed the day Puzzle had surgery. Turns out it was some nasty fatty blob. She did mention that it was either bigger or deeper than expected. Can’t remember which, though. Anyway, Puzzle came home and didn’t want to eat. Well, who would!

  3. debutauthors says:

    Puzzle is having surgery today. Please send your encouraging thoughts their way.

  4. Aimee says:

    This was really interesting! As one of the folks that Susannah met through “Scent” and interacted with her on the book tour, I can attest to her adherence to her own Tour Rule #7. πŸ™‚ Thanks to you, Robin, for this forum and thanks to Susannah for her insight!

  5. Robin says:

    We’re at the end of the night and the end of the month so time to say good-bye. Susannah you’ve been a great presence. Thank you, thank you.

    In August, we’ll meet Kathleen M. Rodgers, author of “The Final Salute”.

    Have a great week every one. Stay as cool as possible. Drink plenty of water. Until then…

  6. Billye Johnson says:

    Have you considered writing a children’s book about Puzzle? I remember reading books about dogs like crazy when I was a child and loving every one of them.

    I hope your discussion will remain available for a good long time. I’m co-authoring a book with an airline pilot and would like him to get a taste of what a book tour will or could be like.

    Robin, thanks for this great opportunity to chat with Susannah. I have enjoyed it thoroughly. The only thing that would make it better is time for a good ear scratching with Puzzle. I am in love with her. What a great dog she is .

  7. Robin says:

    In #5, you wrote ‘it’s about what good can be done in the interaction’. That’s a quote that takes some musing. I can see this applying to a book, let’s say, in my own situation of wanting to tell folks aneurysms are still very serious, but not necessarily the death sentence they were. Just imparting that message is good.

    Wondering how you see this working for a fiction author.

    • I think it works much the same for fiction. On a book tour and in interviews, a fiction writer can’t really talk about the plot of the book without giving too much away, so interviewers and audiences tend to ask questions related to a book’s themes. Well, interviewers and audiences who are familiar with fiction events do, anyway (you may get the odd person asking about plot specifics in an audience that hasn’t read the book yet, but that happens with narrative nonfiction, too). And so, authors are *still* engaged in a dialogue that either expands on themes or explores the nature of fiction, itself. When I speak of an interaction “doing good,” I don’t necessarily limit that to public-service messages. If a discussion enlarges on the virtues of having multiple points-of-view in a single story, for example, what it brings to fiction that other forms don’t, that does some good, too.

      I think of the radio interviews I heard with Myla Goldberg following the release of ‘The False Friend.’ Elements of plot and character were discussed very lightly, but much more often the discussion centered on a discussion of juvenile bullying as a social issue and the flaws of memory as a human frailty. These discussions would have been highly similar if ‘The False Friend’ had been nonfiction.

  8. Robin says:

    Geez, cake and more cake and some not bad personalities, too.

    Let’s see…got down 1, and 2, have an established account with cat sitter. Power nap, perfected. 5 and 6 are excellent points, although will have to work on 5. (My friend used to call me the Queen Bee; hubby still does, but then I have a sword and know how to use it. Just saying…) Oh, 7, those little mush-up peanut pouches are great too. I must be an author? Not quite, have to finish the novel. πŸ™‚

  9. I just realized I left out Boston. Boston was between L.A. and Denver. How could I forget that? Boston is the home of my publisher, who showed us every kindness. Boston’s is where author Hallie Ephron thoughtfully hosted a terrific book party for us (featuring a Charm City cake!), and Boston is where LeBron James held an elevator door open for Puzzle at the Four Seasons.
    And the chef at the Four Seasons made a little hand-painted white and dark chocolate version of the book, surprising us with it on the day of arrival. And they served lattes in the room by the pot (oh blessed latte, in a blessed pot).

    Also, the prettiest weather of the entire tour. And Puzzle was in health and joy, bouncing around the Public Garden like a puppy.

    How could I forget Boston?

  10. Hahaha, Robin. Yes, that is the question. Can *I* work off-leash?

    How was I prepared for the book tour? Well, I had heard the stories from various friends who went out on the typical 3-week jaunt, some of them touring the immediate area, some venturing up and down the East Coast, or whatever, and I remembered an interview with James Herriot where he compared the 3-week book tour to being put through a wheat thresher (he vowed never to do another after his third book — don’t know if he held true to that or not).

    Our book tour was atypical — longer than usual because of my teaching schedule and additional bookings — so we had a very intense April 11th-June 9th, made more intense by Puzzle’s presence, which is a joy, but which requires extra time and maneuvering through ticketing, airport security, on-and-off planes, etc. And NYC! NYC was tough. She’s a light dog who would come in from even a short walk grey with street grime, so we’d have to bathe her before TV appearances. I remember one morning early on, we had a car arriving at 7:30 AM, I think, and we had to get up, get dressed, feed and walk her, bring her back, bathe and dry her, re-dress in TV clothes, and be downstairs for the car at 7:30. I think we got up at 5:00. After the morning show, we went to a radio interview in a park, then straight to Penn Station for a train to DC. The train was delayed and delayed and delayed, so we ended up getting into DC at 11 PM, 18 hours after we’d gotten up for the day.

    Let me see if I can recall the cities from memory, in order:
    Toronto > NYC > DC > Philadelphia
    home (Dallas events and media)
    Mobile > Fairhope > Birmingham (via Atlanta)
    Seattle > San Francisco > L.A.
    Denver > Chicago > Lansing, MI > Madison, Wi
    Austin > Houston > Dallas
    San Francisco (again)

    A break,then …
    Louisville, Lexington, Cincinnati, Dayton

    A break, then
    DC > Harrisonburg
    A break, then
    Stuart, FL

    I didn’t fly myself. We were on too tight a timeframe to risk being stranded by weather, which we nearly were, anyway, in Atlanta. The weather was so bad on the Alabama weekend that a police officer at the Birmingham signing asked if I’d be willing to take Puzzle to a town just across the border in Mississippi to search an area hit by a tornado, if we were needed. I agreed, and fortunately everyone was accounted for (alive), but that’s the kind of weekend it was.

    What I did learn that is very similar, in its way, to search is:
    1) Learn to be your own home. Thinking about what you don’t have on the road is a waste of time. Pretty much if I had access to a shower and appropriate food, it was all do-able. Field work for SAR is much the same. In SAR, we can pretty much do without the shower if we have to, also.
    2) Determine what essentials you most need to be at best energy and spirits, arrange for those things, and let everything else go. In my case, I needed a fairly consistent level of caffeine, access to good protein (I’m a vegetarian, so I had to eat thoughtfully), and foremost,
    3) I needed to be able to provide for my dog. If things were not well with her, they weren’t well with me. So keeping her comfortable and happy was a top priority, and I was lucky that a teammate came with us to be Puzzle’s Personal Assistant. It really helped to have someone to attend to Puz in public greetings when other folks wanted to talk to me.
    4) Cultivate the Power Nap. Downtime is minimal, and when you can rest for even 10 minutes, do it.
    5) Remember it isn’t all about you. It’s very easy when over-tired and rushing around to turn diva, which is silly. Book tours are about very real communication between authors and readers,and the tour isn’t all about the author, it’s about what good can be done in the interaction — whether it’s letting the community know SAR dogs are out there to serve them (many people did not know they had teams in the area) or promoting a book.
    6) Kindness goes a long way on every side.
    7) Genuinely listen to what people have to say, and respond genuinely, as well. Stay open. Pay attention. Difficult when you’re tired, but the experience is richer for it.
    8) Always have at least one breakfast bar available. When plans don’t go according to schedule, days run long, and energy fails, that bit of a boost can make all the difference. I *still* always have a breakfast bar in my purse.

    ::looking:: Today’s is a Special K Raspberry Cheesecake bar. πŸ™‚

  11. Robin says:

    To the point of off-leash or on, aren’t authors well-trained too? How were you prepared for this adventure? What were the lessons you’ve learned along the way? Oh, and did you fly yourself? Yep, folks, she’s a pilot, too.

  12. SAR training doesn’t really begin with sit, stay, down, fetch. The obedience training and play do, relevant at home and in public, and certainly obedience is at the heart of a good SAR partner. But … somewhere in the first year of SAR-specific “find” training, with the air scent dogs we get a sense of which dogs prefer working on lead and prefer the “feel” of their handler behind them and which ones are hampered by that connection. The dogs that work on-lead may have a long, long lead, but part of their communication travels right up that line to the handler. The dogs that work off-lead (and most air-scent dogs do), move and communicate physically and verbally without the lead tension. Puzzle very early on worked on-lead, and she was fine with it, but from the point I began trying her out off-lead in wilderness, she became so joyful. We were no longer slowing down and getting hung up on brush, and she could be trusted to keep in communication range with me. To your point on obedience, I learned I could trust her to come back on a re-call. If she makes a find and I somehow don’t recognize it, she runs halfway back to me, makes eye contact and communicates again, then goes back to the victim (called a re-find). She much prefers a level of independence and trust from me. When she’s on-lead, and sometimes situations demand it, she’ll acquiesce and work as expected, but I always get a sense of Dude … SERIOUSLY? from her the minute I click on the lead, like it’s SUCH a cramp on her style.

    This is also how I knew she would never be happy working service. She’d do it, I think, because her heart is deep, but I’m sure she would not be as happy as she is doing what she loves best.

  13. Robin says:

    Fantastic answer, Susannah. And, it brought up a question. As I understand it, the dog begins training of a general nature like sit, stay down, fetch. What are the signals that tell you a dog prefers to stay by a human or run off-leash as Puzzle?

  14. Hi Billye —

    Many of the traits desirable in SAR dogs are also desirable for service — a certain level of sociability with other dogs and humans, a high interest in working with a human (often tested with things like the retrieve of a ball or tossed wad of paper). However, service dogs are typically less hyperactive, less prey-drive, and much more Velcro than SAR dogs. They want to work, but they want to work near their humans and are happy with companionship duties. Many SAR dogs work off-lead and are happiest running at work and communicating back what they know.

    Puzzle is certainly the latter. She’s a sweet dog and beautifully-behaved in public (she’ll hold a down stay at a book event for hours without moving; yesterday at training, I put her in a down/stay/WAIT — meaning I would leave and come back — in a high distraction environment with people and other dogs, and she didn’t budge at all), but … she does not like a life on a lead. She tolerates it because she’s a generous soul, but work tethered to me is not her idea of a good time.

    Jake Piper, the stray I’m training for a service “demonstration dog,” who is high-drive and high prey-drive, is nonetheless a much softer dog and much, MUCH more Velcro. He is happy on a lead and happy at my feet (he’s there right now). He wants to work, but he wants to work close. He is high-prey, but we notice we can correct him out of it very easily, and that he “stands down” from prey impulses on command tells us he’d prefer to do what we ask than chase a squirrel. We didn’t force that choice on him; he makes the choice to be obedient, which tells us where his working heart lies.

    As for training SAR dogs, usually the maximum age for training is 18 months to two years old. It can take anywhere from 18 months to two years to fully-certify a dog, and if a dog is four or five, that makes the dog six at certification, which makes for a short career at SAR; the dogs usually retire somewhere between 9-12, depending on the kind of work a team does and the dog. So … they start young.

    You see larger-breed dogs typically for humane reasons. We get out there in things that large dogs can more easily withstand. Small dogs have greater risk of serious injury or death in debris situations, particularly. I have seen a few small terriers certify for Wilderness searching only, and they are quite good at it, but because they have to leap up to snag airborne scent from far away that is over their heads, typically their search sectors have to be fairly small.

    Thank you for the compliment about Puzzle! She is a pretty girl and a sweet girl, and I chose that soft, light, friendly face for a reason. If I were a lost child or a strayed elderly person late at night, hers is the kind of open, teddybear face I’d want to see. With her light coat, it’s easier to see it in the dark, too.

  15. Billye Johnson says:

    I remember reading all sorts of stories about the search and rescue dogs used after September 11, including one where the costumers on Broadway which was suffering from low ticket sales, turned their talents to making protective booties for the S&R dogs.
    My question is how do you identify the traits in a dog that indicate a good match for S&R as opposed to a service dog for the blind or challenged individual? What it the outside age for an S&R dog to be trained? We always see large breed dogs but are smaller breeds adept at S&R as well.

    By the way, Puzzle is a beautiful dog. Do you have many people who are taken with all that charm?

  16. Dogs certainly respond to tragic searches, and whether they grow despondent over the scent of death when it’s as pervasive as it is in disaster or, attuned to the emotional contagion of the humans around them, they grow depressed because we are so sad is anyone’s guess. Some dogs don’t respond to tragic searches in this way. They make the find, they want their handler to throw a ball. Find = ball.

    Other dogs do, however. Puz is one of them, but as I know the scent of cadaver doesn’t disturb her (she responds differently to it than to live finds, but not sadly), I suspect Puz is sensitive to the emotional response of the humans around her.

  17. Robin says:

    Well, you’re right. I’d did mean Columbia. *sigh* Sometimes these old brain cells … Do you think the dogs experience emotions the same way?

  18. I think you’re probably talking about Columbia — Challenger was the one we lost in the Atlantic in the 80s. (I cried over that one even as it happened.)

    I didn’t cry over Columbia before, during, or after, I think because when you’re working it, there’s so much to pay attention to and to do, and the hours are long, long, long. You’re in it and don’t have time or space to emotionally react. That said, I grieved tearlessly later, no doubt about it. I always found it interesting that on one of the search days, many of us were out in the sleet for eight hours or more, and many of us came back in with laryngitis — “traumatic laryngitis,” my doctor called it, referring to the breathing in of all that sleet. But I think we could read traumatic a couple of ways with regard to Columbia, and a host of us returned home literally unable to speak.

  19. Robin says:

    Susannah, was Puzzle with you on the Challenger search? How hard was that to do? I was in Salt Lake City that morning. The plane was delayed in take-off, but no one would say why. You just knew something was wrong by the expressions. This was before it was broadcast on the TV. My reporter training kicked in and I didn’t cry until I got home that evening, but cry I did. Search and rescue ever affect you that way?

  20. Robin says:

    Susannah and Kathleen, that’s such great connection! BTW, folks Kathleen is the next up Debut Author. She’ll be on in August. Give her a warm welcome!

    Susannah, that was a terrific post on the origins of “Scent”.

    • Hey Kathleen!

      Great to meet you and “see” you here. Scritches to any pups you have lying around, and a high-5 to the pilot in your life.

      • My pilot says to tell you hello. He remembers listening to your interview on NPR and I remember him telling me about it. I believe this was my first introduction to your work. You and Puzzle are a blessing to so many. πŸ™‚

  21. Robin says:

    Puzzle is braver than I am. I hate heights, especially those glass elevators. Shudder!

  22. Hi Susannah,
    Drema has told me so much about you. While chatting on the phone yesterday, she read to me from your book. I closed my eyes and tasted the stars.

    Can you talk about your journey as an author? Maybe give us a brief timeline on how long it took you to write your book, do revisions and find an agent/publisher?

    Also, once the book was published, did your publisher expect you to help promote the book or did they put a lot of marketing muscle behind your book?

    Loved watching your book trailer.

    Take care,

    (a dog lover and writer married to a pilot) ❀

    • Hi Kathleen!

      ‘Scent’ actually began as a series of personal essays that I intended for NPR. At the time I was writing them, I was also working on a novel. However, at a mystery writing conference in California in 2004, on a whim I read one of the essays to an audience there composed of fellow students, editors, agents, and authors. Two authors were particularly forthcoming afterward, and one said, “This is your book. Go, go, go.” He’s a big name, a big talent, and who was I to dismiss his advice?

      So … the process of taking a series of essays into a long-form narrative began. I was assisted immensely in this at a workshop I took with author Robin Hemley, who is one of the best writers I’ve ever met, and with Irene Prokop, a former editor for Crown and Tarcher, who mentored me online in 2006.

      Still, I was a broadcast writer by nature and an essayist in this subject matter, and transforming those essays into the longer arc was tough. And agents were divided! Some wanted to sell the book as a series of essays, but they wanted more essays in the collection, and more disclosure than I could ethically do, as well. Others were firm it needed to be long narrative. None of the agents I pitched to early were a good fit. Nice people, but I could sense we didn’t click.

      When two people recommended the Mayborn Graduate School Literary Nonfiction Conference in 2007, I *nearly* simply sent in one of the essays to the essay competition, but the very last minute (read: the night before), submitted the draft outline of ‘Scent’ and sample material for the Manuscript workshop. I was hoping to get accepted to the workshop and hoping that fellow attendees could help me puzzle together a better narrative structure than I had begun with.

      As it happened, the proposal made it into the workshop and was the second-place winner in the competition that year. I pitched to two agents at that workshop, and one was not only interested, but asked all the right questions and seemed to “get” the work and the proposed book in a way no agent previously had before. He passed his card over and said he’d like to see the full proposal.

      Meanwhile, the director of UNT Press called me the week after and said the press would be interested in publishing ‘Scent,’ but because it was not the first-place winner, the proposal would have to go through the typical review committee prior to acceptance. He seemed to think it would make the submission process just fine, but as we were in dialogue, Jim Hornfischer also contacted me about representing the book in New York. Interestingly, the book UNT press was interested in was more the series-of-essays, with emphasis on how we do the job, and Hornfischer Literary was more interested in the long-form narrative. So the question of which version of the book to write took awhile.

      I considered both offers and ultimately signed with Jim Hornfischer, who was, and is, my agent, and I could NOT ask for better representation. Jim has been an editor, as well as an established author (NYT Bestseller this year: ‘Neptune’s Inferno’), and he is also a smart and thoughtful agent — articulate, considered, and straightforward. Which I appreciate so much. If something’s weak, he says so, straight up. (That’s huge. When you’re trying to write a book and get it sold, or once sold, get it to manuscript delivery as something you’re proud of, you don’t have time to waste on being coddled. ) If something’s good, he says that, too.

      I signed with Jim in August 2007, just a couple of weeks after the Mayborn, and he took me through revision after revision after revision of that outline. Full proposal was pretty much ready to go to market in November 2007. I remember I was on my way to a conference in Chicago when I got an email from him, asking if I could do a particular thing to the sample material. So … I went to the conference, checked in, went to the welcome dinner, and then sat up all night doing that thing. Submitted it, he gave me a virtual high 5 in email, and the book went to market that afternoon. There were several interested houses, and I had a phone interview with one editor at Houghton Mifflin Harcourt. I knew as soon as I talked with her that THIS was the person and the house I’d really like to work with, and so I crossed everything that could be crossed and held my breath and learned the next day that the book had sold to her. I still remember Jim calling me: “Congratulations, you’re a Houghton Mifflin Harcourt author.” I was pretty composed at the time, but when we rang off, I was shaking so badly I dropped the phone. =:D

      As for marketing, HMH put a great deal of muscle into the marketing and promotion here — including a big media push (television, print, radio) and a full-scale cross-country book tour that included a Canadian stop, as well. They knew Puzzle would be going with me, which is pretty mediagenic and audience-friendly (believe me, people are far more interested in the dog than in me, and rightly so), and they knew I had a background in public speaking and broadcast, so all of this wouldn’t be too overwhelming. They completely backed ‘Scent,’ all hands on deck. That said, I came forward, too, creating the support website, having B-roll footage shot, writing and co-producing the trailer, and doing all the social media, as well. I also booked quite a few (and am still booking, actually) additional public engagements. This industry faces so much duress. I think it’s very important to get out there in all the ways they ask you to, and get out there some more.

      And in fact, it’s fun. Particularly the social media part. I made an early decision to just sign up on Facebook as myself and invite people to Friend me (posted on and noted in interviews) rather than build a Fan page, which seem to operate at a greater remove. I am interested in people, interested in having friends, and wanted to connect with people and their dogs and their lives, rather than simply fling promotion at people hoping they’d buy my book. In fact, I’ve never pitched Buy My Book anywhere. I hope people want to and am delighted when they do, but I don’t want them to Friend me just so I can advertise. I’d resent it if someone did that to me!

      I have the good fortune to be with the same agent and the same editor/publishing house on the second book, ‘The Possibility Dogs,’ coming in 2013. I would have thought it might be easier the second time around, but I’m amused to say I sit in my office rubbing my forehead or throwing a cricket ball up in the air and catching it just as much now as I did on ‘Scent.’ Every 2 pages, I celebrate with a game of Angry Birds.

      I hope I answered your question with the information you were looking for?

      If not, sing out. I’ll try again. And shorter.

      • Diane Holmes says:

        Wow! What great insight into your publication process. Thanks for taking so much time to give us the details.

        I love supporting SAR, and we donate to SAR during time of crises and tragedy. πŸ™‚

      • Susannah,

        Thank you so much for sharing your wonderful journey to write and find an agent and publisher for Scent of the Missing. I loved hearing all about your book tour and hard your worked to achieve the success you enjoy today. You are an inspiration to all of us. My computer was down the weekend you were on here so I’m late in my thank you for answering my questions about your first book. Good luck with your second book. I’ve told so many others about you.

        Kathleen πŸ™‚

  23. Robin says:

    Susannah, how did Puzzle do on her first repel?

    • Robin, she actually did very well. She doesn’t have an issue with heights, and I think the rappel harness felt comfortable to her. She prefers to rappel suspended beneath me rather than front-paws-on-my-shoulders-back-paws-on-my-legs, I think because she was taught early on not to climb into people’s laps, and when she was learning to rappel, it must have been a very mixed signal. She is not a lap dog and really did NOT want to rappel that way. So … she doesn’t have to. It’s all a matter of which position the dog prefers!

  24. Melissa says:

    Oh, & regards to last questions — I’ve worked with visually impaired people who use dogs & they’ve told me some guide dog organizations have special breeding programs — breeding for temperament, smaller size, etc. Anything like that for search & rescue?

    • Hi Melissa — I’ll try to answer both of your questions here. Unlike service dog programs, which have needs in such high numbers, there are only a few groups that breed dogs for SAR, pre-train them, and then sell them to handlers wanting partners. These typically do not have the widespread puppy-raising network that you would find with Guide Dogs for the Blind, Paws With a Cause, etc.

      Most SAR dogs are chosen by the handlers who intend to partner them. Some come from breeders with lines that exhibit high drive and a likelihood for aptitude for search (as with Puzzle); some come from rescues or shelters — many, many dogs who are surrendered to shelters are bright, high-drive dogs that need a job, and the families who originally purchased them were not prepared for the work these intelligent and high-energy dogs need (or often, the families weren’t prepared for the work and interaction *any* dog needs to be a good family member, even).

      Typically, we adopt the dogs young and they are our family members as well as our field partners. So we both “puppy-raise” and train them forward for the work.

      I hope this helps clarify! Thanks for coming to that presentation, by the way. πŸ™‚

  25. Melissa says:

    Hope this is the right place to leave a question. I noticed a lot of folks with search & rescue puppies at one of your talks. Are there organizations that specially breed rescue dogs & foster them out? Is so, would love to know how that works & what some of the organizations are. And what happens to any dogs that flunk out — are there rescue groups for them?

  26. Drema Hall Berkheimer says:

    Because of Susannah Charleson I know that stars taste like pop rocks, maybe, or wasabi. That information alone is worth the price of her memoir, Scent of the Missing, a beautiful story beautifully written. Truman Capote said something to the effect that to him the greatest pleasure of writing was the music the words make on the page. Susannah’s writing makes music. I loved it.

    • Drema — Thank you so much! That’s high praise from someone with your gifts of language, and I’m grateful for it.

      Puz also. I translated your kindness into a scritch, and she wagged and said “backatcha,” in Doggish.

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