Building a Series With a Serious Dog: A Conversation with Jo Bannister

Stack of books
Stack of books

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In Desperate Measures, Jo Bannister returns to the life of police officer Hazel Best as she grapples with rescuing Gabriel Ash from himself and the dark forces that fractured his family. I spoke with Bannister about writing from a dog's point of view, stoking tension, and crafting a wonderfully intense book series.

We simply can't go forward without talking about Patience. Where did she come from? What is it like to write with a dog as a point of view character? What breed is a gentleman's lurcher for those of us in the States?

I am delighted and a little surprised how much readers have warmed to Patience. I fully expected first my agent and then my publisher to make doubtful noises and ask if I would consider writing out the talking dog. I mean, a talking dog in mainstream crime fiction! But everyone seemed to feel the same way about her - that somehow she belonged. It's not as if she goes round solving crimes: that would be silly... And maybe she doesn't even talk, it's just that Ash thinks she does. Hazel has never heard her. At least, not yet...

Certainly as far as appearance goes, Patience is based on my last dog Grace. (I only wish Grace had been as civilized as Ash's dog!) She was a lurcher, probably bred from a pointer and a harrier hound. This made her a cut above the average gypsy lurcher, which is bred from any combination of terrier and whippet or greyhound blood. It isn't true to describe a lurcher as a breed - it's a type of dog, originally used by gypsies to run down rabbits.

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The author's Grace: a model for Patience?

Writing about Patience is like writing about any of my characters. It's necessary to employ a degree of empathy in understanding how much of the action any of them is aware of, and what their motivations and limitations might be. So Patience is probably less concerned with right and wrong than with protecting her family. That being said, she surprises me sometimes with the sophistication of her thinking.

I love the platonic tension you create between Hazel Best and Gabriel Ash. What does it take to keep the tension at this delicious simmer with a hint of possibility?

I too love the friendship between Hazel and Ash. Friendship is such a broad church: anyone can join and, unlike overtly romantic relationships, the possibilities for development are endless. Will it become something more than friendship at some point? Should it? Or should they treasure it for what it is and resist the temptation to change it? When they let me know, I'll write the book.

I suppose the answer to your question is that I find the whole subject of friendship more interesting than romance. Once people - including characters - have decided they're in love, either they have to do something about it (hooray!) or they have to bring it to an end (aww!). The seeds of the conclusion are sewn as soon as two pairs of eyes meet, smouldering, across a crowded room. Friendships vary much more. They can bring together people who couldn't possibly live together, they can flare up and die down and flare up again, they can range from casual to life-changing. The best friendships aren't a substitute for love, they are love, just not romantic love.

This book seems to leave many threads open to pick up for the next one. As you write do you think about the next book in the series, or do you let the process surprise you?

The best thing about writing a series of books about one set of characters is that you can pick up those loose threads and knit a whole new garment. It offers an extra dimension, in that characters who were secondary in one book can step into the spotlight in another, and issues that seem to have been side-stepped can rise up and bite again. If a writer tried to do that in one book, it would be unforgivably complicated. The series gives both writer and readers the opportunity to explore the characters in greater depth without having to take notes as they go along.

The only proviso is that each book should be a rewarding read for people who haven't read any of the others, and that taking them out of order shouldn't spoil the experience.

Sometimes I know where the next book's going while I'm still writing the last one, and can leave some handy threads to pick up later. But often I have only the vaguest notion of where I want to go next, or perhaps it's more a question of who I want to focus on next. I can put myself in all kinds of difficulties by not knowing where the next book's heading!

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I know tackling multiple characters and keeping them straight is something new writers struggle with. How do you manage to maintain such excellent and consistent characterization over the course of multiple books? What advice do you have for writers beginning to consider writing a series?

I think, as you say, it is a struggle to keep a whole cast of characters straight and distinctive in the writer's mind. I do a fair bit of re-reading to keep me on track. And then, I have a very clear mental image of even the minor characters, which certainly helps. They don't do out-of-character things once you know them well enough; or if they do, they have a good reason. Characters, like people, grow and develop as time goes on. The secret is to know what's a likely development for a particular character, and what he would never do if he lived to be a hundred.

Every time I begin a new series, I promise myself I'll be more organized about it. I shall keep a notebook with a description of everyone's appearance and mannerisms, the work they do, where they live, their personal background etc. And I never, ever do. It's too much like dissecting them. So what if it gives me a bit more trouble checking out what I've written in previous books? - that's my job! As long as it works for the reader, it doesn't have to matter that I occasionally find myself tearing my hair hunting for a reference I'm sure I made, possibly two books ago, and now can't turn up. (Possibly because, after I wrote it, I decided the book was better without it and hit delete. Oh, the joys of working on a computer!)

I don't know that I'm qualified to advise other writers, but if I could give one tip it would be this. Entertain your readers. They give us their time and their money, and they don't do it to be dazzled by all the big words we know or to get lost in labyrinthine plotting. They want to be entertained. Carried along. Thrilled sometimes, surprised sometimes, horrified occasionally, amused when they least expect it, but always entertained. If we want them to read our next book, we have to make damn sure they enjoy this one.