What inspired you to write Finding Zasha?
I wrote Saving Zasha first. When I was finished I realized that there was much more to the story. I wanted to know where Zasha had come from, who Petr was, and why they’d ended up in the forest together. That meant I had to write the prequel, which turned out to be Finding Zasha. In addition, as I did research about Russia for the first book I learned about the siege of Leningrad. The story completely captured me, and I wanted to write a book that would share that history.
Tying the stories of Saving Zasha and Finding Zasha together was challenging, and fun. Having learned even more about Russia, and Stalin, I am now working on a sequel that will bring most of the characters, the dogs, and the puppies back for one last adventure.
How long did it take you to write Finding Zasha?
It took about fifteen months. Once it was accepted by Scholastic and my editor reviewed it, there were six or eight weeks of re-writing, and several tweaks prior to publication. By the time you’re finished with the process you’re sure you never want to read it again. But then the book arrives with a beautiful cover, it feels like a fresh, new story, and you smile and say to yourself, “I wrote this? Really?”
What are some of your favorite books from childhood?
In grammar school I loved the OZ books, and the fairy tale series that was divided into colors: The Blue Fairy Book, The Yellow Fairy Book etc. Gone With the Wind was a favorite in the seventh grade. My reading stuck closely to the English class reading lists as I got older with titles like The Great Gatsby, The Catcher in the Rye, 1984, and Animal Farm. I missed a lot of classics like To Kill a Mockingbird, and The Yearling, which I didn’t read until I was an adult.
When I was a child books came to most of us exclusively through the library. If the library didn’t carry it, chances are we didn’t get to read it. I can’t say that there were any particular authors at that time who inspired me, it was more about loving an individual book.
Where did you come up with the characters Ivan, Zasha, and Auntie?
If I could answer that with complete clarity, I could explain the mystery of creativity! I can say that I knew that I wanted a twelve year old boy to be my protagonist, and that I wanted him to be brave, but also very human. The character of Ivan was formed, to some degree, by the facts of the war. I had to examine how a child that age would respond to things as devastating as food deprivation, and being separated from his mother. From the answers to those types of questions the character emerges. It’s fascinating how real the character feels to you as time goes on.
With Auntie, I knew I wanted an older person to have a big role. I think older people are underused and underrepresented in literature, and that children need them in life, and in books. It is only someone like Auntie who suffered through the terrible events of the revolution of 1917, and the social and economic changes that followed, who really possesses the knowledge and insight to help Ivan survive. She is also full of love, and uses that love in a fiercely protective way for the people she cares about, and the values she possesses.
Zasha – that’s harder to answer. Contrary to what some have suggested, Zasha is not the German shepherd version of my dog, Manuel. Although I have to credit Manuel with teaching me a lot about the doggie mind, and the doggie way! I read all about German shepherds, talked to their owners, and was lucky enough to meet some. I knew as I wrote Saving Zasha that she’d had another owner who’d loved her, and trained her well. I just didn’t know who that was yet! But I did know that she had never been abused, and was a very smart, loving dog.
If you could befriend a character from any of your books, who would you befriend, and why?
At this moment my answer is that it’s a toss-up between Ivan, and Auntie. I’d chose Ivan because I think it would be fun to be his friend. He’s full of life, he’s musical, he faces challenges with strength in-spite of his fears, and he’s smart. I think any person who was his friend would feel good when he was with Ivan, and keep him as a friend for a lifetime. I would want to be Auntie’s friend because I‘d like to learn from her wisdom and experience. I’d feel safe if I were Auntie’s friend. She’s also joyous, and almost ageless in her embrace of life.
Where do you like to write? Do you listen to music while you are writing?
I have a desk set-up in our living room. I like writing there so that I can look out the big window in front and hear the children in the neighborhood playing, and see people passing by with their dogs. But it’s still private enough so that I can’t be seen. It keeps me from feeling isolated the way so many writers do. I am able to sense life going on all around me, and can enter into it at any moment.
I don’t listen to music when I write. For me, that would be impossible because my mind follows the music, and so it’s only half there for the writing! I know that many writers can’t write without it, or prefer it. I wish I could, but I’m a uni-tasker!
If you could live anywhere in the world, where would it be, and why?
I wish I had a romantic answer like, “Paris!” or “Rome!” The truth is, I like it right where I am in Los Angeles, California. I like the light, and the clouds, and the air here, the friendliness of my neighborhood, the unpretentiousness of it, and the incredible flowers and trees that fill our city. The Pacific Ocean is just a little over a mile away – what more could I want?
German shepherds play a big role in Finding Zasha. Do you have any pets? If so, are they like Zasha and Thor?
We have a big white and tan Chihuahua named Manuel. He is eleven years old, and weighs twelve pounds, and is the sweetest boy in the world. They say little dogs live a long time. We are counting on Manuel to outlive us, because we don’t know how we’d stand it without him.
Zasha, Thor, and Manuel are all very different dogs. Chihuahuas are known for being loving companions who appreciate their creature comforts. German shepherds have a different set of personality building blocks. They’re smart, strong, and protective, they excel as guards, herders, and workers. That is not to say Manuel is not smart or protective, or that Zasha and Thor aren’t loving companions. But the two breeds are so different it’s hard for me to imagine Manuel herding sheep, or Zasha and Thor demanding little treats before they do something they know they’re supposed to be doing anyway!