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SunLit interview: As an animal lover traumatized by burglars, R.L. Maizes knew she had the makings of a novel

In "Other People's Pets," the author sought to explore whether an individual traumatized during childhood could rise above the experience to live a normal life

R.L. Maizes’s novel, “Other People’s Pets” (Celadon Books, Macmillan) was a Library Journal Best Debut of Summer/Fall 2020. Maizes is the author of the short story collection “We Love Anderson Cooper” (Celadon Books). Her stories have aired on National Public Radio, and can be found in Electric Literature’s Recommended Reading and in The Best Small Fictions 2020Maizes was born in Queens, New York, and lives in Boulder County, Colorado, with her husband, Steve, and her muses: Arie, a cat who was dropped in the animal shelter’s night box like an overdue library book, and Rosie, a dog who spent her first year homeless in South Dakota and thinks Colorado is downright balmy. 

Tell us this book’s backstory. What inspired you to write it? Where did the story/theme originate?

I was curious about whether people can overcome trauma they’ve experienced in their childhoods and go on to lead full and productive lives. In “Other People’s Pets” the main character La La has been abandoned by her mother, isolated from other children by her father, and raised by him to be a burglar. The novel explores whether she can recover from such a painful and strange childhood.

Place this excerpt in context. How does it fit into the book as a whole? Why did you select it?

I like the excerpt, which begins with the prologue, because it shows how La La became an animal empath. It also shows the character of her mother, which is very formative for La La. The excerpt also includes a bit of chapter one, which sets up the main dilemma in the book. As an adult, La La has managed to create a full life for herself. She’s a veterinary student, and she’s engaged to a chiropractor named Clem. When her father gets arrested, she has to make decisions that will affect and maybe destroy that life. 

Tell us about creating this book. What influences and/or experiences informed the project before you actually sat down to write the book? 

I love animals. I’ve adopted many dogs and cats. I’ve volunteered at the Humane Society in Boulder. I’m vegan. So I always knew animals would play a large role in the book. With respect to the burglaries in the book, my home in New York was burglarized numerous times when I was growing up, once while I was actually in the house. That was traumatic and made me want to learn more about burglars. How they work. Their motivations. I did a lot of research on burglars so I could tell this story in an authentic way. 

Once you began writing, did the story take you in any unexpected directions? If so, how would you describe dealing with a narrative that seems to have a mind of its own?

When I started the book, La La, the main character, was going to be a veterinary student who loved animals, but I didn’t realize that she was going to be an animal empath who could feel what animals feel in her body. For example, if an animal has arthritis in its hip, La La experiences that pain in her own hip. I was very excited to discover that because I loved imagining what her life would be like with that skill. And I thought readers would enjoy seeing the world through her eyes, which would be like seeing the world through animals’ eyes.  

What were the biggest challenges you faced, or surprises you encountered in completing this book? 

One of the biggest challenges was research. Though the book is fiction, the main character is a veterinary student, and I wanted the book to be accurate. So I read a number of memoirs of veterinary students and I researched many veterinary procedures online. I also had a veterinarian read the entire manuscript to make sure I hadn’t made mistakes.

The main characters in the book are also burglars, and I’m not, so I had to do a lot of research in that area, too. I read interviews with burglars conducted by criminal justice professionals and by sociologists, to learn how burglars operate and what their motivations are. I watched security camera footage of burglars breaking into homes. That allowed me to make the burglary scenes in the book more authentic. 

Has the book raised questions or provoked strong opinions among your readers? How did you address them?

“Other People’s Pets” has provoked strong opinions among readers. Some don’t like that La La, the main character, is a burglar, and I can understand that. But most readers understand that La La is on a journey to see if she can overcome a childhood where she was taught to be a burglar and grow into an adult who has empathy for people and no longer steals. I’ve heard from many readers who found La La a sympathetic character despite her profession because of her troubled background. La La’s empathic ability with animals also makes many readers want to follow her story and root for her.  

Walk us through your writing process: Where and how do you write? 

I treat writing like a job. Every morning, starting at 8 or 9 at the latest, I’m at my desk, working on my current project. I’ll write until lunch and often put in an hour or two in the afternoon as well. I mostly work in my office, which has the best ergonomic setup, but if I get stuck, I like to change rooms, working on my bed or in the kitchen. I find when I have a different view while I’m working, it stimulates different ideas. 

Tell us about your next project.

I’m writing and studying poetry, which is quite a change from the fiction I’ve been working on for the past fifteen years. I’m enjoying stretching myself and discovering the tools poets use, which I will adapt to fiction writing when I return to it. 

Read an excerpt from the book.


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