Ann Littlewood Author of Endangered: A Writer Speaks

We’re talking today with the author Ann Littlewood.  Ann Littlewood created Finley Zoo near Vancouver, Washington, where zoo keeper Iris Oakley uses her animal knowledge to investigate murder. These “zoo-dunnits” are grounded in Ann’s 12 year career as an animal keeper at Oregon Zoo.

Briefly her latest novel is about a mission to rescue abandoned exotic pets after a drug bust, zoo keeper Iris Oakley finds much more—smuggled parrots and tortoises, as well as a mysterious young woman, dead. A creepy farm, a hidden fortune, and a killer—Iris learns too much and not enough. How can she keep her toddler safe, bring the wildlife traffickers to justice, and outwit a murderer?

Joseph:

What is the most overrated virtue, and why?

Ann:

Respectability. I never get it right. Wrong clothes, house not tidy enough, dog is a mutt, car is 14 years old, bad words in front of the wrong relatives.

Joseph:

What is the one thing other people always seem to get wrong about you?

Ann:

People sometimes confuse my passion about conservation with animal welfare issues. I care that domestic animals are treated well, but the focus of my books and my volunteering is protecting natural habitats from human activity. This is what wild animals must have to survive, and, in fact, humans also benefit from leaving large swaths of landscape alone—clean air and water and carbon storage. My mysteries work in a bit of natural history in hopes that people will be intrigued and pay closer attention to the “real” world.

Joseph:

If you could change one thing about the world what would it be? How would it change you?

Ann:

Some 50,000 years ago, after a long period of stability, our species began huge cultural and technical leaps forward. We’ve never stopped. I can only hope that we make another such leap very soon, a cognitive one that enables us to restrict our reproduction and our economic activities so that we leave much of our planet’s ecosystems intact. I would love to see this before my time on the planet is over, instead of watching us continue to destroy the world that created us.

Joseph:

What pet peeve do you have about other people?

Ann:

Only that we are human and that we each do the best we can in our short-sighted way with limited information. We are not really Homo sapiens (“wise man”), alas, and we think too much of ourselves.

Joseph:

Is there any occasion when it’s OK to lie?

Ann:

You bet! I lie to spare people’s feelings when no good can come of the truth (“Of course I remember you! How have you been?”). I would lie to save a life (never had the opportunity, but wouldn’t that make a great germ of a plot?). In practice, I hardly ever tell even a medium-sized whopper. Figuring out “the truth” is hard work, and it muddles me to even consider tossing it overboard without a very good reason. And, no, I don’t consider writing fiction as lying.

Joseph:

What is your philosophy of writing?

Ann:

I do the best I can. Then I try to do it better. Then I say, life is short, move on. Is your writing an art or craft or some combination of both?  I’m going with both. Like any creative endeavor, writing requires both inspiration and skill.

Joseph:

 If you could go back ten years and give yourself one piece of advice what would it be?

Ann:

One my life’s lessons has been to stop and think, then do the best (wisest, kindest, boldest, smartest) I can. Ten years ago, I was doing the best I could. No regrets, no guilt, no advice.

Joseph:

What’s the name and genre of your book?

Ann:

Endangered is a zoo-dunnit, a tiny sub-genre of mystery. To expand out, think “amateur sleuth” or even (flinch) “cozy.”

Joseph:

Who is the audience for this book?

Ann:

I think my books appeal to mystery-lovers with wide-ranging curiosity, people who like animals, people who are interested in zoos, people who love natural history. If you like grisly crimes such as sex torture or are a fan of serial killer thrillers, best to look elsewhere. But be aware that I present the zoo world realistically. The animals have all the superpowers nature endowed them with and no others. You won’t find telepathy.

Joseph:

Is this book part of a series?

Ann:

Endangered is the third in a series. The first is Night Kill, where the protagonist, zoo keeper Iris Oakley, abruptly becomes a widow and must figure out how that happened. The lions know, but they aren’t telling. Or are they?

In the second, Did Not Survive, Iris is pregnant and worrying about being a single mother. Meanwhile, her boss dies in an elephant stall and she is drawn into conflicts within the zoo about managing elephants. Animals vanish, keepers misbehave, and a vet has secrets.

Joseph:

Describe your protagonist and describe the challenges the protagonist needs to overcome.

Ann:

Iris Oakley is the daughter we never had. She’s the kind of child that, if you keep her alive to age 18, you think you deserve a medal. Impulsive, physical, insecure, hormone-driven. When she’s stymied, she gets mad and tries to use that energy to blast through to her goals. That’s Iris in Night Kill at age 24. But in Did Not Survive, she has to face up to adulthood. She’s going to have a baby and she hasn’t any choice. By Endangered, her child is two years old and she’s learned a lot. Iris is never confident in her social skills, but they really aren’t all that bad. She has friends, she has a close relationship with her parents, she’s basically doing OK. She relies on her two dogs and her job for emotional stability. She adores her zoo charges and pays close attention to them. In fact, animal behavior, as well as the behavior of other people toward animals, provides her with clues to solve the mysteries. As for appearance, I was a scrawny zoo keeper (110 pounds at the time). That makes a physical job tough, so I made Iris bigger—she’s tall and solid, although not chubby. She doesn’t perceive herself as beautiful, but plenty of men think she’s attractive.

Joseph:

Describe your antagonist and talk about motivation.

Ann:

In Endangered, the antagonist is a career criminal—experienced, calculating, and determined. He’s willing to lie and kill to get what he wants. His luck fluctuates from excellent to bad, but he never gives up. Iris is right to be afraid for her life.

Joseph:

Quote a passage from your book  that you love.

Ann:

Violet looked exhausted. … She sat with the baby draped face-down over her thigh, the infant making an effort to hang on. He was doing his part in the tricky interplay of mother and infant, where if one doesn’t follow the script of normal behavior, the other won’t either. Violet glanced at him now and then without touching him. I offered a bite of cantaloupe through the mesh. She took it in her dark, delicate fingers and sucked on it, watching me with distant brown eyes. “I know how you feel,” I told her. “Trust me, it gets better. It’s never easy, but it gets better. Put him on your chest, girl, that’s where he belongs.”

Joseph:

Please elaborate on the meaning of that passage.

Ann:

Iris is visiting Violet, a mandrill monkey who gave birth a few hours previously. This is Violet’s first pregnancy and she has probably never even seen a baby monkey before. Iris is worried about her mothering skills—maternal behavior is not nearly as instinctual as people sometimes think. And, in truth, Violet is blowing it. She should be holding the baby so that he can nurse. Iris recalls her own post-partum aches and pains and confusion. Her fear is that Violet won’t catch on to mothering fast enough and the baby must be removed for bottle raising. That will produce a mandrill who lacks the skills to live with the troop.

I’ve been through this exact scenario and it’s nerve wracking to watch. You have to give the mother every chance, but it puts the baby at risk. In other episodes, Iris figures out ways to try to help Violet succeed.

Readers can learn a little about primate parenting, about mandrills, and about how zoo staff respond to the needs of their charges. They see how much Iris cares about a successful outcome. This is consistent with the intensity of her commitment toward her own child.

Joseph:

Tell us about your background.

Ann:

Here’s the short version: College. Moved to commune with boy friend. Put clothes back on and found job certifying people for food stamps and welfare. Married boyfriend. Quit welfare job and volunteered full time at Oregon Zoo research center. Reorganized all files and requested paying job. Since no one could find anything anymore without me, got keeper job. Nursery keeper: wide variety of young animals—mandrills, servals, eclectus parrots, orangutan, etc., also lots of wildlife rehabilitation—seals, owls, fawns, etc. Held job for 12 years. Meanwhile, had kids and needed more income. Wrenching career shift to technical writer, then publications manager and business analyst. Quit Corporate America. Now write mystery novels.

Joseph:

What surprising things did you learn while writing this book?

Ann:

Tortoises are on the way out. Who thinks about tortoises? They go their quiet way in the woods, and we rarely see them unless we travel to the Galapagos. But they are in big demand for eating (China, other parts of Asia) and for the pet trade. The rarer they are, the more valuable, and they reproduce much more slowly that their relatives, the turtles. Read The Last Tortoise by Craig B. Stanford for a fascinating, passionate account of their natural history and recent decline.

Joseph:

Where do you live and how does that influence your writing?

Ann:

I worked at the Oregon Zoo, but I didn’t want to write about a real zoo. I wanted to create my own zoo, with any animals I wanted. I also needed a place that was a little under-budgeted, a little shaky, where more could go wrong. But Finley Memorial Zoo takes excellent care of its animals and it is constantly being upgraded. I set it across the Columbia River from Portland, Oregon. It’s north of Vancouver, Washington, and the locals (real and imagined) enjoy it very much.

Joseph:

Do you prefer fermented or distilled?

Ann:

Big California reds. I live in the heart of pinot noir, but give me a Zin or a cab any day. Wouldn’t turn down a Manhattan.

Joseph:

I’m icing the shaker as we speak.

 

 

Endangered         ISBN: 978-1-59058-785-2

Available in hard cover, trade paperback, Kindle, and audio versions.

Websites:  http://zoomysteries.com

 

 

Here’s what some reviews have had to say about about Ann Littlewood’s writing.

Booklist: “Readers will enjoy this fast-moving story that deals with timely environmental issues.”

The Mystery Gazette: “The third zoo mystery (see Did Not Survive and Night Kill) is a fabulous amateur sleuth … With a powerful spotlight on wildlife smuggling, readers will enjoy Ann Littlewood’s tense thriller.”

Publisher’s Weekly: “An animal rescue mission kick starts Littlewood’s engaging third “zoo-dunit” starring spunky Vancouver, Wash., zookeeper Iris Oakley…”

 

 

 

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