Pens, Paws, and Claws welcomes Val Muller to the blog!
Tell our readers a little about yourself and your writing.
By day, I’m an English teacher. By night, I’m a corgi-tamer, toddler-chaser, and writer. I’ve written a range of work from the middle-grade mystery series Corgi Capers to The Scarred Letter, a young adult reboot of Nathaniel Hawthorne’s famous work.
As an English teacher, I get to talk about writing all day. When watching movies with family, I have a habit of analyzing storylines and writing techniques and, as my husband notes, I have the uncanny ability to tell whether a movie is “good” during the first few minutes.
Tell us about your pets. Are any of them models for pets in your writing?
My two corgis, Leia and Yoda, are the inspiration behind the Corgi Capers mystery series. The series follows a fifth grader named Adam and his seventh grade sister. The two corgis in the novel, the fictional Zeph and Sapphie, are modeled after my corgis.
Yoda is afraid of almost anything. Thunder and chirping smoke detectors, strange people, aluminum foil shaken too loudly, a ceramic duck… but he has a heart of gold. He’s protective and concerned: if his sister is up to her usual antics, he’ll run up to me and howl—his “tattle tale.” He’ll even tattle tale on the toddler, which is sometimes a big help.
Leia is almost the opposite. She’s rambunctious and nearly fearless (for some reason, she is terrified of the chirping smoke detector, too. It might be because when we moved into our current house, the detector was chirping). She frequently rolls in and eats dirt, mud, sand, grass, and various other unmentionables. She is the most vocal and the definite inspiration behind my favorite Corgi Capers character, Sapphie, who is always getting everyone into trouble with her playful attitude and lack of judgment.
What writing projects are you currently working on?
Funny story. I have the outline done for Corgi Capers book 4. Actually, I had it finished over two years ago, right before my daughter was born. On the release date for Corgi Capers 3, a fire alarm went off at my work, and the fire company showed up. I thought it was a coincidence because book 3, Curtain Calls and Fire Halls, features a fire station and an accidental near-fire.
Fast forward to book 4. It takes place during the winter, and there’s a disabling blizzard. My daughter’s due date was February 7, and I was afraid that if I wrote the book beforehand, she might be born during the storm, which is something that happens to a family member in the novel. Turns out I should have written the book. My daughter was born during the historic blizzard (I blogged about it here: http://www.valmuller.com/2016/02/11/stormborn-by-val-muller/). Now, every time I sit down to finish the novel, I struggle to find the happy magic of snow and am afraid it will become too dark for a chapter book.
In other writing endeavors, I have a novel half written and on the backburner. It’s about some of the issue that arise in the public school setting. I see it as a mix between The Chocolate Wars and a more modern young adult work, with some of The Grapes of Wrath mixed in for good measure. This has been the most difficult book for me to write because it has the potential to be the most serious and hits close to home.
Did you have childhood pets? If so, tell us about them.
Growing up, my pal was Chip, a bichon fries. He was probably the most spoiled dog I’ve ever known in terms of being the recipient of constant attention. He had his choice of which bed he wanted to snooze in, he was walked multiple times a day by each of us, he was given custom toys made by my dad (who had previously sworn he had no interest in dogs)… the list goes on.
I made him Halloween costumes (my favorite was when he dressed as a hippie), brought him up to my treehouse, fed him scraps under the table. He had my parents trained to mix gravy or ranch dressing in his food to make him eat it. He really brought us together as a family and solidified in my mind the importance of pets in fostering love, empathy, and community.
I blogged about the little guy here: https://corgicapers.com/2016/03/02/woof-out-wednesday-chip/
How do you use animals in your writing? Are they a character in their own right or just mentioned in passing?
In Corgi Capers, the corgis threaten to steal the show! In my other works, animals are more of a passing thought.
In Corgi Capers, the chapters alternate. Some are told in the perspective of one of the humans (usually Adam or his sister Courtney). The other chapters are told in the perspective of Zeph or Sapphie, the corgis. In each mystery, the corgis’ observations are integral in helping to solve the mystery or help the humans gets to where they need to be in order to do so. But the problem is, the humans cannot understand what the corgis are saying, so it sounds like barking to them. The corgis could literally be barking out the answer, and the humans would have no idea. Sapphie and Zeph have to find more clever ways of solving problems.
Why do you include animals in your writing?
My idea to write Corgi Capers started when I lived in a large section of townhomes. I would walk my dogs there daily, and they (being the cute corgis they are) would often attract the attention of neighborhood kids. Each time we stopped for petting time, the kids asked me what my dogs did when I wasn’t home. I shrugged at first, admitting they probably napped. The kids insisted I was wrong: they told me my dogs went on secret adventures. Their names (Leia and Yoda) meant they had special bone-shaped light sabers they used to escape the bounds of my house and defend against enemies. I decided to play along, making up stories about random things my dogs did while I was way. The idea stuck, and it turned into a novel. And another. And another.
What’s your favorite book or movie that had an animal as a central character? Why?
As an English teacher, I love teaching (and re-reading) The Life of Pi. I won’t spoil it if you haven’t read it, especially since the story can be read metaphorically. But there is a huge Bengal tiger featured in the story, and animals of all types play an integral role.
This goes back to what I wrote about Chip. Whether or not you believe animals have human-like traits and emotions, it’s fairly clear that animals help us bring out our human-like traits and emotions. The same goes for the main character Pi in The Life of Pi. His family ridicules him for assigning human emotions and motives to animals. Whether or not he is correct in doing so, his understanding of animals helps him understand the truth of the universe and the nature of man more effectively than any book or religion.
What’s your real-life funniest pet story?
I mentioned my childhood dog, Chip. Because of all the attention he got (he was never truly treated like a dog), he developed several quirks. The weirdest one he learned from my sister. I’m not sure how it got started, but we had a bunch of sewers in our neighborhood. They were the kind that contained a grate right on the street, so you could look down and see the little waterways below. Somehow, we got in the habit of dropping pebbles down into the sewers and listening for a “plop.”
Chip got in the habit as well. He learned the command as “look,” and when we told him to “look,” he would run to the nearest sewer and push a pebble in with his nose. It was an impressive trick—until he got to the point that he wouldn’t walk fast (it was possible to actually gain calories on a walk with him—that’s how slowly he went!) unless you continually told him to “look.” In that way, we got him to prance from one sewer to the next, pushing pebbles in each one.
When did you know you were a writer? And how did you know?
As soon as I could write, I knew that’s what I wanted to do. In fact, before I knew how to write, I dictated stories (very bad, long-winded stories about aliens and bicycles and flowers and such) onto cassette tapes. In first grade, I wrote a poem, and my first grade teacher had me read it in front of the fifth grade class. In second grade, my teacher wrote in my “yearbook” that she would look for my work in books and magazines one day. It continued on to the point that two college professors questioned whether I had actually penned some of the assignments in the time allotted (I had, as I explained to them; I’d had so much practice writing that I could crank out “A” work very quickly).
Of course, being a full-time writer is a risky business, so I went into teaching to make sure I had some security. I blogged about the time I made the transition to serious writer: http://www.valmuller.com/2012/02/10/the-mentor-giveaway/
What’s the number one item on your bucket list and why?
I don’t make lists like that. I follow that cliché about the best-laid plans. I had it in my mind to meet my favorite author, Ray Bradbury, but he passed away before I could figure out how to make that work. My birthing plan was very simple—there were literally only 2 things on it, and yet a blizzard caused everything to go awry. From these experiences, I learned to be flexible and simply look for enjoyment in each day.
I also think that as a writer, my mind is a much more vivid place than much of the world. When I used to run track, I followed a strict diet, and I could often convince myself not to eat something delicious (like ice cream) simply by imagining the experience. It’s the same these days: I can use my imagination to transport me to places and times I’d like to experience.
What are two things you know now that you wish you knew when you started writing?
First, think of the reader. I’d heard so much mixed advice about this, including that a writer should simply write for herself. But I’ve read too many books that don’t seem to keep the reader in mind or respect the reader’s time, background knowledge (or lack thereof), etc. I try now to picture a specific reader for each story and write for them.
Second, read a wide variety of works. As a younger reader, I stuck with what resonated with me. But as I read more and more, I realize that reading things beyond my comfort zone help me understand myself as a writer. Sometimes, it’s even helpful to read something I don’t particularly like: this shows me what kind of a reader I am and helps me think more metacognitively as a writer. I recently gave this advice to a teenage writer I often work with, and he started reading War and Peace (despite my warnings). He actually likes it and is learning about the craft of writing—including what he doesn’t prefer as a writing style.
The Corgi Capers Series: