An interview with Annemarie O’Brien

August 15, 2013

Annemarie O’Brien’s debut middle-grade novel, LARA’S GIFT, publishes this month with Knopf, an imprint of Random House. She’s currently in the middle of a blog tour publicizing the book, so I’m delighted to welcome her to my blog today and ask her a few questions about her writing career and her gorgeous book.

When did you start writing and how/where did you learn to craft a novel? Did it come easily to you?

I actually started writing short stories in Russian while I was living in Bosnia. It was my attempt at strengthening my Russian language skills. My Russian professor liked them so much, he recommended that I get them published. I thought it would be easier to write in my native language of English. So when I retired from my overseas work in 1998 and moved to the San Fran area, I started taking writing classes at UC Berkeley and Stanford. I did that for about five years and then decided to get an MFA in Writing for Children & Young Adults at the Vermont College of Fine Arts. VCFA is where I really jumped a few levels in my craft and developed the kind of skills to foster continued growth. Some parts of writing came to me easily like building a plot and structuring my story. I had to work at setting, evoking sensory details, and internal character arc development.

LARA’S GIFT is your first novel. We’d love you to tell us what it’s about.

I’d like to borrow a quote from Kathi Appelt, Newbery Honor author of THE UNDERNEATH:

“LARA’S GIFT makes a reader believe in the power of intuition, family, and fighting for one’s true calling. LARA’S GIFT is a gift to anyone who loves adventure, a good story and above all, a beloved dog.”

You lived in Russia for some years. What was that like and in what way did the experience inspire you to write LARA’S GIFT?

Russia is a magical place. It is rich in music, literature, the arts, science, and history. My first visit was during the cold war when the United States and the former Soviet Union were at odds politically, socially, and economically. And while our governments didn’t see eye-to-eye, I found that I connected with Russians easily. I couldn’t understand why our countries were “at war” on so many issues when the people I met were warm, welcoming, and highly intellectual. Living and working there forced me to think and question so many things. This experience forced me to open up my mind and grow personally and professionally. That kind of growth was like a disease that spread and fed off of the experiences I put myself in. The kind of experiences that challenged me. So many of my family and friends had funny notions of what Russia was all about back then and used to joke with me about it. Few of them could understand my interest to work there. I wanted to change those kinds of perceptions and felt that Lara and Zar’s story needed to be told to show another face of Russia.

What are the themes in the story that most excite and interest you, and what aspect of the story did you enjoy writing most?

Good question, Sarah. I actually wasn’t aware of the theme in LARA’S GIFT until well after the copyedit process. And then one day, it dawned on me that the theme mirrors what my father instilled in me as a kid. He always told me that I could do whatever I wanted, if I put my mind to it. He also told me to follow my heart and happiness would follow. He also said that I should trust in the gifts I have. These are all things I believed in growing up. They weren’t necessarily things I ever talked about. I just led my life this way unconsciously. So if there’s one thing I hope my readers walk away with after reading LARA’S GIFT, it would be a newfound sense in themselves to pursue life following your heart and passion. Everyone should lead life following his/her own dreams. Had I followed my father’s dream of where he thought I would have or should have landed, I’d be an engineer, just like him! Fortunately, for good or bad, he let me be me and the engineering world is better off for it.

I enjoyed developing Zar’s character on the page most, as well as the bond he has with Lara.

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You have two Borzoi dogs! Tell us about them – what is it about these large, elegant dogs that fascinates you so much?

I’ve also got a Silken Windhound puppy (looks like a smaller borzoi) named Zeus! It gets a little crazy in our house with the puppy stirring things up!

This is a tough question because there are so many reasons why I fell in love with borzoi. I suppose part of it is because they are calm and gentle and complement the quiet, yet active, lifestyle I strive to create around me. I suspect the biggest reason is linked to the bond I had with my first borzoi, Dasha. I got her at a time when I had to figure out what I was going to do with my life. Those years were the foundation that led me to where I am today. I had to make big choices and Dasha was always right there by my side supporting me every step of the way. It’s this last quality of loyalty that I wanted to reveal in Zar’s character, as well as his love of Lara and vice versa.

What will you be doing to promote LARA’S GIFT?

My first big book launch party will be in Piedmont, California on September 6 at 7pm. It will be hosted by Havens Elementary School and Books Inc. I will also go to Forbes Library in my hometown of Northampton, Massachusetts to do an author event on September 21 from 2-4pm and at The King’s English in Salt Lake City, Utah on September 28 at 2pm. I also plan to do events in Kauai, Philadelphia, Iowa, and the greater San Fran Bay area. If everything works out, I hope to be in Manila and Palau next spring to do school visits and author events.

Are you currently working on another novel – and if so, what is it?

While I have a number of story ideas in my head and some jotted down in files, my focus at the moment is on two stories. The first one is set in Thailand and is in the final throes of revision. Without giving too much away (call me superstitious!) this story came to me in a dream that likely rooted itself out of one of my biggest fears.

I am also currently in research mode for the companion story to LARA’S GIFT. This story is set primarily in the Gorbachev era and draws greatly from my own experience living and working in Russia at that time. Since my whole world revolved around Russia and all of its changes during the 1980s thru the 90s, I suspect this story will have a lot of heart, as well as come more easily to me.

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Finally, there’s a great tradition of fiction about dogs. Are there any other great dog novels that you particularly love?

Recently, I have enjoyed A DOG CALLED HOMELESS by Sarah Lean, THE DOGS OF WINTER by Bobbie Pyron, THE UNDERNEATH by Kathi Appelt, LITTLE DOG, LOST by Marion Dane Bauer, as well as THE DOG DIARIES series by Kate Klimo.

My favorites as a kid were LASSIE COME HOME, 101 DALMATIONS, and LADY AND THE TRAMP.

I’m always looking for good dog books! I blog about them on Dog Reads which features interviews with authors who’ve written a dog story for children. If you know of one or have written one, please contact me through my web page (below).

How can we find out more about you and the book (and buy a copy?!) ?

Here are some useful links:

Web page: www.annemarieobrienauthor.com

Book trailer: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=whcIDqxCq9g

Teacher’s Guide: http://www.randomhouse.com/teachers/resource/laras-gift-teachers-guide/

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Thanks, Annemarie! We’re all wishing you and the book tons of success.

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Pix: 1) Jacket of LARA’S GIFT 2) Annemarie – and her gorgeous dogs 3) A cheeky little pic of one of the Greenhouse dogs (Sargie, the wire-haired Dachsund) crept in here! Couldn’t resist.

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