Susannah Charleson is a professional writer whose heart has gone out to dogs and humans who need rescue. She is a commercial pilot and Search and Rescue handler with her dog, Puzzle.
Her first memoir, Scent of the Missing, tells stories from this part of her life. The recent book The Possibility Dogs: What a Handful of "Unadoptables" Taught Me About Service, Hope, & Healing, tells quite a different story of humans and their dog partners.
Her stories showcase the relationships we develop with our dogs. Both books are available as audio recordings, which are narrated in her own voice. To find out more, visit her website.
Read Martha Meacham's reviews of Scent of the Missing and The Possibility Dogs: What a Handful of "Unadoptables" Taught Me About Service, Hope, & Healing for StoryCircleBookReviews.org.
Interviewed by Martha Meacham
Posted on 09/09/2013
You've written two memoirs now with slightly different twists: one about your experience with Search and Rescue dogs and now one about rescue and emotional support, therapy and service dogs. Have you noticed your audience changing?
I've noticed the reading audience expanding, actually, which is lovely. Most of my readers are those who enjoy nonfiction about dogs that has an unusual angle. There were some who came to Scent of the Missing because they were already intrigued by the notion of search and rescue, but most chose to read that book because they were most interested, I think, in the nature of partnership between a human and a dog. Many of us who own pets have experienced a close relationship with them, and I think a lot of readers are interested in what happens when that dialogue and that relationship are put to the test in a very real, mission-driven way. Search and rescue is charged with commitment and urgency, and service requires the same rigorous loyalty. I think The Possibility Dogs brought in some readers who are particularly interested in the healing potential between dogs and humans, and I know that some of them have now gone back to read Scent. It's certainly true that dogs and handlers help each other find center after a hard search is done.
Not only do you share your personal story, but you tell of other people you have met in The Possibility Dogs. Do any stories stand out from your speaking with people on your latest book tour or since the publication of The Possibility Dogs?
So many amazing people have come forward during the tour! One of the most moving accounts I remember was a gentleman who works on Boylston Street, in Boston, who with his family witnessed the bombing attack at the Boston Marathon this year. He spoke of the traumatic effect of that experience and how he wasn't sure on the first day back to work that he could even make it to the door. As he was heading in to work on foot, he came upon a cadre of golden retrievers, a comfort dog team with their partners, there to help the community find strength as they returned to the street. He spoke of the measureless help he found in moving along that line of golden retrievers—each friendly, responsive, affectionate, kind—and how they made it possible for him to take breath enough to go to work.
In Scent of the Missing you are an active member of a SAR team that requires physical stamina and abilities. In The Possibility Dogs, you are coming to grips with quite another stage in your life and you grow to depend on your trained dogs in a different way. To what extent did writing memoir help you process this?
While Scent of the Missing doesn't dwell on my medical situation, I did write parenthetically about the early stages of progressing kidney disease and what the future might hold—not only in terms of being able to work search and rescue, but just for life in general. The Possibility Dogs really expands on the notion of what we can do, what we can face, what we can challenge beside a well-trained dog, and I'd say that in both cases, the writing of the books was a great win-win for the work, the writing, and the life involved. Working with these dogs informed the books; writing the books made me rethink how I worked beside the dogs. And all the time, I was moving forward the way any of us challenged by illness would.
I wonder how memoir authors manage to have privacy when their stories reveal so much personal detail. Do you intentionally separate your public and private persona? Have you ever felt that you revealed too much in some accounts of your life?
You raise an interesting question! Memoir is by nature disclosure, and communication theory tells us that intimate disclosure is wisest when offered to further a valued relationship and safest when offered to very few. Memoir by definition doesn't play it safe, and in the Internet age when so much about any of us is just a few clicks away, it does sometimes feel like you've really made yourself naked before the world. Via the Internet you're now naked on the world's tallest billboard, forever. But in truth, any of the details I've revealed in either book are those that serve the story and that I am comfortable acknowledging. Sometimes some of it became pretty exhausting in the editing process—looking at hard moments again and again and again brought nightmares in a few cases—but overall I have no regrets about what I've revealed and what I have not.
I do intentionally separate my public and private personae to some degree. There are areas of my life that I simply don't write about at all—not because they are any great secret, but because I do think we have to keep part of ourselves as a private sanctuary. In the same way, there are parts of my life I never discuss with anyone else. The concept of a soul needing the peace of a "walled garden" makes a lot of sense to me and my concept of faith.
Please share your next writing projects.
I am having so much fun on two new projects. Though I can't say much, one involves a group of adolescents that come together after a terrible storm—and are surprised by unlikely heroes among them. The other is much more fanciful. Ollie T, the real-life blind and deaf senior with the crazy large ears in The Possibility Dogs gets a fanciful fiction story of his own set in Old Hollywood of the 1930s. That one's for kids. J
You've been a versatile and widely published writer for some time. Tell us something about when and where you write.
I've done most of my writing in coffee shops for a long, long time. Back in the 80s, I did it in longhand! Still do, sometimes.
I still write in coffee shops and on airplanes a good deal, but in 2011 I rented a tin-ceilinged office, rumored to be haunted, in a 1924 office building over a coffee shop. There, encouraged by the scent of cappuccinos and cupcakes (my office is right over the baking ovens), I wrote The Possibility Dogs and began the forthcoming next books. That office, quite large, really, is the smartest thing I've ever done. I use it only to write (I don't even research in there, just write), and the minute I walk in there, the urge kicks in. Typically I write midmorning to mid-afternoon four days a week. Sometimes, on a good day, that'll stretch into quite late at night. There were a few days on The Possibility Dogs where I put more than twelve hours at the keyboard and got up feeling like I'd only been there just a little past breakfast.
It felt to me like you had a sense of the follow-up book in Scent of the Missing. At what point did you start working on The Possibility Dogs?
I was already researching dogs that serve the human mind before I even began Scent of the Missing, but I actively began writing The Possibility Dogs in November 2010.
Reviews for both books remark on your rich descriptions that give the dogs 3-D personalities, as if we can feel their fur and smell their puppy breath. How did you develop this ability to give words such full meaning?
Bless those reviewers! If I can put readers into a place they've never been and next to dogs they feel like they can see, hear, and touch, I'm a happy girl. Probably that sense of description comes from writing radio for so long. Radio is the "theatre of the mind"—it demands that we use language to helps listeners enter worlds.
From your posts on Facebook, it seems you are observing and taking notes most of the time...especially in coffee shops! Will you share a bit about your writing process?
Hahaha Busted by the coffee shop posts! In life, as a journalist, I pay a lot of attention to sensory details, but I try to engage the senses in unusual ways—more than noting the sky was this blue or the boiled egg smelled rotten. What sound does a passing man's new dress shoes make? When the next word to come is goodbye to a loved person, what does it feel like, poised at the back of the mouth?
With your background in media, stands to reason you have a very successful presence on Facebook and Twitter where you actively engage your audiences. Could you speak to how you are using social media? How have social media like Twitter and Facebook influenced your allocation of time? Do you see a return on investment in the amount of personal time these occupy in your daily routine?
It is easy for a writer to let social media engagement distract from the actual writing. I am more active on Facebook than Twitter, because I like the nature of the interaction more there, but I do enjoy both.
I approach Facebook as a genuine conversation with readers and friends that I value. The return on investment there in a meaningful way is real. I'm sure the books are impacted, though I have never posted—"Buy My Book!" Of course, I do hope people will read it and celebrate its release with me. And they do. But the return on time investment is much more than that; the past year has had some personal tragedy in it, and I say honestly that those I know through Facebook—some of whom I have never met in life—made all the difference in my being able to bear a terrible loss last December.
Your non-profit Possibility Dogs, Inc. is an organization geared at connecting rescued dogs with people in need of service, comfort or therapy dogs. What would you like to share about your work in this area?
It is as challenging as it is uplifting, with an opportunity to change lives—dog lives, human lives—powerfully. Like search and rescue, this volunteer service is some of the hardest work I've ever done.
The role of dogs in your life changes to a large extent between the two books. At what point did you decide to become a dog trainer and behaviorist?
I would hesitate to call myself a behaviorist, as I think that title is better applied to those who have had much more dedicated study in that aspect of the field than I have. As with flying, where I knew as soon as I became a pilot that I wanted to become a flight instructor, I pretty much knew when I became a canine handler that at some point in the future I'd want to be able to teach others to do it, too. I very much enjoy sharing the adventure.
We're delighted that you've shared the adventure with us, Susannah. Thank you!