Friday, September 1, 2023

Author interview with Don Mayhew

This week I’m interviewing the lovely Don Mayhew, who published his first book in 2021, a wonderful book with dog protagonists (and who doesn’t love pets being in charge!), so let’s meet him.

‘I’m a former journalist from California who's written about sports, movies, music, television shows, books, toys, fatherhood, education, 9/11, deaf culture, fireworks, and life in the San Joaquin Valley. I’m a big fan of Dr. Seuss, the Boston Red Sox, and Bruce Springsteen.

‘Roscoe & Muldoon: The Mayor Is Mad’ is my first novel for middle-grade readers.’

And here’s a tweetable version (tweet here):

‘Do your tween animal lovers enjoy reading mysteries with large doses of pals and puns on the side? Then Don Mayhew has the perfect book for them:

Before we go further, are the ages of U.S. middle-grade kids the same age as the U.K.?

‘U.S. grades 4-7 are kids who are 9 to 12 years old. I could see the book appealing to a few 14-year-olds, depending on reading comprehension level and how much they like animals.’

Thanks for that! What inspired him to become a writer?

‘I have to give it up for my mom, who encouraged me to read as a child. It started with Dr. Seuss and similar authors. Then she pointed out that the daily newspaper, the Los Angeles Times, had comics. I started devouring those on a daily basis, then discovered the paper had a sports section. Wooooo! I grew up reading Jim Murray, the old Times sports columnist, who was famous for his hyperbole, colourful metaphors, and sarcasm. Though I loved playing sports and was tall, I realized pretty quickly that I didn’t have the athleticism to take me far in that direction. So the next-best thing had to be sports writing. I earned a journalism degree and followed that path until early adulthood, when my interest pivoted to pop culture. I was fortunate to be a journalist when that was a viable way to make a decent living. Unfortunately, that’s rarely the case these days.’

Having been a journalist, does that mean he brings a daily writing discipline to his book writing ?

‘Not really, but when I’m getting some serious writing done, I always have music on in the background. Sometimes I pay close attention to the first song or two, but after that, the words start to flow as the tunes do. The goal is to get into that creative state where ideas and words just pour from your fingertips. They do that some days better than others.’

I like the sound of that, I’ll have to give it a go too! What does he enjoy the most about writing?

‘As a journalist, I liked the exchange of ideas and interviewing people about the things they held dear, whether it was their hobbies or careers or family-oriented topics.

Writing “Roscoe & Muldoon,” what I enjoyed most was problem solving. How do I get characters from point A to point B in a way that serves their personality traits, the plot, and the sandbox I’ve created for them? What kinds of conflicts make sense and how will I resolve them? Do I need to demonstrate in some way why characters behave the way they do or believe in what they do? It was fun to treat it as sort of a puzzle.’

I must admit, having dog protagonists does sound challenging to me. How difficult was it to craft a story around the limitations of a non-human character?

‘There’s a scene in the second chapter of the book where Roscoe, Muldoon, and their puppy friend Jackson are trying to recover a sweater from up in a tree. They fail, of course, but the sweater does offer them a clue about what’s going on in their small town. I tried to play that moment for laughs. (I laughed anyway.)

I found it fun trying to figure out how to make the story work within the limitations of the characters’ physical traits. (No opposable thumbs! Argh!!!) There’s a bit of carrying or tugging things in their teeth and the animals working cooperatively to get things done. I tried to create a world that looks like our own, but from the animals’ perspective.

There are a few humans in the story, but they play secondary roles, and I purposely never wrote dialogue for them. I’m a huge fan of the comic “Calvin and Hobbes,” and I find it fascinating how the creator, Bill Watterson, was able to build a fantasy world where Hobbes and Calvin speak to one another – within the real world where Hobbes is a stuffed tiger. I didn’t get that tricky for the book: It’s all the animals’ point of view. 

For me, the key to the story were the character traits. Once I had those established in my head, plot logistics were just a matter of problem solving.’

It does sound like fun! Photos of of the dogs are scattered throughout this post so please meet (in order), 1. Roscoe 2. Muldoon and 3. Jack

What has been the hardest part of getting published?

‘As an independent author with limited financial resources, it’s difficult to get attention for a book when it’s not trendy in any way. “Roscoe & Muldoon” is a treat for middle-graders who love animals and like to think about how others should be treated with respect and dignity. But we live in a time when a lot of stories in the genre focus on sci-fi and fantasy elements, with relatable protagonists who have some secret power and realize they must save their worlds from destruction. The stakes must be really high and obvious.

I don’t blame agents and publishers for seeking out whatever is popular at the moment they’re in business, after all, and it’s easier to sell a book when it’s following a path of lesser resistance. I just wish there was more room for a wider range of story types.’

That’s so true. Many indie authors try to combat this by throwing money at the problem, so what’s been the best money he’s spent professionally?

‘It would have to be the money I paid to BookBaby to publish and print “Roscoe & Muldoon: The Mayor Is Mad.” I got good advice and help preparing the manuscript for publication, the ISBN information, and guidance on how to prepare promotion before the book became available.

Obviously, it would be easier if I hadn’t had to self-publish, but BookBaby was a solid way to get my book out there. It wasn’t cheap, but it was a legitimately good experience.’

It’s great to hear he’s had a good experience (other indie authors I’ve featured haven’t been so fortunate). Can he give a synopsis of the story?

‘Two doggie detectives set out to solve a rash of burglaries happening around their small town. Getting to the bottom of the thefts is complicated by reports of a sudden flea infestation (an epidemic blamed on Siamese cats) and the disappearance of their young friend, a Maltipoo puppy named Jackson.’

Aww, this sounds adorable! Here’s a tweetable version for you (tweet here):

‘Is your animal-loving #middlegrade reader looking for something to enjoy as summer winds down? “Roscoe and Muldoon: The Mayor is Mad” is the delightful first book in a new canine detective series.’ - Chewie Book Blog

What inspired him to write this particular story?

‘The book was an outgrowth of a conversation with a friend whose son’s dog is named Roscoe. My mom’s dog is named Muldoon. Roscoe & Muldoon sounded like a law firm to me, but my friend suggested that they could be dog detectives who get help from their young puppy friend Jackson (her dog). After letting that ruminate in my brain a couple weeks, the basic idea for the story took shape.’

I find it fascinating how a germ of an idea becomes a full book. What did he find the hardest scene to write and why?

‘Most of the book alternates chapters between Jackson (who gets lost and finds a new friend, a tabby named Penny) and Roscoe & Muldoon, who are trying to solve the mystery of missing dog toys around town while trying to find their young friend.

The story’s climax in Chapter 14 was a little tricky, because it’s where the parallel stories come back together. There’s a lot of action, many moving parts, and I wanted to capture the emotion of the dogs’ reunion while maintaining the characters’ personalities and peccadilloes. The challenges made it enjoyable to write.’

He does seem to enjoy a challenge! Can he give us an extract?

‘Jackson stuck his nose in the air, as high as it would go, and sniffed. The soft breeze mixed everything up. He couldn’t make sense of the smells, and it seemed as if they were coming from everywhere at once. Jackson stood still and listened carefully, but the night had nothing to tell him.’

It’s so charming but I still can’t get my head about how anyone writes as an animal - how difficult did Don find it?

‘It helped that the three main characters in “Roscoe & Muldoon” were based on actual dogs that I had spent time around or heard stories about. From there, I considered friendship dynamics, stole accents and voices from people I’d met, and layered them over the characters.

One thing I really enjoyed doing was writing Q&A interviews with Roscoe and Muldoon that were published on several blogs. It was an entertaining way to extend the characters’ viewpoints into the real world and emphasize the story’s themes in a relevant way.’

This made my ears prick up (sorry, I couldn’t resist that 🐢🀣) and when Don offered me the chance to have a go, of course I said yes - who wouldn’t? It’s a first for me, so here goes:

How did you guys get started doing doggie detective work?

Roscoe: We were best buddies for a long time and needed something to keep busy. Sometimes humans don’t get it: A dog’s life can be dull. We sit around while they’re off to work, picking up the kids from soccer practice, running to the dentist or the grocery store. Now that I think about it, though, when my humans get home from the grocer, it’s usually treat time. I guess that’s why I act so excited to see them.

Muldoon: Our first case kind of fell into our laps. A pup went missing for almost a week. The parents were so worried. We asked around, then caught a break when the pup was found hiding under a wrecked car in our town’s junk yard. A Cane Corso who patrols the yard actually found him.

Roscoe: The book tells about a series of mysterious burglaries that we had to solve around our small town, all while most of the cats and dogs around town were fighting like, well, cats and dogs.

Muldoon: Don’t forget about the fleas.

Roscoe: Yeah, right. There’s also a flea infestation that threatened to become an epidemic. Makes me itch just to think about it.

Muldoon: And our close puppy friend Jackson went missing in the middle of all this chaos, so we had to somehow look for him in between finding clues about the burglaries.

Gosh, that sounds pretty exciting. What other adventures would you like to go on?

Roscoe: Any adventure that takes me someplace warm and sunny is great by me: the park, the lake, the forest on a summer’s day. But you’d be surprised at how busy we are just investigating and solving mysteries around our small town. We usually don’t have to go far for that kind of stuff.

Muldoon: Me, I could use a little less adventure in my life, to be honest.

Roscoe: Ah, jeez. Of course that’s your answer. This guy thinks lying beneath the table while his humans play cards is too much excitement.

Muldoon: You just wait until you’re older, buddy, and your hips start barking at you every time you move. Adventure is in the eye of the beholder.

🀣 I’m laughing most unprofessionally as I ask my third question: If you were granted the perfect day, what would you like to do, where would you like to go, and what would you like to eat?

Muldoon: Give me a cool patch of grass, a shady spot, kibble out of my own bowl, my cushy bed, and I’m one happy Newfoundland. What could be more perfect?

Roscoe (pretends to be snoring): Oh, sorry did you say something, Doon? Look, I’m all for regular naps out on the back patio. But sometimes a dog’s gotta roam. Running around is good for you. Boredom’s not. I would argue that you can’t really beat a sunny day near the ocean, with a nice, warm breeze. As far as food goes, I like pretty much anything besides cheese. Gives me the tummy rumbles. Now rotisserie chicken on the beach with the sun setting a deep orange that’s the bomb. I’ll snack on that any day.

Both options sound idyllic to me too boys! So, what can you tell us about your next book?

Muldoon: You never know what the future holds. But a lot of our cases seem to involve animals gone missing, so it wouldn’t surprise me if it were something along those lines. If it happens in our town, we want to know about it and help.

Roscoe: I wouldn’t mind leaving town once in a while to solve a case. You know, get out, see a little of the world for a few days. I love where we live, but it can be a little on the sleepy side.

Do your humans go with you? Or do they let you go run around on your own to do your business?

Roscoe: She said, “Do your business,” heh heh.

Muldoon: Yeah, that kind of has a different meaning for most dogs. Let’s just say humans shouldn’t leave the house with their dogs without a little plastic bag, if you catch my drift.

Roscoe: But if you’re talking about detective work, no, they don’t let us out. We have to keep it on the down low, and be logistically creative, so they don’t interfere with what we need to get done. We know our humans love us, so we don’t want to worry them. But a dog’s gotta do what a dog’s gotta do. Let’s just keep that between the three of us.

Okay, so I’m officially in love with these two 😍 I asked Don whether the dogs enjoyed doing their PR.

‘Roscoe didn’t mind getting out and talking about the book. He’s got a little ham in him. But Muldoon, who’s older and less spry, definitely would rather find some cool lawn to lie on. He needed to be coaxed into the promo tour, but he’s a good sport and a wise soul. I thought their friendship really shone through in their banter for the blogs. The interviews were intentionally designed to match the tone of the book.’

I love this humour and if you do too, you can read more of these delightful dog interviews at:

OK, now back to questions for Don: Your characters seem so beautifully drawn and combining that with comedy seems perfect for your target audience – do you embed moral themes into the story, too?

‘I didn’t know what the story would become when I started it, but in retrospect, the book is my love letter to democracy. I wrote the manuscript during the last half of 2020, when there was a lot going on in the world: the pandemic, racial tension, virulent political division.

As a former journalist, I find freedom of speech and equality paramount. As a citizen, I believe bullying those who disagree with us is repugnant. As a father (of grown children), I recognize that friendship and family are the foundations of a life worth living. I didn’t want to preach these things, but they’re interwoven into the story.’

Well said! I understand you’re planning their next adventure. Will you choose moral themes first, or will plot be the starting point?

‘I think the themes will be more intentional the second time around. Outside of climate change, a potential extinction event, I believe income inequality is the biggest problem facing society. I want the next story to address poverty in a way that solicits empathy in the reader while still remaining entertaining, appropriate for middle-grade readers, and true to the animals’ natures and their world. It’s going to be tricky for sure.’

Wow, another challenge – you really don’t go for the easy option, do you? Have you received any feedback from your audience yet?

‘My book has only been reviewed by one blogger and, thankfully, it was very positive. I’m a big believer in the First Amendment and the marketplace of ideas. An unfavourable review wouldn’t be the end of the world. If the criticism is constructive, I might even learn a thing or two from the reviewer.’

What a brilliant attitude! I can’t wait to see what new adventures Roscoe and Muldoon’s undertake.

If you’d like to learn more about Don and his doggie detectives, please click on the links below:

Amazon UK:
Amazon US:

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