About the book:For Janet MacPhail, photographing retrievers in training is the perfect way to spend an evening. But a photo session at Twisted Lake takes a peculiar turn as Drake, her friend Tom’s Labrador, fetches a blood-soaked bag holding an exotic feather and a torn one-hundred-dollar bill.
When one of her photography students turns up dead at the lake, Janet investigates a secretive retreat center with help from Australian Shepherd Jay and her quirky neighbor Goldie. Between dog-training classes, photo assignments, and romantic interludes with Tom, Janet is determined to get to the bottom of things before another victim’s wings are clipped for good.
Interview with Sheila Webster BonehamSheila, how did you come up with the title, The Money Bird?
Janet MacPhail, the 50-something protagonist my Animals in Focus series, is a professional photographer whose primary subjects are animals, and she competes with her Australian Shepherd in a variety of canine sports. She also has an orange tabby named Leo who is an important part of her life, and a vital character in the books. Each of the books is centered on an animal sport or activity, and the titles are taken from those contexts, but also tied into whatever issue has inspired murder and the mystery.
The Money Bird, book #2, finds Janet and her beau, Tom, at a series of retriever training sessions—Tom has a Labrador Retriever. “Money bird” is a field trial term, but the mystery in this book hinges on illegal trafficking in endangered tropical birds that sell for big bucks, so the title ties them together. The first book begins at a canine obedience trial, and Drop Dead on Recall is a play on an obedience exercise called the “drop on recall.” I’m at work now on the third book and although the title isn’t fixed and I can’t say much, Janet’s Leo suggests you think “cat agility.”
Are you like any of your characters? How so?
You know, I pretty frequently hear from friends that they feel as if they’ve met Janet, my protagonist in the mysteries, and I take that to mean that she’s like me. We are a lot alike, it’s true, but she’s not me and I’m not her. We both love animals, compete with dogs, work in creative fields, need to lose weight, and are way past being devastated by a bad-hair day! But her life is very different from mine, and her personal issues are her own.
With what five real people would you most like to be stuck in a bookstore?
For the sake of not hurting any feelings, I’m going to choose real people who have gone to the great bookstore in the…well, wherever it is! And I have to say that limiting my list to five is tough, although perhaps that’s plenty of people, depending on how long we’re stuck! That said, here’s my list:
Rachel Carson. She wrote books that changed the world, and she stood up to the powers that wanted to silence her. Although a lot of the science is out of date, Silent Spring is still a book that everyone should read.
Rosa Parks. Again, a woman of profound courage who changed the world by a simple yet enormous act.
My grandmother, Harriet Webster. She died when my father was two years old, but his older brother remembered a little about her. She was one of the first women telephone operators in Providence, RI, but left that world with her husband and three young boys to take out a homestead in Alberta, Canada, in the early 1900s. My favorite image of her, from one of my uncle’s stories, is this: he hears a horse gallop up to the two-room school where a teacher has “punished” her eldest son, hitting his palms with a switch until they’re raw; the door flies open, and his 31-year-old mother, her long, dark hair tumbling out of her Gibson-girl upsweep, flies to the front of the room and lays into the teacher with her riding whip. The other teacher had to pull her off. I would like to meet that grandmother.
Jane Austen. Smart, funny—what’s not to like?
Harriet Beecher Stowe. Uncle Tom’s Cabin is a better book than it’s often said to be, and much of that negative heritage came from the loud public grumblings of the male literary establishment. It’s dated, but everyone should, I think, read it, keeping the convention of the time in mind.
I think I detect a theme here! Let’s hear it for brave women!
Here here! Tell us about your favorite scene in the book.
I don’t want to give too much away, but Janet has to make a trip to the emergency room in The Money Bird, and I had a lot of fun writing the check-in scene. It’s a minor event, really, in the narrative, but I felt very warm toward the women in the scene, and I think most women have had the experience of bonding with women we don’t know but whom, at a deep, feminine level, we recognize.
What book are you currently reading and in what format (e-book/paperback/hardcover)?
Just as I’m always working on more than one writing project, I always have more than one reading open, and tend to read different things at different points in my day. When I’m working on a book, I don’t read in that genre, so right now I have no mysteries or thrillers underway. Here’s what’s I am reading in paper form right now: Chocolat by Jeanne Harris – one of my favorite movies, and I never got around to the book—so happy I finally have! Also working my way through the most recent issues of several literary magazines—Tin House, Gulf Coast, Prairie Schooner. Also New Yorker. I listen to Audible books when I walk on my treadmill, and at the moment I’m in the middle of a collection of short stories edited by Neil Gamon. I read some things on my iPad or computer, particularly narrative and several other online journals. And I begin every day by reading one or two poems, sometimes from collections, sometimes online. Pretty eclectic!
Very eclectic! Where and when do you prefer to do your writing?
I write early in the mornings, almost every day, and almost always in a coffee house. I also often write in the early evening at home or, again, at my local coffee house, or at home, very late at night. Evening writing slots depend on what else is going on. Afternoons are my walking and reading time—-real, sink-into-it reading. Other kinds of reading I catch as catch can.
If you could only keep one book, what would it be?
My ginormous dictionary. It has all the tools we need to create new books in English.
You’re given the day off, and you can do anything but write. What would you do?
Go for a long walk – 3-4 hours in a beautiful place. That place could be a long, isolated stretch of beach, or a path into high-desert canyons and hills, or a fascinating city. I might go alone, or with my dog. I might take my camera, but often I don’t because I want to see, not record.
What would your dream office look like?
My dream office would not consist of an interior, but a view. I would love to work by a window looking out at a beautiful view, which could be a beach or rocky coast, or my own garden and birth feeders, or woods, or mountains…
What’s one of your favorite quotes?
“Everyone forgets that Icarus also flew.” – Jack Gilbert
If you could live anywhere in the world, where would it be?
Wow! I have lived in some interesting places – Egypt, Tunisia, Kuwait, and several places in the U.S. I would love to spend a year or two living in Scotland, the west of Ireland, Portugal, the coast of Maine, Santa Fe….make me an offer!
What are you working on now?
I always have multiple projects in the works! As I write this, I am wrapping up the third Animals in Focus mystery, as yet untitled, so that’s my primary focus. I also have a literary thriller underway that has a strong environmental element, and two book-length nonfiction projects, one about traveling the U.S. by train, and the other about—surprise!—dogs.
You're an eclectic reader and writer! Stop by again soon to tell us about your next book.
Excerpt from The Money Bird
Chapter 1The man with the gun stood half hidden in chest-high brush to the west of Twisted Lake. Drake crouched a hundred yards to the east, gaze fixed, muscles twitching. The only thing obstructing my view of either was the cloud of no-see-ums whirling around my head.
Daylight was dying, and the eastern bank of the lake was already lost in shadows, so I knew I wouldn’t see clearly for much longer. The breeze had all but died in the last half hour and the bright scent of day bowed to darker notes of mud and rot.
The man, Collin Lahmeyer, tucked the 12-gauge under his right arm and picked up an orange canvas-covered training bumper with the other. He let it drop from his fist and bounce at the end of a half yard of thin nylon cord, then swung his arm and let fly toward a small island fifty yards offshore. Drake quivered as he watched. He shifted one foot forward an inch but held his ground when his partner, Tom, murmured, “Wait.”
The cylindrical bumper stalled high in the air, vivid as blood against a bank of charcoal clouds. Drake tracked the object, his focus so tight that he didn’t so much as twitch when the shotgun’s long barrels rose and the gunman shouldered the weapon. A single blast cracked the August dusk and made my eyes blink and my shoulders tighten. I’ve been photographing field dogs in training and competition for years and I knew the shells were blanks, but every blast still somehow caught my reflexes by surprise.
The training bumper plummeted into a tangle of goldenrod, thistle, and bindweed. Tom whispered one magic word – “Fetch!” – and Drake was gone from his side. The big dog leapt from the bank at a full-out run and was swimming before he hit water. His shoulders muscled through the light chop and his thick tail worked like a rudder to keep his heading true. He swam to the island, charged from the lake in a glittering spray, and disappeared into dense brush. Fading blossoms of ironweed jostled one another, mapping his progress. He quartered for five or six seconds, moving back and forth through the brush, searching. The wild swaying of the plants stopped, signaling that he’d found the bumper, then resumed as Drake turned back toward the lake.
The gunner, Collin Lahmeyer, had a better view of the dog than did Tom, his owner and handler. I had the best view of all. I’m Janet MacPhail, professional photographer and lifelong cynophile. I’d been shooting the Northern Indiana Hunting Retriever Club’s practice session since late afternoon, hoping to capture some of those beautiful dogs in photos I could sell to publishers and, often, to the dogs’ proud owners. I peered through my viewfinder, up to my muck-smeared elbows in ragweed and burdock. I didn’t expect to get a decent shot against the dark water and smoldering horizon, but the zoom let me follow what my naked eye would never pick up.
Collin gave a thumbs up, indicating that Drake had his “bird,” the foam-filled canvas bumper, and called, “There’s your money bird!” In a field trial, the money bird is the last bird the winning dog retrieves, the one that brings home the cash prize. There was no cash here, and the bird was made of batting and canvas, but Tom Saunders looked like he might pop his buttons, if there’d been any on his faded U of Michigan sweatshirt. Tom and I had started seeing each other back in May, but we’d had only a couple of weeks before he and Drake headed off for a summer of fieldwork in New Mexico. Tom is an ethnobotanist. He teaches in the anthropology department at the local campus, but he likes to run off to exotic places to do research between terms. We’d developed quite an electronic relationship over the summer, and although I declined all invitations to head west for a visit, I had to admit that I was both thrilled and terrified to have him back in town. As I stood watching the man work with his dog in the sultry dusk, the Janet demon in my head whispered time to jump his bones. Good Janet pointed out that poor proper Collin Lahmeyer might never recover from the spectacle, and besides, the ground was soggy and the mosquitoes ravenous. Romance could wait.
I knew that Drake needed only one more qualifying run to complete his MH, his Master Hunter title, and the way this training session was going, he looked ready to me. Not that I know much about training retrievers that I haven’t gleaned from listening to friends involved in the sport. I have an Australian Shepherd myself, and we pursue other sports. I knew, though, that Drake had been entered in a Hunt Test the end of May and should have finished his Master Hunter title there, but he pulled a shoulder muscle two days before the event. Several people advised Tom to give the dog painkillers and run him anyway, and, gutsy Labrador Retriever that he was, Drake would have worked through the pain if his beloved Tom asked him to. Tom refused – another feather in the cap he wore in my viewfinder. Now, after two months of R and R in the high desert, the dog appeared to be back on top of his game.
I glanced at Tom. He was watching for Drake to reappear from the brush while talking to a man I didn’t know. I looked through my viewfinder again. Drake burst from the brush and was almost back to the water when he veered away from the lake, back toward the west side of the island. The cover there was lower and more sparse than where the bumper went down, but I still couldn’t see what he was after. He was quite a sight, though, his wet coat sparkling in the low-angled light.
“That’s not like him,” said Tom, blowing one long, shrill blast on his whistle. Drake looked over his shoulder, his glossy black coat set off by the orange bumper in his mouth and the black-eyed Susans scattered behind him. I clicked off several more shots. Click click click. Drake held for a pair of heartbeats, then went back to what he was doing. Whatever it was, it was strictly against orders. Tom blasted the whistle again. I glanced at him, and noticed the stranger walking back toward the road, where we had all parked.
The dog turned around and made for the water. I could no longer see the orange bumper, but he had something in his mouth. The water around him fanned into a gilded wake as he swam. Click click. As he came closer, a strip of orange canvas showed in his grip, but most of the bumper was obscured by something else. I tightened my focus and zoomed in on his face, but I couldn’t tell what it was. Fabric?
Drake exploded onto the bank, set his burden on the grass, and shook a thousand water diamonds into flight. I clicked off a few more shots. Drake picked up the bumper and his other find, climbed the low bank, and sat six inches in front of Tom, sweeping the grass with his tail and offering up the bumper and what appeared to be a canvas bag. I swung the camera their way.
Tom reached to take Drake’s gifts, his face aglow with love and pride. But the look was fleeting. The muscles around his eyes and jaw tightened, waking a butterfly of fear in my own chest as I wondered what had put that look on Tom’s face. I zoomed in tight on Drake’s head and sucked in a breath as I saw what Tom had seen.
An erratic crimson trickle wound through the silvered hair of Drake’s lower jaw and fell, drop by drop, onto the darkening ground.
About the author:Sheila Webster Boneham is the author of 17 nonfiction books, six of which have won major awards from the Dog Writers Association of America and the Cat Writers Association. She is also the author of Drop Dead on Recall, the first in the Animals in Focus mystery series. For the past two decades, Boneham has been showing her Australian Shepherds and Labrador Retrievers in various canine sports. She has also bred top-winning Aussies, and founded rescue groups for Aussies and Labs. Boneham holds a doctorate in folklore from Indiana University and MFA in Creative Writing from the University of Southern Maine's Stonecoast program. She resides in Wilmington, N.C.
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