Wednesday, October 6, 2010

Joani Ascher & Misty

Who is in the picture at the right?

Joani Ascher, author of the Wally Morris mystery series from Avalon Books, and Misty, a fifteen-year-old female Golden/Lab cross, at a Read Across America Event celebrating the fiftieth anniversary of the Cat in the Hat at a local school. I am wearing a Cat in the Hat bow tie, which Misty had the sense to refuse.

What’s the occasion for coffee with a canine? Any goodies to go with the coffee? Any treat for Misty?

I love to bake and I do it well, but my husband doesn’t always feel compelled to eat my sweet treats.

Someone has to do the heavy fork lifting and it’s best done with a large cup of coffee. Misty is waiting to see if anything drops to the floor, which could happen, sometimes not so accidentally. To make sure she doesn’t miss anything, she usually has her head in my lap while I eat.

What’s brewing?

I use a combination of Chock Full O’Nuts decaf and Green Mountain Mocha Nut Fudge in a 4:3 ratio. 3:4 results in too much excitement on my part, although Misty doesn’t seem to mind. She is perfectly willing to dance around with me. It makes her laugh.

How were you and Misty united?

Misty was delivered to my door as a seven-week-old Seeing Eye® puppy.

She was our second puppy and our son was raising her.

When she went back to The Seeing Eye at 17 months, my son and I stood on the front lawn and cried because she was the sweetest, most loving dog and we were going to miss her terribly. She tried her best to master her formal training, but the Seeing Eye instructors felt she lacked the confidence to intelligently disobey her handler which could lead to a dangerous situation. When they offered me right of first refusal, I couldn’t get to Morristown to pick her up fast enough. She has been following me everywhere ever since.

She still had a career, though. She became a therapy dog, and we went to nursing homes and schools, where children who were reluctant readers would read to her without worrying that she might judge them.

People tend to relax around dogs, which is why my main character, Wally Morris, took along her
Labrador retriever when she had difficult questions to ask a dog lover.

Have your dogs had any influence on you writing?

The eleven Seeing Eye puppies my family has raised have all helped me stay on task with my writing by taking naps on my feet. That has always kept me in my chair, working away, since getting up to go do something else would result in awakening the sleeping puppy, with the expected results and time requirements. And seeing their little puppy antics and what’s left behind after they walk through a room helped me understand what the characters with dogs in my books were facing. My fictional sleuth, Wally, has a black Lab, which I should have taken into consideration when I carpeted her living room in white, but at the time we were still strictly cat people and I had no idea what a challenge I was giving her.

She also has a grandpuppy, a little yellow Lab with a chewing-the-wrong-thing habit. Wally has had visits from other dogs in the neighborhood, as well as occasions to deal with various cats. In my latest book, Vengeance Runs Cold, a dog leads Wally to her friend at a most critical time.

In addition, exercising the puppies has always been a good time for me to think about the plots in my books and discuss possible twists in the mysteries. Puppies are not great critique partners, however, since they tend to be very agreeable, and they don’t take dictation.

None of the other puppies we’ve raised, however, ever learned as many words and phrases as Misty. With her beautiful brown eyes and intelligent look of comprehension, I can talk all day long and not feel as if I am talking to myself. I take her silence as encouragement for my ideas, which is sometimes all I can get.

How did Misty get her name? Any nicknames?

The Seeing Eye names their puppies by the litter. Two of Misty’s litter mates who were raised by members of our county Seeing Eye club were Mabel and Marigold, whose name I used in my third book. I get many of the names for my characters from a database I keep of the puppies in our club and their canine parents. It makes it easier than you’d think, since many of the names sound more like people’s than dogs’.

We sometimes call Misty Miss Teenyweeny, or Mistery, or Mistywisty, or Mist, if we’re being very casual. It’s not usually necessary to call her though, since she is always by my side.

Where is Misty’s favorite place for an outing?

In the past, Misty loved going up to the reservation for a nice long walk but has to settle for much shorter ones now. Any trip in the car is still fine with her, however, and she never criticizes my driving.

She never met a stream she didn't want to wallow in, and we often had to drive home with a very muddy dog.

Cat, squirrel, postman? Tennis ball, squeaky-toy, stick?

As I said, Misty was raised to be a dog guide. Seeing Eye puppies cannot chase squirrels or birds, and it is the job of the puppy raiser to discourage any tendencies the puppies have to go after other animals. Sticks are discouraged, as they can splinter. Nylabones are recommended instead. No squeaky toy around here, no matter how thick and plush, has ever taken more than a few minutes to be de-squeakered. The puppies can play with balls, and even catch them, but care must be taken during walks to ensure they don’t think all balls are their toys, or all cats are their buddies. Their jobs, when they start working, require focus.

One of our puppies was rejected for lack of focus. I had always worried about her, because although she could catch any ball on a fly no matter which way we threw it, she would stand around outside doing nothing but watching the wind. It turned out that she wasn’t watching it so much as sniffing it, and she was career changed to K9 Explosives Detection Officer. Another puppy had a habit of talking to me when I was on the phone or trying to work, making it hard to hear who was on the other end of the phone and hard to concentrate. She sounded like Astro on the Jetsons and it really appeared that she was trying to form words. I was afraid she wouldn’t be acceptable as a dog guide because they are supposed to be silent, but she passed with flying colors.

One of Misty’s favorite people is our postman, who loves her just as much. She’d pull me up the street if she caught sight of him making his rounds. He recently asked us for a picture of her for his collection and confessed that she is his favorite dog ever. Please don’t tell Comet what his daddy said.

What is Misty’s most embarrassing moment? Proudest?

Misty’s most embarrassing moment was probably when she was a tiny puppy and sat down in her food bowl, getting stuck.

She has a good sense of humor, though, and doesn’t let things like that bother her.

Her proudest moment was when we were at a Seeing Eye club picnic and all the dogs were chasing Misty, who was incredibly fast. They ran around and around trying to catch her, until Misty decided to jump into the baby wading pool that had been put out so the dogs could get water. She lay down in the pool and watched as all the dogs kept running past, and I’m quite sure she thought no one could see her.

Who are Misty’s best pet pals?

Sadly, Misty lost her two pet pals this year. Our cat, Smudge, who was her twin in my mind, since he was born within a month of Misty, was closer to her than any dog.

Bambi, our other dog, who was a black Lab and was another Seeing Eye career change, (puppy #4) also passed away this year. Of all the dogs we have raised here over the years, there has never been one who didn’t want to cuddle up with Misty and she always let us know when one of them needed to go out. The puppies all chewed on Misty’s ears as if they were gum, which she patiently endured no matter how hard we tried to get her to stick up for herself. Some tried to nibble on her back legs. For that reason, we are not raising a puppy now. Misty does not need that anymore.

What is Misty’s best quality?

Utter devotion. She aims to please. And she pees and poops on command.

View photos of all eleven of the puppies Joani Ascher's family raised, as well as a few of her cat, on Joani Ascher's website.

Excerpts of her five Wally Morris mysteries are available on the site as well.

--Marshal Zeringue