Tuesday, November 27, 2007

Oscar's Diaries

Today, I interview Marijke Durning about her new book, "Oscar's Diaries," written by her late rescue greyhound, Oscar - at least in his voice. Marijke talks about how this book came about - and how to pronounce her name!

Tell us about yourself.
I'm 46 years old and Montreal born and bred. I do speak French, but I don't write in it as that is really not a strong point. I would pity any editor who would have to try to figure out what I was trying to say. I still live here with my husband and three kids (16, 18, and 20). I always loved to write; when I was in high school, I prayed for essay exams instead of multiple choice. If I didn't really know the answer, I could often craft a response that was good enough to get me partial marks at least. I never had enough confidence to go into writing as a profession though. I studied nursing and worked as an RN for many years before I started writing. I began writing again because I enjoyed it and then realized that I could earn a living by combining my RN experience and my writing ability.

Tell us how to pronounce your name!
Ah, the question many want to ask but don't. I ended up putting the pronunciation on my website because I was afraid that some potential clients may be concerned about pronouncing my name. It turned out to be a good call; I was hired by a client who called because I did that. Marijke is a Dutch name. Phonetically, my name is said muh-rye´-kah/keh. If you can roll the "r", all the better. I often tell people to think about Mariah Carey and put a K in Mariah.

Tell us about your book, Oscar's Diaries.
Oscar's Diaries is the first in a series of books about a retired racing greyhound, Oscar. He raced as Answer to Chevy but only ran four races before his owner realized that he wasn't going to be a champion and was made available for adoption when he was younger than two years old.
Before we adopted Oscar, I researched the breed as thoroughly as possible. Greyhounds make amazing pets but they can have a few issues, as most breeds do. To do this research, I participated on a greyhound forum ( greytalk.com) and read as much as I could. The posters are very passionate about the greyhounds finding their forever homes after racing and they love to hear all about how they come home and adapt. They also love photos.
So, when we brought Oscar home, I began writing a daily diary – only intending it to be a short-term thing. I took many photos and wrote up his daily activities, posting them on the site. I never imagined they would become as popular as they did. The response blew me away, to tell you the truth.
If I missed doing a few days, I would get emails asking if Oscar was ok. Not asking if I was ok, but if Oscar was! The entries did eventually slow down and they were being done every week or two after a while. This first volume is about 100 pages and covers Oscar's first month of discovering the world beyond the kennel.
Another interesting outcome of the diary was the introduction of Oscar's pal, the Incredible Hulk. A couple of weeks after Oscar came to us, I bought a 3 ft tall Incredible Hulk from a garage sale. Oscar and the Hulk developed quite the relationship. There are many story lines with Oscar and his buddy. The Hulk is something many of his readers refer to often.

What gave you the idea to write a book in Oscar's voice?
This is going to sound odd, but it just seemed like the right thing to do. Since it began as a daily journal type of thing, it didn't seem as if it would be as much fun if I reported Oscar's progress from my point of view. I think this blends a bit into the next question too.

You're a medical writer, explain the challenges about switching from that specialty to doing a book such as Oscar's Diaries.
Being a medical writer, my writing is very specific. I was afraid that if I wrote in my voice, I could become to formulaic, too "this is the story as Marijke tells it," keeping in mind grade level, grammar, etc.
I wanted Oscar's Diaries to be fun, something that people could read and chuckle, and I imagined how it would be said by someone who was experiencing all these things in life for the first time.
Ultimately, it has come to full circle though and my medical side had to kick in. Oscar died of cancer on August 13th, one week after the book was published and 10 days before his fifth birthday. For this reason, I have promised a minimum of 10% of the book's profits to be donated to osteosarcoma research that is taking place at the University of Ohio.
There's another interesting part to the circle. Two people I know have bought the book for an elderly relative with dementia. One has reported back that her grandmother adores the book and laughs at Oscar every time she goes through the book. It's easy to read and needs no ability to follow a story. Who would have thought that one day, the very type of person I often looked after as a nurse would enjoy my writing?

What were the similarities in the process?
I can't think of any similarities other than the need for being creative and getting your information across in a manner that makes someone want to continue reading what you wrote.
I found writing Oscar's Diaries a great break from my every day writing. In some ways, I had to think harder while writing about Oscar than I do about other kinds of writing. Medical writing is based in research, so what I write, I back up and find sources. When writing about Oscar, I had to decide if what I was writing about was entertaining or interesting enough for the audience.
I was afraid of bombing and that the whole idea was silly. That rarely happens when I write something fact-based and educational.

How did the writing process for this book work for you? How did you split your time between the medical writing and book writing?

The book is very photo intensive and, for the most part, it was the photos that sparked the stories. My kids like to say that we have more pictures of Oscar than we do of the three of them all together. They're likely quite right!
The digital camera was always available and the kids did get into it too. They would see Oscar doing something or lying in a strange pose, and they would snap photos. I would upload the photos and then craft a story around them. Sometimes the story would be obvious, such as going for a ride in the van, other times they just happened.
Writing the book was something that I would just do when I felt like it or I felt it had been too long since I'd written last. It was mostly first thing in the morning or late at night. There were, though, many times when I would just want a break from writing something technical and I'd pull up the file and write an Oscar story.

What types of books do you like to read?
It really varies, depending on the mood I'm in. The most recent book I read that I really enjoyed was the Birth House by Ami MacKay, a Canadian author. I read a lot of books on my Palm Pilot. Since I got that a few years ago, I read many more books than I had in the previous years because I always have my Palm in my purse so I always have a book with me. Right now, I'm reading one of James Patterson's Murder Club books. Last year, I read books from the life of Harriet Tubman (Catherine Clinton) to October Sky (Homer H. Hickam).

What is one quirky writing habit that no one knows about you (yet?)
I rarely work on something for more than 15 minutes at a time. I have to have a computer game on that I can go back an forth (like scrabble), and multiple windows are open for reading various forums. I have the attention span of a gnat. I get up and down from my chair so often that it's a blessing that I work at home and can't drive my coworkers bananas.

Where can people find your book? And, what's next for you?
Oscar's Diaries, Life as a Retired Greyhound is available at Lulu.com: http://stores.lulu.com/mareyeka. I give a discount to Greyhound adoption groups so they can raise some money as well, but they need to contact me directly to arrange that.
I do plan on putting together more versions of Oscar's Diaries but there's no rush. In my professional writing, I'm trying to expand a bit beyond the health writing. I have an article appearing in a quilting magazine in the early new year; it's a profile on an award-winning Mohawk quilter. I'm very excited about that one.
I'm also very passionate about the need for palliative care so I've started a website; I'm dedicating a lot of time to that. I may be able to take that in some direction with writing. I have a lot of ideas; I just have to put them into action.


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