Desire to Share Overseas Experiences Prompts Dog-Lover to Write
by Nita Sweeney, author of the running and mental health memoir, Depression Hates a Moving Target: How Running with My Dog Brought Me Back from the Brink.
Each time I interview a WNBA-SF member, the opportunity reminds me how fortunate we are to be part of a group of such interesting women. I hope you enjoy this conversation with Annemarie O’Brien and learn as much from her as I did.
Nita Sweeney (NS): As a fellow dog-lover, I must ask about yours. Please tell us about your dogs.
Annemarie O’Brien (AO): When I wrote Lara’s Gift, I had two borzoi, Zola and Zar. They inspired the key fictional canine characters in Lara’s Gift of the same name. Borzoi are also known as Russian wolfhounds. They were the dogs of the Tsar during the Imperial era and considered a national treasure. They are very tall, slender, super-fast dogs that belong to the sight hound group. The Tsar and his court used them to hunt wolves. Today, many Russians use them to hunt hare. Beyond the squirrels who dare to steal fruit from the trees in my garden, neither of my borzoi hunt. Unfortunately, Zola passed away two years ago. She was a sweet, outgoing borzoi with a golden retriever personality. To keep Zar company we now have a silken windhound named Zeus. This is a newer breed of sighthounds developed in California, I believe, that looks like a miniature borzoi. Both of my dogs like to go to Stinson Beach and play tag with other dogs. They are both loyal and great companions.
NS: Each of your dogs sounds lovely. I’m sorry to hear about Zola. Our pets are such gifts. Changing the subject a bit, can you tell us more about Lara’s Gift, perhaps something that isn’t in the blurb?
AO: Lara’s Gift is a girl empowerment, father-daughter, historical fiction, dog story for young adults. It is set in Russia in the early 1900s during the Imperial era. The main character, Lara, wants to breed borzoi worthy of the Tsar, just like her father and her ancestors have done for hundreds of years. Lara has a special gift, or sixth sense as I’d liked to call it, regarding the borzoi such that she sees things before they happen. I got the idea from my own sixth-sense sort of experiences I had with my first childhood dog, Emma. Once when she was at a kennel while we were on vacation, I had a strong feeling that she had escaped and was lost. I begged my parents to call the kennel to check on her, but they assured me that there was no way she could escape from the kennel. Sure enough, when we picked her up upon our return, they told my parents that she had escaped and had, indeed, been lost on the same morning I had felt that something was wrong. I have other examples I could share, but I think you get the point. Well, as I researched these types of things in Russia, I learned that there was no real word in Russian for ‘sixth-sense’ and that what was more common were visions. If you read Nabokov’s memoir, you will learn that he had visions. I have dozens of other sources of Russians during this period who claimed to have visions, as well. My choice to add visions to Lara’s story reflects what people in Russia believed at that time. It is not intended to be fantastical.
NS: How interesting that dogs have played such an important role all of your life. Your bio explains that you worked in Russia which inspired the setting for Lara’s Gift. Which part were you in?
AO: I spent about ten years in Russia. In my early years, I worked as a consultant for Soviet small businesses interested in doing business in the United States and Europe. Because of all the contacts I developed, I started a venture capital group in Philadelphia with three other people that established one of the first oil and gas joint ventures. I also launched Bill Blass menswear in Moscow. It produced $25,000 in the first hour of opening at a time when hard currency wasn’t legal.
When USAID provided technical assistance to Russia to set up a privatization and capital markets program, I joined the PriceWaterhouseCoopers team as an economics advisor to the Russian government. I travelled all over Russia to cities like Moscow, St. Petersburg, Petrozavodsk, and Irkutsk, as well as former Soviet republics like Kyrgyzstan, Kazakhstan, Uzbekistan, and Turkmenistan. During this time, I lived in Moscow, Russia and Bishkek, Kyrgyzstan. It was the greatest adventure of my life.
NS: What was your favorite thing about the country?
AO: There are a number of things I adore about Russia. But my favorite would have to be the people. I have never met a more well-read, intellectual, resourceful, salt-of-the-earth group of people anywhere else in the world. When I lived there, so many people had PhDs and valued books and their friendships. Their homes (one-bedroom apartments) often consisted of one or two walls of floor to ceiling bookcases for their beloved books. In space that was limited a good chunk of it was reserved for books. Russians somehow found happiness without materialism and showed me what was important by the way they lived. Their values regarding education shaped me tremendously. A lot has changed since I lived in Russia during the 80s and 90s. I like to think that Russians still value books.
NS: Are there other things about the time you spent in Russia that inspire your life or work?
AO: I became a writer because of an experience I had in Russia. Lara’s Gift is the first part of the bigger story I want to tell from this experience. I don’t want to reveal too much about this experience or story just yet. What I can say is that it will be my best story because it comes from my deepest passion.
NS: Have you always wanted to be a writer?
AO: No. When I was in middle school, I took an aptitude test that pointed me to three potential careers: writer, veterinarian, and engineer. The veterinarian option seemed likely and was exactly what I wanted to be until I discovered I didn’t like blood and saw a veterinarian try to spay a male dog. That’s right, a spay, not a neuter. I come from a family of engineers so the engineer option didn’t seem far-fetched. But the writer option? I seriously thought that that had been a mistake. It wasn’t until decades later when I worked overseas that my interest in writing took root. It was because of these overseas experiences I was having and my desire to share them that turned me into a writer.
NS: What is the most difficult part about writing for you?
AO: Time. I work full-time for Bio-Rad in marketing where I create stories and the branding/communications for my division. I’m also a soccer mom with two daughters who aspire to play soccer in college. In the fall of 2020, my oldest daughter will play for the University of Portland where World Cup legends like Megan Rapinoe played. The dogs need exercise so it’s my job, despite promises from my kids, to walk them three miles every day. After I take care of everyone, it’s a challenge to carve out time to write. But I put it on my calendar and hold myself to it. Fortunately, I never get writer’s block. When I sit down to write, I know I have to use my time efficiently, so I don’t waste it. If I have a hard getting back into my story, I read and revise the last thing I wrote. It always jumpstarts the ideas and gets the fingers moving!
NS: What is the most surprising thing you discovered while writing?
AO: When I was getting my MFA, I attended a lecture about theme. The person giving the talk had said, “The theme of your story will often come well after you’ve completed your story.” Really, I thought? Wouldn’t I know the theme as I’m writing? I recall thinking this didn’t make sense until I was in the second round of revision edits with my editor at Knopf. That’s when it dawned on me what the theme of my story really was about: girl empowerment.
In another lecture, the speaker stopped me when she said, “There’s a little bit of ourselves in the characters we create.” Even if I’m writing historical fiction, I wondered? My character, Lara and I had nothing in common besides our love of dogs.
After I turned in my manuscript for publication it surprised me to discover how closely Lara’s struggle with her father mirrored my own childhood struggle with my father. Although my father always told me that I could do anything I wanted, if I put my mind to it, he also didn’t think I needed to go to college. He came from a generation that believed women got married and would be taken care of by their husbands. Luckily, I was able to persuade him that I had another plan and got to go college and get two master’s degrees.
NS: Do you have a personal writing tip you would care to share with the WNBA-SF members?
AO: Read like a writer, write like a reader. Read or listen to books on audio while you’re driving, exercising or doing chores every day. Put writing on your calendar and guard this time. Join a writing group. There’s nothing like community to help you develop your craft.
NS: That’s great advice. Thank you. Are you working on something new you would like to tell us about?
AO: I am nearly finished drafting a rhyming picture book. An early draft of it was a finalist at a recent SCBWI conference.
NS: Congratulations! Any other projects in the offing?
AO: I also co-wrote a young adult/crossover book that’s on submission. It’s about a Thai girl who is sold into slavery by her uncle and how she escapes and starts a new life. I spent some time in Thailand and feel very strongly about empowering girls and preventing human trafficking. My co-author is a Thai-American writer who works for a non-profit that helps to educate Thai girls that are at risk of trafficking. It was wonderful collaboration.
NS: What a worthy cause. You stay busy. Any others?
AO: I am currently working on a middle grade novel, the one that inspired me to become a writer.
NS: I look forward to seeing that as well. Thanks so much, Annemarie, for taking the time to share your experiences and insights.
Annemarie O’Brien writes books for young adults. She is the author of the debut middle grade novel, Lara’s Gift, published by Alfred A. Knopf of Penguin Random House with subsidiary rights to Scholastic. Lara’s Gift is a girl empowerment story set in imperial Russia. It is also a dog story inspired from a former life when Annemarie worked in Russia and was gifted her first borzoi puppy. Lara’s Gift has received starred reviews from School Library Journal and Kirkus Reviews among other accolades.
Annemarie grew up in Northampton, Massachusetts, attended the University of Massachusetts at Amherst where she earned a BBA in marketing and economics, and studied Russian at Smith College. She later earned an MBA in international business from the University of South Carolina and an MFA in Writing for Children and Young Adults from the Vermont College of Fine Arts. Today, Annemarie lives in the San Francisco Bay area with her family. She is a global marketing manager and teaches writing courses at UC Berkeley Extension, Stanford Continuing Studies, and Pixar.
Connect with me on Facebook (https://www.facebook.com/AnnemarieOBrienAuthor/), Twitter (@AnnemarieOBrien) and LinkedIn (https://www.linkedin.com/in/annemarieobrienauthor/).
Learn more about Annemarie O’Brien by visiting her website. (www.AnnemarieOBrienAuthor.com )