by Mary Helen Berg
J.K. “Jerry” Brandon is a Scottsdale-based mystery writer and the author of a dozen thrillers, including five that feature Lab private detectives who narrate their own story as the primary protagonists. Brandon researches Lab behaviors to help him get inside the heads of his main characters, a black Lab detective named Taser and his sidekick Meatball. The two dogs solve mysteries in titles such as Murder Most Howl and the upcoming release Less Howl, More Wag.
Brandon self publishes his books through Amazon Kindle and Barnes and Noble Nook. About a year ago, he found a faithful following of readers who crave a good dog mystery. He currently sells 1-2,000 downloads each month and Amazon carries some e-books and paperback versions. Brandon is the author of The Kennedy Rifle: A Michael Cole Novel, which earned a starred review as a recommended book of 2012 from Kirkus Reviews.
Labs in Print caught up with Brandon in Scottsdale, where he lives with “one very-tolerant wife and two ill-mannered black Labradors.”
Talk briefly about your writing background…
Like most writers, I started as a voracious reader. It was only later in life that I attempted to write myself. Had I known how daunting a task it would be, I never would have started. Writing is easy. Good writing is much more difficult, but not impossible. You simply sit at the computer, stare your blank Word page until blood sweats out of your forehead.
I had the misfortune to get a New York agent for the very first book I wrote. This was not a good thing, as my first effort was not a great story. By his reputation alone, he got my book read by the big publishing houses. They wisely declined publishing it, but they did read my subsequent attempts. By the time I wrote something good, they were too wary of me to take the chance.
After that, I studied screenwriting for two years. My goal was not to write a screenplay, but to understand story. In movies, the story is everything. Screenwriters understand the mechanics of story better and can teach you the elements. I studied writing for years, and still do, but the most important thing is to first write a good story. It’s more difficult that you’d think.
What drew you to mysteries and thrillers?
Mysteries were what hooked me on reading. I can still remember our kindly grade school librarian going to the bookshelf and handing me a children’s mystery with the words, “You might like this one.” After reading every mystery she had, it was all Hardy Boys, Sherlock Holmes, Robert Parker, Agatha Christie, and lately finishing with Martin Cruz Smith.
What inspired you to use dogs as detectives and narrators? What is it about Labs that makes them good storytellers?
My inspiration is my two Labs, Zoe and Bungie. They are exactly Taser and Meatloaf, so living with them for eight years has given me all the understanding and material I need. Labs have simple desires, but strong ones. The need to please, a need for affection and fun activities, but they can be willful. We made the mistake of getting two littermates, so initially they had each other and didn’t care much about doing what their new master wanted. They were their own dog pack and I was just the sucker with the food. It took years to get some control (and repair the house).
My Labs ended up in my books because of the nervous, inquisitive nature of my Zoe (Taser). She was always investigating what was going on in and around the house, and only seemed at ease when things were settled in her mind. Zoe is the one who will wake the house when a coyote howls or walks by the house. Bungie (Meatloaf) cares only about her food and comfort.
I always wanted to write an old-fashioned private eye mystery with a first person narrator, a la the ’50s, but that has been out of favor of late. One day it hit me, Zoe would be the perfect private eye, with Bungie as sidekick. I wrote the first few pages and after that they took over, just like they did when they arrived at my house.
Would you say that your books are mysteries that feature dogs or dog books that happen to be mysteries? Who are your biggest fans—dog lovers or mystery lovers?
In publishing and selling any book, reaching your audience when starting out is the most difficult task. I self-published A Howl in the Night on Amazon and only had a handful of sales the first six months. Then the five-star reviews came, and word of mouth slowly built the audience for additional books. I feel the readers are mostly dog lovers, but I write for anyone who likes a good story. As one reviewer wrote, we don’t read for the mystery, we read to find out what the dogs have been up to.
Talk about the canine research you do for these books. What did you discover in research about canine behavior and perception that helped you fill out your canine characters?
I especially like, Inside of a Dog by Alexandria Horowitz. She reveals such amazing traits of our best friends. I was amazed by a dog’s ability to separate scents. They don’t smell beef stew, they smell the carrots, the meat, the peas, the onions, the tomato, and the salt and pepper. All at the same time, but separate.
What’s the hardest part about writing from a Lab’s POV? The best part?
The hardest part about writing as a canine protagonist is thinking like a dog. Actually, you have to go beyond that and BE the dog. What is he feeling, why is he acting that way or doing those things? What are his fears and desires? The best part of all, is for a brief period you get to be a dog.
Talk a little about your history with Labs?
I’ve had four Labradors over the years. The current pair was not my first choice. My wife went to a black Lab breeder and ordered a pup. The breeder said she may end up with a extra puppy, so my wife wanted to get that one, too. I, being sensible, said two Labs are too much. Shortly thereafter I fell asleep on the couch. While I was sleeping she called the breeder back and bought both.
Now we just have one question for Taser: How do you feel about J.K.’s portrayal of you in the series? Is there anything he hasn’t gotten quite right?
Yeah, I gotta gripe. J.K. don’t list me as co-author. I’m the mutt who does all the work around here. Without me there wouldn’t be any story, yet all I get outta the deal is crunchy nuggets.Which actually ain’t too bad. And I get love. Which ain’t bad either. But from now on, I want first billing.