Hello Susannah, for those who don’t know you yet, can you tell us a bit more about your life and work?
A: I’m a pilot, flight instructor, and canine handler on a search-and-rescue team. Search-and-rescue work is a volunteer commitment, so I write and fly and teach to make a living. Since my writing background is primarily broadcasting, Scent of the Missing was originally intended as a series of radio pieces for our public radio network. Fate, as they say, had other plans.
SAR work requires a very heavy training and lots of determination. It can also be very difficult and cruel when you cannot find the missing or you arrive too late. Where do you find the courage and motivation to continue?
A: I think the answer to that changes with every search. The work is difficult and often very, very sad. Sometimes the response of the families and communities we serve gives us encouragement enough to get out there and do it again. Sometimes it comes from some place in ourselves. Sometimes – quite often, in fact – the generous nature of the search dogs, who get out there and get out there and get out there again without complaint, really challenges us to rise up to their level of perseverance. Courage and motivation… we need it in daily measure, and somehow by grace it comes to us in all kinds of ways.
Where did you get the idea to write down your life, what inspired you to do so?
A: I knew when I began working canine search-and-rescue that this was an area of the emergency experience that a lot of people didn’t know much about and might be interested in. We get all kinds of questions from the community at presentations or via email, and I knew that while people generally have an idea that dogs go out and use their noses to find people, the science and the art (truly art) of the work was something they might like to explore further. I also thought that writing about this might be useful in the larger sense—many people don’t know that there are canine search teams out there all across the US, across the world, even, in other nations, teams that are out there ready and able to serve a single missing person with as much dedication as they would search for a population of vanished missing after a storm.
You’ve revealed that Summer Glau’s character’s name, Sedona, came from an old essay you had written. Was that essay much different from the final book?
A: Sedona’s name was created across an odd little path. In June, when I was working with the writers in L.A., they knew they wanted this character to have a kind of exotic name, and they liked the idea of a name drawn from a city or place.There were a number of names kicked around at the time – seriously or playfully (Paris and Poughkeepsie were among the rejected, ha ha) – and I remember suggesting Sedona because I’d scrapped it from an earlier essay, but always liked the name. Sedona is a town in Arizona. The writers could well be familiar with it. They liked that name pretty much straightaway. It has a good sound, clean and unique and strong. I think it is the one name in the show that didn’t undergo much revision.
The original essay, by the way, is completely different from the book. Sedona in that old essay was created for a firefighter I knew whose real name I wanted to protect. But ultimately the name Sedona didn’t work for her, and I changed the essay name again. Sedona *much* better fits this character.
Do you have any plans to release another book?
A: Yes. I have another book under contract now, due to release in 2013. I was just working on it prior to answering these interview questions! Your interview is a nice dessert following a long day of rubbing my forehead over a chapter on the new book.
TNT is going to adapt your book into a TV show, was it a nice surprise?
A: It was a very nice surprise. You write something like this hoping it’ll interest people and have some greater contribution to make (support your local SAR teams!), and when a network comes along and finds value in the reality these volunteers work, it’s a big encouragement.
Did you get involve in the creative part of the project ?
A: Yes. I think my official title is Consulting Producer, if I remember right. Work on the pilot really started back in May, when the basic premise was drafted with the Executive Producer here in my home town, and then the serious outline went into draft in June, where I met with the writers in L.A. As they wrote through drafts, we emailed or called back-and-forth frequently. These writers are established professionals and really understand how they need to build a story for the screen, but they were equally interested in getting as much of the dialogue and action appropriate to actual search procedure as possible and building characters whose lives are shaped by that very specific mission. They asked a lot of good questions and built from there.
How much is it going to vary from the book?
A: The dog teams in the pilot are all certified when you first meet them. There are other variances that I can’t discuss at the moment, but I will say that anyone who’s read the book will recognize elements from the book and how they weave to form this first look at these characters.
You were offered a little role in the pilot, what was that experience like?
A: I was an extra! A background SAR handler with a beautiful German Shepherd! I’ve been an extra before in some films, but this was the first time I actually got to do something I normally do, and in a uniform very much like my real one. It felt remarkably real, stomping across uneven terrain behind a dog. And it was fun.
If the series gets commissioned, would you like to come back again?
A: Oh, sure. I’ll reprise Stomping Handler With Dog.
They’ve chosen some really talented actors for the series, what do you think of them? Are they doing real SAR handlers justice?
A: I think the choices were spot on. Having watched these actors work – hard – across multiple takes with tricky environmental things happening, I could see these folks certainly demonstrate the kind of stamina you need for SAR. And the ability to step up again and again without complaint. They in no way had it easy.
What about their canine counterparts, was there a dog who can rival with Puzzle?
A: The actor dogs are very talented at what they do. Puzzle is a SAR dog. Their job descriptions are as different as chalk and cheese, but they do have a strong work ethic in common. Also, they are all sweet dogs.Puzzle’s wag and Rocket’s have the same generous heart behind them.
We know Tricial Helfer’s character is mostly based on you, what was your reaction when you found out she’d been cast?
A: My reaction? YAY! She’s strong and smart and outdoorsy. And believable in the search field. And gorgeous in the middle of all that. I think I clapped when I first read it, which probably startled a few people in Starbuck’s at dawn.
Joining Helfer on screen are Summer Glau and Eric Winter who play Sedona and Jake. Are they also based on real handlers you’ve worked with?
A: Summer and Eric play created characters that do not duplicate any figure in the book. That said, again, I think those seeing the pilot/series after reading the book would recognize how and why those characters were created. They are representative of the kinds of people who are drawn to SAR and commit to it.
Are there some secrets you can reveal to the fans about Summer’s character?
A: Alas, no. I can say she’s a pivotal and poignant figure onscreen.
What about the woman herself, what was it like working with her?
A: Summer did quite a few of her scenes before I got to set, but watching her work I got a sense of uncomplaining professional. Very talented, of course, but also thoughtful, prepared, and undemanding. Lovely.
Your book – and hopefully this series will too – shed some well-deserved light on a world mostly unknown to most which is full of wonderful and courageous people and dogs. Is there any way people can contribute or support SAR teams?
A: The best way is to do an internet search on your area plus the phrase “canine search and rescue”. If there is a team local to your area, they will probably have a website that indicates how interested people can support the team, whether financially, by volunteering to hide for the dogs, or by actually serving the team in some capacity.
Lastly, what advice would you give to someone who wanted to follow the same career you have? How does one become a SAR handler?
A: Most SAR handling is volunteer, so it’s something you do in addition to your day (or night) job. My best advice is to meet with a team, go through their levels of training with as much commitment as you would a paid job, and then, when they determine you’re ready, begin training with a dog that has been carefully chosen for drive and aptitude. This is not at all an easy volunteer effort. The process is long and painstaking. You do a lot of training and a whole lot of testing before you’re ready as a team. And once you *are* a team, handlers and dogs are frequently in physically tough environments in all kinds of weather. Hostile bystanders are not always out of the question. You have to really want to do it and be really, really prepared to be uncomfortable for long stretches of time. You have to be willing to get up in the middle of the night and to give up weekends and holidays on a routine basis. It’s rewarding work, absolutely, but it’s not a given. You have to earn the trust that puts you out there with your dog in the first place.