Imaginative, easy reading, R.L. Maizes gives us the joy of unusual characters in Other People’s Pets. LaLa is the daughter of a thief. Her father, Zev, works as a locksmith by day, but in the evenings he breaks into homes and steals their valuables. When LaLa’s mother ran out on them, Zev started taking LaLa with him on burglary jobs, teaching her the ropes. He turned to homeschooling and allowed her only limited exposure to other people to ensure their secret stayed between them. Zev’s love for his daughter is genuine, and she loves her father, too. LaLa cares for a cat her mother secretly left for her, and it becomes clear that LaLa has an extraordinary gift. She is an animal empath – she is drawn to animals and can feel what they feel.
“Domesticated animals have survived by understanding humans. What’s more unusual is to find a human who understands animals.”
LaLa’s talent was very helpful when the father daughter team approached houses to break-in to and other people’s pets were inside.
15 years later LaLa is doing honest work as a vet tech while finishing up vet school when her father is arrested. She feels responsible for paying his lawyer’s fees and her only solution to coming up with the money is to get back into the burglary business her father taught her as a kid.
R.L. Maizes has given us the gift of wonderfully flawed father daughter characters, both with difficult childhoods, odd stress management tactics and incredible skill beyond the norm. Whether it is picking locks or diagnosing animal ailments, the adventures and happenings these two experienced kept me turning pages, and I even shed a tear or two. .
R.L. Maizes touches upon lots of interesting and unique ideas in Other People’s Pets, like robbing a house but at a the same time helping the pets, feeling the emotions and pain of animals, stress management techniques like obsessive cleaning or repeating lists of medical terms; her writing is always captivating and innovative. I find Maizes characters intriguing and oddly wonderful, and I highly recommend this refreshing and thought provoking novel. I have to admit, I won’t look at my dog the same way again!
Q & A with Author R.L. Maizes
Q: La La has a special gift. She can feel what the animals in her close proximity feel. Where did you get the idea to write about an animal empath?
A: I’m an animal lover who worries about animal suffering, and that led me to wonder what it would be like to go through the world feeling what animals feel. I liked the challenge of imagining a character like that, what her life would be like, and what challenges she would face.
Q: What made you decide to write about a house robbery gone wrong?
A: Our house was burglarized several times when I was growing up and it must have left a strong impression on me. One of the burglaries occurred when I was in my early teens and home with a friend. I heard someone coming up the stairs and thought my father had returned from being away. He wasn’t the type to announce himself at the front door. I called out, “Hi dad,” and in return I heard, “Oh, shit, there’s somebody here.” My friend and I ran into my parents’ room and locked the door. We called 911, and I kept screaming, “the police are coming,” over and over until they arrived five to ten minutes later. By that time, the burglars were gone. They took my purse, which I had left hanging on the back of a kitchen chair. To this day, I hide my purse when I’m home.
Q: Some of your characters in the book have unlikeable or dishonest qualities, Zev the thief, Elissa the abandoner, La La the deceiver, Tank the briber…and then there are the forgiving, supportive characters; Dr. Bergman the vet, Clem the boyfriend, Nat the friend, Julie, Zev’s date. How do you develop and get to know each of your characters?
A: As I write about the characters and put them in stressful situations, I see how they react and, in that way, I get to know them. Certain aspects of their personalities get established early, and then as I write I have to think about what each character would do as opposed to what I as the writer might want them to do. I try to make the characters complex, so that no character has only negative characteristics. Take La La, for example. She’s deceitful, but she’s also loving to animals and to her father, putting her life and career on the line for him.
Q: Both father and daughter seem to have some stress triggers and coping skills – La La recites animal anatomy and Zev cleans – are these signs of mental illness? Regular old stress management? Why did you choose to include these traits?
A: We all have tics, ways we behave that are especially pronounced during times of high stress. Some of us eat, some of us exercise, some of us smoke. I wanted to give Zev and La La ways to calm themselves, and also ways for me as the writer to signal their emotional states to the reader. La La feels most in control when she’s dealing with animals, practicing veterinary medicine, but there isn’t always an animal around. So she reviews her veterinary education to give herself a feeling of control and to make sure she isn’t forgetting it. Zev, on the other hand, is a single parent. It’s always been up to him to keep the house clean and cleaning became a way for him to feel in control.
A: I’m so glad you enjoyed the stories. Other People’s Pets didn’t start out as a short story. From the first draft, as I created the complications, the plots and subplots, I knew I had a novel.
Q: How long did it take you to write this and do you find it easier or more challenging to write a novel?
A: It took about three years to write the novel and it was the hardest thing I’ve ever done, which is saying a lot because I went to law school and practiced law. One of the challenges of novel writing is that you can’t hold the entire book, all 80,000 words, in your head. So I had to rely on an outline. But I also wanted to follow the characters where they needed to go on their journeys so I was constantly revising the book and the outline. The structure of the novel is far more complicated than any of my short stories. Other People’s Pets takes place in two time periods and weaves several subplots together.
Q: What is your writing process? Do you write every day? A certain number of words?
A: While I was writing the novel, I wrote six days a week. Mornings and afternoons, though on Saturdays, I took afternoons off. I don’t have word counts I try to meet, I just want to be at my desk working at those times. Now that the book is finished and I’m promoting it, I’m writing less often, but still several times a week. I feel off if I leave it for too long.
Q: What are you currently reading (or recently read) that you recommend?
A: I loved Kate Murphy’s You’re Not Listening. It provides a blueprint for having deeper conversations with friends, family, and colleagues. I really enjoyed The Library Book by Susan Orlean, which is part true crime story and part a brilliantly told history of libraries. I love everything Elizabeth Strout writes and Olive, Again, was no exception. I’m always recommending Yewande Omotoso’s The Woman Next Door, which is about two women feuding, the indignities of aging, and racial tensions in present day South Africa. It’s by turns funny, moving, and painful.
Q: Animal relationships are much easier than human relationships and all the people in this book have struggled with their human relationships. What do pets provide people with and what do you say to someone who never had one?
A: Pets can provide unconditional love. They can provide companionship. They can even provide a loving touch, which for people who live alone, especially, can be wonderful. Animals live in the moment, rejoicing in simple pleasures, smells, tastes, the return of their person from work. They remember to play and rest. Spending time with a pet can remind a person of those simple pleasures, and to live in the moment, too.
Q: What pets do you have?
A: I have a cat, Arie, who was dropped in the animal shelter’s night box like an overdue library book, and a dog, Rosie, who spent her first year homeless in South Dakota and thinks Colorado is downright balmy.
About the Author
R.L. Maizes’s short story collection, WE LOVE ANDERSON COOPER, was published by Celadon Books (Macmillan). Her novel, OTHER PEOPLE’S PETS, is forthcoming from Celadon July 14, 2020. The stories have aired on National Public Radio and have appeared in Electric Literatures Recommended Reading. Maizes’s essays have aired on NPR and have been published in The New York Times, The Washington Post, and elsewhere.
Born and raised in Queens, New York, Maizes currently lives in Boulder County, CO, with her husband, Steve, and her muses: Arie, a cat who was dropped in the animal shelters night box like an overdue library book, and Rosie, a dog who spent her first year homeless in South Dakota and thinks Colorado is downright balmy.