Q & A with Annemarie O’Brien: LARA’S GIFT

BOOK-COVER-HIGH-RES-LarasGiftI’m delighted to bring you, Lara’s Gift, written by Annemarie O’Brien and illustrated by Tim Jessell.

Lara’s Gift will be released by Alfred A. Knopf on August 6, 2013 and is appropriate for kids 10 and up. It’s a dog story and historical fiction. 

Who is your key dog character and what kind of dog is he? Tell us a little more about him.

*Zar is the key canine character in Lara’s Gift. He is a borzoi, also commonly referred to as a Russian wolfhound. His loyal and loving character is inspired by my own borzoi, Zar. And his bond to Lara and hers to him represents the kind of special bond I had with my first dog when I was a child. That bond gave me strength and made the impossible seem possible! It’s exactly this feeling that I wanted between Lara and Zar.

Where is your story set?

Russia, 1914.

How are you connected to your story?

I spent about ten years working and living in the former Soviet Union, its republics, and neighboring countries. I fell in love with the culture and the people when I took a Sovietology course at Denmark’s International School in Copenhagen. It involved a life-chaging study tour to Moscow and Leningrad (now St. Petersburg) where my personal development grew and skyrocketed on many levels. I knew there was more I could learn so I got an MBA in international business and studied Russian to prepare me for a career working overseas. Everyone should live abroad at some point in life.

In 70 words or less, provide a succinct plot description of your story.

* Lara’s Gift is a “Lassie-meets-Doctor Zhivago” girl empowerment story.

Set in Imperial Russia, young Lara is being groomed in the family tradition to take over as Count Vorontsov’s next kennel steward. Because Lara wants nothing more than to breed borzoi dogs worthy of the Tsar, she spends all of her time caring for them, especially Zar, the runt she saved at birth. So when her papa takes away her dream, and refuses to accept her special gift with the borzoi, Lara is forced to face her biggest fear to not only prove her papa wrong, but to also save Zar from a pack of wolves threatening life on the country estate.

Starred reviews and blurbs:

Powerful and engrossing!” Kirkus starred review.

Kirkus starred review.

LARA’S GIFT is a gift to anyone who loves adventure, a good story and above all, a beloved dog. It makes a reader believe in the power of intuition, family, and fighting for one’s true calling.”

Kathi Appelt, Newbery Honor author of THE UNDERNEATH

Wrapped in the rich tapestry of Imperial Russia, Annemarie O’Brien has crafted a timeless tale celebrating the unbreakable bond between dogs and their people. A must-read for history lovers and dog lovers alike!”

Bobbie Pyron, author of THE DOGS OF WINTER and A DOG’S WAY HOME.

AnnemarieOBrien_Bio_DashaWhat inspired you to write this story?

* Many years ago when I worked in the former Soviet Union during the Gorbachev years, I was gifted a borzoi puppy named Dasha. With gentle, cat-like qualities, she was like no other dog I had ever had. While I knew that borzoi were the symbol of the Tsar and considered a national treasure during the Imperial era, I had had no idea that this association nearly caused the breed to become extinct in their homeland after the Russian Revolution.

It haunted me that the Bolsheviks could be threatened by this association so much to declare any borzoi an enemy of the State to be shot and killed without question. While many borzoi were killed, some survived because of people who risked their lives to protect the breed. I realized how fortunate I was to have Dasha and felt compelled to tell her story.

My curiosity about the people who risked their lives to keep the breed alive led to a bunch of questions that nobody could answer. So my imagination took off with all the “what ifs” that consumed me. And that’s when the seeds of Lara’s Gift were planted.

UnknownWhat was the biggest challenge you had writing your story? How did you overcome it?

*I didn’t know where to start my story. I must have written twenty different openings until I finally landed on the one that went to print. I really struggled with how far back in time I needed to go. I have openings that range in time from the Russian Revolution in 1917 to the Gorbachev years in the 1980s. None of them worked.

It wasn’t until I read Tamar by Mal Peet that I knew I needed to start in the Imperial era with a prologue. Thank you, Mal Peet for writing Tamar! Your prologue was such a strong hook and made me re-think its function in a novel. So much so it was the basis of my VCFA graduate thesis and lecture.

images-2Another huge influence on me was the opening birth scene in Runt by Marion Dane Bauer. While I wasn’t consciously “borrowing” the idea of a birth scene from Runt, I do know I chose to start with a birth scene for the same reasons I thought the opening in Runt was brilliant. The opening showed readers why the naming of the pups was important, and set up why it was so important for Runt to earn a new name. I’m a huge fan of picking names for my characters that serve more than just one purpose in a story. Writers can go so much deeper with the choices they make in a character’s name. It’s another layer in all of m,y stories.

Marion Dane Bauer also influenced my writing process by breaking story down through a “story-arc-litmus-test-of- questions” she shared in a lecture at the Vermont College of Fine Arts. They include:

Who is your protagonist?

What does she want?

What stands in her way?

What is the inciting incident?

What is the climax?

It might not look like rocket science, but these questions have helped me stay on track with my stories. By knowing the answers to these questions, I know if I have a story arc. If there’s no story arc, there’s no story.

What other YA/MG books have you written? Do any of them feature a key dog character? If so, which ones? What are these stories about?

*I am currently writing a companion book to LARA’S GIFT. It is set during the Gorbachev years.

What kind of story can we expect next from you? Is it about a dog? If so, what is it about?

*I am in the final throes of revising a story set in Thailand. There is no key dog character in it yet. Who knows? Maybe I’ll weave a dog thread into it.

Unknown-1What else would you like us to know about you or your story?

*The best gift I ever got was advice from my father: follow your heart in everything you do and happiness will follow. I have lived my life with this advice carried close to my heart and found happiness in all of my big life decisions. Though it wasn’t my intent when I began writing Lara’s Gift, this happens to be its theme and something I only realized well after the revision and re-revision process. I guess it’s true that a little of the author comes through on the page, whether intended or not! I hope readers come away encouraged to live life with passion and heart.

imagesCan you remember the first book that made an impact on you? And why?

*My all-time favorite book as a kid was: Harry the Dirty Dog by Gene Zion. I remember being thrilled by the adventures Harry had, as well as scared that Harry’s family wouldn’t recognize him. I was so pleased to see this book come out again and bought it for my kids.

‘Twas the Night Before Christmas by Clement Clarke Moore was also a favorite and something I still admire as an adult. I never tire of reading it aloud. The words and imagery sing! Before I die, I hope I can write something so brilliant and timeless. While there are many picture book versions, I chose the one Gennady Spirin illustrated.


Annmarie O'Brien

The author with her borzoi, Zar and Zola, by Turner Photography

Where can readers go to find out more information about you and/or your books?

CLICK HERE to visit my web page.

CLICK HERE to view the book trailer of Lara’s Gift.

CLICK HERE to download a Teacher’s Guide to Lara’s Gift.

Thank you for reading!

Leave a comment and share this post on some social media platform to win a copy of LARA’S GIFT. For every share or comment, your name will be entered into the pot. The winner will be drawn and announced on this blog September 5, 2013.

For more opportunities to win a copy of LARA’S GIFT and/or a FREE manuscript critique by Deborah Halverson from Dear Editor, check out these internet sites on these dates: Fido and Friend (7/31); Fiction Notes (7/31); Kissing the Earth, Quirk and Quill, or Simple Saturday (8/1); Coffee with a Canine, Dog Reads, or World Reads (8/5); Dear Editor (8/6); Word Spelunking (8/7); Random Acts of Reading (8/8); The Hiding Spot (8/9); and Beth Fish Reads (8/13).


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All materials © 2018 Annemarie O'Brien. Web site by Websy Daisy. Illustration © 2013 by Tim Jessell