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June 1, 2016

Author Interview: C. Alexander London

Hello, readers! My name is Nick Eliopulos, and I’m a book editor at Scholastic. Today I’m excited to tell you about a fun new series that I’ve been working on called Dog Tags.

Dog Tags is a series of books about the roles dogs have played in wartime. Each book follows a different young solider and his dog in a different war. The first book, Semper Fido, takes place in modern-day Afghanistan. It stars a US Marine named Gus who is very, very serious…and a Labrador retriever named Loki who is, well, a little less serious. It’s all about how they become partners and friends while risking their lives overseas.

Future books in the series will take readers back in time to Vietnam, World War II, and the US Civil War. The stories are all fictional but based in fact. You might be surprised at what dogs can do!

I had the chance to ask the author some questions about Dog Tags. Please welcome C. Alexander London to Book Box Daily.

Book Box Daily: When did you first become interested in the role of dogs in warfare? Was this a topic of interest before you began research for Dog Tags?

C. Alexander London: I’ve always been a dog person and had wanted to write a book involving dogs for a while, but I didn’t really know what it would be. I was having ideas more along the lines of The Call of the Wild by Jack London (sadly, no relation). On a totally different track, I’d been interested in the military for years, with a special interest in the current conflict in Afghanistan. Not only did I have friends serving over there in various roles, it also struck me that for readers between eight and twelve years old, the United States had been at war in Afghanistan for their entire lives. Many of their parents, even, would have deployed with the military in this conflict. There were, however, precious few stories for them about it.

So when Scholastic came to me to write Dog Tags, I quickly knew the kind of story I wanted to tell. After reading up on the heroic Belgian Malinois, Cairo—the dog who participated in the Navy SEAL raid to get Osama Bin Laden—I became fascinated by all the things military working dogs could do. They aren’t just bomb detectors or prison guards or trackers, they’re morale boosters too. For them, everything has a touch of play, even the battlefield. They became my way to tell what could otherwise be very unsettling stories.

While they can be ferocious fighters, dogs also make the brutal business of war a little more human.

BBD: That’s an interesting point how dogs, animals, can actually have a humanizing influence. And something I love about the Dog Tags books is that each dog you write is a completely distinct character. They’re just as diverse as your human characters. Were any of your fictional dogs inspired by real dogs in your life? Or do they tend to be reflections of your own personality?

CAL: The dogs were definitely my favorite characters to write. They were all inspired by real dogs, or rather, a real dog: my dog Baxter. He is certainly not cut out to be a working dog himself—he’s way too willful and disobedient and distractible—but he spends most of the day snoring on the bed behind my desk, and watching him helped me to create each of the dogs. He’s a Boston terrier, so his behaviors are not the same as a black lab or a German shepherd, but just seeing him react to the world often gave me the spark I needed to start writing each of these dogs.

I had to focus on dog behavior, since you can’t ask dogs what they’re feeling. It helped me stay true to that old maxim for writers: show, don’t tell. With a dog, all you can do is show because we don’t know what they’re thinking.

These fictional dogs are also informed by my childhood dogs, which were shelties. Shelties were bred to work as shepherds, so a lot of the working behavior came from memories of them.

Of course, military working dogs are not pets. Their experience and training is very different and a lot of what informed the characters of Loki, the black lab in Semper Fido, and Ajax, the German shepherd in Strays, came out of research into the behavior and training of these dogs. I wanted to be as truthful as possible, out of respect for the dogs and their human handlers currently serving in wars and those who gave their lives serving in Vietnam a generation ago.

So my inspirations were many, but my goal was always the same: write a truthful, compelling character. In that way, writing the dogs was no different from writing the humans.

BBD: They’re certainly memorable. And speaking of memorable, you were excited by some recent news concerning a new memorial. Want to tell readers about it?

CAL: Sure! Next year, the Working Dog Teams National Monument will be unveiled in Los Angeles. It will be the first national monument to honor every dog that has served in combat since World War II, when the United States began its formal military working dog program.

The monument was championed and then designed by John Burnam, who served in Vietnam with the 44th Scout Dog Platoon, and whose book, A Soldier’s Best Friend, tells the heroic and harrowing story of his service. He, like so many American soldiers, owes his survival to his scout dog partner, and this monument is his tribute.

The monument will show a Doberman, a German shepherd, a Labrador retriever, and a Belgian Malinois—all breeds used in wars—ringed around an American soldier. It is a long overdue commemoration.

BBD: I know that Mr. Burnam’s book was a great resource as you researched the second Dog Tags book, Strays. In the course of all your research, did you come across any facts or stories that particularly surprised you? If you were asked what you learned in the course of writing these books, what comes to mind first?

CAL: There are so many amazing stories of dogs throughout history. One of the most astonishing I read comes from the Civil War. I found this story in Dogs of War by Marilyn W. Seguin, which she attributes to Penny Colman in Spies! Women in the Civil War.

A certain Mrs. M, a spy for the Confederacy, arrived at the tent of General Beauregard with information on Union troop movements and strength. With her, she had her sweet little dog on a leash. She reported having been thoroughly searched, but still had the secret documents secure. As the story I read goes, she then bent down to her dog, its tail wagging, and she plunged a knife into its side. To the General’s astonishment, the dog kept wagging its tail as Mrs. M. sawed off the fake layer of fur she had sewn around her dog’s belly to create a pouch. She produced the secret documents and her dog never felt a thing.

History is filled with amazing stories like that, of loyal dogs being used by their masters for purposes they never could have imagined. But there are far more stories of dogs on the battlefield, from the Revolutionary War to today, whose masters were injured or even, sadly, killed in battle, and their dogs will not leave their sides in spite of the danger. That is not something a dog is simply taught or trained to do. That, to me, is the essence of the Dog Tags books. Loyalty, even love, is in a dog’s nature. And even in war, their tails keep wagging, no matter what strange or terrifying situation their humans have gotten them into. You can find Dog Tags #1: Semper Fido and Dog Tags #2: Strays in Book Clubs right now!

C. Alexander London is the author of the Dog Tag books and the Accidental Adventures series. He also wrote a nonfiction book for adults, One Day the Soldiers Came: Voices of Children in War. He lives in Brooklyn, where he can often be found walking his dog Baxter.


Nick Eliopulos is a senior editor at Scholastic Press. His projects include the Dog Tags books, the Vietnam series by Chris Lynch, and the multi-platform time-travel adventure series, Infinity Ring. He lives in Brooklyn, in an apartment that is far too small for a dog.

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One Response

  1. When Gus Dempsey joins the US Marine Corps, he knows without a doubt that he will make a great dog handler. He’s always been good with dogs. In fact, he’s often better with dogs than he is with people.

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