Lisa Patton, author of Southern as a Second Language Lee Robinson, author of Lawyer for the Dog

 

Lisa Patton: When I first heard about Lee Robinson, a South Carolina lawyer turned novelist, and her delightful adult fiction debut about a canine’s custody battle, I jumped at the chance to meet her and read LAWYER FOR THE DOG. I’m a dog person. My husband would call me an over-the-top dog person, one of those people, so it would not be a stretch, at all, for me to fight anyone for custody of my Rosie, let alone understand the need to hire a lawyer if it meant protecting her welfare. All of my books feature dogs as characters and I don’t think any novel of mine would ever be complete without them.

Lee and I have had numerous Author 2 Author chats and I find her both charming and fascinating.

Lawyer for the DogLP: First things first, with each page I became more and more convinced of the need for a dog to have legal counsel. Have you actually represented a canine custody dispute or did this idea come from another case?

Lee Robinson: I never had a trial over a dog, but it was common for clients to feel a strong attachment to the family dog or cat, and in settlement agreements I often included a clause about which party would keep the pet. But I had many cases that went to trial over issues seemingly much less important than a pet—a pair of silver candlesticks, for example!--so it wasn’t a stretch for me to imagine that a couple might go to the mat over their dog. And when I started doing some research I saw that pet custody battles are becoming more and more common. Until relatively recently, the courts have treated pets as mere property, but judges are beginning to reconsider their status. It makes sense that we should treat the family dog as a creature with emotional as well as physical needs, much more like us than like a piece of furniture. Of course, many judges will protest that they have more than enough work dealing with who’ll get the kids. They don’t want to get involved in litigation over pets. But I predict that we’ll figure out a way to handle these disputes, perhaps through special mediation programs.

LP: My Rosie absolutely has emotional needs! I shudder to think of anyone thinking of her as a piece of furniture. Do you have a dog?

LR: I’m dogless right now. I’d like to have one—I have many imaginary dogs!—but I do a lot of traveling, and I don’t like to board pets for long periods. Our last dog was a huge puppy, a German shepherd-pit bull mix, who appeared on our doorstep one Easter morning. (Don’t get me started about people who dump animals!) Poor thing had a deep gash on his neck. He was starving and in pain. We fed him and took him to our local vet for surgery and shots. We named him Buddy. At that point we were commuting between a small apartment in San Antonio and our ranch in the Texas hill country, so we needed to find another home for Buddy. Unfortunately, no one seemed to want a huge dog with an overload of curiosity and energy. We boarded him while we traveled to South Carolina to visit family, and when we got back, the owner of the of the facility asked if she could keep him: Her 10 year old daughter had fallen in love with Buddy! It was a perfect fit.

We live on the ranch full-time now, where we’re surrounded by animals. The previous owner raised black buck antelope, which are native to India—and almost extinct there—and we have a small band of those. We also have native white-tail deer, axis deer, bobcats, red and grey foxes, porcupines, possums, three species of skunks, and armadillos. And because we’re in South Central Texas, we are blessed with over 150 species of birds. We’ve been working to restore the native prairie on our place, and Canyon Wren Ranch is listed on the Texas Parks and Wildlife’s Great Texas Wildlife Trail.

LP: You live on a ranch? That sounds like a dream come true, at least for me. How did you get from Charleston, South Carolina, which is also the setting of the novel, to a ranch in Texas?

LR: My husband practiced medicine in San Antonio for many years, and he always wanted a ranch in the hill country. Living on a ranch wasn’t on my bucket list, but after I moved to Texas to marry him we started taking weekend drives through the hill country. We found this place, which was in terrible shape and therefore cheap! It’s a small ranch by Texas standards—only a little over 100 acres. But it seems huge to me. Over the years we’ve fixed up the house and barns and various falling-down outbuildings, but we’ve tried to leave the land as undisturbed as possible.

I loved living in downtown Charleston, and I miss being able to walk everywhere in that gorgeous town, but I feel that I’ve been given the chance to live two very different lives: one as a hard-driven city lawyer, the other a much different existence, close to the land.

LP: Although you’re retired from practicing law, it sounds like your days must be extremely busy. How do you have time for all your ranch projects—including a big vegetable garden and orchard—and your writing and teaching?

LR: During all the years I practiced law, and while I was raising two children, I was also writing. I’d often get up at 5 a.m. so that I’d have an hour or so to write before I started packing lunch boxes. In the early years I wrote poetry—my first collection, Hearsay, contains many of those poems—and short stories. Later I wrote a young adult novel, Gateway, which is set in Charleston. Looking back on those years, I realize that the writing kept me sane during that very hectic life. Now that my children are grown and I’m retired from law practice I ought to feel more relaxed, but I still wake up at the crack of dawn, raring to go.

 

LP: I read in your bio that you’ve had some pretty cool teaching gigs?

LR: I always wanted to be a teacher. Before I went to law school, I taught middle school English. That was without a doubt the most challenging job I’ve ever had! Later I taught Constitutional Law at The Citadel, the military college in South Carolina, before women were admitted as cadets. More recently, my husband and I have taught undergraduate courses in medical ethics, and we currently co-teach a course we designed, Medicine Through Literature, at the Center for Medical Humanities and Ethics in San Antonio. Our medical students enjoy reading short stories, novels and essays, and doing some writing of their own. And I’ve taught some writing workshops for Gemini Ink, San Antonio’s center for the literary arts.

LP: Speaking of your husband, it sounds like he’s a writer, also. Am I right?

LR: Jerry (Jerald Winakur) is a wonderful writer. His memoir, Memory Lessons: A Doctor’s Story, is about his work as a geriatrician and the challenges of caring for his father, who had Alzheimer’s. We met a Breadloaf Writers’ Conference. We had a couple of meals together in the dining room and then corresponded about literary things, but we probably would never have seen each other again except that in one of his letters he happened to mention that he was going to Nashville for a medical conference. It turned out that I was already scheduled to speak in Nashville at the Southern Festival of Books that same weekend. We had dinner together and he read me a short story from a book he’d bought there: Robert Olen Butler’s, Tabloid Dreams. The story was “Help Me Find My Spaceman Lover.” I fell in love with Jerry while he was reading that story to me.

LP: I love that! I’m such a romantic. It seems we have more in common than I thought. We’re both Thomas Dunne authors and we have both been given second chances at love. It’s always fun to hear other people’s how-we-met stories. But back to LAWYER FOR THE DOG, which I absolutely loved by the way, your protagonist, Sally Baynard, is charming, witty and complex. I get the feeling there may be similarities between you two. Any truth to that?

LR: Sally’s a spunky woman, not unlike your delightful but complex LeeLee Satterfield. I couldn’t have created Sally had I not practiced law in Charleston and survived that complicated life. When I first started practicing law, there were only five other female lawyers there.  It made me tough and a little too obstinate, so maybe “charming” isn’t an adjective those who know me well would use to describe me. But I like to think that at least I’m interesting! And I try to nourish my sense of humor: How else to survive this crazy life? When I imagined Sally, I wanted her to have family issues, but instead of children I gave her a mother with Alzheimer’s, whom she lives with, and an ex-husband who’s a judge in the family court where she does most of her work.

LP: Sally Bayard might live in Charleston, but she certainly isn’t a southern belle. She and her mother have very different notions about womanhood. You told me you graduated from law school in 1975. How did your mother feel about that?

LR: My mother was a talented artist who gave up a career to marry and have children. This was in the fifties, so her decision wasn’t unusual. Only when her children were out of the house did she start painting again. She developed a regional reputation for her work. I often wonder how successful she might have been had she not “lost” those years, though she never complained about it. I came of age at a very different time, when feminism swept the country. Even then, my parents were uncomfortable about my choice of a law career. I thought I could do anything and everything! My son was a year old when I took the bar exam. We were staying with my parents, and on the morning of the exam my father looked across the breakfast table and said to me, in all seriousness, “I don’t know why you’re so nervous. You have a baby. You’re never going to practice law anyway.” Daddy couldn’t have imagined what effect this comment had on me. I was so mad that my anger powered me through the three-day exam! By the time I was elected the first female president of the Charleston Bar Association, I think my parents’ incredulity had morphed into pride.  

LP: I saw a photograph of you in your writing space, which is surrounded by bookshelves loaded with books. You may as well have been sitting in your neighborhood indie. Do you find that comforting ¾ to be surrounded by books?

LR: My husband and I are both book nuts. We love bookstores—especially the indies---and we’re always buying more books than we have room for. My nightstand has a stack of bookswaiting to be read. Our ranch house is small, so my writing space doubles as a dining room and library. It’s humbling to look around and see names like Saul Bellow, Flannery O’Conner, Ian McEwan, and Hilary Mantel. And it’s also comforting to remember that, behind each of those volumes on the shelves with their stylish jackets and poised author photos, there was a tremendous struggle and effort to bring the book into being.

I have books and writing in my blood. My brother is a retired newspaper editor. My sister is a novelist and writes columns for the newspaper in Columbia, S.C., where we grew up. Some of my earliest memories are of my paternal grandmother, who lived in Charlotte, N.C. She had lots of bookshelves and lots of books. Her favorite authors were Dickens and Collette. And she had a subscription to The New Yorker. I remember when I was about seven, she let me put cold cream on my face, sit on her bed with a cup of café au lait, and read The New Yorker. I had no idea, really, what those stories were about, but she made me feel that I would grow up to understand them, to be worthy of them.

LP: When I finished LAWYER FOR THE DOG I saw SERIES flashing in neon capital letters. Any chance Sally Baynard will take on another dog case?

LR: Not a dog in the next book, but a cat! Lawyer for the Cat is coming out in summer 2016. Much of the action takes place on Edisto Island, outside Charleston, which is one of my favorite places in the world. And who knows, maybe in future books Sally will use her legal skills for other animals.

Lisa, you know how much fun it is to take a character through several books!

LP: I certainly do. And that’s wonderful news. No doubt about it, I’m hooked. It’s been great getting to know you, Lee, and I hope to see you soon.

LR: Thanks so much, Lisa. Books can bring people together in so many surprising ways, can’t they? I’ve loved our conversations, and I look forward to more books from Lisa Patton on my nightstand. Oh, and take good care of Rosie!