Friday, January 16, 2009
Real-Life Tragedy Almost Derails 'Hotel for Dogs' Author's Career
By Joline Gutierrez Krueger
Journal Staff Writer
Lois Duncan quite literally and literarily went to the dogs three decades ago, a cheery respite from the chilling, thrilling suspense novels the high school Hillerman set had come to expect from her.
She penned "Hotel for Dogs" while living in Albuquerque and pregnant with her fifth child, Kaitlyn, when life must have seemed anything but chilling or dark.
The book a charming tale about a couple of kids who run a home for strays was published in 1971, six months after Kaitlyn's birth and maybe just a few years too soon, because it didn't sell well. Then.
Young readers apparently wanted their Lois Duncan books screaming, not barking.
Except for one kid.
As the story goes, that kid grew up to become the producer at Dreamworks who turned Duncan's "Hotel for Dogs" into a major motion picture, which opens today around the country to major pre-marketed fanfare.
Major, as in its four-legged stars are already immortalized as cute, furry McDonald's Happy Meals toys (which, we should add, perversely make good chew toys for dogs).
Duncan's dog tale has, as she phrases it, undergone some "plastic surgery." Female protagonist Andi, for example, was 10 in the book but is 16 in the movie so that Emma Roberts ("Nancy Drew" star and, yes, Julia's niece) could play the role.
"Then they thought it would add pathos if the children were orphans," says Duncan, noting that in the book Andi and brother Bruce move from Albuquerque to New Jersey to stay with an aunt with pet allergies while their father relocates for a new job.
The empty house down the block where the dogs live in the story is now an abandoned hotel (more exotic); the original 11 dogs are now 50 strong; and quirky Rube Goldberg contraptions for pooch play and doodie dumping are tossed in for visual fun.
"However, with all those changes, they remained true to the theme of the book that dogs are not unfeeling toys to be disposed of when their owners get tired of them," she says.
Duncan watched some of the filming in Los Angeles and even managed some face time in the film as an extra in a crowd scene (she's the short one being shoved by dogcatchers).
All of which has been very exciting for Duncan, who may have moved from Albuquerque years ago to her native Sarasota, Fla., but whom we will still proudly claim as a local.
Because she left her heart here.
Because she left Kaitlyn here.
Duncan's world went chilling and dark July 16, 1989, with two gunshot wounds to Kaitlyn's head as the 18-year-old University of New Mexico student drove east on Lomas near Arno Northeast.
Albuquerque police, whom Duncan has roundly accused of botching the case and ignoring obvious clues, classified Kaitlyn's death as a random shooting with no detectable motive other than she was there.
But Duncan says her daughter was deliberately killed because she knew too much about an insurance scam her former boyfriend had been involved in.
Kaitlyn, she believes, was preparing to reveal the scam and its entanglement with Vietnamese crime rings and drug dealings involving some of New Mexico's most high-profile citizens.
According to reports at the time, the boyfriend admitted to police that he had staged an accident in Southern California. But he has never been charged in relation to either crime.
Nearly 20 years later, the pain of losing Kaitlyn and the mystery surrounding her death still torments Duncan.
"Even after all these years, I still wake in the night, sweating and shaking, with the sound of gunshots ringing in my ears," she says. "It's impossible to heal when there's been no closure. It's like having an open wound that can never scab over."
Kaitlyn's case, perhaps Albuquerque's most well-known unsolved homicide, has been featured in numerous national crime shows and retold in Duncan's nonfiction book, "Who Killed My Daughter?," published in 1992.
A second book, "The Tally Keeper," has been in the works for years and contains new information on Kaitlyn's death gathered by a private investigator and culled from numerous tips to Duncan's Web site that still keep coming (none of which has apparently been seriously explored by APD).
But the mainstays of her career, popular books like "I Know What You Did Last Summer" and "Killing Mr. Griffin," became too painful to write, the chills and thrills too real.
"I no longer was able to force myself to write fiction about young people in jeopardy, so I assumed that my career as a novelist was basically over," she says.
Then the old dogs taught her a new trick.
"Now, suddenly, I'm back in business, writing humorous fiction for younger children," she says.
Duncan has already written two sequels: "News for Dogs" to be published in April and "Movie for Dogs," which comes out in 2010.
The original "Hotel for Dogs," which had been out of print, was republished last month. At the moment, it is one of her best-sellers.
"Who would have guessed that it would outlive Kaitlyn by so many years," she says.
Who would have guessed Duncan would find a dog's life the thing that would save hers.
You can reach Joline at 823-3603 or email@example.com. UpFront is a daily front-page opinion column.