New York Times best-selling author of The Art of Racing in the Rain Garth Stein will be in town on November 11 to speak at the Home for Life fundraiser, benefitting a no-kill, dignified animal sanctuary for elderly, disabled, or chronically sick pets who cannot find a home. The book—about the rocky life of a kind man named Denny, as told through the eyes of his dog Enzo—was written in 2008 and has spent 124 weeks on the NYT bestseller list. Recently, the rights to the book were bought by Patrick Dempsey to be made into a movie by Universal Studios. Stein, who is also a playwright, racecar driver, and author of two other books, took some time out of his busy writing schedule to talk with me about pets, readers, and the art of writing.
How did you get involved with Home for Life?
Well you know, they asked me to come out. I’m not so much involved as I support their mission. They asked me if I would come out and speak at their fundraising event, and so I agreed ‘cause I think that what they’re doing is great. And if there’s something I can do to help out I’m happy to do it.
In The Art of Racing in the Rain Enzo expressed his right to die, which was a really interesting component to the book. Home for Life doesn’t really condone euthanasia for pets, so how are those two things going to be married in what you’re going to talk about at the fundraiser?
Well, I think that we’re dealing with freedom of choice, in a sense. First of all, keep in mind that Enzo is a fictional character. So, as a fictional character, he has to have ideas and goals and have that frame of mind—he acts within the framework then, of his personal philosophy. I got a very angry email from someone saying that many dogs have lived very valuable lives with the little doggie wheelchair, wagon thing, and I was obviously a horrible person because Enzo makes a comment about that in the first chapter, and I said, “Don’t blame me, blame Enzo.” I think that everybody has to come to their own decisions, and there are obviously a lot of differences in end of life scenarios for dogs, and other situations that a dog might be in, such as in a shelter or something, and I think it’s always good if there’s a loving home for a dog to go to—then that’s great, but at the same time you don’t want a dog to suffer needlessly if the dog is really hurting at the end of his or her life. Like Enzo—Enzo was not a midlife dog being relocated. He was in a deteriorating body, so that’s what his thing was.
That you even got that angry email shows how well you wrote the character.
[Laughs.] It is kind of funny because sometimes I get people who treat the characters in some of the books that I’ve written—especially Enzo. As if Enzo is—I made Enzo up, you know? Enzo didn’t exist—I was at a school event in the past few weeks, and a high school student raised his hand and said, “So you know, I don’t get it, because it seems like you are really into BMWs but then you started racing Ferraris, so I don’t get that.” I don’t race Ferraris. I’ve never raced Ferraris. And he’s like, “Yeah, at the end of the book you like go to Italy and race Ferraris.” No, see, it’s a novel. I didn’t actually do any of these things. [Laughs.]
Right, but you did spend a portion of your life racing, and you still do race every now and then.
Well, yeah. A little. I haven’t raced competitively in a few years. I raced for about four years, which was a lot of fun.
I’m certain that racing is quite thrilling. Is it hard to get off the track and try to find other thrilling things to do?
Look, there’s no substitute for racing. It’s an adrenaline rush like no other. The further you get away from it time-wise, fortunately the less you remember how fun it was, ‘cause otherwise you would do it all the time. That’s why some people have the passion and do it professionally or whatever they need to do. But, for me, I have three kids and my work and everything else, so I was not able to put the time into it. The thing about racing is—like anything else—you have to practice it. You have to work at it. You have to devote yourself to it if you want to excel at it. And I’m kind of too competitive of a person to be middle of the pack. I want to be a frontrunner. And in order to do that, you really have to be devoted, and I wasn’t able to make that sacrifice.
How does the thrill of racing compare to the thrill of having an amazing best selling book that is getting turned into a movie?
Racing is definitely better. [Laughs.] The thing about a book is it’s not like, I don’t know, it’s not like a movie opening where there’s a night, and a red carpet and klieg lights shining into the sky and Entertainment Weekly people shoving microphones at you. There’s no romance to the book. It comes out, it gets read individually by people in individual places—locked up in their bedrooms or living rooms, or listened to in their car, so you don’t really get a lot of feedback—direct feedback. That being said, it’s always fun to do community readings, and events like this Home For Life, where I get to go and meet people who are fans of the book. It certainly is gratifying, but when I teach writing workshops I tell my students you have to love the process, cause it takes so long to write a book, and it takes so much effort and sacrifice. To do it, you have to be doing it because you enjoy the making of the book, not the romance of having a shiny hardcover on your shelf at the very end, because it’s just not the same.
Will you be writing the screenplay for the film adaptation of The Art of Racing in the Rain?
No. No. That’s— they’re having professionals— they don’t want me involved, and I don’t really want to be involved. I mean, the book is going to be difficult to make into a movie. I have confidence that Patrick Dempsey will do a great job, but things have to change just because of the medium. And I understand that. And I don’t want anything to do with it, because I wrote the book.
You birthed it into the world, and you’re ready to let it go.
Right. And so now it can go off. I hope it gets made into a movie. They’re supposed to start filming in the spring, we’ll see. It’s Hollywood. You can never really trust what’s going to happen there. Things change very quickly. So, if it gets made, that’ll be fun. I’ll get to go see it with my sons.
So, you’ve written various plays. How does writing a play compare to writing books?
Theater is a lot of fun to write for, especially the entire process of mapping a play. I had a full-length play that was put up in Los Angeles and then a short play that was done here in Seattle. And it’s just a very energetic process working with actors and directors and seeing the whole thing come to life. I really enjoy that process and look forward to doing it some more. The main difference is that in theater, it’s about the immediacy of the drama. It’s taking place on the stage, right now. The interaction between these characters is what is important. Whereas in a novel—at least in my philosophy—a novel is sort of the history of how we got to the immediacy of the drama. So it’s all the back-story. We can trace it all back and back and back as far as we want to go, to set the world that—but there does have to be that gripping drama, that immediacy that gets your reader engaged.
Do your other two books, Raven Stole the Moon and How Evan Broke His Head and Other Stories, begin sort of at the end like The Art of Racing in the Rain does?
No, neither do. And, you know, there was a very specific reason for that construct in The Art of Racing in the Rain. And that is, when some people see a dog book, they’ll say, “I don’t want to read a dog book, because the dog is going to die at the end.” The dog always dies at the end of a dog book. And so I just wanted to get that out of the way on the first page. The dog is going to die. Let’s get passed that and let’s move on to the story so we don’t have to—don’t worry, there’s no suspense here.
That’s so funny that you say that because on the back of the copy I have there’s a quote from Entertainment Weekly that reads, “Fans of Marley & Me rejoice.” Even just by that you know what you’re in for anyway. You have a smart way to begin the book.
Well yeah, I think that it just makes sense with a dog story, because their lives are X number of years, and we can kind of see the whole drama played out. But it’s also that you can experience all of the concentrated emotional highs and lows in a shorter period than say a person that lives for seventy-five or eighty years. You know, if you look at [John] Updike’s Rabbit trilogy, you know, it took him three books to write a man’s life from beginning to end, but you know, I can get a dog’s life in one book.
Have you yourself ever had to put a dog down?
Yeah, I mean indirectly. The book is dedicated to Muggs, who was my childhood dog growing up and so I was a teenager, I was in high school when she was at her end game, and so we went through that process, but it was more of a family—my father was very upset by that. And I certainly have been a party to dogs going through the end of life scenario. It’s a very emotional thing. We have so much love for our pets, and one might wonder why we have so much love for our pets when we don’t have so much love necessarily for fellow human beings, especially if they’re driving next to us on a freeway.
Right. That’s a really good point. In that vein, about having love for people, this book was partly inspired by a reading of the poem “The Revenant” by Billy Collins, correct?
That’s where kind of the voice came from. The thing started with this film I had seen—a documentary about Mongolia, and that’s where the belief about reincarnation, the dog reincarnating, that’s where that came from. Then when I heard the poem, the Billy Collins poem, I thought oh wow, that actually would be really funny to have a dog angry that he’s a dog.
Yeah, cause that poem really gives the man a hard time.
Yeah, well I got the idea for the voice, but once I started writing it I realized that Enzo could be as angry as Billy Collins’ dog.
So, was it hard for you then to imagine a dog that was more or less happy with his lot in life, although a little jealous and a little disappointed?
He’s discontented. He’s got his issues. There’s frustration. For me, it was the idea of the character, and divorcing it from a dog. If you say what is this character, and I have a nearly human soul stuck in a dog’s body, and he’s conflicted cause he wants two things that are mutually exclusive. He wants to hurry up and be reincarnated as a person so he can have his tongue that makes words and his thumbs. But at the same time, he loves his family so much that he wants to stay with them, and in fact he doesn’t want to be reincarnated. And out of that tension comes frustration and that’s the character. Then he’s got a little edge to him and there’s some humor in there, and there’s a lot of stuff that as a writer I can work with. So, that’s really the way I thought of it. I really didn’t sit down and say to myself, “Hmmm, people really like dogs. I’m going to sit down and write a dog book and I’m going to tell it from the dog’s point of view.” It was more organic than that.
What I found really amazing about Enzo is that even after seeing how terrible Denny’s life gets and how terrible being a human can potentially be, he still wants to become a human. I’d like you to explain that a little bit, because it strikes me as a little humancentric, like there’s nothing better in the world to be than a human.
You’re reaching too far on that one. You must’ve had a bad English professor at some point. [Laughs.]
No! I think that…
Look, think of it this way—people are so full of judgment, that’s the problem. Um, don’t think of it that way. Think of it like this. If Enzo loves who more than anyone else in the world…?
Denny. Right. So, I would respond to your comment by saying if Denny were a frog, Enzo would want to be a frog. Every kid wants to be what his dad—at least when they’re little until they start hating him when they’re 13. When your son is six years old, what does he want to be when he grows up? “I want to be dad.” I mean, that’s the kind of relationship it is. I have no—people say to me, “Oh, that’s ridiculous, a dog would never want to be a person, people should want to be dogs.” And I’m like, you know what? That’s your book. In my book, Enzo loves Denny so much that he wants to be just like Denny. He wants to be a person and he wants to be a racecar driver. And that’s the passion that he has. And that’s it. It’s nothing more complicated than that.
That’s fair. It’s just really interesting. Having never been a young boy who wants to be his father, I think reading the book was a little different of an experience for me. It’s a fantastic book. As a woman—and I certainly don’t mean to say that only women are going to feel this way—but the book was so sad. I mean, it was so good, but so sad. Why put Denny through so many terrible things?
Well, I think that’s the construct of fiction. I mean, I think there’s sort of a—I don’t know if it’s written anywhere, I’m sure it is—I believe in fiction writing to be the obstacles that a hero must face in pursuit of his, or her goal must be commensurate with the goal. And so, if Denny has very high goals, very lofty goals—he wants to be a Formula One racecar champion—he has to have extreme obstacles that he has to overcome in order to achieve them, otherwise there’s no payoff for the reader. If his biggest obstacle is that he stubbed his pinky toe, and that he has to go through pinky toe rehab for three weeks before he can get back in the racecar, that’s just not a big enough obstacle. If you read that book you would say, “This is terrible. He got what he wanted and there was no adversity.” So we have to create a situation where there’s adversity—there’s these obstacles so that it’s satisfying when he achieves his goal. Or, if he fails his goal we understand that as well. That’s a tragedy, of course. So, in this particular case then, I needed to have Denny put in jeopardy for custody of his daughter. And then give a choice, in a sense. He could compromise and say ok, I’ll give up my daughter and just go racing, or I’ll give up my racing and have my daughter. Or, he can pursue his true dream, which is to have both at the same time, and make the sacrifices necessary. So, in order to do that, I had to put Denny in jeopardy of losing his daughter. In Washington state there are very few ways that a biological father will lose custody after the death of a spouse. Basically two ways, either he’s a convicted felon, or he’s a registered sex offender. And that’s basically it. So, that’s why he had to go through these trials, because that’s what makes the catharsis in the end. That’s what makes it gratifying at the end when he finally gets to achieve his goal. And also, keep in mind even Enzo says it at some point—I don’t know if even Enzo says it, maybe it’s in the Epilogue, but it’s a fairy tale. It’s a fable. And so, in a certain way, it has to be heightened. The reality has to be heightened to make—it’s narrated by a dog. Dogs don’t narrate books, so it’s already creating an artifice. So therefore, I wanted to heighten the reality, and that’s what I did. If someone says hey, I went too far, then well, ok. So be it. The beauty of reading and writing is that every reader reads a book individually and gets to make his or her own evaluation of that book based on experience and values and philosophies and ideas and no one’s wrong. That’s what art is. That’s great.
Photo courtesy Garth Stein