‘Racing’ ends run, sets records

Monday, March 15, 2010
By Ben Beagle bbeagle@batavianews.com

PERRY — The librarians behind the “A Tale for Three Counties” community reading project have been reluctant to pick a bestseller in the past. They wanted the program to introduce readers to an up-and-coming author.

When they lined up Garth Stein about a year ago for the recently concluded 2010 Tale program, that’s exactly what he was: an author with some success who was not yet widely known.

How things can change in a year.

Stein’s third novel, “The Art of Racing in the Rain,” about a dog yearning to be human, became one of 2009’s biggest hits and remains firmly entrenched on many best-selling books list. The author’s four talks and booksignings in Genesee, Orleans and Wyoming counties were the best-attended in the eight-year history of the Tale program.

“I learned something really big this year,” Leslie DeLooze, the Richmond Memorial Librarian who started the program said at the conclusion of Saturday afternoon’s program in Perry. “In the past we’ve always been hesitant to pick a bestseller because we want to introduce an author to readers. But so many people said they wouldn’t have read this book if it wasn’t for Tale. So even though it was already a bestseller there is a lot of potential readers out there.”

At each presentation, Stein talked about the sometimes frustrating journey his novel took from an idea more than a decade ago to its place on the best-seller lists and, possibly, a big Hollywood movie. He was an engaging speaker, peppering his programs with stories about his family and others’ reactions to a story narrated by a dog.

“It was amazing. He really reached out and connected to the audience,” said Lorie Ames of Perry, who began reading the book because she liked the title and seeing the dog-in-profile on the hardcover version of the book. “He has a passion for what he does, but he also shared a passion to hear our reactions.”

Stein’s author visits, which began Thursday, were attended by about 600 people. Saturday’s program, hosted at Perry Elementary/Middle School by Perry Public Library, attracted 103 people, while 152 people attended Friday’s program at Lee-Whedon Memorial Library, Medina. The Perry and Medina programs were double the numbers that those talks have traditionally drawn.

“Everybody had been talking about the book and the author visits for weeks,” said Mary Zangerle, director of the Medina library.

Earlier programs in Batavia resulted in a standing-room only crowd of nearly 200 at Richmond Memorial Library and more than 150 at Genesee Community College.

Stein, who has participated in several community reading programs, said he was really pleased with the response from local readers.

“It was always a good crowd, very supportive,” he said in an interview following the Perry event. “And they were really into the book. It made for a really fun program.”

A strong turnout was expected based on the book’s popularity among local readers. The title was constantly circulating among area libraries, and discussion groups were seeing newcomers join regulars for this year’s Tale title.

“The animal angle drew people in,” Zangerle said. “Everyone loves their pets.”

Michelle Levin Cutaia of Warsaw said Enzo confirmed to her something she’s long though about animals: “I’ve always felt that animals are more capable and intuitive than we think they are.”

Nancy Edwards of Perry picked up the book when she saw the cover dog looking out at her from the rack of a local book store. She then participated in the Tale program for the first time because she “really enjoyed the book.”

“It looked like it would be a fun read,” she said. “I read it in a day.”

In Perry, Stein eschewed the podium, working his way around the stage in his laceless Chuck Taylor All-Stars, black sport coat and purple dress shirt, for an animated presentation that lasted about two hours. He explained how his wife has been his muse, pushing him in his writing career and supporting “The Art of Racing in the Rain” even after Stein fired his first agent and struggled to find a publisher.

“The Art of Racing in the Rain” is told from Enzo the dog’s perspective as he recalls the professional and personal challenges of Denny, who wants a racing career, but also wants to retain custody of his daughter after his wife dies and the in-laws try to claim their granddaughter. At times, Denny seems ready to take the easy solution, only to have Enzo interfere and keep his owner focused on his ultimate goals.

The story, at times, seemed to parallel Stein’s own journey with this novel.

“It might’ve been easier for me to put my book away,” Stein said. “But I really believed Enzo wanted to talk to people.”

Stein read parts of three chapters that introduced Enzo, revealed the dog’s early relationship with Eve, and his high-speed ride around the racetrack with his owner, Denny Swift.

“I think his style of speaking and his theater background definitely come together into Enzo’s voice,” said Jacquie Billings-Barlow of Perry.

Stein talked about his next, untitled project — which is narrated by a ghost, not a dog — and answered several questions about the “Racing in the Rain” movie that is in development with Patrick Dempsey as both producer and star. Stein is not involved in the film.

“For me to turn the book into a film script, it might as well be a haiku,” Stein said. “I hope they do a good job.”

He’s been told filming is “one good draft of a screenplay from starting” which he takes as a hopeful sign, but cautions “we’re still a long way from a big bowl of popcorn.”

Debbie Kerr Rosenbeck of Batavia attended a Thursday program in Batavia, then returned to Perry with her husband — who had purchased a copy of “The Art of Racing in the Rain” before it had been announced as this year’s Tale selection while the couple had been traveling in Haliburton, Ontario.

Kerr Rosenbeck said she was impressed by Stein’s presence on stage.

“Garth was such an eloquent speaker and so comfortable on stage and down to earth,” she said. “It’s a quality that, for someone who shuts himself in a room and writes, I wasn’t expecting.”

Humor dominated each of the talks, but Stein left Perry audiences with a poignant story. It was about the day he received his first copy of “The Art of Racing in the Rain” — the same heavily notated copy with colorful tabs that he carried with him throughout his “Tale” visits.

Stein explained that just as Enzo bonded most with Denny in the novel’s fictional family, his own family dog growing up connected most with his father. As Muggs got older his health suffered and his hips — like Enzo — left the dog in pain and made it difficult to get around.

One day, Stein recalled, his father came home in a suit, picked up Muggs and went away. His father returned, without Muggs. “He never spoke about it,” Stein said. “But when he got home, he took a black plastic bag and began putting all of Muggs’ things away.”

Decades later, Stein’s parents were visiting in Seattle on the day the author received his first copy of “The Art of Racing in the Rain.” He showed it to his father, who looked the outside of the book over before opening it up.

“When he saw the dedication” — “To Muggs” — Stein said, “he started to cry.”

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Courtesy of Batavia Newspapers Corporation

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