Saturday, March 20, 2010
By Ben Beagle firstname.lastname@example.org
The cover of “The Art of Racing in the Rain,” with its golden-coated dog looking out from the bottom of the cover, it’s head cutely cocked, quickly won over readers.
“When you look in those eyes,” said Carol Smith of Batavia, “you think he’s like a member of the family.”
Nancy Edwards of Perry picked up the book because she found the cover appealing. “And the title sounded like it would be a fun read,” she said.
Garth Stein’s novel follows a dying dog that yearns to come back in human form. On the eve of his death, Enzo looks back at the challenges and sacrifices of his human family. The book was the featured selection in this year’s just-completed “A Tale for Three Counties” community reading project for Genesee, Orleans and Wyoming counties.
To call “The Art of Racing in the Rain” simply a dog book, or a racing book, is to shortchange the richness of its characters and the obstacles they must overcome in pursuit of dreams.
Last weekend’s four author talks and booksignings were attended by about 600 people — a record for the eight-year-old program. At each talk, March 11 to 13, Stein shared often funny stories about the path his novel took to finding a publisher, how his early filmmaking career influenced his writing career, and what his recent success has brought.
“A lot of people discovered Tale for the first time,” said Leslie DeLooze, the Richmond Memorial librarian who started the program.
The librarians behind Tale have already started to consider books for next year’s program. An announcement is still months away; in the meantime, here are more stories from Stein:
Finding his muse
Like many married writers, Stein describes his wife as his muse.
“But she’s not one of these Grecian muses with flowing robes that sprinkles pixie dust on the keyboard. Think darker … like a dominatrix,” he said.
Stein likes to joke, a lot. And it’s often of a self-deprecating nature. Yes, he acknowledges, his wife knows he talks about her in this way at his programs. But just as quickly, he shares that she is “the person who’s there when things are tough. And when things are good, she’s there to share the joy … she inspires great things.”
She’s also the one who helped send him down the road with Enzo. Stein was leaving for a book tour when he shared with his wife his idea for a new story: it’s a story narrated by a dog, he said.
“No!” she responded emphatically, recalled Stein, who then begged and pleaded. Finally, he said, she told him to start writing and to have 40 pages ready by the end of his trip.
He turned in 39.
“And she read them and said, ‘I think you’re on to something. Keep going.’ ” Stein said.
But there was one problem.
Naming the dog
In a story about a race car driver it would seem obvious that Denny would name his dog Enzo for the designer of the famous red sportscars with the prancing horse emblem.
“But it was not that simple,” Stein said.
Stein had originally named his dog Juan Pablo, for Juan Pablo Montoya, a famous race car driver. Stein thought Juan Pablo could do many things for his dog, dropping in a Pope John Paul joke that largely fell flat with audiences in Batavia and Perry.
Wisely, he listened to his wife who said the dog needed a better name. She suggested Enzo, a name Stein was saving for a son.
But, he pointed out, if he used the name for a character, especially a dog, he wouldn’t then want to use the name for his own child.
Ah-ha, he realized, a finger to his temple. She was pretty smart.
His wife insisted, suggesting that Stein had, in a sense, given birth to the character and therefore should use the name he had been saving.
Thinking like Enzo
In Perry, a woman asked Stein how he got to think like Enzo? It’s a common question, but usually phrased “think like a dog,” Stein said.
“And I appreciate the distinction,” he said, assuring readers that he did not drop to the floor and begin walking on hands and knees to see a dog’s perspective.
“I wasn’t trying to write from a dog’s point of view,” he said, “but from Enzo the character’s point of view.”
“To me, I wasn’t writing a dog. I was writing Enzo,” he said, “a character trapped in a nearly human soul and really wants to come back and do all the things he sees the people around him doing. But he also wants to remain a dog. He loves the family he’s with. It’s a classic double bind, and contained in this is the tension that creates the character.
” … I always have to know who my character is and what it does. That informs how I come into a scene.”
The zebra is everywhere
Everywhere he takes Enzo, Stein is asked about the zebra, a stuffed animal that taunts Enzo and makes him do bad things. It’s not something Stein likes to discuss in much detail.
“I give a little lecture that writing is a dialogue, not a monologue,” he explained. “Writing is a conversation between the writer and the reader … everyone brings different impressions to the conversation.”
Which means, he said, the zebra is whatever you — the reader — want it to be.
“Personally,” he said, “I’d never trust a zebra.
“You never see a lion do anything but have the utmost respect for a Barbie doll. But a zebra …”
Stein couldn’t escape the zebra. A small stuffed toy zebra made an appearance at a couple of talks. And a different kind of zebra appeared during several Tale events — the evil kind with lots of sugar and calories.
At Richmond Memorial Library, a librarian had cut out a portion of the Little Debbie snack box Zebra Cakes and taped it to the bookselling table. Then on Friday, Leslie DeLooze stopped at the author luncheon with a full box of the vanilla cakes covered in white chocoloate with chocolate stripes. The box also features a zebra in rainbow colored shades.
Stein took a picture and posted it via his Twitter account: “This is scary! The zebra really IS everywhere! Even in Batavia….”
Stein is working on a couple of other projects, including his next novel. It is not narrated by a dog.
“I don’t want to be known as the dog author,” Stein said.
But it is narrated by a ghost.
The as-yet untitled work is a multigeneration saga of a lumber family in the Pacific Northwest. In different eras the family had become very rich but all the clear cutting of lumber has left them with not much money. And the 12-room mansion is dilapidated and falling down.
“It’s a great deal of fun” to write, Stein said. “It deals with a number of issues, and legacy. I like working with family drama.”
Courtesy of Batavia Newspapers Corporation