Writing according to Garth

Seattle author lands in WNY to share ‘Tale’ of an unusual dog

Saturday, March 6, 2010
By Ben Beagle, bbeagle@batavianews.com

Garth Stein had already published two novels when he delivered his third manuscript to an agent. Stein had written a story about an unusual dog who longs to be human — and wishes for opposable thumbs.

“This is narrated by a dog … Throw this away. I can’t sell this. No one will read it,” Stein recalled his agent telling him.

So Stein fired the agent and took his work to another agent. The conversation again began with “This is narrated by a dog …”

Only this time, the agent added “I love it. I can sell it in a minute.”
Soon, a phenomenon was born.

“The Art of Racing in the Rain,” this year’s pick in the “A Tale for Three Counties” community reading project, was published by HarperCollins in 2008. It became a Starbucks Pick that April. There are t-shirts and hats celebrating Enzo, the novel’s extraordinary dog. And the book has been on best-seller lists since its release.

“I understand people may not want to read a book told by a dog,” Stein said in a telephone interview from his home near Seattle, Wash. “But if they give me a few pages, I’ll get them. The voice of Enzo is a fun voice, and compelling.’

And it’s one that has been winning over readers in Genesee, Orleans and Wyoming counties where libraries have had waiting lists for the book, and some have even reached out to other library systems for copies to help meet demand.

“I think he has a lot to say. He’s very philosophical,” said Linda Daviau of Batavia, a regular Tale participant. “I was expecting more dog fluff, but once I had read the first three or four chapters I couldn’t put it down.”

The Tale project, started in 2003, encourages readers in each of the counties to pick up the same book, read it and discuss it. They can then meet the author during a series of talks and booksignings in each county. Stein visits Thursday through next Saturday.

Meet Enzo

Enzo is different from most dogs. He has the voice of a philosopher and, he tells readers in the book’s first-person narrative, “my soul is very human.”

The Labrador-and (likely)-terrier mix has learned by listening closely to the words of his master, Denny Swift, a promising race-car driver, and by watching a lot of television, which has convinced him that dogs can reincarnate into a human if they are compassionate and understand humans.

Through Denny, Enzo has gained tremendous insight into the human condition and sees that life, like racing, isn’t just about going fast, but that techniques needed for success on the race track can also help navigate life’s ordeals.

And on the eve of Enzo’s death, as the dog takes stock of his life, readers see the struggles the family has lived through: the unexpected death of Denny’s wife Eve, Denny’s battle with his in-laws for custody of his daughter Zoe, and his sacrifices for family and career.

The character of Enzo, Stein said, has “taken on enough that he became separate from me. Enzo started to tell me the story.”

What came first: Denny or the dog?

The idea for “The Art of Racing in the Rain” originated from “State of Dogs,” a Mongolian film that came across Stein’s desk about a decade ago, when he was working as a documentary filmmaker in New York City. The film explored the belief among certain people of Mongolia that dogs reincarnate as people.

“I thought that was a cool idea,” Stein said. “But how would I write about it?”

The answer would be found a few years later when Stein, since relocated to Seattle, attended a poetry reading by Billy Collins. The 2004 reading included a poem, “The Revenant,” told from the perspective of a euthanized dog addressing his former master from heaven.

“It was very funny, very amusing,” Stein said. “And then, oh, wait, that poem was speaking to me!”

Once he had Enzo, the rest was easy, Stein said.

The racing came naturally for the author, who raced a Miata on Sports Car Club of America circuit for about four years. He stopped racing after crashing into a wall — in the rain, in Seattle.

“If you simplify racing and you simplify life, they pretty much amount to the same thing,” Stein said.

Other plot elements arrived from the travails of a close friend and race-car driver. Stein also remembers sitting with his father and the family dog, Muggs, and watching races on television when Stein was about 5 years old. The dog, he said, seemed to be watching.

“So I guess I’ve been writing this story for 40 years,” Stein said.

Pushing limits

Choosing to use a dog as narrator had some advantages. It also came with disadvantages — and more than just Enzo’s frustrations about lacking opposable thumbs or an ability to speak.

Enzo — named for Enzo Ferrari, of Ferrari automobile fame — offered a unique perspective for creating drama, Stein said. People will often say things in front of the dog that they would not say in front of other people. But at the same time, access for the dog is limited. The court room scenes, for example, are pieced together by Enzo from what he hears from the humans.

“One big problem was getting the reader to suspend disbelief. For the most part, it’s fiction and 97 percent of the readers are perfectly happy,” Stein said, a hint of mischievousness sneaking into his voice as he adds, “It’s that sticky 3 percent — mostly all reviewers for newspapers and magazines.”

But fiction, Stein said, “is supposed to push the limits and try things.”

“It’s not all telling of facts. It’s also telling of heart and emotion. You can do that with Enzo,” he said. “You can go into certain musings that, if they were said by humans, no person would say.”

‘Somewhere, the zebra …’

Enzo is a philosophical old dog

The “Enzoisms,” as the dog’s philosophical musings have come to be called, are things that Stein said he has actually heard.

For example, “Your car goes where your eyes go.” Or, “that which you manifest is before you.” And “the visible becomes the inevitable.”

“Race care drivers in the paddock really do talk like that,” he said. “A lot of the phrases I took straight on.”

The most popular “Enzoism” is arguably “Somewhere, the zebra is dancing,” which has sparked a lot of speculation about what it means. Stein said he gets asked about the zebra frequently, but he tries to deflect the question back to the person asking.

“You know what (the zebra) is,” he said. “It’s what you decide it to be. It’s more fun that way.”

“If it was easy to figure, if it was only one thing, there’d be less dialogue, less chat. One of the goals of a writer is not just reading, but discussing,” Stein said. “If you just say the answer is ‘x,’ that’s not fine. If nine different people read the book, you may have nine separate ideas of the zebra. Without conversation, there is no change. That’s one of the things I find in politics,” he said, then apologizes for venturing far afield from his original thoughts.

From film to books

Stein, who teaches writing and has been a writer-in-residence at Seattle-area schools, grew up in Seattle, went to college at Columbia and lived in New York for 18 years before moving with his family back to Seattle.

“It was a lifestyles decision,” Stein said. “New York City is a tough place to live unless you’re independently wealthy and have a driver.”

The return to his roots has also been fortunate, too, for professional reasons. All three of Stein’s books have been set in the Pacific Northwest, and so will a fourth.

“In New York there are no local writers,” Stein said. “It’s all big fish in a huge megalopolis. Everyone is chum. You can’t make an identity for yourself.”

Stein nearly had a different identity, but screenwriting didn’t work and he burnt out as a documentary filmmaker. He had always been a writer, he said, but convinced himself to study film in college. He got a master of fine arts degree in film from Columbia University and hoped for a screenwriting career.

“But I didn’t adapt to that very well,” Stein said. “I was very frustrated as a screenwriter, but I was finding that I was very fascinated by documentary films.”

He went on to make several well-received films, including “The Lunch Date,” which won an Academy Award for best live action short in 1991, and “The Last Party,” in which Robert Downey Jr. gave reports and interviews from the 1992 Democratic National Convention.

Through his filmmaking Stein learned about storytelling, while growing tired of film after nine years.

“Documentary film was a different market when I was making them in the ’90s, the pre-digital age. They were very expensive to make,” he said. “Ninety percent of time spent raising money, and only 10 percent of the creative aspect.”

So, Stein went back to writing. He revisited screenplays. Still the process was a struggle. “I was not very good,” he said.

He began writing a short story, thinking that he could “muscle it into a screenplay.” Instead, as Stein wrote, the story got longer and longer. It eventually became “Raven Stole the Moon,” a story of a grieving mother who travels to Alaska to find the truth about her son’s disappearance. It was published in 1998, and will be re-released on Tuesday. (A sequel is also in the works.)

A second book, “How Evan Broke His Head and Other Secrets” arrived in 2005, winning a Pacific Northwest Booksellers Association Award. It is the story of a 31-year-old musician who suddenly finds himself raising a 14-year old son he never met.

The winner’s circle

To promote his first two novels Stein would travel from store to store, to libraries, anything that would get him on readers’ radar.

“I really had to get out and hustle my books,” Stein said.

That meant readings and booksignings with large audiences, some with only three or four and many in between. But even those with little attendance were beneficial, Stein said, as he was still able to build relationships with the booksellers.

“I’d tell them that when I have a bestseller I’m going to come back and we’ll fill the place,” Stein said.

“The Art of Racing in the Rain” followed, and unlike earlier books, “Rain” came relatively easy. Once he began writing, the manuscript was finished in about four months — faster than he had ever witten before.

“I didn’t think too much about it,” Stein said. “Once I had the characters I felt the book start to happen and my job was just to take notes.”

A new novel is expected in the summer 2011 and a fifth book is on the horizon.

“In a sense, I prefer it this way,” Stein said. “I can appreciate everything that has gone on with ‘The Art of Racing in the Rain’ because I know what it’s like to get a $7,000 advance and sell 3,000 books. I can appreciate what happens knowing that with my first two books that didn’t happen. It’s made me more appreciative of the response from readers.”
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Remaining events for “A Tale for Three Counties”

There’s still time to join this year’s “A Tale for Three Counties” community reading project. The final threebook discussions are scheduled Monday and Wednesday. Author Garth Stein visits Genesee, Orleans and Wyoming counties beginning Thursday for four talks and booksignings. The schedule:

March 8

Tale for Three Counties book discussion — A book discussion featuring the 2010 selection for the “A Tale for Three Counties” community reading project. The book is “The Art of Racing in the Rain” by Garth Stein, who will make appearances in Genesee, Orleans and Wyoming counties from March 11-13. Discussions at GCC are scheduled for 7 p.m. March 8 and 12:30 p.m. March 9. For more information, visit www.taleforthreecounties.org. Genesee Community College 1 College Rd. Batavia, NY 14020

March 10

Tale for Three Counties book discussion — A book discussion featuring the 2010 selection for the “A Tale for Three Counties” community reading project. The book is “The Art of Racing in the Rain” by Garth Stein, who will make appearances in Genesee, Orleans and Wyoming counties from March 11-13. Discussions at Richmond Library are scheduled for 7:45 a.m. March 10. For more information, visit www.taleforthreecounties.org. Richmond Memorial Library 19 Ross St. Batavia, NY 14020

March 11

Tale for Three Counties Author Visit — Garth Stein, author of this year’s “A Tale for Three Counties” book selection, will talk and sign copies of his book “The Art of Racing in the Rain” during a series of visits to Genesee, Orleans and Wyoming counties. He stops at Genesee Community College for a 1 p.m. March 11 program. For more information, visit www.taleforthreecounties.org. Genesee Community College – Batavia 1 College Rd. Batavia, NY 14020

Tale for Three Counties Author Visit — Garth Stein, author of this year’s “A Tale for Three Counties” book selection, will talk and sign copies of his book “The Art of Racing in the Rain” during a series of visits to Genesee, Orleans and Wyoming counties. He stops at Richmond Memorial Library for a 7 p.m. March 11 program. For more information, visit www.taleforthreecounties.org. Richmond Memorial Library 19 Ross St. Batavia, NY 14020

March 12

Tale for Three Counties Author Visit— Garth Stein, author of this year’s “A Tale for Three Counties” book selection, will talk and sign copies of his book “The Art of Racing in the Rain” during a series of visits to Genesee, Orleans and Wyoming counties. He stops at Lee-Whedon Memorial Library for a 7 p.m. March 12 program. For more information, visit www.taleforthreecounties.org. Lee-Whedon Memorial Library 620 West Ave. Medina, NY 14103

March 13

Tale for Three Counties Author Visit — Garth Stein, author of this year’s “A Tale for Three Counties” book selection, will talk and sign copies of his book “The Art of Racing in the Rain” during a series of visits to Genesee, Orleans and Wyoming counties. He stops at 2 p.m. March 13 at Perry Elementary/Middle School for a program hosted by Perry Public Library and other Wyoming County libraries. For more information, visit www.taleforthreecounties.org. Perry Elementary/Middle School 50 Olin Ave Perry, NY 14530

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Courtesy of Batavia Newspapers Corporation

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