Seattle novelist studies meaning of life through dog's eye view
June 25, 2008 · 2:25 PM
Imagine living life like a game show contestant who’s been put inside one of those soundproof isolation boxes.
You can see and hear most everything that’s going on around you, but the game show host won’t turn on your microphone. So you live out your life, day by day, watching and even involved in the game but never getting the chance to fully engage. That’s how Enzo feels.
“All he has are gestures,” emerging Seattle author Garth Stein’s new book begins, “so they must be grand in nature ... .”
“What is life like, how do you refine your senses, if you have no ability to talk to communicate?” Stein posed the premise.
The book is called “The Art of Racing in the Rain.” It’s a metaphor for life, narrated by this old philosophical dog, Enzo, who’s figured out the meaning of life through the rules of the race track. For a dog, he actually makes quite a lot of sense.
He’s very zen.
His owner is a fledgling race car driver named Denny. When Denny goes to work, he leaves the TV on for Enzo, so much so that it became habit, even though Denny says, ‘I better not catch you watching T.V. all day ... .”
The idiot box, and the shows thereon, eventually became a shaping factor in Enzo’s view of the world. His “study,” he calls is. It’s made him infatuated with human culture, human affections and, as you could guess, opposable thumbs.
He’s even got a list of his favorite actors and favorite films.
“One of his favorite actors is George Clooney, he says, because they’re the same around the eyes,” Stein said, noting “He watches a lot of television... so he has sort of educated himself by watching the Discovery Channel and History Channel and things like that.”
One day, on one of those channels, Enzo stumbles upon a documentary about Mongolia. He’s stunned and ecstatic to discover the Mongolian belief that dogs are reincarnated into humans in the afterlife. From that day forward, he knows, he’s destined to be a man. It must be. He’s always felt like a human soul trapped inside the un-evolved body of a canine.
In the author’s mind, a Mongolian documentary is also where the story of Enzo began.
Years ago, just out of film school at Columbia University, Stein saw a Mongolian documentary called “State of Dogs” about the culture’s belief in canine-to-human reincarnation.
And the idea bulb illuminated.
“I tucked it away, thinking... that’s such a great idea,” Stein said.
Little did he know, years down the road, after he’d moved back to the Northwest, he would develop that idea into a book narrated by a dog; a book that has spent the past four weeks on the New York Times bestsellers’ list.
THE ART OF SELLING
A BOOK NARRATED
BY A DOG
Granted this is Stein’s third published book. His last book was the Pacific Northwest Booksellers Book of the Year in 2003. He’s got a bachelor’s degree from Columbia University and an M.F.A in film from the Columbia School of the Arts and a quickly paced and quick-witted way of adeptly uncovering the wisdom and emotion of his characters and ultimately the meaning of the story.
Despite all of that, it was still difficult to sell a book narrated by a dog, Stein said.
And Enzo is a borderline brilliant dog.
He’s got all these mantras for life that just seem to make sense, make the world seem at ease. One in particular that had a special resonance for Stein — “That which manifests is before you.”
“Which is to say that you create your own destiny, you’re driving the car, you can’t blame other people for your life,” Stein noted.
With that mantra in mind, when he took the book to his agent for publication and the agent replied, “Uh ... this is narrated by a dog, I can’t sell this,” Stein took the wheel.
“So that conversation ended in the only two words that it could end with ... ‘you’re fired’ ... and I took it to another agent,” Stein said. “And this agent said the same thing. ‘... This is narrated by a dog,’ but he followed up with ‘I love it, I can sell it in a minute.’”
Which he did, to HarperCollins, and the book’s turned into a small phenomenon. Bestseller, Starbucks book for summer, national tour and all.
What’s Up caught up with Stein by phone while he was preparing for a reading outside of the Boston Library. Before that, he was in Denver, before that New York, Connecticut and Toronto. A week later he was headed to Miami and then after that coming to Bainbridge, but not before stopping through San Francisco.
Stein found his break and his niche in the Northwest.
He grew up in Seattle before college at Columbia and 18 years spent in New York before he moved himself, his wife and three kids back to Seattle at the start of the new millenium.
“I love New York ... but in New York, you always have to have a strategy, you always have to be planning your next move,” Stein said. “As great as (the move to back to Seattle) has been for my family and me personally ... it’s been just as great for my career.”
As a writer in the Northwest, Stein found a community of other writers and readers who actually wanted to read his stuff, and bookstores that wanted to help him out.
“There’s no local authors in New York,” Stein noted. “If you’re not a Tom Wolfe ... or other some big name, you’re nobody.”
Here, there’s a welcoming community of independent booksellers, which Stein’s found both unique and at the risk of sounding corny, “the best in the country.”
When he published “How Evan Broke His Head” in Seattle, those independent booksellers came calling, asking to have him out for readings all over the place. And he said yes to everything within driving distance over the course of one summer.
There were some signings with large audiences, some with none, and some where two people were there. But Stein figured out that it didn’t so much matter how well attended the readings were as did the relationships he developed with the booksellers.
He told them:
“One day I’m going to be a big bestselling author, and I’m going to come back here and we’ll pack the place,” Stein recounted. “And we all laughed, ha, ha ... but now here we are.”
Seattle author Garth Stein will be coming to Bainbridge with his book “The Art of Racing in the Rain” at 7:30 p.m. June 26, reading at Eagle Harbor Books, 157 Winslow Way on Bainbridge. Info: www.garthstein.com, www.eagleharborbooks.com or call the store at (206) 842-5332.