Thursday, January 12, 2006

Michelle Herman, DOG

This book arrived in the mail one day, unexpectedly. The wonderful Lauren Cerand sent it to me. How did she know that I had just adopted a Great Dane puppy, a dog that would actually change my very comfortable routine and my life? The timing was perfect. How could anyone not want to open the book and begin reading with that cute dog on the cover? Just look at him! Don't you want to tuck him into your purse and show him off to all your friends?

DOG is about an independent woman whose life, much like my own, is turned around by a puppy she impulsively adopts. It's a short novel and can be read in a few evenings, to be enjoyed with a cup of tea in front of a roaring fireplace.

Michelle Herman is the poetic and smart and talented author of this clever book.

Jill is such a lonely character. Would the story have worked if your protagonist was a busy, bustling happy character with a boyfriend or a husband?

Well, it would have been an entirely different story, I think. It might be useful here if I tell you how I came to write Dog. I was walking my daughters puppy, a week or two after we'd adopted her. (The dog--Molly--has the same early history as Phil, the rescue puppy in Dog--which is to say, a sad, hard backstory: on the streets alone at four weeks, no siblings or mama; picked up and taken to the pound, where she was kept for two weeks; was about to be "put down," then was rescued by a "foster parent" who kept her for three weeks until my daughter found her photo on'd been looking for just the right rescue puppy for her, for weeks--and fell in love.

I should also say that our Molly has a personality utterly unlike Phil's. Phil is a cool, calm, collected, dignified puppy; Molly--even at three, which she now is, is a bundle of energy and neediness--a real people-person of a dog. She also barks CONSTANTLY.) Anyway, it It was midnight, a cold night. As I had been doing every night, and many times during the day every day, I was walking Molly. Because my daughter, despite the puppy being HER puppy, was at home asleep--and because, as I should have known, ALL the care of the puppy had fallen to me.

So Molly was yanking me down the street, and I'd already stumbled a couple of times. It was pitch-dark-­there are no street lights in my neighborhood in Columbus, Ohio--and the sidewalks were icy. I was freezing, I was exhausted, I'd had too much wine with my dinner and so I felt a little unsteady, I'd forgotten to put socks on before I put my boots on, and I was MAD. And I thought, "This dog, this dog, this dog is taking over my life."

And even though I was so tired and cold and feeling so put-upon, the thought made me laugh. It was a ridiculous thought. My life had already been taken over. I was my then nine-year-old daughter's mother, and I was in the middle of writing a book about being a mother (my book of personal essays, which has been labeled a "memoir," The Middle of Everything), and I was teaching two classes and volunteering at my daughter's school and trying to keep my house from collapsing into total disorder and doing my best to remember to occasionally say hello to my stoic husband­-and really I had to shove everything over a bit to make a little room in my life for Molly the puppy. But it struck me that it was not so hard to imagine what it would be like to have a dog take over my life­-a different life, the life I might have had.

The there-but-for-the-grace-of-God life I would have had, I thought, had I not met my husband, Glen, after living alone for seventeen years; had I not had my daughter, Grace, who is the center and central fact of my life. It wasn't hard at all to imagine how easy it would be for what I'd so crossly thought to be true. And so I went home and started writing, and Jill and her puppy Phil were born. (Had I written instead the story I've just told you--the put-upon overwhelmed but essentially happy [because I have a wonderful life, I love my life, and I am very, very grateful for it]--I wouldn't have been talking about the connection that reminds the dog's "owner" that life is--or can be--good. I would have been talking about something else entirely.... Would that "something else entirely"--my own life, say--have "worked"? Sure, I guess--who knows? But it's never the life that I'm living that I want to write fiction about [I have nonfiction for that--it's why I started writing nonfiction at all, in my forties, I guess]; it's the life I haven't lived.)

Have you ever had your life touched so deeply by an animal? Can a dog -or any animal - really change a person's life?

I've had my life touched deeply by a whole series of animals. Years ago, when I was single, I had two cats I adored (I should mention that a reporter who interviewed me said that she felt that Jill "seemed more like a cat person, really," which cracked me up. She DOES seem like a cat person. That's why her getting a dog was so perfect!

Back in the day--when I was in my twenties, living in a tiny apartment on Christopher Street, in NYC--I would never in a million years have gotten a dog. Aside from the fact that I didn't have room for a dog--there was barely room for ME in that apartment, plus the two cats--a dog requires so much effort and energy, the kind of connection that I had no interest in at all. It was just interesting--back to the above--to think about what I might have done had I still been living alone twenty-five years later, in a house that had plenty of room, and a sense that there was no one who was counting on me).

My two cats, Cadence and Elizabeth, were very much my family for many years (Cadence died in Columbus, Ohio, when she was close to twenty years old; Lizzy died in Columbus, too, four years later, just after my daughter was born. I think she died of a broken heart. Although it's true she was very elderly by then). I have a bird now--also my daughter's, but the bird has totally bonded to me and has no interest in anyone else; she sits on my shoulder or knee while I write. That's a cockatiel named Cody. I've been thinking about writing a bird story, actually. This bird has a very big personality. Once when she was sick, I was so worried about her, I couldn't work or eat, for days. So--yeah, I believe in deep connections between humans and animals and have experienced them.

Can a person's life be changed by her love for an animal, and an animal's love for her? You betcha. No question. And I'd say the chances of it being changed for the BETTER are about a thousand percent greater than the chances of that happening around another person (that sounds cynical, doesn't it? But like Jill, I had a checkered love life. Most of the guys most assuredly did NOT change my life for the better. Now, my daughter--that's another story...but I've told that, in another book).

Where did that adorable dog on the cover of the book come from?

Alas, I have to disappoint you with the news that it's a stock photo from some image bank. But it's such a wonderful photo! I was thrilled when the book's designer showed it to me. It's just perfect for the book, isn't it? (But people are always asking me about that puppy! I'm going to attach a photo of the actual puppy who inspired the character of Phil. This is Molly a few days after we got her. She doesn't look--nor does Phil look, in my mind's eye--like the adorable puppy on the cover. But I don't mind that.

Has your writing changed/evolved after having your daughter and if so, how?

It has changed. It's gotten better. And--oddly enough--I work better, overall. I concentrate better, I get more done, I've gotten wiser and more precise. This makes motherhood sound like magic, and that's not what I mean. But for me, motherhood seems to have focused me. I used to have whole days to write--weekend days, any day I wasn't teaching and didn't have prep to do for my classes, all summer long--and I would waste so much time and energy! Now I never waste a second. Give me forty-five minutes of quiet time, I can write. Give me my laptop and a roomful of chattering children--and I can still write. And I've had to grow up fast, and hard, which has done my writing a world of good, too.

Plus--this will sound sappy, and I avoid sappiness like mad in my writing, so it's funny to be so sentimental here in an interview--but I am HAPPY now, and I wasn't. I'm not suggesting that parenthood is the antidote to life's troubles--that everyone should have a baby and get happy. But for ME it was exactly the thing I most needed to do. I enjoy being Grace's mother more than I've ever "enjoyed" anything; and I find being Grace's mother more interesting than anything I've ever done. Now that I've begun writing ABOUT being her mother, I really have found a way to combine the two abiding passions in my life. What more could you ask for?

What book are you currently reading?

I am not a monogamous reader, I'm afraid: I'm always reading a BUNCH of books at the same time (just last night Grace eyed the bedside stack--a tower of books with bookmarks stuck in in different places--and said, mildly, "What's wrong with you, anyway? Why can't you just read one book at a time?" I didn't have an answer for her, and I don't have an answer today, either. But I NEVER read just one book at a time).

Here's what I'm smack in the middle of now:Veronica by Mary Gaitskill, Until I Find You by John Irving, The Brooklyn Follies by Paul Auster (in galleys) A World of Light by Floyd Skloot, The Plot Against America by Philip Roth, The Carousel of Progress by Katherine Tanney, The End of the Novel of Love by Vivian Gornick and I just finished Joan Didion's memoir (like everyone else in the country, and like almost everyone else, I loved it. I'm going to have my nonfiction-writing workshop read it this spring, so I'll be rereading it soon) and J.M. Coetzee's Slow Man, which is easily the best book published in the last year, and Alison Lurie's Truth and Consequences. (oye vey, Michelle! How do you keep them straight in your mind?)

Where do you get your inspirations from?

As you can see from the anecdote I started with, my own everyday life. Which isn't to say that I necessarily write fiction "about" my life--only that it seems to me that "inspiration" for fiction is everywhere. I'm sure if I wrote stories that were driven in any way at all by "plot"--if "what happens" were as interesting to me as who it happens to and why--then it would be quite a different matter. But I'm really interesting in feeling and thought, not event. So it's easy to find "inspiration" in ordinary life. As if life were ever "ordinary"!

What is your favorite:

Color? pink

Food? lobster, cold steamed artichoke, raw littleneck clams, and anypudding likeddinglike dessert--flan, creme caramel, tapioca, good old MY-T-Fine chocolate pudding made from a box (see--I have my perfect meal in mind at all times)

Day of the week? Sunday

Memory? My daughter's birth

Lastly, if you could look into a crystal ball and glance at your future, what would you hope to see?

My daughter--she's twelve and a half now--brilliantly happy, doing work she loves (right now she is fixed on a career on the stage, in musical theater, and who knows? She has talent, she has drive--already--and she has the example of her father and me, two people doing the ridiculously impossible things they wanted to do from the time they were younger than she is now), with love in her life, and in excellent health.

My husband's paintings in museums, and written about in the Times (and he's in excellent health too). And for myself: half a dozen more books (how far into the future are we looking, anyway???) written and being read by lots of people--each one much better, much more interesting and complex and wiser, than the one before. And I am right in the middle, knee-deep, let's say, of writing a new, ambitious, much more interesting book and it's going well. And my parents are very, very, very old but still doing nicely. And--while I'm at it--my brother is healthy and happy, and his eldest son, who is one of the people I love most in the world, has found work he loves and is having a wonderful life.


Anonymous Anonymous said...
I'll love you forever, DJ, for making me aware of this book. Since I want to read it tonight, I'm off to Borders. Just what I needed! @ 8:09 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...
For me, an underlying theme in this story was that it was by a writer with a dog, about a writer finding and learning to live with a dog. From the way names-Jill to J.T. and Phil for the dog-to the nuances revealed in this single, almost eccentric life, one is drawn to the details of the relationship of a 'found' pet and staid poet and professor, who adopts him and finds her life changing in good and constructive ways. Good to the last 'word!' @ 6:18 PM  
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