Classifying a writer as an "overnight success years in the making" is something of a cliché, but in John Grogan's case, that designation is undeniably accurate. In fact, his claim that it took him twenty-five years to get to the point where his debut novel hit #10 on the coveted New York Times Bestseller List in its first week and amazingly was already in its twelfth printing after a mere seven weeks on the shelves, doesn't even provide the complete picture. If one takes into account the fact that Grogan has been a devoted and disciplined writer since he began keeping a journal as a young boy, his tale reads more like an overnight success story a lifetime in the making.
Perhaps most impressive of all is the book that became a whirlwind sensation as soon as it was released. Marley & Me: Life and Love with the World's Worst Dog is a simple, lovingly rendered memoir about a man and his dog -- not exactly the stuff of lurid controversy. However, it is a testament to the universal power of a personal, witty, honest remembrance that Marley & Me has become such a smash success. It's not just any book that manages to get a "thumbs up" from Janet Maslin, famed literary critic of the New York Times. "Mr. Grogan knew the workings of Marley's mind," she observed in her career-making write up. "He makes that abundantly clear in Marley & Me, a very funny valentine to all those four-legged ‘big, dopey, playful galumphs that seemed to love life with a passion not often seen in this world.'"
Throughout the memoir, Marley manages to get into all manners of mischief -- from smashing and trashing the Grogan home in a variety of ways, to ruining friendly get togethers with his excessive drooling, to embarking on canine panty raids. Throughout it all, the 97-pound Labrador retriever is never anything less than lovable, and Grogan and his wife Jenny display nearly saint-like patience for Marley's rowdy tendencies -- well, they do at least most of the time.
Although humor plays a tremendous role in Grogan's immensely entertaining shaggy dog story (sorry about that, folks), he also uses Marley's misadventures as a means for relating his own story, which isn't always a delightful romp. The reader is carried through tough times in the Grogan household, such as the miscarriage of their first child. However, Marley's presence makes such moments of heartache a bit more bearable for both the young couple and the reader.
Grogan credits his ability to vividly recount such key moments in his life to his decades of devoted journal keeping. "I've been a faithful journal keeper since grade school," Grogan confided, "and many of my published pieces got their start as rough journal entries... Many readers have asked how I remembered detailed moments and dialogue in Marley & Me. I didn't. Many of those scenes came directly out of lengthy journal entries I had written within hours of the event, and that's what I credit for giving those scenes their immediacy."
Marley & Me has undeniably struck a massive chord with dog lovers and critics alike. The accolades this modest memoir has received are truly impressive; Booklist deemed it "A warm, friendly -memoir-with-dog" and Publishers Weekly concurred that "Dog lovers will love this account of Grogan's much loved canine." And let us not forget about that crucial blessing from the New York Times. Not bad for a first-effort that is essentially the story of a "boy" and his dog.
"It took me 25 years to find my way here, but the last few months have been like a rollercoaster ride," says Grogan. "I'm holding on for dear life and watching, with equal parts exhilaration and terror, where it will take me."
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A few fun and fascinating outtakes from our interview with Grogan:
"Before moving to Pennsylvania in 1999, I played bass in a newsroom rock band in South Florida for several years. The band was comprised of reporters and writers from my paper, the Sun-Sentinel, and the Miami Herald. Fortunately for me, everyone else was considerably better than I was, which allowed us to get paying gigs in clubs and bars. On many nights we sounded pretty bad, but occasionally, when all the pistons were firing in unison, when the gods of rhythm and harmony were smiling down, we actually rocked. It was enough to make me believe in magic. Those moments remain some of the best and most fun of my life."
"Along with my technology-suspicious friend, Dave, I'm a Luddite in Training. Even though I'm totally dependent on modern electronic gizmos, from my laptop to my iPod to my cell phone, I love to embrace old technology or no technology at all. I collect old rusty hand tools and sharpen and polish them, then use them to build things out of walnut and cherry that I harvest from fallen trees in the woods. I keep chickens in the backyard for their fresh eggs and would have a goat instead of a lawnmower if I thought I could get away with it. I garden without synthetic inputs and take great joy in turning old potato peelings and coffee grinds into compost. I'm the crazy man in the neighborhood who favors a scythe (you know, like the grim reaper carries) over a gasoline-powered weed whacker. Besides being an efficient cutting tool, the scythe is great for scaring away nettlesome youngsters on Devil's Night."
"I'm pathologically incapable of making decisions. Just ask my wife how long it took me to propose -- on second thought, best not to bring it up. You don't want to be with me while I'm trying to order at a Chinese restaurant. Sometimes, a guy just can't choose between the cashew chicken and the sweet and sour."
"In my first week in my first newspaper job out of college, I was a green-as-could-be 21-year-old, I was sent out to write about a murder victim whose body was found several days after it had been dumped in the woods. It was a hot June and the smell was horrendous. Flies were buzzing everywhere. I grew up in a quiet little suburban town on a lake outside Detroit; I'd never seen anything more horrific than a flattened chipmunk, and now here in front of me was this poor, decomposing man. I stood around with the cops, waiting for the coroner to show up and trying to look nonchalant. A veteran state trooper looked down at my brand-new suede shoes I had bought for the new job, and said, ‘You can kiss those goodbye. They'll never lose this smell.' And he was right. I don't know how or when or where, but with all of you as my witnesses, I vow that scene will someday end up in a book."
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In the winter of 2005, John Grogan took some time out to talk with us about some of his favorite books, authors, and interests.
What was the book that most influenced your life or your career as a writer?
The Catcher in the Rye by J. D. Salinger. I first read this book when I was a high school student, drifting somewhat aimlessly through my life and feeling misunderstood by the outside world, both my peers and adults. Holden spoke to me. Crazy, neurotic, misunderstood Holden. Catcher helped me realize that writing did not have to be tedious; it was not homework. It could be outrageous and irreverent and profane and laugh-out-loud funny and heartbreakingly sad. I've reread Catcher several times over the years, and each time I took something new and deeper from it. Plus, I just love Salinger's voice, and his artful way of overlaying a deep and pitiful sadness with hilarity.
What are your ten favorite books, and what makes them special to you?
Gosh, this is a tough one. Where to begin? I hesitate to say "favorite." Let's say "the first ten books to come to mind that I loved, loved, loved." Intentionally, I'm not going to ponder this too much. Here goes, in no particular order:
The Catcher in the Rye, by J. D. Salinger -- See above.
East of Eden by John Steinbeck -- What can I say? I have two brothers. I love everything Steinbeck has done and ripped through most of his works before I was out of high school. I was a folkie who was into Woodie Guthrie, Leadbelly and Depression-era music, so The Grapes of Wrath, Of Mice and Men and In Dubious Battle very much captured my imagination. But East of Eden was the most complex and layered. I reread it as an adult and liked it even more.
The Sun Also Rises by Ernest Hemingway -- I first read this as an undergraduate, and it remains my favorite book of one of my favorite authors. Who knows, maybe it has something to do with the emasculation theme.
The Oldest Living Confederate Widow Tells All by Allan Gurganus -- It took me forever to finish this book, not because it was tedious but because I kept slowing to revel in the moment. I learned more about the emotional truth of the Civil War in this one novel than in any history book or course. My wife and I both marveled that a man could so completely and convincingly tell the story in the first person voice of a woman. Just superb.
All the King's Men by Robert Penn Warren -- If there were a wish-granting writing fairy who came to me and said "You may pick any one book and make it your own, with your name on the cover as the author," this would be my pick.
The Canterbury Tales by Geoffrey Chaucer -- He gave me permission to be naughty and bawdy in my writing.
Crossing to Safety by Wallace Stegner -- Some of the most beautiful, emotionally rich writing I've ever read anywhere. (E. B. White's essays are right up there, too.)
Madame Bovary Gustave Flaubert -- This just might be the world's most perfect novel, taut and fast-paced and still beautifully drawn and complex. Besides, any book that gets its author prosecuted on morals charges must be worth reading.
Angela's Ashes Frank McCourt -- I took a lot of inspiration from this book as I was working on my own. McCourt teaches that you must write honestly and candidly about your subject (especially when that subject is yourself) or find a new topic.
The Secret History by Donna Tartt -- I was blown away by this book when it first came out, not only by the complex and tightly plotted story and the quality of the writing but by the fact that it was produced by someone so young. This book stands as a shining lesson that great works of literature can also be great page-turners.
The Cider House Rules by John Irving -- Yes, I know this makes 11, but I couldn't not mention this memorable novel that, two decades after reading it, I can still recount vividly, scene by scene. It's that good. And Homer Wells, I still want to adopt him.
What are some of your favorite films, and what makes them unforgettable to you?
My wife rolls her eyes at my favorite films, mostly because they are such downers. What she finds depressing, I find cathartic. I loved The Deer Hunter, Sophie's Choice and Ordinary People. My taste in action guy flicks runs to Braveheart and Gladiator; I'm an easy mark for the righteous revenge theme. I'm also a sucker for pretty much anything Emma Thompson has ever been in (and yes, I realize I'm jeopardizing my good standing in the action-guy-flick fraternity by confessing this). There are many more recent movies out there that I enjoyed, but I suppose it says something that I can't recall a single one by name right now.
What types of music do you like? Is there any particular kind you like to listen to when you're writing?
I never listen to music when I'm writing. I work best in quiet, or with the white noise of the dishwasher humming or the furnace rumbling -- or a busy newsroom buzzing around me. When I'm not writing, though, I'm glued to my music. A hobby of mine is digging up quirky covers of famous chestnuts, such as R.E.M. doing "The Lion Sleeps Tonight" or Nirvana doing early Beatles covers.
One of the great perks of living in the Philadelphia region is we have one of the world's all-time greatest radio stations, the commercial-free, member-supported WXPN (www.xpn.org). It plays this incredible mix of great, established artists and new talent that I would never have heard of otherwise. That said, my lifelong favorite musician is Bob Dylan, whom I have listened to religiously since I was 12, and imitated (badly) on the guitar since I was 16. I also love Miles Davis, but you won't catch me trying to imitate him.
If you had a book club, what would it be reading?
Right now, we'd be reading Marley & Me, of course, the author says shamelessly. But when we were done with that, we'd move on to The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time by Mark Haddon, which I am now reading and finding to be just brilliant in its voice, vision and delivery. In a sea of formulaic books, this one is a total original. We'd definitely have Joan Didion's The Year of Magical Thinking on the list, too.
What are your favorite kinds of books to give -- and get -- as gifts?
Garden books because I am an enthusiastic gardener (and former gardening editor), and I'm a total pushover for what someone once called "horticultural pornography," those glossy, brilliant color-photo spreads of flawless fantasy gardens that have as much to do with real gardens as airbrushed pinups have to do with real women. As with Playboy, I pretend to read the text but catch myself mostly staring at the photos and fantasizing.
Do you have any special writing rituals? For example, what do you have on your desk when you're writing?
I wrote Marley & Me almost entirely between the hours of 5 and 7 a.m. I'm usually a night owl, but I forced myself to go to bed early and wake up at 4:40 a.m. three or four mornings a week. After a strong cup of coffee I was good to go. Using this schedule, I averaged one chapter a week for 30 weeks. I started the book in February 2004, and finished it Labor Day weekend.
There's something about the early morning that works for me. Not only am I fresh and rested, but dawn and the hours preceding it have a special evocative quality for me. The smells are different, the sounds. You can almost taste the air coming through the cracked window. Things flood up in me then -- moments, experiences, connections. If I don't get them down by the time the sun's up and the kids and my wife are downstairs, they're gone forever.
The one thing I always keep on my desk as I write is my Webster's New Collegiate Dictionary.
What are you working on now?
I'm working on the proposal for my second book. It's still too early to talk about it in any detail, but it will be autobiographical nonfiction and will mine my childhood growing up in a strong Irish Catholic household.
Many writers are hardly "overnight success" stories. How long did it take for you to get where you are today? Any rejection-slip horror stories or inspirational anecdotes?
I, too, had heard and read all the horror stories. And I've worked hard over the past 25 years, much of it in backwater newspaper jobs, to build my skills and credentials as a writer, storyteller and journalist. But I must say that this particular book project -- my first -- was anything but a horror story. It's been almost a fairy tale for me. I sent out 12 queries -- blind -- to agents I had gleaned off the Internet. Eight totally ignored me; three sent me snippy responses, and one, a young agent named Laurie Abkemeier, bit. Two days later, I officially was a represented author.
As I mentioned in my acknowledgment, Laurie played a big role in coaxing the book out of me, cheering me along, offering encouragement and direction. When I finally had a completed manuscript, Laurie, a former editor at Hyperion, did a pre-edit and I tightened and polished. She then began shopping it with publishing houses as I worried no one would be interested. After all, this was a book about my family and our dog. I found it scintillating, of course, but how many others would? Several days later, Laurie called me to say six publishers were interested. She held an auction, which is actually a blind bidding process via e-mail and phone, and my manuscript sold to William Morrow, an imprint of HarperCollins, in October 2004.
My editor, Mauro DiPreta, was a big believer in and advocate for my book through the whole editing and pre-publication process. I know writers who moan about their inattentive publishers, but I must say Morrow and HarperCollins really did everything right in the execution of this book, from the great cover design and layout to the custom web site (www.marleyandme.com) to the marketing and pre-release publicity. They brought me into New York for the Book Expo America to introduce me to booksellers and flew me to Chicago to chat up the nation's librarians at the American Library Association convention. They also printed and distributed a slew of Advanced Reader's Copies to familiarize booksellers, industry insiders and the media with the book.
One of those early copies made it into the hands of one very influential book critic. A week before my October 18 publication date, Janet Maslin of The New York Times published a positive review, and suddenly I was on the map. I always knew the clout of the Times, especially when it comes to its arts and literary criticism, but this was my first time experiencing it firsthand. Marley & Me debuted in its first week out at #10 on The New York Times Nonfiction Bestseller List and hit #5 seven weeks later, by which time it was in its twelfth printing. It took me 25 years to find my way here, but the last few months have been like a rollercoaster ride. I'm holding on for dear life and watching, with equal parts exhilaration and terror, where it will take me.
What tips or advice do you have for writers still looking to be discovered?
Write every day no matter how discouraged you get. Force yourself out of your comfort zones and do things, visit places you wouldn't otherwise. Keep a detailed journal of your daily life and use it to hone your narrative skills. I've been a faithful journal keeper since grade school, and many of my published pieces got their start as rough journal entries. Many readers have asked how I remembered detailed moments and dialogue in Marley & Me. I didn't. Many of those scenes came directly out of lengthy journal entries I had written within hours of the event, and that's what I credit for giving those scenes their immediacy. For instance, the chapter on Jenny's miscarriage came almost verbatim from a long entry I made the night it occurred.
More than anything, believe in yourself and your voice. Write about what you know and care passionately about. Don't write it for an agent or publisher or market niche. Write it for yourself. Write it from your heart. Write it without flinching. If you do, it will touch readers. And it will sell.
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