There’s something so perfect about a ball. As it flies through the air, so spherical, as if to be all things at once, to have no sides, no front or back. No top, no bottom. Perfect, yellow, and round. A satisfying dream to chase.
I was standing at the window of an elegant hotel room in Kansas City, awaiting my evening gig at Rainy Day Books, when my phone rang. My novel, The Art of Racing in the Rain, had been on the New York Times bestseller list since its paperback release, a dozen weeks previous. I had been on the road forever, because, well, Book Promotion Rule #17: Make hay while the sun shines. And I also really enjoy visiting bookstores all over the country. Before my event, I had scheduled a phone interview with a small-town newspaper in New Jersey, where I would be in two days. The reporter was calling me now. He had read the jacket copy, he told me, and he apologized for not reading the book, though he pledged to do so.
“What is it that you find so interesting about the mind of a dog?” he asked me.
“I’m not sure,” I replied, trying to cobble together an answer to an unfamiliar question.
“I guess dogs are mostly about the now. They don’t hold grudges, you know?”
“But you must have studied dog behavior. Did you live like a dog for a while?”
“Live like a dog?”
“Did you eat out of a bowl? Sleep on the ﬂoor?”
“I didn’t sleep on the floor,” I said.
“So, how did you get inside the head of a dog?”
“I didn’t get inside the head of a dog,” I said, a little more stridently than I had intended. “I got inside the head of my character. It isn’t a book about dogs. It’s a book about humans; it happens to be told by a dog.”
There was a pause. Oh, crud, I thought. I had broken Book Promotion Rule #6: Never be snappish with someone writing a story about you.
I agonized in silence for a handful of seconds; then he spoke. He told me he understood, and he seemed unruffled. He even apologized for having paused the conversation to catch up with his notes. So maybe I hadn’t oﬀended him after all.
When I arrived at my New Jersey venue two days later, I found a printed copy of the local newspaper awaiting me on my stool in the green room. I thumbed to the article: “In an interview, while on book tour in Kansas City, the author stressed to this reporter that his book is not a book about dogs. It is a book about humans, as told by a dog.”
So be it.
I first met Enzo at a poetry reading.
It was a lecture series in Seattle. The erstwhile national poet laureate, Billy Collins, was giving an intimate reading to 1,500 of his adoring fans. He’s quite a showman; a rock star of poets. I love his work. More, I love the infectious nature of his poems: they burrow into your brain, where they steep, and good things come of it.
That evening, Billy Collins read one of his poems, “The Revenant,” which begins with these lines: “I am the dog you put to sleep,/ as you call the needle of oblivion,/come back to tell you this simple thing:/I never liked you—not one bit.”
The crowd burst into laughter in the symphony hall, and a lightbulb exploded above my head: I envisioned a dog with an attitude, and he had a story to tell.
I was racing cars at the time, an amateur in the newly formed class of Spec Miata, under the sanctioning body of the Sports Car Club of America (SCCA). And I thought, hold on. Dogs … race cars … We have a mitzvah!
The first thing they teach you at racing school is: Your car goes where your eyes go. This axiom immediately became one of Enzo’s catchphrases.
My dear friend, Kevin York, was the model for the admirable Denny Swift — an up-and-comer with more talent than ﬁnancing. Car Tender is the real-life analogue for the shop where Denny worked. ProFormance Racing School, owned by Don and Donna Kitch, working out of Pacific Raceways. — my home track — served as the model for the racing school. But where did Enzo come from?
Enzo is so wonderful, I’ve been told, so clever and funny and wise and true! Surely, he must be based on a dog that I have known and loved.
I wish I could say that were the case. Alas, Comet, our most recent dog, who made her way to the Endless Golden Fields a few years ago, was a wonderful dog and I loved her a lot. But, honestly, she has a few more lifetimes to live as a dog before she comes back as a person. Enzo is not based on any one dog. Enzo has no precedent.
I wrote furiously. I’d never written with such passion. Because I’d never had a soul like Enzo dictating his story. My wife, Drella, read the manuscript as I wrote and helped me shape the story, weave the threads. When we stepped back to look at it, we both realized that something had changed; the story had become more than the sum of its words. “Enzo’s going to go around the world,” Drella said.
In November of 2006, I sent the manuscript oﬀ to my agent in New York. Three agonizing weeks later, he called me.
“What did you think?” I asked without saying hello.
“It’s narrated by a dog,” he said ominously.
“I know that,” I said. “Having written it.”
“I can’t sell a book narrated by a dog,” he said.
“No one will read a book narrated by a dog,” he said. “No publisher will publish a book narrated by a dog. It’s not even narrated by a dog; it’s narrated by an author pretending to be a dog!” To which I replied, “Victor Hugo wasn’t a hunchback.”
He didn’t laugh.
“It’s a gimmick!” he bellowed into the phone. “And it’s not even a good one! It’s not sustainable for an entire novel!”
While he ranted, I sat on the bench outside the Whole Foods on Roosevelt Way and took notes on the back of my Thanksgiving turkey receipt.
“Do me a favor,” my agent said decisively. “Throw away this book, and go write me something I can sell!”
I was decimated.
I didn’t know what to do. Drella said Enzo would go around the world. I sheepishly told her of my agent’s response.
“You need a new agent,” she said.
So I ﬁred my agent.
And then I had nothing. I was less than mid-list. My ﬁrst book, Raven Stole the Moon, published in 1998 by Pocket Books, didn’t sell well, except in Germany. My second novel, How Evan Broke His Head and Other Secrets, was published in 2005 by Soho Press. It sold 1,200 copies. I got a $7,500 advance, and I did not “earn out.”
Agents were not banging down my door. In fact, when I queried other agents, they invariably asked what happened to my last agent. “He said no one would read a book narrated by a dog,” I told them. “He’s probably right,” they said, hanging up the phone
In the spring of 2007, I was in crisis. I had no agent. I had a marginal publishing record. I had little hope.
But I had Enzo.
At a dinner to support the King County Library System, I met another local author and told him of my quagmire. I said, “I think the book is really good. But it’s narrated by a dog, and no agent will touch it.”
“You should talk to my agent,” he said. “He sold my book and it’s narrated by a crow. I don’t see why he can’t sell a book narrated by a dog!”
I laughed. But the following Monday, I sent a query to his agent, who called me two days later. “I love this dog,” the agent said, having just emerged from Penn Station in New York, having read my pages on the train. He was crying. “You have to let me represent this book.”
I did. And he did. And shortly thereafter, my book took up residence on the New York Times bestseller list for 158 weeks — more than three years — and was published in 38 languages (“Enzo will go around the world!”), ultimately ending up as in-ﬂight entertainment vis-à-vis a “major Hollywood motion picture,” with Kevin Costner voicing the thoughts of Enzo.
Over the years, my children have reminded me that Enzo is much more famous than I; a point I readily acknowledge. I have consistently maintained that I did not “write” Enzo, but that instead, I channeled him, because that’s how strongly his character came to me.
This chicken-and-egg paradox is interesting to ponder — which came ﬁrst, the soul of Enzo or the character of Enzo? Did I create Enzo, or did Enzo discover me? As a rent-paying writer with children to feed, I have taken full credit for Enzo’s creation and deposited the royalty checks into my own bank account. However, as a writer with a spiritual inclination, I prefer to believe that Enzo chose me as his scribe, because he found me best suited to tell his story. He gave me his story to give to the world. And, being a spirit in another dimension — or being “free from the burden of circumstance,” as Luca Pantoni, another character in the book, would say — he has no need for royalties anyway.
The reason I didn’t study dog behavioral theories and practices before I wrote The Art of Racing in the Rain wasn’t because I didn’t care about dogs and their behavioral theories and practices. I have loved many dogs, and I have always been attentive to their theories and practices. It was because I never thought of Enzo as a dog.
If had to encapsulate Enzo’s essence to an earthling, I would say, “he’s a nearly human soul, currently in the form of a dog, who believes it is his destiny to inhabit the form of a man.” And if we were to venture further down this branch of the story-tree, we would realize that Enzo, as a free-roaming soul, is probably not limited to his appearance in my book. We would realize that Enzo has likely appeared in many forms to many people — I can’t tell you how many people have told me, “Enzo is my dog.” And then we would realize that Enzo might represent something larger. Enzo may be the true embodiment of Everydog.
Our society seems to have lost the thread. We’re so clever with our machines and our artificial intelligences. We can peer into the molecules of our bodies and tell each other what we see. But how do we see intuition? How do we see desire? How do we see magic? When did we lose our belief in the supernatural? Or was it simply eclipsed by our hubristic belief that we are supposed to know everything about this universe?
We can’t know everything. We can hardly say we know ourselves.
“No, I mean, how do you have c O nver s ations with your characters, like you say you do?” a writer-friend asked me just the other day. “How do you get to that point?”
“You have to stop thinking,” I replied. Because that’s the key to writing the truth: take the writer out of it.
You have to allow your subconscious to rise from the bottom of the lake. It’s hard to do, because your subconscious is completely comfortable at the bottom of the lake, in the darkness and the cold; the muck. And that voice in your head — your conscious mind — is telling you not to bother. It’s telling you that your subconscious is a sluggard and is pretty dumb anyway, and by the way, as a writer, you suck. And you say to your conscious mind, “Yeah, I pretty much suck.” And you get stuck in a suckage-loop, with your subconscious languishing at the bottom of the cold lake while your feckless consciousness makes lists of all the ways in which you suck, and you have to agree because, well, it’s you talking and you always believe yourself. To write the truth, you need to shut oﬀ your conscious mind. You need to make it go away. Usually, your conscious mind is jibber-jabbering all the time, and that’s why your subconscious hides at the bottom of the lake. But if you can quiet your conscious mind for long enough, your subconscious will drift up to the surface just to see why there isn’t a commotion going on like usual. Without the noise, your subconscious will emerge, and if you’re patient and willing, you can get your subconscious to play with you, and it will show you all the places it goes while you’re doing your daily business, all the characters it meet s, all the worlds it experiences without you. And you can write that down. And that’s when you’re writing. Anything other than that is editing.
Writers are lightning rods. They are conduits to other worlds, and the worlds they show you are surprising, but entirely inevitable. Who doesn’t believe the tragic tale of Randle Patrick McMurphy? Who doesn’t cry when Charlotte dies? Who believes either of those stories could end any other way? But it only works if the writer puts the story ﬁrst. The story must be primary, and then the world will emerge and shine its light for others to see.
I met Billy Collins once, at the Tucson Festival of Books. I introduced myself. “Oh, yes,” he said, “I’ve heard of you; you were inspired by my poem to have a dog narrate a book.”
He’d heard of me?
“I had to ﬁre my agent because of the voice,” I confessed. “And I can’t tell you how many other agents turned down the book for the same reason.”
“They have no imagination,” he told me.
I bumped into him again, some 10 years later, in a grocery store on an island oﬀ the coast of Seattle.
“It’s not often we get a Billy-Collins-in-the-wild sighting around here,” I said.
He laughed. I reminded him who I was, and he nodded slowly.
“Ah, yes,” he said, grinning. “I still haven’t gotten my royalty check.”
“Neither has Enzo,” I confessed. And I smiled to myself because I realized that Billy Collins and Enzo were equal in my mind: voices that spoke to me in diﬀerent ways, both shining their magical light on the world so that I, too, could see what they saw, and share some magic.
I wrote a book about humans, which was narrated by a dog. But it wasn’t narrated by any dog.
It was narrated by Everydog, who showed himself to me as Enzo.
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