An Interview with Garth
Question: Where did the idea for the book come from?
Garth Stein: The first seed for this book was planted in my mind about ten years ago. I was no longer working in documentary films, but a friend asked me to consult on the U.S. distribution of a film he knew about from Mongolia, called State of Dogs. I took a look at the film and the press material they had on it. I didn't end up getting involved with the film, but the idea really stuck with me. In Mongolia, there is a belief that the next incarnation for a dog is as a man. I thought this was a cool concept and I tucked it away thinking I might some day do something with it.
Then, in 2004, I saw Billy Collins speak at Seattle Arts and Lectures. He's a great poet and a terrific reader. He read a poem, "The Revenant," which is told from the point of view of a recently euthanized dog as he addresses his former master from heaven. The poem begins, "I am the dog you put to sleep...come back to tell you one simple thing: I never liked you --- not one bit." I loved this poem. When Billy Collins finished reading, I knew I had to write a story from the point of view of a dog. And my dog would know the truth: that in his next incarnation, he would return to earth as a man.
So I had the character and the goal, but I still needed the framework of a story. A close friend of mine, who is a semi-professional race car driver but who supplements his racing by working behind the counter at an upscale automotive repair shop, was going through some personal difficulties. His plight wasn't Denny's, but it gave me some ideas about what happens to families when one member suddenly passes away. I developed a story that would really put my main character, Denny, through his paces, and then it was all there for me.
Q: What inspired you to write a young reader version of the book?
GS: I realized the messages in Enzo are universal, and that many kids could share in Enzo's wisdom, but some adult language and themes were getting in the way. Middle school librarians would tell me how much they loved the book, and they wished they could share it with their students, if only.... So we came up with the idea of the younger Enzo, and it really works!
Q: How do you think kids will be able to relate to Enzo?
GS: Enzo is great for kids, because kids are just like dogs! They are really smart, they hear everything, they interact with others. But they depend on their parents for food and clothing and a place to live. They can't drive themselves around. People don't listen to them as much as they should. Essentially, they have no thumbs, and their tongues are limited, too. Enzo is the perfect hero for kids!
Q: What suggestions do you have for families when discussing the books?
GS: I think it's important, when discussing a book, that we recognize every opinion is relevant. We all read a book differently, though our own values, experiences, and thoughts, and so we all identify with different parts of a book. With kids, especially, we have to understand that they may not have the same life experiences as an adult, so they will see different things. But most of all, when discussing a book with your family, be sure to follow Enzo's advice and LISTEN!
Q: What inspired you to tell the story from a dog's point of view?
GS: Using a dog as a narrator has limitations and it has advantages. The limitations are that a dog cannot speak. A dog has no thumbs. A dog can't communicate his thoughts except with gestures. Dogs are not allowed in certain places. The advantages are that a dog has special access: people will say things in front of dogs because it is assumed that a dog doesn't understand. Dogs are allowed to witness certain things because they aren't people and have no judgment.
I was able to work with this idea a lot in terms of giving the reader a unique viewpoint into the action of the book. Enzo goes off with Zoë, and while Denny, her father, doesn't know what happens, we see through Enzo's eyes and so we do know. In that sense, it was a lot of fun playing with this "fly on the wall" point of view. Especially since the "fly" in our case, is Enzo, who has very keen powers of observation.
Q: Is there any significance to the name Enzo?
GS: Yes! Denny's dog, Enzo, is named after Enzo Ferrari, who built one of the greatest car trademarks in the world. Ferrari automobiles are famous everywhere. And Ferrari is a dominant player in the world of Formula One racing.
But I have a funny story about how I arrived at Enzo's name....
When I first started writing this novel, Enzo was not named Enzo. He was named Juan Pablo, after Juan Pablo Montoya, the race car driver. When my wife read the first few pages, she said that she loved what I was writing, but the name of the dog wasn't quite right.
"How about Enzo?" she asked.
We had two sons already, and were expecting our third. I had always wanted to name one of my boys Enzo. I thought it was the ultimate cool name: Enzo Stein. But my wife very much disagreed. "We have a lot of different nationalities in our combined backgrounds," she reasoned. "Russian, German, Austrian, Tlingit Indian, Irish, English...but we have no Italian."
"But then we won't be able to name the baby Enzo," I said.
"I thought of that," she said, nodding slowly.
"I really wanted to name him Enzo," I said.
"Enzo, the dog, is your new baby," she replied. "And when our new baby comes, we'll find the right name for him."
(For those of you who are interested: We named our son Dashiell.)
Q: Are you a dog owner yourself?
GS: Yes. Our dog, Comet, is a Lab/poodle mix. She's goofy and silly and sweet.
Q: What kind of study, if any, did you do to get inside the mind and body of a dog?
GS: Um....study? The reason I write fiction is that I hate research. I don't have the attention span for it. My philosophy is to write first, ask questions later.
Q: Do you think people will look at their own dogs differently after reading this book?
GS: I hope so. Anyone who has a dog knows that they have some very deep thoughts, that they have moods and emotions, they get their feelings hurt. It's not a far reach to give them opinions and values and long-term desires.
Q: Americans love dogs and cars. Was this a conscious decision on your part to interweave these two national passions, or did it happen organically?
GS: Actually, when I started writing this I had some detractors --- fellow writers and people in the publishing industry who told me that, first, nobody reads books about racing and, second, nobody will read a book narrated by a dog. And yet, as I mentioned earlier, the story did grow organically, and therefore, is perhaps more "true" than some more carefully constructed fiction and as a result, I think, appeals to people in a very personal way.
Q: The racing scenes deliver a real adrenaline rush and a feel for the intricacies of the sport. Is this seemingly expert knowledge based on personal experience or extensive research?
GS: Okay, when I said I hate research, I meant book research ...
When I moved back to Seattle in 2001, I got involved in "high performance driver education," which is a fancy way of saying I learned to drive a car really fast on a race track. That soon led to my getting my racing license with the Sports Car Club of America (SCCA). While I did fairly well as a driver (I won the points championship in the NW region Spec Miata class in 2003), I didn't really have the skill as a mechanic or the time and money needed to really excel. When I crashed my car pretty badly --- ironically, while racing in the rain --- I decided to semi-retire from racing, and now I only race enough to keep my license current.
The funny thing is that while I love cars, I never really thought of myself as a "car guy." When I finished the draft of this book, my wife said, "So that's why you were racing. You were doing research!" I guess, on a subconscious level, that's what I was doing.
Q: What lessons can we all learn from Enzo?
GS: I'm not sure that's for me to judge. But I would say the important things for me are twofold.
First, Enzo's mantra: "That which you manifest is before you." I think it's very important to take charge of your life, not to feel like you're a victim of circumstance or fate, but that you are an active participant in your future. It's not a new idea: "And in the end, the love you take is equal to the love you make" (Lennon/McCartney). Where I focus my energy always matches what comes back to me in my life.
Secondly, Enzo's epiphany --- the thing he learns at the end of his life --- is that his assumption that race car drivers have to be selfish to be successful, is incorrect. In fact, he determines, in order to be successful, a race car driver has to be completely selfless. He must cease looking at himself as the brightest star in the solar system, and begin to see himself as simply a unique aspect of the universe around him --- and, most importantly, as an extension of the universe around him. In this way, a race car driver sheds his ego; his actions become pure and as powerful as the entire universe. Which, in turn, leads to success.
All athletes speak about the mental element of athletics, and it usually boils down to the same thing: if you can remove your ego from the game, you can function with much more clarity and you are more likely to succeed. Wouldn't it be interesting if we all began speaking about the mental element of our lives in this way? How would our lives change if we did?