By now, Garth Stein is certainly no stranger to the art of the interview. His third novel, “The Art of Racing in the Rain” sold more than six million copies and spent more than three years on the New York Times best-seller list, inspired a Young Reader edition, children’s picture books, a stage adaptation and currently is in development for a major motion picture.
Stein’s Enzo knows he is different from other dogs: A philosopher with a nearly human soul, he has educated himself by watching television extensively, and by listening very closely to the words of his master, Denny Swift, an up-and-coming race car driver. On the eve of his death, Enzo takes stock of his life, recalling all that he and his family have been through. A heart-wrenching but deeply funny and ultimately uplifting story of family, love, loyalty and hope, “The Art of Racing in the Rain” is a captivating look at the wonders and absurdities of human life … as only a dog could tell it.
Much like my fangirl experience with author Terry McMillan (See: February’s Jess Files), I had the opportunity to interview the prolific author in advance of his upcoming appearance at this month’s Dr. Audrey Lavin Speaking of Books Series from the Stark County District Library.
Reserve your free tickets to see Stein at the Canton Palace Theatre on April 11 at 6:30 p.m. at starklibrary.org. Chances are, you’ll be in for a rousing discussion of opposable thumbs, race cars and his latest work, “A Sudden Light.” Q&A and book signing to follow.
Read on below for a sneak peek of his upcoming book, er, books, and a little insight into how to keep a baby fat.
JB: I reread “The Art of Racing in the Rain” this week. I forgot so many things! The book is imaginative in its perspective, of course, but I forgot how simply beautiful the prose is.
GS: [Laughing] I like to think that I can write a decent sentence. It’s a very emotional book that reaches people on a lot of different levels. I’m not really that in touch with my emotional state. If I was, I probably wouldn’t be a writer. I’d just have a regular job.
JB: You’ve said in interviews that it’s not a story about a family with a dog; it’s a story about a dog with a family.
GS: It turns out that if you write a dog book that becomes successful, people assume you’re going to write more dog books. But it’s not a dog book. It’s about the outside view. I have this really cool character who wants to be something else. He just happens to be a dog. There’s great internal tension—he wants to move onto his next incarnation, but he wants to be with his family.
JB: You’ve talked about selling 1,200 copies of “How Evan Broke His Head,” then more than six million copies of “Art of Racing.” What were you feeling leading up to the wide release of your latest novel, “A Sudden Light”?
GS: With the next book, I wanted to do what I wanted to do. I didn’t realize what I was getting into with the fanatic mentality of dog people.
JB: “Art” was a bona fide phenomenon. Most writers never will come remotely close to that acclaim once, let alone twice or three times … that must have crossed your mind?
GS: I was relieved of that pressure some because of the time between books (five years). Look, if we knew the answer, all books would be blockbusters. We don’t have control of the zeitgeist. That lightning in the bottle thing. When the paperback first came out, for a while it was on all 10 best-seller lists, and not a single paper had reviewed the book yet. So, what I do know is that if you huddle in your basement, you won’t catch the lightning. You gotta run around on a hill naked with a lighting rod to catch lightning.
JB: Anything you care to tell us about your next project? Middle of last year, you were close to an initial draft …
GS: I’ve finished that book, but then a new story dropped in my lap. I’ve just started but have lots of chapters. People are going to love it. But it’s like, look, you’ve gotta take this other one, too.
JB: C’mon! We need more to go on than that!
GS: The first new book deals with the dislocation of truth. Set in the near future, there’s this goat in England they have cloned and spliced in spider genes.
And the goat grew up, and when they milk it and spin the milk in a centrifuge, it creates spider silk. The silk is then spun into a fabric that is 250 times more powerful than Kevlar. They want to make ligaments for knee surgery, but which industry do you think is actually driving the development? That’s my book: George Orwell meets Chuck Palahniuk. But the new-new book comes from my 86-year-old mother. I told her I refuse to drive 45 minutes to change her lightbulb. So she moved into a condo near us and became best friends with her 83-year-old neighbor. That’s the story.
JB: Those could not be more different.
GS: A good book should provoke the reader into something. It should be entertaining. You can read “Art of Racing” that way. It is a good ride. But you can also dig down into the concept of the transmogrification of the soul and our responsibilities to ourselves and others. With the philosophies that Enzo introduces, there’s a lot more there than just entertainment. Ideally, I want to write books that are enjoyable and entertaining to read, but also are provocative. If you want to dive in, there’s meat there for you. That’s my ethic.
JB: Do you read customer reviews on Amazon or Goodreads and then stew over them? Ever think of responding?
GS: There were so many for “Art.” I’m always drawn to the one-star reviews. At one point, I went on and there was a really nasty, deliberately mean-spirited review. I responded in what I thought was a funny way. I was joking.
JB: I take it that did not go over well?
GS: I got such vitriol spewed at me for responding! It was insane. I was blushing at the things they were saying about me and my mother! I deleted it all and apologized. Clearly this is not a format for interaction between writer and reader! And I have not been on Goodreads since. But hey, no one is wrong. Every book is read individually, through individual eyes. That’s what this world is. You make art and put it out there and people can appreciate it or burn it down. I just don’t subject myself to the burning part.
JB: That connectivity—social media—must impact you a great deal, especially while writing.
GS: There’s a line in the opening of “A Sudden Light” about how it starts before cell phones and DVDs … oh so long ago… in 1990. It’s a huge laugh line as people are thinking it’s going to be 1952, but no. All this [technology] has happened since 1990. It’s a challenge for misanthropes. You have to feed the desire that people have for connectivity so long as it doesn’t prevent you from doing your job, which is writing books. The new generation is the Yelp generation. Everything must be reviewed. It really is a culture that the internet has brought on, a lack of civility thanks to anonymity. I hope it doesn’t foretell the end of our civilization. If we erode civility online, it’s only logical that we’ll start punching each other in line at the grocery store. After all, every civilization before ours has ended.
JB: What does the actual process of writing feel like? I imagine it feels like an emptying of sorts?
GS: Worst case, extremely painful, agonizing and tedious. Best case, being swept into a dream and just taking notes. Oftentimes writers will pre-edit. I’ll start writing and it’s so bad I’m not even going to write it, but you have to be able to write the bad stuff to get to the good stuff. When I teach writing or speak to high schools, I use the analogy that everybody loves a fat baby. Fat fingers and toes. Nobody likes a thin baby.
JB: When the book is a baby, it’s nice and fat, unedited?
GS: Right. But then nobody likes a fat LeBron James. You want your LeBron lean and tight and sleek as he can be as he rockets down the court. Fat LeBron James is no fun.
JB: I, for one, hate a fat LeBron.
GS: It’s the same with a book. We need to make the baby fat. Just put the fat on the baby and get through the first draft. Then we get it on a program, get it lean and tight and sleek. Take your time, you’re building a mountain. Treat it like a mountain.
JB: Most intense fan experience?
GS: There’s a guy in the Northwest who shows up in Seattle at every event I do. He’s very intense. We have joked about him being my “best stalker.” One day, two bottles of wine show up on my front porch. The guy made the wine and bottled it and dropped it off for me. My wife couldn’t believe I drank it. How does he know where we live?!? I told her if the guy wanted to kill me, there are much, much better ways.