From Paw to Page
After twenty plus years of frustrated efforts to publish a novel, I scaled back my ambitions to conform to the somewhat circumscribed audience still available to me:
When my agent, Mary Jack Wald (a paragon of hope, persistence and faith in lost causes) encouraged me to rewrite one of my many failed forays, the first thing I did was add a key character to the action.
The sole reason for this was my wife and I had finally, after many years of longing on her part, acquired a dog. My habit is to write on the front porch of our house on Long Island, and since the new dog was a constant companion in this setting – and as all writers know we seek inspiration from our immediate surroundings – it was nearly impossible to concoct a scene in which no dog was present.
A published book followed. You do the math.
I’m immensely fortunate that our dog, Samuel Beckett (a soft-coated Wheaten Terrier named after a lesser known Irish existentialist), who has since passed away, was in possession of an outsized personality. Dog owners know that some dogs are dogs, other dogs are strange people who live with you. So it was with our dog Sam (coincidentally the name of my protagonist – I’ll let you draw the implications) who was a thoroughly reliable source of literary substance, in both form and content.
His fictional counterpart is an eccentric named Eddie Van Halen. While Eddie’s received his share of fan mail, most of the recognition has come from reviewers, who write things like, “...and his lovable mutt, Eddie”, and “…the anti-Marley, Eddie Van Halen.”
My dog Sam shared with his alter ego Eddie Van Halen a characteristic dominant in all exceptional canines – unpredictability. Experts on animal behavior will tell you that dogs are highly programmable routine freaks. Nothing makes them happier than the noon walk, the six o’clock meal, the seven-thirty a.m. tummy rub.
Sam liked his routines, Lord knows. But he also loved to mix things up, in a way far more reminiscent of a practical joker than a habituated, monotony-loving house pet. I heard him howl exactly twice, both times on a corner in Southampton as a fire truck passed by. He stuck his head out the window of a moving car exactly once, for reasons neither of us ever figured out. A dog who showed nothing but disdain for conventional chew toys would suddenly become enamored with a polyester squirrel and spend the greater part of Christmas morning eviscerating the poor helpless thing.
Sometimes, very infrequently, he’d walk up to me, look me in the eye, and issue one, loud, imperious bark. I’d say, “What.” He’d bark again, and then walk away, disgusted. I know these exchanges meant something to him, but I’ll be damned if I know what it was.
However, I’m way ahead on the deal we had. I got to have a character I can write into my books whenever my imaginative powers flag, with little need for invention. All I gave in return was a concentrated scratching around the ears, a walk around the block and an occasional cigar.