Garth Stein’s book is narrated by a dog. It’s a smart and enjoyable book, but it’s narrated by a dog. And so back in 2006, his agent at the time decided no one would read a book narrated by a dog. In fact, no one would publish a book narrated by a dog, he said, or market a book narrated by a dog. And furthermore, he pointed out, it’s not even narrated by a dog, it’s narrated by an author pretending to be a dog.
“He said, this is just a disaster and what am I doing, it’s a gimmick and it’s not even a good gimmick and the state of the industry is a disaster and no one’s buying fiction and this isn’t the right book for me, it’s my third book and I could ruin my career, worse I could take his career out with me and he went on and on,” Stein recalled, the 48-year-old Seattle author gripping a podium Saturday inside the Schenectady County Public Library.
The agent ended his speech with a request: Throw the book away and go write something that will sell.
Stein fired the agent that November day, just before Thanksgiving as he stood on Seattle’s Roosevelt Avenue on his way to the grocery store. Moments later, as the Whole Foods butcher handed him a turkey, Stein wondered out loud: “Would you read a book narrated by a dog?”
The butcher thought about it: “Is it good?”
It turns out Stein’s book was good. “The Art of Racing in the Rain” has sat on the New York Times best sellers list for four and a half years since it was published in by Harper in 2008, it’s available in 34 languages and Universal Pictures is thinking about making it into a movie.
A standing-room only crowd inside the library Saturday grew excited when he mentioned the movie, erupting into applause. About 100 book lovers filled the wood-paneled McChesney Room to hear from Stein, his green eyes bright behind black-framed glasses and the hair around his temples a distinct white against the rest of his pepper gray hair and goatee. He arrived in the Electric City earlier Friday to speak to middle and high school students as part of the library’s 7th annual “One County, One Book” program.
Saturday’s book reading and lecture concluded months’ worth of programming designed to foster community discussion of Stein’s third novel, which comes with a companion book for middle school students. Sponsored by the Friends of the Schenectady County Public Library, it was followed by a book sale and signing.
When you write a book narrated by a dog, a few things will happen in the months and years after it’s published. When you attend book readings, people will bring their dogs. And if your plot revolves around the sport of racing cars, people will also show up with their race cars.
“I used to race a Spec Miata, so I’ve become friendly with the Mazda speed,” said Stein, nodding toward a white Mazda Miata sitting low to the ground outside the library just moments before the lecture.
Tom Campbell, a Saratoga Springs man wearing a Sports Car Club of America cap, brought the car out to show Stein, who used to race cars until he ended up in a serious crash while racing in the rain.
“What’s interesting about this book is the rule of thumb always used to be that women read fiction and men read nonfiction. But this has race cars and dogs and so guys like it. This kind of thing happens all the time,” he said inside the lobby moments later, nodding toward the car parked outside. “I much prefer the race cars to when they bring dogs.”
Inspiration for the book first arrived in the form of a documentary that landed on his desk while Stein was making films in New York City. The documentary “State of Dogs” told the Mongolian legend that when a dog is prepared it may be reincarnated in its next life as a human. The idea stuck, but didn’t gain traction until after Stein had moved back to his hometown of Seattle and written two other books.
Years later he attended a poetry reading by Billy Collins and was struck by a poem told from a dog’s point of view.
“All of a sudden, it clicked for me,” he said. “I said wait — the idea of a dog being reincarnated as a person — I can tell that story if I tell it from the point of view of the dog. See, the dog wants to be reincarnated as a person and he figures he’s the smartest person in the room but no one will listen to him because his tongue can’t form words and he can’t go where he wants to go because he doesn’t have thumbs to open door knobs. So this dog feels kind of bitter about not being included, and so all of a sudden I have this character.”
The character, a dog named Enzo, believes desperately in the Mongolian legend and spends his days watching television, trying to learn what he can about his owner’s passion for race car driving. Eventually, Enzo helps his owner in a child-custody battle and uses his observations about the human condition to prepare himself for reincarnation.
Stein, in a checkered shirt and white Chuck Taylors, peppered his reading with anecdotes about his journey to publish Enzo’s story. After he fired his agent, he sent manuscript after manuscript to agents who told him the same thing his first one had. They liked the idea. They liked the writing. But it was narrated by a dog, they whined.
Finally, he ended up at a fundraiser attended by authors and was regaling his plight over dinner when someone perked up.
“This other writer sitting across the table from me looked up from his plate and said, 'Oh hey, you should talk to my agent. He sold my book and it’s narrated by a crow.’”
Days later, the crow agent read Stein’s manuscript and left a message on his voicemail that he would save for 99 days.
“He was crying and he said 'I love this dog and I love this book. You have to let me have this book.’ And that’s the agent I needed.”