The excitement was palpable.
We fired up our computers and tweaked the sound system while book club members took their seats. We were gathering in the Pentecost room, an intimate sanctuary in the basement of Bethel Lutheran Church in downtown Madison.
We were about to Skype with Garth Stein.
In the last few anxious moments--you know what I'm talking about, those moments just before something good is about to happen, something that takes coordination and communication between at least two different parties, when suddenly you're wondering if everything is going to work like it did during the test run and if you wrote down the right day and if you weren't really just making this whole Skype thing up and if your mom really loves you... That's precisely the moment someone pointed to a small icon on the projected screen and said, "Look, there are 21 million skypers online!"
Twenty-one million. Really? Will he find us?
Just then, at the designated time, the computer made a burbling sound and there was Garth Stein. Front and center. On the big screen. Just like in the photo above. Only better. He was live.
We launched right in with our questions and Mr. Stein handled it all with ease. He impressed us with his genuine, down to earth, easy going manner. Dressed casually in a denim shirt, Mr. Stein sipped coffee and chatted with us from what looked like his office. And though he lives in Seattle, some 1600 miles away, it felt like he was right here with us.
Of course, we had the advantage. Darren, our technical expert, projected Stein's video image onto the big screen up front so he could be seen easily from any point in the room. Mr. Stein, on the other hand, had to make sense of two tables crammed with people trying to fit in the video cam's viewer. Hope we didn't strain his eyes.
Present on our end and seated at the tables were Mary, Pastor Laura, Tim, Dean, Eddie, Suzanne, Mark, Jack and Jeremy. Darren hovered in the background to provide technical assistance if needed (fortunately it wasn't). Tank, Kent and probably a few others that I missed watched from the back of the room. Also present was Rod, our roving volunteer photographer--and an excellent artist--who spent his lunch hour helping us with photo-documentation of Bethel's homeless ministries.
Throughout our thirty minutes together, Mr. Stein looked relaxed and happy. He handled our questions like a pro, only minus the arrogance. He was personable, thoughtful and funny. We didn't record the session with anything other than our memories. Perhaps we'll come to regret that! Anyway, here below is what I was able to stuff into mine.
From where do your draw inspiration? Stein says he isn't absolutely certain from where his inspiration comes and maybe it's better that way. He writes often and passionately about the relationship between fathers and sons, and about family dynamics. He quipped that he could probably pay a lot of money to see a therapist to figure out why he writes what he writes, but he'd rather just keep writing.
We're certainly good with that. Write on.
How long did you have to study your dog before writing about Enzo? Stein said that his dog Comet was too silly to be in his book. (We probably shouldn't say this too loud.) The inspiration for Enzo, who is very wise, and ideas about Enzo's behavior, came from observations he'd made over the course of a lifetime spent with dogs.
Tell us about your interest in racing. Where does that come from? Stein always enjoyed racing and a few years back had an opportunity to race himself. It was a kick but, he admits, he didn't have what it takes to be numero uno on the race track all the time and he was too competitive to settle for less. So he put his energies into other areas of his life including his family and writing career.
That's not to say his racing days are over for good.
Here's the evidence: Recently Stein put his eightyish year old mother in a Ferrari on a race track. There was a fundraiser hosted by the actor Patrick Dempsey. (According to IMDb, Mr. Dempsey is slated to play Denny in the movie version of The Art of Racing in the Rain. We didn't have time to ask Mr. Stein if this were truly the case, but let's just go on supposing that it is.) The kicker part of the story is that Dempsey took Stein's mother out on the race track in a Ferrari for a couple of hot laps.
Hot laps! Your mother! At eighty! Guys don't do this unless they are still in love with the sport. Seriously.
A hot lap is a fast lap, often at competitive speeds. The average person would be too terrified. Guess Mr. Stein's mother isn't average. Go figure.
What breed dog did Mr. Stein have in mind while writing about Enzo? In the book we learn that Enzo's mother is a labrador, but details about Enzo's father are sketchy. Stein says he did this on purpose and adds, jokingly, "Do any of us really know who our father is?" Stein avoided providing details that would paint Enzo firmly in a reader's mind as this or that dog. Instead, the reader is allowed to conjur up their own idea of Enzo, maybe even imagine him looking like their own dog. The Art of Racing in the Rain has been translated into thirty different languages. A different dog is picked for many of those covers, a dog felt most likely to appeal to that culture. Different language. Different culture. Different dog.
How are you able to tap into experiences like Denny's custody battle for Zoe and make them seem real to the reader? In the story, Stein writes with a great deal of passion about a custody battle. Stein says, in essence, he does this by proxy. He admits he sometimes writes about the struggles he sees going on in the lives of the people around him including his friends and family members. He takes those situations and fictionalizes them, changing details so that no one will recognize the real life protagonist. (Probably most fiction writers could admit to doing this.) What remains when you change external circumstances is the heart. The heart is the same and that's what's true and makes up the essence of the story character. By staying true to what's going on in the heart, the writer makes the fictional situation and character seem very real to the reader.
What books have you been reading lately? Stein definitely liked this question. His expression brightened further as he turned to rummage through the stacks around him. He came back into full view with a copy of Carol Casella's latest book called healer (she is also the author of Oxygen,a medical thriller); and another book by Sam Savage called Firmin.
A lot of the books he reads now, he adds, besides research books, are books written by friends and others seeking his endorsement. For some reason, this comment drew the greatest laugh so far. It was a victory laugh, the kind of laugh people share when someone they've been cheering for wins.
When asked to name a book--any book--he really enjoyed reading, he mentioned One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest by Ken Kessey. "Most of you have probably seen the movie," he says. "The movie is great. The book is even better."
Are you working on another book? If so, what can you tell us about it? Like many writers, Stein didn't divulge too many details about his present project, but he gave us enough to intrigue us. It's an epic family drama that starts in the 1800's and ends in our current time. When he mentioned there would be no dogs, collectively we whined. Nonetheless, we all knew we'd be watching for it.
Have you ever chatted with a book club for the homeless before? No, he said, this is the first time.
Everyone enjoyed this session with Mr. Stein. We remain impressed and grateful for his taking the time to chat with a group of homeless persons and their friends.
He may not always have placed first at the race track, but here today Garth Stein came in first for us.
See you next week!