Marley & Me
When did you realize that Marley's escapades might make for fun reading?
Pretty early on, actually. Within weeks we were recounting his antics at dinner
parties, and I began trotting him out in my newspaper columns shortly
Why was Marley so lovable despite being such a pain in the neck?
I think it had something to do with his guileless heart and over-the-top zest
for life. Just as he was incapable of putting the brakes on his behavior, he
had no bounds on his affection and loyalty, either. Not necessarily a bad
Were there any Marley "stories" that didn't make the book?
Oh yes, lots. What can I say? The dog was a wealth of material. Here's one: One
day I was installing a new window in the house, and I had a bowl full of
sheet-metal screws sitting on the ground. Marley charged over, snuffled his
nose into the bowl as though they were candies, and trotted off. A second
earlier I had 24 screws; now there were 23. Sure enough, within minutes Marley
was retching and heaving. We rushed him to the animal hospital, imagining the
sharp screw shredding his insides. Two hundred dollars worth of x-rays later,
Marley was feeling fine and bouncing off the walls. We never did locate the
missing screw, either in or out of him. There are many stories like that.
What would Marley's reaction be to the book?
I'm pretty sure he would have eaten the manuscript by now. And left no trace.
At what point did the story become about more than just a dog?
That's an interesting question. I began writing this book just a month or so
after his death, and I was learning as I was going. It was a bit of a process
of discovery for me. Quickly I realized I couldn't tell Marley's story without
telling the story of my wife and me and our intrepid journey into parenthood.
Eventually I realized my book was not so much a "dog book" as the story of a
family in the making and the bigger-than-life animal that helped shape it.
Was it difficult to relive Marley's life so soon after having lost him?
Actually, it was therapeutic. Cathartic. I would read passages aloud to my
children as I progressed, and it seemed to help them, too. Mostly we laughed. Bittersweet
is probably the right word.
You end the book with you and your wife heading out to look at a shelter dog, a
Marley clone named Lucky. Did you end up adopting him?
Lucky was a sad story. When we showed up to meet him, the staff took one look
at our young children and told us they would not let us adopt Lucky. He had
been seriously abused and was just too unpredictable to be around kids. He had
a wide host of issues that made Marley look downright well-adjusted by
comparison. The good news is Lucky was at one of those well-endowed, fairly
luxurious private shelters with a no-kill policy. So his worst-case scenario
will be living out his years there surrounded by an attentive staff.
Did you ever get another dog?
Nine months after Marley's death, we brought home a beautiful female yellow
Labrador retriever puppy. Gracie is smart, calm, easily trained – and just a
little boring. But then after Marley, probably any dog would be.
Are you working on anything new?
Oh, yes, absolutely. But I'm not quite ready to talk about it. I'm a little
superstitious that way.
What's the hardest aspect of writing?
The only difficulty is that little part that involves putting words on a blank
screen. Other than that, it's a breeze! Seriously, I have little tricks to
avoid writer's block. One of them is to create the "official document," which
seems very intimidating and sits blank. Then I create a "rough notes" file,
which I write in. Since it's meant to be rough – after all, that's the name of
the document! – and no one will ever see it, I don't worry about what spills
out of me. After I get down a chunk, I let it sit overnight and then go back
and work it over. Usually, about 90 percent of it gets used. It's a ridiculous
little game, I know, but it helps me. I also keep a faithful journal, which is
another great tool.
Do you have any special writing routine?
I'm usually a night owl, but when I wrote "Marley & Me," I forced myself to
go to bed early and get up early. I wrote from 5 to 7 a.m. and then ate breakfast and
went to work to write my newspaper column. I averaged a chapter a week this
way. I began the book in early 2004 and finished the manuscript right after
Labor Day. My agent, Laurie Abkemeier, sold it the next month in an auction.
What advice do you have for writers?
Take the Civil Service exam and hope for a job at the Post Office. No, no, no.
Keep a journal and write every day, even when it seems impossible. Read really
good writers, and re-read the best parts aloud. Write about what you know and
care about. Believe in yourself and your voice. And here's what I consider the
most important part: Take your finished piece and cut it by 20 percent. Relax,
you can always restore the lost text. You'll be surprised how seldom you will
feel the need. In my own work, tighter is almost always better.
Who are some of your favorite authors?
Gosh, where to begin? I love everything Bill Bryson has done, especially "A
Walk in the Woods." I was deeply moved by Alice Sebold's "The Lovely Bones."
Frank McCourt's first-person voice and uncompromised honesty inspired my
writing. I'm a fan of Jim Harrison's. Also John Irving, E.B. White, Anna Quindlen,
Charles Frazier, David Sedaris, Donna Tartt, and just for plain fun, Dave
Barry. In the love-hate debate over Hemingway, I'm in the love camp.
Q. You wrote a
column in The Philadelphia Inquirer about Marley after his death. Did
that play a role in your decision to write a book?
A. Very much so. All through Marley's life, I entertained
friends and readers at his expense, trotting him out to tell stories about his
hopelessly bad behaviour. After he died, I figured I owed it to him to tell the
rest of the story, the whole story. Yes, he was an attention-deficit,
hyperactive, nutty dog, but he had a pure heart and an incredible gift of
canine-human empathy. The day the column ran, nearly 800 Inquirer readers
emailed or called. A typical day might bring 30 to 50 responses. That's when I
knew I had a bigger story to tell.
Q. Are your
children jealous of your close relationship with your dog?
A. Quite the
contrary, they consider our pets special members of the family and their own
best friends. They were bereft when Marley died. My wife and I lost a beloved
pet, but for them it was like saying goodbye to a sibling. He had been close
beside them every step of the way, from infancy forward – drooling all over
them. A dog is the greatest gift a parent can give a child. OK, a good
education, then a dog.
Q. Isn't it a
little frivolous to spend this much time and energy discussing a dog when there
are so many problems in the world? Why are dogs important enough to write
A. I have this
theory, and writing the book sharpened it, that people can learn a lot from
their dogs. Lessons on how to lead happier, more fulfilling lives. Lessons for
successful relationships. Think about it. Many of the qualities that come so
effortlessly to dogs – loyalty, devotion, selflessness, unflagging optimism, unqualified
love – can be elusive to humans. My hunch is that people who act more like dogs
have happier marriages. That's assuming, of course, you don't marry someone who
emulates cats. Then you're in trouble. Cats will outsmart dogs every time.
interesting you say that. You and your wife brought Marley home just as you
were starting out in your marriage.
A. Right. People get
dogs at different points in their life, and Jenny and I both had grown up with
dogs. But Marley came into our lives right at that special juncture when we
were attempting to meld two individual lives into one shared relationship.
Marley, in all his goofy glory, became inextricably woven into the fabric of
what became us. I write that in the book. He came into our lives just as we
were figuring out what those lives would be, and I do think he helped shape us
as a couple even as we tried to mold him to our will.
Q. What was the
biggest lesson you took away from your relationship with Marley?
A. That commitment
matters. That "in good times and bad, in sickness and in health" really means
something. We didn't give up on Marley when it would have been easy to, and in
the end he came through and proved himself a great and memorable pet.
Q. So he's not
really "the world's worst dog"?