The Longest Trip Home
When did you decide to write about your childhood and your relationship with
your parents as the subject of your next book?
many years I knew I wanted to write about my childhood. I was born in 1957, so
I was growing up in the middle of all the turmoil and social unrest of the
1960s and early 1970s. It was a pretty eventful time. But that's just the first
section of The Longest Trip Home. It was only in the last few years that
I began seeing the book as more than a growing-up memoir. My childhood was part
of the story, but of equal importance was the often funny and sometimes painful
struggle I made as a young adult to break free from my parents' influence and
find my own place in the world. I realized pretty quickly my courtship of my
future wife, Jenny, was central to this part of the story. And then, as I
entered middle age and my parents their sunset years, I saw that time was
running out to reconcile and reconnect with them. I ended up writing the book
in three parts: Growing Up, Breaking Away, and Coming Home.
How do you think readers will relate to your story?
Well, we all belong to families. We all have to deal with those messy,
complicated, often infuriating dynamics that it seems no family is without. All
of us, too, must find our way free of our parents' orbit and to our own place
in the world. And we all must come to terms at some point with our parents'
mortality—and our own. After I wrote Marley & Me and was going
around the country talking about it, countless readers came up to me and said
nearly the identical thing: "It was as if you were writing about my life." I
hope readers will find the same relevance and touch points in The Longest
you glad you grew up in the 1960s?
The Sixties were such a tumultuous time. Vietnam, the anti-war movement, race
riots, civil rights, the first man on the moon, assassinations, hippies, LSD,
free love. I guess I'm glad I survived the 1960s. So many of my generation did
you still keep in touch with your friends from school?
A. In The
Longest Trip Home, my three childhood best friends, Tommy, Rock, and Sack,
play major roles. Rock and I remain best friends to this day, seeing each other
several times a year and staying close. While researching this book, I found
Tommy after years without contact, and it was instantly like old times. The
same warmth and humor and bigger-than-life personality I remembered from
childhood remains intact. I have only seen Sack once since high school, and
then we only exchanged a few words. I was giving the eulogy at my father's
funeral and looked out into the crowd and spotted him in a pew. After decades
apart, my old best friend had shown up to pay his respects. It meant so much to
me I nearly wept.
What about the nuns?
Only one, a former nun who left her vocation when I was still a teenager and
spent the rest of her career as a lay educator. She was never one of my
teachers but rather a family friend from another parish, and she remains a friend
to this day. Of all the nuns who actually taught me at Our Lady of Refuge, the
only one I would like to someday catch up with is the beatific and sweet Sister
Nancy Marie, the religious education teacher. She gets a whole chapter in the
book, and if I ever do hear from her, my first order of business will be to
apologize for the horrible prank Tommy and I played on her and the way we
betrayed her trust.
you ever visit your old neighborhood?
go back at least once or twice a year. My mother resides in a nursing home not
far away, and my family still owns our childhood house in Harbor Hills. The
neighborhood has changed dramatically in the thirty years since I left home.
Nearly every waterfront home —lovely in their day but considered modest by
today's standards—has been torn down and replaced with opulent mansions. The
houses away from the water, such as the ones in which my friends Tommy, Rock,
and Sack grew up, are largely unchanged, but the cars parked in the driveways,
mostly European, are a far cry from the made-in-America Chevrolets and Fords
that were the order of the day when I was a kid. My childhood home has changed
not at all; it's almost like a museum relic. Same kitchen cupboards, same
linoleum floor, same bathroom tile. I cannot visit the old homestead or walk
those neighborhood streets without being flooded with memories, a lot of good
ones and some bittersweet. Thomas Wolfe was right: you can never go home again.
Not easily, at least.
is your mother doing?
is great. She's ninety-two and very frail, and on some days quite forgetful,
but she still has that mischievous twinkle in her eye. The nurses all comment
on her sense of humor and call her the live wire of her residence wing. A while
back I called to say hello, and she answered the phone: "Joe's Bar, what are
you drinking?" That's my mother, still clowning around.
Q. Your parents were tremendously devoted to each other, and
yet they sound like they were definitely a case of opposites attracting. How
were they different?
A. My father was shy, quiet, and bashful. He was serious and
meticulous and a horrible dancer. My mother was just the opposite, gregarious,
funny, spunky, the life of any party, and light on her feet. Mom loved to pull
pranks and tell stories; Dad was incapable of teasing someone and loved to
listen to her stories. She was in bed before ten o'clock most nights; he seldom
hit the sack before one a.m. Dad would hang a picture on the wall by measuring
to the thirty-second of an inch and using a level. Mom would squint through one
eye and drive a nail in wherever the spirit led her. But they both had generous
and kind hearts, and they shared a deep, life-long devotion to their faith and
to God. As the expression goes, the family that prays together stays together.
For my parents, that certainly was the case. Their faith was the pillar that
supported their marriage for nearly six decades.
What was the hardest aspect of writing a second book? What was difficult in
writing this book?
When I was writing Marley & Me, I had no inkling of what a
phenomenon it would be—eighteen months on the bestseller list and some five
million copies sold in thirty languages. Had I had any idea of how many people
would be reading it, I'm sure the words would not have flown so easily. I would
have been second-guessing every sentence. With The Longest Trip Home, I
had to force myself to forget about all that and just focus on the story.
up a #1 New York Times bestseller is not without its pressures, but I
tried to put all that aside as I was writing and travel back to the place and
time of each scene of the book. Once I got into that mind frame, the story
not a book about Shaun, your first dog? Or Gracie, your new dog?
When I wrote Marley & Me, I was not setting out to write a "dog
book" and I don't consider myself a writer about pets. There are plenty of
other authors out there filling that niche. What's weird is that I don't so
much pick my subject matter as my subject matter picks me. My topics bubble up
from within, nagging at me until I finally take them on as writing projects.
That's how Marley & Me began, as an urge to document a magical
thirteen-year period of my life starting out as a newlywed with my bride Jenny
and the nutty dog that would change the couple and parents we would become.
Similarly, The Longest Trip Home was a story that had filled my mind and
heart for many years and I knew was something I needed to get onto paper. I'm
not ruling out writing about dogs again, but my litmus test is this: If I need
to struggle to find something to say about a subject, then that's my sign it's
not meant to be told. Shaun, my childhood dog, was a wonderful pet, and you can
read about him in the preface to Marley & Me, and also in sections
of The Longest Trip Home. But he's not a book. Ditto my new Lab Gracie.
She's such a calm and good dog; she doesn't exactly supply me with a bounty of
When you wrote Marley & Me, you talked about how important it was to
tell a story honestly. Was that harder to do this time?
and no. I believe any writer has to look in the mirror and ask: "Can I tell
this story truthfully and honestly and candidly without holding back?" If the
answer is no, or even "I'm not sure," the writer needs to find a new topic.
With both Marley & Me and The Longest Trip Home, I took an
oath to myself to not only be as factually accurate as I was capable, but to
also strive to make sure those facts were assembled and told in a manner that
got as close to the reality of my experience—a.k.a. the truth—as I was able. I
did my very best to keep that promise, even as I never lost sight of the fact
that memory is a fickle beast and each of us views our past through our own
prism. As any courtroom trial shows, different witnesses to the same event
often have very different interpretations of it.
difference between the two books is that Marley & Me primarily
revealed the private lives of just two people, my wife Jenny and me. The
Longest Trip Home, on the other hand, involves a large cast of characters,
many still living, who played roles in my life: my parents and siblings; my
childhood friends and classmates; my teachers and neighbors. That made it more
difficult. In the end, my goal was to be honest and respectful, and to only
tell the stories that were mine to tell.
Were you concerned about the privacy of those people who played roles in your
life and ended up in the book?
Yes, very much so. I do not believe in creating composite characters or
fabricating personal details to help disguise real-life characters. That seems
disingenuous to me. But I did change the names of many of the characters in my
book to offer them anonymity, including anyone who was a minor at the time of
the telling. I also omitted certain highly specific details that would make
individuals more easily identifiable. ("An old childhood friend who now is the
Secretary of State of a certain country that shares borders with Canada and
& Me covered thirteen years and you have said you had journal entries
and your newspaper columns to help jog your memory. But in The Longest Trip
Home, you cover a forty-year swath of your life, beginning at age seven.
How were you able to remember so far back in such detail?
was definitely more challenging, no question. But I'm blessed (my wife would
say cursed) to come from a family of pack rats, and so I was able to find a
host of documentation to help jog my memories: report cards, holiday notes,
letters, calendars, checkbook registers, and beginning in late high school,
lengthy journal entries. I'm not sure what motivated me to do it at the time,
but beginning in college I made carbon copies of every letter I wrote. I also
saved receipts, ticket stubs and the like. I was surprised at how helpful
family photos and movies were in reviving long-lost memories. In the end,
though, the memories that remained vivid over the years percolated to the top
and made it into the book, and the fuzzy, unclear memories tended to not make
That's an interesting observation. How conscious were you of the anecdotes you
chose to include and omit?
Well, there were certainly a string of events in my life I consider seminal,
that I knew from the start would anchor chapters: My disastrous first
confession; bringing home Shaun; creating an underground newspaper in high
school; losing my virginity; meeting Jenny; the last sailboat ride with my
father. But I wasn't clear in what order they should be arranged or what should
go around them. I'm not a big believer in outlining narrative nonfiction. I
worry outlines can be limiting. So I just began at the beginning, with one of
my first memories—a family vacation to a religious miracle site—and let the
story build from there. I've noted this before, but writing a book can
sometimes feel like an out-of-body experience. There are times when I'm writing
and the words are flowing, and they are leading in directions I did not
anticipate. Sometimes I almost feel like a third party reading over the
writer's shoulder and marveling, "Man, I would have never guessed he'd take the
story in this direction." Writing a book is a little like using a Ouija board.
You rest your fingers on the keyboard and are sometimes amazed at what comes
you ever worry that readers might be surprised at some of the language and
mature scenes in The Longest Trip Home?
Yes, but again my stronger instinct was to be honest and not pull punches. If,
as ten-year-old boys, my friends and I would smoke cigarettes and yell swear
words at the top of our lungs, that's what I had to report. I couldn't very
well, change it to us saying "Gosh darn! Gee Willikers!" That said, while
writing certain scenes I tried not to think about some of the very sweet
grandmas I've met on my book tour.
your three children know about your "adventures" before you wrote the book?
What do you say to them about your past transgressions?
they didn't. Jenny and I worked hard to protect their innocence for as long as
possible. Every kid deserves that. But I also don't believe in hiding your past
from your children once they are old enough to understand it and put it in
context. Actually, some of the mistakes I made as a kid make for excellent
talking points for family discussions. My hope is my kids will learn from my
errors and not repeat them.
did your parents influence you as a parent? What life lessons did you learn
Growing up, I never once doubted my parents' love for me. Even though the words
"I love you" were seldom spoken in our house, especially by the men, there also
was no question about that love. Their actions, their concern, their worry,
their amusement at their children's antics—even some of the more egregious
ones—all spoke to their strong love for each other and their children. And it
was an unconditional love. Even at times when I knew I had disappointed them
deeply, I never wondered about their love for me. They taught me that every
child deserves the security of knowing he or she is loved unconditionally. As a
parent, I'm trying to follow in their footsteps that way.
Your father wasn't able to witness your success. What do you think he would
father died in December 2004, while Marley & Me was still in the
manuscript stage. Dad was always the biggest fan of my work, even my first
college internship at a community weekly paper called, of all things, The
Spinal Column. He religiously clipped and saved my newspaper columns and
magazine articles. I know how proud he would be of me as an author. At the same
time, I am certain I could not have written The Longest Trip Home while
he was still alive. As I've said, I believe you shouldn't tell a story unless
you can tell it honestly and openly. If I knew my father would be reading it, I
don't think I could have done that.
you could go back and change one thing about your childhood, would you? And
what would it be?
loved my childhood. It was a happy and fun and largely innocent time filled
with good friends and a close, loving family. My one big regret was the
academic freefall I allowed myself to enter when I transferred from Catholic to
public high school as a sophomore. That one disastrous year lowered my grade
point average to a level that limited where I could attend college. And that in
turn limited the job opportunities after graduating. I received excellent
journalism training at Central Michigan University, but the major metropolitan
newspapers I dreamed of just did not consider CMU grads. I spent twenty years
clawing my way up through the ranks of small-town newspaper jobs to finally
land my dream job at a dream paper—metro columnist for the Philadelphia
Inquirer. As you might imagine, my kids hear way more than they want about
the importance of maintaining good grades in every class.
has your life changed since Marley & Me was published?
life has changed in fairly dramatic and wonderful ways. Most importantly, I am
now officially self-employed, my own boss, and I love it. When Marley &
Me came out in October 2005, I was a columnist at the Philadelphia
Inquirer. Even after my book hit #1 on the bestseller lists, and my book
tour took me to all corners of the continent, I clung to my job, afraid of
losing such an important anchor in my life. But in February 2007, with layoffs
at the paper looming and staff morale plummeting, I decided it was a good time
to take a break from daily journalism and focus full-time on books. If I had
any misgivings about leaving, they were all in the first forty-eight hours. I'm
busier than ever, but it feels good.
blessing of Marley also helped Jenny and me realize a years-long dream. About
the same time I was leaving the newspaper, we bought a 200-year-old stone
farmhouse overlooking a stream running through nineteen acres of woods and
wetlands. The place has an old stone barn, a rickety chicken coop, and an old
summer cottage that was falling down but is now rehabilitated and the place
where I can work. When I look up from writing, I gaze out over a meadow of
goldenrod where deer and herons and geese can often be spotted. The view's
almost too nice; I spend more time gazing than getting anything done! The old
homestead is a work in progress, and as of this writing the renovations
continue. But we're getting there, and already it feels a lot like home.