John Grogan - The Longest Trip Home


The Longest Trip Home

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Author Q & A


Q. When did you decide to write about your childhood and your relationship with your parents as the subject of your next book?

A. For 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.

Q. How do you think readers will relate to your story?

A. 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 Trip Home.

Q. Are you glad you grew up in the 1960s?

A. 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 not.

Q. Do 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.

Q. What about the nuns?

A. 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.

Q. Do you ever visit your old neighborhood?

A. I 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.

Q. How is your mother doing?

A. Mom 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.

Q. What was the hardest aspect of writing a second book? What was difficult in writing this book?

A. 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.

Following 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 blossomed.

Q. Why not a book about Shaun, your first dog? Or Gracie, your new dog?

A. 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 fodder.

Q. When you wrote Marley & Me, you talked about how important it was to tell a story honestly. Was that harder to do this time?

A. Yes 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.

The 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.

Q. Were you concerned about the privacy of those people who played roles in your life and ended up in the book?

A. 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 Mexico...")

Q. Marley & 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?

A. It 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 the cut.

Q. That's an interesting observation. How conscious were you of the anecdotes you chose to include and omit?

A. 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 out.

Q. Did you ever worry that readers might be surprised at some of the language and mature scenes in The Longest Trip Home?

A. 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.

Q. Did your three children know about your "adventures" before you wrote the book? What do you say to them about your past transgressions?

A. No, 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.

Q. How did your parents influence you as a parent? What life lessons did you learn from them?

A. 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.

Q. Your father wasn't able to witness your success. What do you think he would have thought?

A. My 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.

Q. If you could go back and change one thing about your childhood, would you? And what would it be?

A. I 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.

Q. How has your life changed since Marley & Me was published?

A. My 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.

The 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.

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