The phone rang the other day, and on the other end, were the brass from my publisher, William Morrow Co. Gathered around a speaker phone were president Michael Morrison, senior vice president and publisher Lisa Gallagher, associate publisher Lynn Grady, my editor, Mauro DiPreta, and others.
They were calling to tell me that The New York Times Bestseller List had just been released for the previous week, the one running October 16-22. That would be the first week Marley & Me was on sale. Actually, my book was not on sale the full week. It hit bookstores on October 18, and was available for five days of the seven-day counting period.
It was very nice of them to call to let me know the list was out, but I was wondering, heart in my throat, if there might be something else they had to report.
“And…?” I asked nervously.
“And,” my editor Mauro said, pausing just long enough to constitute cruel and unusual punishment under the articles of the Geneva Convention, “Marley & Me is #10.”
A brief silence, followed by shouts, whoops and cheers. I stood holding the phone, dumbfounded.
“My book?” I asked. “Number 10? On The New York Times Bestseller List?”
Was this some kind of cruel joke?
“Really?” I asked.
“Really,” he said.
I knew it had been selling well; I wasn’t expecting this.
“Gee, wow,” is all I could think to say. “Damn. Gee.”
Yeah, I’m a wordsmith, all right.
Marley & Me falls between Kurt Vonnegut’s recent release, A Man Without a Country, and Christopher Kennedy Lawford’s memoir (also published by Wm. Morrow) Symptoms of Withdrawal. Company I’m honored to keep.
The list will appear in the November 6 issue of The New York Times Book Review. My book may only stay on the Top 15 list (an extended Top 35 list runs on nytimes.com) for this one single week and then be gone. Many, many big-name titles are coming out for the holidays, and the competition ahead will be fierce. Whatever happens will happen. For now, though, I’m still pinching myself. As my agent told me in a congratulations phone call: “Get used to it. You’re officially a bestselling author.”
For the moment, at any rate.
Archive for October, 2005
The phone rang the other day, and on the other end, were the brass from my publisher, William Morrow Co. Gathered around a speaker phone were president Michael Morrison, senior vice president and publisher Lisa Gallagher, associate publisher Lynn Grady, my editor, Mauro DiPreta, and others.
I’m writing this in the airport in Dayton, Ohio, early Saturday morning while I wait for a flight home to Pennsylvania. The last time I checked in, it was Monday night and I had just rode out Hurricane Wilma in Fort Lauderdale. The story got worse before it got better.
When I signed off, I was sitting in the hotel bar, which was being powered by gasoline generators, sipping a Heineken. Shortly after filing my blog entry, the hotel shut off the water, including toilets. Within an hour every last bottle of drinking water in the place was gone. I slept in pitch blackness,thankful that my window opened to let in fresh air. The next morning I made my way down to the ballroom-turned-hurricane-shelter, and the staff gamely presented the best breakfast they could — eggs, toast, yogurt and orange juice. “Don’t tell me there’s no coffee,” I said.
“There’s no coffee,” the waiter said.
“I need coffee.”
“We have no water.”
No water I could handle, but no coffee? It was about to get ugly. Could things possibly get worse? A few minutes later, the concierge told me she was kicking me out.
“The hotel is shutting. Everyone must be out,” she said.
Every traffic light in the three-county area was out. The roads were filled with debris. Many of my fellow guests had no transportation of any kind. “So where are we supposed to go?” I asked.
“I’m sorry, sir,” she said, averting her eyes. That was it. The hotel was closing; the guests were on their own.
When things fall apart, they fall apart quickly and utterly. Just twenty-four hours earlier, this hotel lobby was the model of polished-marble accommodation, a place where every need, even the most ridiculously self-indulgent, is met. And now here we were in a place with no power, no water, no plumbing, plywood over broken windows, soggy carpeting — and averted eyes.
I packed my suitcase and headed to the parking lot where my rental car sat beneath a fallen tree. Another guest helped me lift the branches off the hood so I could back out. The paint on the hood was scoured to bare metal; the trunk was creased by a steel hotel sign that fell during the storm; but the car ran, and that was all that mattered. I made my way cautiously — each intersection treated as a giant four-way stop — to the expressway and began driving north. The damage was breathtaking. Giant lengths of guardrail were peeled back and tangled like spaghetti. Overhead expressway signs were bent in half. Light posts sat askew. And this was only a Category 2 storm, with winds that topped out somewhere about 115 m.p.h. It gave me an appreciation for what those living in the path of Cat 5 Katrina had faced.
I poked my way out of Broward County, past my former home in Boca Raton, and the exit for my old neighborhood in West Palm Beach, the one I describe in the opening chapter of Marley & Me. Traffic was thick; I wasn’t the only one who had the bright idea to flee this mess. I nervously watched the fuel gauge; no gasoline stations were opened anywhere.
An hour north of West Palm Beach, I stopped at a rest area. The restrooms were chained shut. Another 45 miles up the road, now on Florida’s Turnpike, I pulled into a service plaza that had power. Cars waiting for gas snaked a half mile back onto the turnpike. The line for food at Burger King was a good hundred people deep. I fought my way to the coffee counter and filled up. The first sip gave me new hope.
Meanwhile, the travel agent called; she had found a flight out of Orlando. Things were shaping up. I reached the car-rental return on vapors. The rental folks were decidedly unsympathetic. It didn’t matter that the car was damaged by an act of nature while parked at a hotel; they treated it no differently than had I, say, crashed it into a pre-school while driving blind drunk. I filled out forms, signed God knows what and rushed to catch the flight, arriving at the gate with seven minutes to spare.
When we lifted off I breathed a sigh of relief — and felt a pang of empathy for my many friends in South Florida who could not, as I was doing, just run away from this coast-to-coast mess. They owned homes. They faced days ahead without power and weeks of repairs and headaches. A few hours later I was back in Pennsylvania with its verdant hills, crisp air and changing fall colors, The place never looked better to me.
I was home just one day and then it was back to the airport before dawn, this time to head to Cleveland and then on to Dayton. Both signings went well and I met a lot of wonderful people, nearly every one of them with bad-dog stories to rival anything Marley had done. One woman told me her Lab had swallowed a pork roast whole after swiping it off the dinner table. Another said her Lab snuck out on the porch during trick-or-treating and consumed 65 Reese’s peanut-butter cups, foil wrappings and all, with no ill effects. Another said her Lab had just eaten an entire cherry pie left unprotected on the counter. Are we detecting a trend here, people?
At Books & Co., a very cool bookstore in Dayton, customers were invited to bring their Labrador retrievers for my reading and signing. And bring them, they did. There were at least 10 Labs in the audience, all desperately happy to be out for a night on the town. It was a total slobber fest. Needless to say, I was totally upstaged, but, hey, I didn’t mind. Since being on the road, I’ve been suffering Lab withdrawal, so it was good to get my doggie fix. By the time the reading was over, I was covered in dog hair and drool. Total bliss.
Man, a lot has happened since my last entry 24 hours ago. Namely, a major hurricane with a whole lot of attitude. It passed directly over me and definitely left an impression. Her name was Wilma, and talk about a high-maintenance date. I woke at 7 a.m. to the sounds of rain raking across the windows of my 12th-floor hotel room. Soon the entire room was swaying in the wind. Not long after that, a giant “W” flew past my window, crashing to the ground below me and making me officially a guest not of the Westin, but of the “estin.”
A little after 8, the hotel staff corralled all of us guests into an interior ballroom — and for good reason. The windows had begun popping out of the rooms, crashing 8, 10, 12 stories to the ground. The lobby was a war zone. The front door had blasted out, scattering glass everywhere. A skylight had burst, and rain was pouring into the lobby. Water covered the tile floor, and the wind — eventually surpassing 110 m.p.h. — picked the water up off the floor and hurled it horizontally through the hotel. I’ll tell you, no amusement park on earth could replicate such adrenalin-surging, panic-inducing thrills.
It became obvious pretty early on that my book signing scheduled for tonight in Fort Lauderdale was not going to happen. In fact, we’d be doing well if the bookstore was there at all by the end of the day. It’s amazing how close you can get with total strangers when you’re all wondering exactly when the roof is going to come down on top of you. Before long, I was on a first-name basis with several of my fellow guests.
A little voice began to whisper in my ear: “Hello! You’re a journalist, John. This is a major national story. You could not be more in the middle of it unless you donned wings and went airborne. Don’t you think you should, you know, do your job?”
The author in me replied: “Oh, shut up!”
The journalist: “I’d call in if I were you.”
The author: “And miss the free Hurricane Buffet?”
The journalist: “You’re pathetic…”
OK, OK… I finally caved and called my editor. “Uh, I’m sitting in the middle of a hurricane and the glass doors just exploded into the lobby. Interested?”
Hell, yes, he was interested. He would be getting an out-of-state byline on a breaking story from a staff member without — and this is the truly important part of the equation — having to pay a SINGLE PENNY in travel expenses. I could have filed the menu from the Indian restautant I had lunched at the day before and he would have been thrilled.
After the winds died down, I returned to my room and started writing. On a laptop running on batteries. And with no way to recharge it. The power was out everywhere. I raced against the battery, and got done just as the warning message popped up. I raced to hook into a phone line and dial the story in… And, of course, the phones were down.
After a fair amount of racing around the darkened hotel, I talked the cute Russian bartender into letting me unplug her cash register from the generator and letting me plug in my laptop. I then discovered the wireless service was still up and running in the lobby. In no time at all I had my column in. (And you can read it at http://go.philly.com/grogan .)
It’s now Tuesday night. My book signing never happened. My rental car got nailed by a tree AND a large steel sign. (And guess what dummy declined the extra insurance)… The airport remains closed. My flight back to Philadelphia in the morning has been canceled. The power is still out. I’m sitting in the bar, writing this by emergency-generator lights while hotel engineers board up the broken doors and windows. Thank God the Heineken is cold.
Good night, and may the next book signing — Thursday night in Cleveland — be a little less eventful.
I’m writing this from a hotel in Fort Lauderdale, Florida, where I arrived last night just ahead of Hurricane Wilma. As I drove my rental car on Interstate 95 from the airport, the overhead signs flashed the warning: “Mandatory Evacuation of Florida Keys in Progress.” What’s wrong with this picture? Everyone else is leaving, and I’m just getting here. I’m in town to do a pair of book signings, one in Boca Raton at 4 p.m. today and one Monday night in Fort Lauderdale at 7:30. Right now, it’s cloudy outside but not threatening. Today’s signing in Boca should be fine, well ahead of the hurricane. Tomorrow night in Fort Lauderdale, however, is a total crap shoot. If I had to bet, I’d give it about a 50/50 chance of getting canceled. Meanwhile, the humidity is about 200 percent, but that’s par for the course for October in South Florida. I know that from my 12 years of living here. Now, it’s just a matter of where will Wilma go and when will it go there. Here’s hoping the windy girl doesn’t spoil the party.
It’s been a busy several days for me. Marley & Me came out Tuesday, and was ushered in by a great piece on the KYW/Channel 3, Philadelphia’s CBS affiliate. The transcript is at: http://kyw.com/seenon/local_story_290175341.html.
On Wednesday, I did my first reading/signing for actual real paying customers, not the booksellers for whom I had signed at a number of pre-publication events. The signing took place at the Barnes & Nobles store just off Rittenhouse Square in Center City Philadelphia. It’s a lovely store in a big, old classic building overlooking the (incredibly beautiful) park. My reading was on the third floor, and I was gratified to find people standing along the walls because the 40 or so chairs in the space were taken. Lee, the events coordinator, told me she usually averages 10 people for an in-store reading, so she was pleasantly surprised to see the crowd — and so was I. This is my hometown, of course, where I am a columnist and where my newspaper, the Philadelphia Inquirer, had just run a positive review (see below) and a box publicizing the signing. So, that explains it. We’ll see how many turn up when I’m in Cleveland or Dayton or Pittsburgh, all cities I’ll be visiting in the days ahead. (To get times/dates for my appearances, please go to www.marleyandme.com and click “events” in my opening note.)
From the signing I hopped a night train to New York, caught four hours sleep and was up at 4:30 a.m. to appear on Fox News’ Fox & Friends morning show at 6:50 a.m. They were great and made me feel comfortable…and I actually had fun jawboning with the hosts about Marley and his antics — and the lasting effect he had on our family. After the live appearance I taped a segment to be shipped out to the Fox affiliates around the country, then I got to spend a couple hours at HarperCollins meeting the many great people who helped make this book a reality. Then it was home for a day before heading here to Florida, where I continue to watch Wilma’s approach. More later….
The Birmingham (Ala.) News recently reviewed Marley & Me. I loved the headline, which pretty much captures my dog: “Saga of a great family dog who can’t be good.” That was Marley, definitely not good, but in the end, a great and memorable dog.
Here’s what reviewer Garland Reeves had to say:
It is very difficult to write about pets. We love them so, that we easily sentimentalize them. We project onto them our hopes and fears. We talk to them about our woes and imagine they know just what we are saying. We take comfort from them and find in them things better than we’d ever discover in any human short of a saint.
But John Grogan doesn’t do that in ”Marley & Me,” the story of his life with a big, old wild-eyed Labrador retriever.
Here is a dog that earns his epithet, ”world’s worst dog.” He chews furniture and destroys property; a thunderstorm could send him into a frenzy that left both him and the house the worse for wear.He was almost impossible to control or discipline. He charged through life headlong, crashing here and there – often embarrassing or frustrating his humans. He pooped where he shouldn’t, got thrown out of obedience class, ate chicken droppings and snuffled people in the most inappropriate places.
But here was a dog of fierce loyalty and with a surprising sensibility, one who understood just when he needed to be a quiet and gentle pet, to offer his own special brand of comfort.
“Marley & Me” is the story of a man and his wife, their family and the dog that was with them from the time they were first married, thinking about children, until he they were a family with three children.Grogan tells a simple story of one family’s life, a mostly typical family. But he does it so beautifully and the reader is drawn in by his voice until you become a part of his tale, shaking your head at Marley, laughing at his next indiscretion, delighting in his high points and worrying when things aren’t going well.
And as Marley ages and moves toward the inevitable, you’ll grow sad with Grogan and marvel at Marley’s incredible dignity and strength, even as his strength fails him.
In many ways, life without Marley was a lot easier for the Grogans. But it wasn’t better.You’ll understand the gift that Marley was to this family – despite his failings, and maybe because of them – and no doubt you’ll find yourself thinking of your own pets. Grogan has crafted a loving but unsentimental memory of his dog and what he meant to him, his wife and his children. And that’s his gift to us.
You want to know what a first-time author does on the long-awaited day when his book is finally released? He wakes up at 5:45 a.m. and runs downstairs to tune into the local CBS affiliate to watch the two-minute segment it taped earlier on the release of his book. He yelps out loud when the reporter says all the right things and includes all the right quotes. He then drinks too much coffee given the already frazzled state of his nerves, then revs around the house half-dressed, burning excess energy and barking out to no one in particular, “When do the damn bookstores open, anyway?”
The first-time writer then gets in position at the desktop computer and begins frantically hitting the refresh button on the Amazon.com and barnesandnoble.com websites, checking his book’s ranking. He hits the button over and over: Refresh! Refresh! Refresh! And breathes a little easier when he sees his ranking rise throughout the morning, from #124 on Amazon at 10:30 a.m. to #96 at noon to #53 at 2:20 p.m. B&N.com follows a similar trajectory. “Don’t turn back!” he urges with a sense of neurotic urgency even he recognizes as slightly pathetic.
The new author then takes his annoyingly calm wife out to lunch at a restaurant that just happens to be strategically spaced midway between a Borders and Barnes & Noble bookstore. After gulping down a sandwich he barely tastes, he saunters into the B&N, trying to look nonchalant as his eyes dart over the books. Panic takes hold as he fails to spot the so-familiar cover of his book. He nearly screams out, “Where the hell is it? What did you bastards do with my book?” But he manages to contain himself and calmly ask the clerk at the information desk, “So, there’s a new book out today, perhaps you’ve heard of it? Marley & Me? Do you have it?”
“Marnee and who?” the clerk asks.”
No, that would be MARLEY,” the first-time author corrects, trying not to sound shrill. He finds himself quietly engaging the slow-controlled breathing method his wife learned in maternity class. “Marley & Me. Not Marnee; Marley.”
“Ah, here it is,” the clerk says, staring into her computer screen. “Still on order. Not here yet.” The new author finds himself oddly awash with relief because the alternative would mean the book was somewhere in the store but was so buried no one other than a private detective would be able to locate it.”Breath deeply,” the new author keeps repeating. “It’s going to be OK.”
Then the author and wife enter Borders, and again his eyes nervously rake the front of the store. And there it is. On the very front table. Ten feet inside the main doors. His book. Actually, a pile of his books. On display, right beside Wynona Judd, Sandra Day O’Connor and Bill Maher. His wife pulls the smelling salts from her purse. He’s really only out for a few seconds. Then he’s back on his feet. And in the car. And racing home to check e-mail…and of course his old friend, Amazon, which at 3:40 p.m. hovered at #35.
And then he starts the whole cycle over again. This is what a first-time author does on the day his book is finally and formally released. It’s not a pretty sight.
As regular readers of this website have figured out, I am a metro columnist at The Philadelphia Inquirer. Because of that, our staff book editor farmed out Marley & Me to a freelance book reviewer so there would be no appearance of a conflict of interest. The freelance review appeared in today’s Inquirer along with a 900-word excerpt from the book. http://www.philly.com/mld/inquirer/12928216.htm
Running beneath the headline, “The dog years, with Marley the mauler,” here’s what reviewer Marietta Dunn wrote:
Anyone who has ever loved a dog unconditionally – no matter how balky, how wild, how untrainable – will instantly identify with the trials and travails in Inquirer columnist John Grogan’s heartfelt and frequently hilarious Marley & Me.
It’s been a long time since a book has made me laugh out loud, but Grogan’s wry look at his family’s 13 years with Marley, a great galumphing goof of a yellow Labrador retriever, is bursting with wacky anecdotes. So funny were many of them that I found myself reading passages to my husband as we commiserated with the Grogan family’s Marley mishaps and congratulated ourselves that the five Scottish terriers we have owned in 30-plus years of marriage weren’t really such troublemakers after all.
Grogan and his wife, Jenny, were newlyweds in South Florida when, almost on a whim, they answered a newspaper ad and bought puppy Marley from a backyard breeder. They met his placid mother and were impressed. But, once the deal was done and they were on their way to the car, they were startled to see a manic yellow blur come bounding from the trees, breathing like the hound from hell. Yes, it was Marley’s dad. And the Grogans began to wonder uneasily which parent’s personality their new pet had inherited.
It didn’t take long for them to discover that Marley took after his father. He grew huge, almost 100 pounds of muscle, and he really didn’t have a brain in his head. He was energy personified, no matter who tried to hold him back. He got a running start and barreled into people. He crashed through closed screen doors. He once managed to wriggle through the car window in traffic. He was kicked out of obedience school; even the trainer whom Grogan labeled “Miss Dominatrix” couldn’t handle Marley. A choke chain didn’t faze him, especially when a good-looking little poodle was across the way.
He ate everything in sight, from the ripe mangoes in the yard to the Grogan children’s toy soldiers, and he even swallowed Jenny Grogan’s 18-karat-gold necklace, leaving John to spend four days following Marley through the yard with a shovel, just waiting for the necklace to reappear.
Worst of all, Marley was terrified of thunderstorms, and in South Florida, where they happen all the time, that was not a good thing. In his terror, Marley tore up whatever space he was in. Grogan says the family could have bought a small yacht for what it cost to repair Marley’s damage over the years. Even tranquilizers couldn’t completely calm him down.
But the book is so much more than a recitation of Marley’s misdeeds. It’s also the chronicle of a new marriage and a growing family, and how Marley, for all his rambunctious behavior, became such an integral part of that family. To the children who began arriving, two boys and a girl, Marley was a different dog, a “gentle giant” who watched over them and let them climb all over him and pull his ears. They adored him, and the feeling was mutual, even though, love or no love, he stole the food right off their plates.
Grogan’s book reminds me of Yorkshire veterinarian James Herriot’s All Creatures Great and Small in the way that it gets at the heart of the animal-human bond, with humor and with pathos, in a deeply personal manner. Like Herriot, Grogan is a born storyteller. He has the ability to let us know Marley as if he were – gulp – our very own. He brings us humor as he describes the many outings-gone-awry with Marley, and he brings us to tears as he recounts the bravery with which Marley faces his declining years.
The Labrador retriever is the number-one dog in America and has been for many years. But you don’t have to own a Lab to relish this book. Marley & Me is for every dog owner who has ever managed to let love overcome exasperation, and who realizes that a dog’s loyalty far outweighs its flaws. As Grogan writes of Marley:
“Marley had earned his place in our family. Like a quirky but beloved uncle, he was what he was. He would never be Lassie or Benji or Old Yeller; he would never reach Westminster or even the county fair. We knew that now. We accepted him for the dog he was, and loved him all the more for it.”
The South Florida Sun-Sentinel ran a great profile of me and Marley & Me. Staff writer Liz Doup has always been one of my favorite writers at the Sun-Sentinel, where I worked from 1987-1999, and I felt lucky to have her talent at work on the piece.
Doup called Marley & Me “a lively romp of a book” and wrote of Marley the dog: “He showed others how to love fiercely and give freely, even as he barreled through life sniffing crotches and spewing drool. By digging deeper, you see that Marley’s tale is really the story of a family in the making, with all the happiness and hurts that go with it.”
To read the full article: http://www.sun-sentinel.com/features/lifestyle/sfl-limarleyoct17,0,1349117.story
I’ve worked in daily newspapers, as a reporter and columnist, for the past quarter century. You’d think I would have some idea about the power of the press. I thought I did, but not until yesterday did I fully grasp the magnitude of the forces at play. Or maybe it’s not the power of the press so much that I understimated as the power of The New York Times.
On Wednesday night, I checked the ranking on Amazon for Marley & Me, and it sat about where it had been sitting for weeks at #7,358. The high number didn’t surprise me considering the book does not come out until Oct. 18, and the only sales trickling in were advanced orders from the small numbers of people who had heard about the book through the grapevine. Then on Thursday morning, The New York Times published a positive review of my book. (Read it at http://www.nytimes.com/2005/10/13/books/13masl.html) By 10 a.m. my ranking was hovering around 1,500, fueled by a surge in pre-orders coming in. I found that amazing: I had jumped up 6,000 places in the course of a few hours. As the day went on, the numbers kept dropping (or rising, however you like to look at it): 900, 750, 500, 275…and by mid-afternoon my not-yet-published book had cracked Amazon’s Top 100 List, based on the volume of books sold. It kept climbing the list through the night, finally hitting #43 before settling into the mid-50s, where it remains as of this writing.
It was the same story at barnesandnoble.com, where pre-orders there also drove it onto the B&N Top 100 list. At one point, Marley & Me was #28 on the B&N list, rubbing shoulders with the likes of The Historian and The Tender Bar.
There is only one reason for this seismic change: The Janet Maslin review on an inside page in The Times. Good God, what happens when she writes on the section front? Now I understand how one bad theater review in The Times can shut in one night a Broadway play that had been months in the making.
I realize these rankings are a bit of a temporary blip in response to the review, and they no doubt will creep back up again between now and next Tuesday’s release. But, boy, it’s sure an exciting rollercoaster ride while it’s happening.
I was a total wreck all day, clicking the refresh button on Amazon and B&N every15 minutes. My coworkers and colleagues were calling and stopping in my office. My e-mail was going crazy. It’s a minor miracle I was able to write a column for my paper, The Philadelphia Inquirer.
All I can say is bless you, Janet Maslin, and thank you for getting my book and capturing its essence in 875 words. This first-time author can’t imagine a greater gift.
Like every writer out there, I’ve caught myself dreaming of someday receiving a review in The New York Times. Today the dream came true. In an 875-word piece in today’s Times, reviewer Janet Maslin calls Marley & Me “a very funny Valentine … full of tail-thumping enthusiasm.” She writes: “Marley & Me tenderly follows its subject from sunrise to sunset, from the ball-of-fluff stage to the heartbreaking farewell.”
“Mr. Grogan keeps the book agile by sticking to Marley-centric episodes and by locating a crazed bit of Marleyness in any event he describes,” Maslin writes. She notes that some owners of incorrigible dogs might challenge my description of Marley as “the world’s worst dog,” adding: “Still, Marley was a strong candidate, and the book describes his qualifications with hilarity and affection.”
Now ask me how I’m going to concentrate on anything at all for the rest of the day. Somebody please pinch me.
To read Maslin’s full review in The New York Times, go to: http://www.nytimes.com/2005/10/13/books/13masl.html