Archive for February, 2009

An Evening at Lehigh

Monday, February 23rd, 2009

In my blog entry last week I wrote about my plans to give a talk at Lehigh University, not far from my home, where I played squatter for many months, colonizing a corner of the university’s beautiful Linderman Library to write “The Longest Trip Home.”

Here is the story Lehigh put out after my visit last Thursday:

Marley and Me author recounts improbable tale of success

The author of the phenomenally successful Marley and Me franchise shared reflections on his writing, his unlikely commercial success and the challenges of memoir writing with an audience of nearly 400 in Packard Auditorium Thursday afternoon.

Writer John Grogan detailed the process that led to the book that was recently brought to life in a hit movie that featured Owen Wilson as Grogan, and Jennifer Aniston as his wife, Jenny, raising an impossibly misbehaved and spirited yellow Labrador retriever, Marley.

Grogan said he agreed to a request to come to Lehigh to talk about his books and memoir writing after spending months in Linderman Library working on his latest book, The Longest Trip Home .

“How could I refuse? I owe them one,” he wrote on his Web site.

“The library is a beautiful old stone structure that was recently renovated top to bottom,” Grogan wrote of Linderman. “With its soaring ceilings, stone fireplaces, wrought-iron balconies and leaded-glass windows, it looked like something out of a Harry Potter movie. More importantly, it had the kind of creative energy I was looking for. It was a place meant for quiet study, and yet I could be surrounded by students and teachers deep in their own work. Their energy was contagious.”

The Lehigh community returned the gratitude by offering the author a warm reception, with many attendees lining up for more than an hour afterward, waiting for an opportunity to have well-worn copies of Marley and Me and crisp new editions of The Longest Trip Home autographed by the author.

Grogan recalled how, as a newspaper columnist and magazine editor, he often thought about writing a book. “Every time I wrote about a major story in the news, or a big political scandal, I would think, maybe this is the book I’ll write,” he said.

But a column he wrote for the Philadelphia Inquirer about the loss of his beloved 13-year-old dog ultimately helped Grogan realize that the “book I was meant to write had been literally lying at my feet all along, and often chewing my shoelaces off.”

The column that Grogan wrote after Marley died drew incredible reader reaction. “It was easily 25 times more than I had for any other column I wrote, on a good day. I knew that I had somehow struck a chord with people and that’s when I started to write the book.”

Grogan, who wrote much of his latet memoir in Linderman Library, stayed for more than an hour after his talk, greeting fans and signing autographs.

The energetic and irascible puppy Grogan adopted shortly after he was married quickly grew into “100 pounds of pure, unbridled, neurotic energy….this enormous body with this little tiny brain.”

Marley thought of himself as more than a pet—“He was a firm believer in democracy. He felt he had an equal vote in our house.”—and became a catalyst in the Grogan marriage.

“He was the irritant forming the pearl, forcing us to confront things we wouldn’t have confronted otherwise,” Grogan said. “He taught us values. He helped us realize that that the important things are not the car you drive or your zip code, but your family and your relationships. And as we were going through this process, figuring this all out, he was challenging us and changing us. It was really only after he died that I saw what the real story was.”

Selling the book was another matter, he said. He sent his book proposal to 12 literary agents, and 11 of them immediately rejected it. One, he said, even took the time to phone him to tell him how much of her time he wasted.

“I hope she remembers me now,” he said to laughter from the audience.

His sense of vindication is well-earned. Marley and Me debuted on the bestseller list at number 10, before shooting to number one and remaining in the top spot for 23 weeks. In total, it spent 76 weeks on the bestseller list. The surprising success of the book led to a series of children’s books, another book for young readers, and eventually, a phone call from an executive at 20th Century Fox.

“My wife and I were at a book event, and got the call that they wanted to make the book into a movie, and I immediately said yes, with some trepidation,” he said. “I’d heard how these things get out of hand. I mean, they could have made Marley a chihuahua and me an…..arsonist.”

A two-hour dinner in Philadelphia with the movie producer assuaged his concerns. Soon, he and his wife found themselves on a Miami movie set, watching well-known actors recreate their life together.

“It doesn’t get much more out-of-body than watching Owen Wilson on a set, playing you,” he said. “And Jenny wasn’t too disappointed to be played by Jennifer Anniston. I mean, couldn’t they find someone better looking?”

Before his Lehigh appearance, Grogan had just returned from a trip to Europe, where he promoted his most recent book, The Longest Trip Home , a personal memoir that takes readers back to his Michigan childhood in a devoutly Catholic family and through his father’s devastating illness at the end of his life.

Before dissecting the painstaking process of picking through saved letters, columns and photographs to help jog his memory and recall pivotal moments in his life, Grogan shared a humorous passage from his book that illustrated the growing pains he felt in separating from his parents and building a new life with his wife.

In it, Grogan and his bride returned to his parent’s home, where his mother transformed his parents’ bedroom into a “honeymoon suite,” complete with fresh flowers, a turn-downed bed and chocolates on the pillows.

Still in place were the symbols of their faith: a large portrait of a smiling pope, vials of Holy Water, several crucifixes, a life-sized statue of the Virgin Mary, and a string of wooden rosary beads that looked like they were made for mythical lumberjack Paul Bunyan.

Grogan’s lecture was sponsored by the Friends of the Lehigh University Libraries. He was introduced by Heather Rodale ’74, ’76G, ’05P, who met Grogan when he was editor of Organic Gardening magazine, published by Rodale Inc., for three years.

–Linda Harbrecht

For the complete story with photos and hot links, please visit:

http://www3.lehigh.edu/News/V2news_story.asp?iNewsID=3132

Speaking at Lehigh University

Saturday, February 14th, 2009

When it comes to writing from home, I’m a bit quirky. If there are family members in the house, I have a hard time concentrating, even if they make a point of leaving me alone in a room with the door closed. Just knowing they’re pacing around on the other side of the house throws me off my game. If everyone clears out to give me time alone, the silence kills me. All I can think is, “Everyone’s out having fun except me.” That’s a way of saying: I don’t have a lot of luck writing from home. I began my new book, The Longest Trip Home, immediately after quitting my job as a columnist at The Philadelphia Inquirer in February 2007. Soon I realized I needed to find a place I could go to write, a place that was quiet but was not stultifying. A place with its own positive energy.

That’s when I found Linderman Library at Lehigh University in Bethlehem, Pennsylvania, about a 20-minute drive from my house. The library is a beautiful old stone structure that was recently renovated top to bottom. With its soaring ceilings, stone fireplaces, wrought-iron balconies and leaded-glass windows, it looked like something out of a Harry Potter movie. More importantly, it had the kind of creative energy I was looking for. It was a place meant for quiet study, and yet I could be surrounded by students and teachers deep in their own work. Their energy was contagious. That’s where I ended up writing most of The Longest Trip Home, sitting with my laptop at a big oak table. It suited me well, and I would stay for hours at a time, lost in my story.

So when Lehigh University asked me to come speak on campus about my books and memoir writing, how could I refuse? I owe them one. My talk will be at 4:30 p.m. this Thursday, February 19, in the Packard Lab auditorium on campus and is open free to the public. I’ll sign books afterward for anyone who wants. So if you live in the area and want to come out, I’d love to say hi. The more the merrier.

Here is part of Lehigh University’s announcement on its website at www.lehigh.edu (click on “News”):

John Grogan, the author of the phenomenally successful Marley and Me will speak on “Memoir, Truth and Writing” when he comes to Lehigh on Thursday, Feb. 19. Grogan’s talk, which is being presented by the Friends of the Lehigh University Libraries, will be at 4:30 p.m. in Packard Lab Auditorium, Room 101.

The talk is free and open to the public, and will be followed by a book signing.

The international best-selling Marley and Me was the inspiration for the recent movie that starred Jennifer Aniston and Owen Wilson and which topped the box office charts after it debuted during the 2008 holiday season. It also spawned a series of children’s books based on the lovable. but ill-behaved dog that changed Grogan’s life.

His new book, The Longest Trip Home, is another personal memoir, but with a unique Lehigh twist: Grogan wrote most of it in Linderman Library, which he acknowledges in the book.

That distinction, notes Sue Cady, “almost puts Linderman in the same class as the New York Public Library, which has a dedicated room for writers.” Cady, director of administration and planning for Library and Technology Services, is organizing Grogan’s visit to Lehigh.

The Longest Trip Home chronicles Grogan’s search for identity, intertwined with his devoutly Catholic upbringing in suburban Detroit. It draws on the same well-honed sense of humor and storytelling ability that was so evident in Marley and Me, and has been praised by the New York Times for its “deeply felt humanity and pathos.”

***

Snow Falling on London

Sunday, February 8th, 2009

I’m writing this from Dublin at the halfway point of my United Kingdom/Ireland book tour to promote “The Longest Trip Home,” and also the Marley & Me movie, which opens here on March 13. Of course, nothing is simple in life, and so when I arrived in London from the U.S. a week ago today, the snow soon began falling. It snowed and it snowed. Snowed like it had not done in London for, depending on whom you asked, 18 or 25 or 40 years. All evening and night it came down. The next morning when I opened the curtains of my hotel room, it was still falling, and the streets of London where an uninterrupted snowscape. Not a plow or salt truck was anywhere in sight.

The British react to snow with roughly the same level of calm that the Scarecrow in The Wizard of Oz reacts to fire. What back home in Philadelphia would have been the cause of some rush-hour tie-ups and a two-hour delay for the schools, here was a major national emergency. All the trains and buses were canceled, and the airports and schools closed. Even the Underground was mostly shut down — and that’s, well, underground. Without being too smug here, this snowbelt Michigan boy must confess to being pretty damn amused by the whole scene. Let’s put it this way, it’s a good thing a hostile foreign army did not pick this particular day to invade because they would have overrun the entire country in a matter of hours. But it was totally charming to see Londoners of all ages out playing in the snow, making snowmen and having snowball fights and sledding. For many children and teenagers, it was a first-time experience. The city was gorgeous. Just when I thought London could get no more beautiful, the snow proved me wrong.
My good friends at Hodder, my UK publisher, had a tightly choreographed publicity itinerary mapped out for me, but it quickly fell into disarray. Quite miraculously, my intrepid and can-do publicist, Kerry Hood, showed up at my hotel in an AWD car and got me to the BBC television studios in time for a live appearance. Good show, Kerry!

A screening of Marley & Me that evening was canceled, but somehow we made most of our other media and promotional commitments. The following evening, I did a talk and reading about an hour north of London and had a full house there despite the bad weather. It was my first time appearing live in front of a foreign audience, and the crowd made me feel very welcome, and even laughed at my bad jokes. Whew! Thank you to everyone who braved the elements to come out and make me feel so at home.

Since last Wednesday I have been in Dublin, where snow has continued to fall. But that’s another story, and another blog entry.

Meanwhile, let me issue a correction: In my last entry, I stated that I was in London last year for the British Book Awards. Um, how time flies. It was actually two years ago, in March 2007.

I don’t think anyone will blame me now if I sign off in order to go quaff a pint at J. Grogan’s pub down the way. I’m not making it up! More later…