Interview with John Grogan

Posted by Goodreads on December 2, 2008
John Grogan did not set out to write a "dog book." The title character in his debut memoir, Marley & Me, may be a rambunctious Labrador Retriever, but Grogan aimed to tell an autobiographical story of how he and his wife adjusted to married life as newlyweds. Still, the canine character struck a chord with readers, keeping the book on the The New York Times bestseller list more than a year. Now the film, starring Jennifer Aniston and Owen Wilson, is slated to drop this December. Grogan's second memoir, The Longest Trip Home (enter now to win a copy »), digs deeper into his past, starting in childhood and spanning 40 years of Grogan family history. He talks with Goodreads about life since Marley, why it pays to be a pack rat, and flirting with senior citizens.

Goodreads: You had an unusual start as a writer: police reporting about violent crime in small-town Michigan. Did you always want to write a book?

John Grogan: It was my dream back then actually. I was a young reporter just starting out, and I had the fire in my belly to write a book right out of college. At murder and arson sites I was thinking, "There's got to be some kind of a book in this!" I really had the book-writing bug from the start, but I didn't have a clear vision of what story I was meant to tell.

GR: The Longest Trip Home is your second memoir. Was the second book easier to write than the first?

JG: The second book was more difficult for me to write for a couple of reasons. One, it's a more complicated story to tell; it takes place over 40 years instead of 13. And two, it involves a lot of people who are dear to my heart, so I was trying to be honest and also respectful. Consequently, I spent a lot of time thinking, hand wringing, and re-reading, whereas Marley & Me just flowed out of me. For this one, I had 40 years of life experience, so I had to figure out what's relevant and what's not and how to arrange those experiences in a way that would get to the emotional truth. I put a lot more energy in this book. I'm actually prouder of this book as a piece of writing, and it is very close to my heart.

GR: You changed the names to protect the privacy of many people in the memoir. What kinds of reactions have you had from friends and family who are featured in the story?

JG: I made the decision that anyone who was a minor at the time of the telling deserved privacy. We all do some reckless things as kids, and we have a right to not have that pulled back in our face 40 years later. I've heard from friends along the way, and several of my teachers have come to book signings. I even talked with Mrs. Selahowski, the neighbor lady who I used to spy on when she was sunbathing. She's now an elderly woman who had no idea! It was one of those moments that are at once very embarrassing and also kind of sweet. Here's this woman in her 80s with a little reminder of how beautiful she was in the prime of her life. There have been a lot of moments of reconnection like that along my book tour.

GR: Did you have childhood journals or other sources to refer to? What did you do to jog your memory?

JG: A teacher started me journaling sophomore year of high school, so from that point forward I was doing a pretty good job of journaling, saving letters, and documenting certain aspects of my life. I'm a proud pack rat, so I have lots of secondary materials too. For the chapter about starting an underground newspaper in high school, I have the old manila folder with all our layouts, copies of the paper, and a letter from the principal! So there were documents for me to fall back on.

My father was a great keeper of documents too, so I had all his canceled checks, his check registers, and his calendars for every year, in which he would bullet-point the events of each day. He didn't write any narrative, but it was a great help. It is amazing what four words can bring back in your memory. Also, family photographs and home movies did a lot to jog my memory of early events. And then I picked my brothers' and sister's brains and my friends' brains for some of the events that were shared. I think ultimately, though — especially from early childhood — the most salient, meaningful events are the ones that remain clear, and the ones that were foggy and hazy just filtered down into oblivion. So the anecdotes worth telling were the ones that remained sharp in my mind, and those were the ones that made the cut into the book.

GR: A central theme is the split over Catholic faith between you and your parents, but the book has a universal story about how adult children decide to differentiate from their parents' lifestyle. How do you think readers will react to the Catholic content, or do you think it is possible to connect on several levels?

JG: I hope that readers can relate on many levels. Already, I've heard from tons of Catholics of my age group who went through similar journeys of having conservative, devout parents. The kids my age were also growing up during the social upheaval of the '60s and '70s, and we were hardwired to question authority. Catholics are going to relate to this, whether they drifted from their parents' values or not. On a bigger level, we're all sons and daughters, and we all have to make our peace with our parents and their values to find our own place in the world. That's really what this story is about. In my mind, Marley & Me was never a dog book; it's really a story of a couple's growth from young single people into this family, and the dog is a catalyst. I see my new book in the same way. Catholicism is a catalyst for this journey of one family and how it grew from point A to point B.

GR: What is your approach to writing humor?

JG: That's a good question. At an early age, when I was in the seventh or eighth grade, I first got the notion that I might be decent at writing. I was writing funny little essays that would make classmates snicker and laugh. So there's been a progression. As a columnist, I brought a lot of humor into my columns, and I would make my points with a little humor. Especially as a columnist, I see humor as a way to sugar-coat medicine — to get a serious message across in a way that people can find amusing and entertaining, as opposed to just preaching and scolding.

My mother had a great gift for oral storytelling. With great delight, she would tell humorous stories about her childhood, her family, and she'd paint these pictures. She was my first and greatest teacher of how to tell a great story, even though she rarely wrote any of them down. She had a gift for telling a great story that would hold an audience, and I picked up a lot from her.

GR: Do you miss your newspaper column with The Philadelphia Inquirer?

JG: I don't miss it too much—after a while, three columns a week gets to be a grind, quite frankly. And once the column was competing with the books, I felt that I was spread too thin. The one thing I continue to miss is the daily interaction with newspaper readers. If you write books, one comes out every three years, but if you write a newspaper column, then three times a week your inbox is filled with this immediate response from readers who have just read your words that morning. I definitely counted many of those readers as friends; they became correspondents and pen pals. Then when I left the column, over the course of a month they trickled to zero. So I went from a daily influx of sometimes hundreds of emails to nothing coming in. So I miss newspaper readers—they are a smart and curious bunch.

On my book website, there's a steady flow of book readers who come in, and I'm blogging, so people respond to the blog. So it continues.

GR: What are you working on next?

JG: I have a nonfiction idea that I'm playing with and shaping up, but it's really in the early percolation stages. I'm not in a great hurry to start writing again. I just got The Longest Trip Home out; it was on a crash schedule to get it out before Christmas, so it's been a very busy year. I'm percolating a couple of ideas, and I plan to start writing again in the spring.

GR: Have you thought about writing fiction, or do you prefer to stick to memoirs?

JG: I spent my entire career writing nonfiction—journalism, column writing in the first person, and now memoir—so that's certainly where I'm most comfortable. But I've long dreamed of writing a novel. For years I've been working with plot outlines, character development, and a story I'd love to someday tell. So who knows; I just need to get up the courage to try it.

GR: What was it like to have Marley & Me transformed into a movie starring Owen Wilson and Jennifer Aniston, who play you and your wife, Jenny?

JG: We were on the set for quite a bit of the shooting, so I saw many of the scenes as they were being filmed, which was great fun. It really put my mind at ease. I felt comfortable with it, and I think it is going to be a good reflection of the book. I can safely say it was an out-of-body experience to stand there watching Jennifer Aniston pretend to be my wife. And my wife wasn't too disappointed by that choice! And Owen Wilson is playing me. These are actors who I followed through their careers for many years. I knew and loved their work, and suddenly here they are answering to our names! It was a surreal experience, but a fun one too. We were really happy with the way they got into our roles and really captured them.

Our new dog, Woodson, was a gift from the Marley & Me movie producers. He was in the movie. When he was 15 weeks old, his acting career was already washed up, and now he's just our family pet. He's a beautiful dog, but he's still a puppy, so he's learning the ropes. Right now he's eating the dirt out of the potted plant. Some things never change, right?

GR: Describe a typical day spent writing. Do you have any unusual writing habits?

JG: When I wrote Marley & Me I was working full time as a columnist with The Philadelphia Inquirer. So that routine was to get up at 4:45 a.m. in the morning and write from 5:00 a.m. to 7:00 a.m. in the basement of my home. But for The Longest Trip Home, I quit The Inquirer and we moved into an old 1790s stone farmhouse out in rural Pennsylvania. On the property there was an old rundown cottage that I fixed up as my writing studio, and that's where I'm sitting right now. I have a wood stove out here, humming away. It's my private place—real rustic and simple—one room with a loft.

When I'm really in the heart of writing creatively I go to Lehigh University, which is about 15 minutes from me, and sit in their academic library. It's just a good energy for me. I wrote probably three quarters of The Longest Trip Home sitting in that library.

GR: What are some of your favorite books and authors?

JG: Certainly one of the most influential books for me was The Catcher in the Rye by J.D. Salinger. I've read it once a decade since high school, and every time I read it I draw something new from it. Also, East of Eden by John Steinbeck. More recently I was really inspired while writing Marley & Me by the nonfiction writing of Frank McCourt with Angela's Ashes, Bill Bryson with A Walk in the Woods, and Allan Gurganus's Oldest Living Confederate Widow Tells All. Right now I'm reading Michael Pollan's The Botany of Desire.

Comments Showing 1-7 of 7 (7 new)

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message 1: by Donna (new)

Donna I loved Marley and Me, it was a laugh out loud book. I am looking forward to reading John's new book. As someone from the same generation and growing up just a few towns over from where John grew up it should be a great read.

message 2: by Jerri (last edited Dec 09, 2008 09:19PM) (new)

Jerri I loved both 'Marley and Me' and 'The Longest Trip Home'.
I bought 'Marley and Me' for my three daughters and my brother (all dog people) for Chistmas. It's my tradition to always give a book (among other gifts) for Christmas. My other tradition is to always have a jigsaw puzzle out for everyone to work. I wonder if there is a 'Marley and Me' jigsaw puzzle. I must find out.
My favorite part of 'The Longest Trip Home' is when they go to the psychologist. The surprise advice was really good advice, but hard to do.
John Grogan is a wonderful son.

message 3: by Joyce (new)

Joyce I loved Marley Me. I gave it to my daughter and son-in-law who have two dogs. They not only laughed out loud, as I did, but my 6'4" TOUGH son-in-law was crying, as I did, at Marley's demise. Great book!

message 4: by Linda (new)

Linda I haven't read Marley&Me yet, although my youngster loved the kid's version. Grogan's books have received mixed reviews, but this interview really makes me want to read both! Great interview, very good questions. I'll have to blog about it!

message 5: by Anne (new)

Anne I picked up Marley&Me when it first came out, laughing,crying,nodding my head and saying "yes!!" outloud like every other lab owner I know who's read the book. I don't usually buy books perferring to get them from the library instead..this was a book I needed to own and have purchased many copies as gifts. Looking forward to the film and any more musings Mr. Grogan might have.

message 6: by Mary (new)

Mary Krygiel I was very sad to see John leave the Philadelphia Inquirer. However, I understand how difficult it must have been to write a column three times a week. I am glad to see how well his books are doing.

I saved many of his columns especially when I knew his days were dwindling down to a precious few.

He is missed but I wish him all the best.

message 7: by Terra (new)

Terra Langan I loved Marley and Me! :D your dog is adorable and hilarious. It brought actual tears to my eyes when I read it. Keep up the good work

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