Some Notes from the Author on Her Book
All readers of fiction know that a great pleasure in looking back at a story or novel comes from remembering—or re-living—big or meaningful moments, because fiction, like life, is made up of moments that either slip to forgotten-ness, or really stick. The same goes for the writer.
When I think back on what was going on with me three years ago when I began to gather myself to write what I then called “my dog novel,” I mostly recall two moments. The first was when I looked at my rescued dog Skip lying peacefully on a little rug of sunlight, and realized with a jolt that he was my inspiration to write about rescues. The second was soon afterward, in the moment I began to answer an email question from a reader of one of my books who wanted to know what my favorite novel was (by someone else). I’m not good with such questions because it always seems a dodge to say you don’t have one favorite, or even ten or one hundred. But this time, I happened to glance at my old worn copy of The Castle by Kafka, always close by my writing desk.
All over again I felt glad for the mystery, away-ness, comedy and troubles of that novel, which in fact Kafka left unfinished, so there’s also the pleasure of keeping it going in your head.
The Mountaintop School For Dogs And Other Second Chances does not have a tawny, undersized Nova Scotia Duck Tolling Retriever like my Skip, and it’s not at all like The Castle, but the two became bonded in that place inside where new writing begins life. I ended up adapting Kafka’s opening lines for an early chapter of my novel, where the main character, Evie, arrives late at night at a destination full of unknowns. The mountain where she’ll be starting her new life looms invisibly in fog and darkness. Instead of a castle, I have a former ski resort that’s been converted to a sanctuary for rescued dogs, and my character’s new life is going to be that of a dog trainer.
My own experiences with dog training are of the home-school variety. They’re based on trial and error, patience and its opposite, cluelessness and “whatever works.”
And of course, there’s the fact that I love, love, love my dogs. I have three. Skip came to me in Maine as a little guy from a rescue group in Tennessee. Andy is a gorgeous, giant-size Golden Retriever who was bred to be a show dog—he’s descended from long lines of major champions, but his non-standard size made him an outcast in that world. Maxine, my youngest, a Lab/Wirehaired Terrier mix, was saved by a rescue worker from a high-kill shelter, at the age of about six months, on the day she was scheduled to be euthanized because she’d outlived her stay. The shelter had been the only place she knew as home. “High kill” turns up in my novel, as does a little dog who’s due to be put down because no one wants her. A big handsome Golden is in there too, but I made him elderly and named him Boomer.
In working with my own dogs in terms of their educations, I wasn’t exactly as new and naive as my main character, Evie. I taught creative writing for over a quarter of century and found that “creative” is a key to that amazing thing that goes on when your student, whether dog or human, decides to trust you enough to let you into their minds. Early on with my dogs, I thought long and hard about, what is the difference between teaching and training? Answering that question for myself is one of the biggest-deal things in my novel. Like Evie, I place myself on the side of “teaching.”
And like Evie, who’s young enough to be my daughter, I had to learn how to hold back from letting pity for an animal who’s been through hell take me over. Sometimes when I see Skip poking around in the dunes of the beach near our home, I can’t help the flood of emotion that comes from remembering he’d been found as a pup on his own, wandering around the parking lot of a shopping mall, in the heat of a deep-South summer. The rescue people figured out he’d been abandoned there, and he’d been there for a quite a while, probably eating insects, the grass in the divider strips, trash.
Skip has been my toughest student: he came to me pretty much feral. Andy can be motivated by an expectation of treats, and Maxine by the simplest expressions of “I think you’re marvelous and here’s another pat.” But Skip brought me a new sense of what it means to be challenged. I nearly went out of my mind sometimes in teaching him to stop biting, stop baring his teeth like an attacker, stop viewing all humans as dangerous creatures out to hurt him—but as I’ve said, he was the inspiration for this novel.
And as I was gathering myself for this book, too, I knew I had to have a character about my own age (she turned out to be ten years younger). My other main character became Mrs. Auberchon and I based her on a woman I used to know in this mid-coast/rural Maine town I had moved to from my old crowded, busy, urban life in Massachusetts. She’s deceased now but she was one of the first “locals” I interacted with. She lived alone and had never married, but I changed that for Mrs. Auberchon, who’s divorced.
Sometimes when I was writing the chapters about Mrs. Auberchon, I had the sense her real-life counterpart was hovering nearby in ghostly silence, but I think she’d approve of what I did with her tough exterior and lovely, loving spirit. One of my favorite moments in Mountaintop, in a scene I feel just plain lucky to have written, comes when you first see Mrs. Auberchon connecting with a Sanctuary dog who’s been placed in time-out, or jailed, as they call it. The real-life woman was a cat person, but still, she’d approve, even though, were she still alive, she’d never in a million years tell me so.
Here is that scene, from fairly early on Mountaintop:
The little room was once a store room for the old ski resort. It was large enough for even the biggest dogs to walk around. A pair of ventilation windows were set high up, to be unreachable. The heat vent in the floor was heavily grated. Dogs who were jailed in winter tended to stay close to it, hunkering like lost, worried hikers in the wilderness, terrified that flames of a campfire might go out.
A dog was present. Mrs. Auberchon saw black, solidness, muscularity. She saw a white chest, a black face with white muzzle. But she knew by the pacing who it was: Hank, the Lab-Pit. This was his first time in Solitary.
She brought up a second screen to remind herself of his bio. Age about five. Adoption possibility presently zero. Due to his past abuse, do not introduce in his presence until further notice any hand-held natural wood object such as fire kindling, including sticks of any length.
Back and forth he went, back and forth, his feet going in the same steps every time. When he reached the door, he raised a paw and struck at it, sideways, like a punch thrown out from an arm that was crossed at a chest. When the door didn’t open as he seemed to expect it to, he turned around and started over.
He was in there for an hour, she learned, reading the most recent entry. He was there because a new volunteer failed to put away the broom being used in an area Hank had entered.
“Bite sustained on hand which was holding the broom. Injury far from serious but volunteer will not be returning,” Mrs. Auberchon read in the report. “The broom stick was also attacked. Wood splinters were removed from his teeth.”
Mrs. Auberchon took a sip of her tea. When she first started with this, it was an experiment she’d agreed to try. She was the only Warden the Sanctuary ever had. In the early days they used walkie-talkies, which were trouble, because sooner or later there’d be static to hurt the dogs’ ears, as if the noise were part of a punishment. But then came computers, cameras, speakers, mics, magic.
She said, “Hello there, Hank.”
He paused, but only for a second. He didn’t look up at the shelf her voice was coming from. Sometimes they did. It was always easier when they did.
“Hank,” she said, “I’m here to tell you, you’re not alone. I’m sorry I’m late, but it couldn’t be helped.”
Hank took a swipe at the door and Mrs. Auberchon said, “Cut it out. That door’s not doing anything but staying closed, at least for now. It’s time to be quiet. I want you to sit. Sit, Hank.”
He took two steps and stopped abruptly when she repeated the command in a much firmer way. He dropped to the floor to lie down. Close enough.
“Good,” said Mrs. Auberchon. “Good dog. Good strong dog.”
He was panting hard with anxiety. She often sang with the radio while doing chores, as long as no one else was around, but she’d never worked up the nerve to sing to a dog. She didn’t know if anyone might be listening in, which meant the fear that someone—a human, could make fun of her for having no pitch, or no sense of melody, or whatever people said of people who were awful at singing. But she had a pile of books, stacked tower-like beside the tower of her desktop. Some she bought herself, some were left by guests, some were brought down from the mountain. What they had in common was that they didn’t have people, except now and then as minor characters.
The one she wanted was near the bottom of the pile, after Black Beauty, Watership Down, The Story of Ferdinand, Charlotte’s Web, Animal Farm. It was The Hobbit.
“I’m going to read to you, Hank,” said Mrs. Auberchon, opening the book.
“‘In a hole in the ground,’” she read, getting right to it, “‘there lived a hobbit. Not a nasty, dirty, wet hole, filled with the ends of worms and an oozy smell, nor yet a dry, bare, sandy hole with nothing in it to sit on or to eat: it was a hobbit-hole, and that means comfort. It had a perfectly round door like a porthole…’”
A pop-up box in the corner of the screen startled Mrs. Auberchon. It came with an icon. Only one person messaged her this way. The icon was a Great Dane.
“AWESOME CHOICE, MRS. AUBERCHON. PLS. READ THE WHOLE THING, I’M ON DUTY TILL MIDNIGHT.”
“George, don’t interrupt me again, or I’ll pick a different book and make sure it’s one you don’t like, thank you very much,” said Mrs. Auberchon, without changing the tone of her voice, like she was reading the next sentence of the story.
He’s the one who gave her the hobbit books. He didn’t like it when anyone called him George and left out the Giant, but honestly, a Great Dane? A Great Dane my foot, she was always telling him. If he had to have a dog for a symbol, he’d be better off picking something big and shaggy, like a Newfoundland. She had no idea what his name really was, but that wasn’t unusual. So many of them chose new ones, just as the rescues were given names without a past when they arrived. What was Hank’s name in his old life? It wasn’t as if he could tell her. It wasn’t as if he’d choose to remember.
There was nothing more from that boy. Hank turned to his side. He was closer to the heat vent. Mrs. Auberchon’s eyes went back to the page, and she took up where she’d left off, all voice, talking and talking and talking.