Recently, I had the opportunity to participate in an Author Chat on LibraryThing with J.F. Englert, whose book, A Dog Among Diplomats, had been offered through LT's Early Reviewer program. The book description read:
He reads Proust. Surfs the net. Is the soul of diplomacy.
And when it comes to solving crime,
Randolph is the dog for the job.
Murder has come to Manhattan's East Village. And when detectives call twenty-something artist Harry to the scene, his Labrador, Randolph, instantly smells a rat. Why? Because Harry's missing almost-fiancée-and Randolph's beloved mistress—has been implicated in the murder, which has ties to the U.N. While Harry looks to the spirit world for answers, careening between terror and wild hope that Imogen is alive, Randolph goes into detective mode, using his superior Lab brain—2.3 pounds of smoothly functioning gray matter—to surf the Net, track down clues, and even land a job as a "therapy" dog to a depressed diplomat. Suddenly the brainy, book-loving Lab has done the impossible: he's penetrated the shadowy corridors of the U.N. (which boasts the most vicious, backbiting dog run in the city) in search of a killer. Now it will take all of Randolph's cunning to protect Harry, clear Imogen's name, solve the crime—and stay alive long enough to enjoy his upcoming birthday.
Well, I thought this sounded like a book for me! Having a black Lab of my own, the idea of a murder-solving Lab immediately struck my fancy. I ordered the first book, A Dog About Town, from my local B&N, and when it came in, sat down to what I was expecting to be simply a quirky little murder mystery. Instead, I found a cleverly written and paced book that was more humorous fiction with a little part murder mystery, with amazing insight into the human character and condition when dealing with the loss of a loved one, all seen through the eyes of man's best friend. And I loved every page of it.
I immediately picked up A Dog Among Diplomats when it was released, and was just as pleased with this book as I had been the first. Picking up right where A Dog About Town left off, A Dog Among Diplomats was all that the description made it out to be and more. When I heard that LT was hosting an Author Chat with Mr. Englert, I jumped at the chance to participate in what proved to be a very engaging discussion about his books, the role of genre in marketing and how it is perceived, dogs and their owners and how they interact with other dogs/owners and how approachable we, as readers, feel authors are.
Well, I can honestly say that Mr. Englert has proven to be one of the most approachable authors that I've come across. He graciously agreed to give up some of his time for a short Q&A with me. So, enough of my rambling, let's get on to the questions!
Stemming from one of our LT conversations, and your question to us about genre, was it more up to your publisher to market your book as a "Mystery"? I would assume that it was, as you said that you never wrote either book with the intention to market it in any one particular "genre".
Good question. In some ways genre is a thorn in the side of the dog books because as you and others have pointed out, the books are hard to classify. This kind of marketing decision is basically left up to the publisher and I’m not certain that there would, in any event, be an easy way to market these books. Although my guess is that if and when more people discover and grow attached to Randolph, the books will experience a subtle or perhaps profound marketing shift and have the mystery and comedy categories inverted. For example, The Number #1 Ladies Detective Agency is marketed in such a way that emphasizes the humor, character and setting over the mystery.
And then, as an extension, whose idea was it to go with labeling the books as "A Bull Moose Dog Run" mystery, especially since I don't remember the Bull Moose Dog Run making an appearance in A Dog Among Diplomats?
Very insightful, David. In fact, this is something I’ve never given much thought to until recently when a bookstore owner said something like “you know, Bull Moose doesn’t appear in book #2” and suggested that might be confusing for readers. It’s one of those details that worked fairly well for the first book but might not make sense as Randolph and Harry go further afield. There is no Bull Moose Dog Run in the middle of the Atlantic (i.e., A Dog At Sea) but perhaps we’ll find an equivalent there. But I will say this –without giving too much away I hope— The Bull Moose Dog Run is the “home” dog run and as the duo travel further afield this embodiment of home will probably grow in significance.
Has Randolph always been his own dog, or have any aspects of your own R. Englert worked their way into Randolph's character? And in comparison, how much of yourself do you find in Harry?
I don’t think I’m like Harry at all –there are no spare ribs and old bags of Chinese delivery moldering away under my sofa. But R. Englert has made her contributions to my understanding of Randolph. Certainly her self-sacrificing travails at various New York dog runs worked their way into the book. And on a practical level R. was my ticket into the strange world of owning a dog in Manhattan.
What kind of research did you do to create Randolph, or was it based simply on observation of dogs, be it either your own or other people's?
My research was two-fold. For many years I had been doing a fair bit of casual but mindful reading about neurology and the senses. This formed a kind of basis from which I understood Randolph. Also, an entirely unrelated journalistic exercise brought me to a pheasant hunt in Wyoming where I watched an extraordinary dog follow scent trails through the scrub. Something about that experience changed the way I perceived dogs and this idea of “intelligence.” An important part of A Dog About Town and the series in general is the contrasting of the linear, non-nose driven way that human beings approach the world and the nose-driven way that dogs do. It became apparent to me that if you truly put yourself in a dog’s body –impossible even with the best efforts— many aspects that seem stupid or illogical would make utter sense within their reality (and, in fact, our way of doing things might begin to seem absurd). Randolph loves language and in this way is a bridge to us while he still remains very dog. But I think Randolph also understands the limits of language and how it can be used to simply blow smoke.
What is your general writing process? Do you mull over ideas for awhile before putting them to paper? Did you run into any great challenges finishing the books, or did both stories basically work themselves out as you went along?
My writing process is simple: 1000 words a day no matter what. I can think of no other way to get a book done.
At first the second book presented a challenge because I couldn’t be sure how Randolph would handle a lot more time away from their apartment and how this might effect him. Fortunately, I followed his narrative voice which remained calm and enlightening under even the dire and discombobulating circumstances of book #2.
Both books seem to be as much about the human condition and how we deal with the loss of a loved one and how we grow and continue to move on after that loss as they are a "mystery". Was this a conscious effort on your part, or did that aspect of the story simply grow on its own in relation to the rest of the book?
Another insightful question…I think the notion of loss is central to these books (particularly the first one) as it is to life and by extension any literature worth a damn.
Randolph is an especially good vehicle through which to explore loss because he like most dogs are in a near constant state of waiting. If dogs have one universal trait wherever you find them in this world it is the characteristic of waiting. And waiting is probably one of the most overlooked and undervalued treasure troves for growth and the development of wisdom. In speaking about contemporary politics, one of the wiser talking heads mentioned that statements and strategies were being made in a “Blackberry Bubble.” By this he meant that no one was taking time to reflect on their strategy but simply reacting.
So much of modern life seems to lean toward an instant reaction to things. It might not be the best reaction but at least it’s fast –this seems to be the thinking. I think of T.S. Eliot (and so would Randolph): distracted from distraction by distraction…
Well, I think Randolph would never own a Blackberry even if he could figure out a way to use it. Dogs wait by necessity and biology. They wait for people to take them out. They spend long periods of time lying on the floor saving up their energy for the big hunt (which never comes in Central Park or shouldn’t). But waiting is something that we humans seem to get frustrated by and yet it is in waiting that wisdom can be found. Certainly loss –and the kind of hole-in-your-life loss that Randolph and Harry experience— enforces a kind of waiting that might never end and that can’t be covered up by action… that cannot be distracted away.
Randolph as a book lover is also more inclined to accept such waiting…but in some respects he might accept the loss and the unresolveability of it too readily. Fortunately, the events of the first story, the second and those that follow balance the waiting with the kind of action that takes Randolph and Harry out of themselves and onto growth –but a growth only made possible by the waiting. Another long answer. The short answer: Randolph probably shows all of us habitual “doers” that there is a great value also in not doing.
Any idea when we can expect to see A Dog at Sea on the shelves?
This is a genuine scoop. We’ve just learned that A Dog At Sea will be arriving either in late April or late May of 2009.
I'd like to thank Mr. Englert again for taking time out of his day to "sit down" with me and providing some insightful answers. I'd also like to thank him for providing some books to giveaway! I have 4 sets of both books, A Dog About Town and A Dog Among Diplomats, that Mr. Englert generously sent along to giveaway to my readers. I'd like to let as many people as possible know about Randolph and hopefully they will enjoy these books as much as I do, so if you post a link to this post on your blog directing your readers back here (and let me know about it), I'll throw your name in a hat for a set of the books. If you don't have a blog, just leave a reply here that you'd be interested in reading Randolph and Harry's adventures, and I'll throw your name in, too (see how equal opportunity I am?). I just think these are some really well-written, clever books and I'd like to help spread the joy that is Randolph! I'll take entries until 20 June, 2008.