A Talk with Jon Katz, author of A DOG YEAR
You have written an acclaimed mystery series, a memoir of a “midlife adventure,” an exploration of computer geeks. Why a book on your dogs? Why now?
My theory is that you don’t select the books, they select you. Because of Running To The Mountain, a Border Collie breeder I’d been e-mailing decided I ought to have Devon, and so he came. That led to a much more intense and dramatic dog year then I imagined. I was visiting the owner of Battenkill Books in Cambridge, New York, and regaling her with tales of this mad new member of my family, and how it had turned my life upside down, and she said, “Well, those are great stories. Why don’t you write them?” Of course, once she said it, it made sense, but it really hadn’t occurred to me. My editor liked the idea as well, so there it was, right under our noses, so to speak. I think many people have the illusion that writers carefully consider their book ideas. Mine seem to sort of explode underneath me. I feel like I’m following life, not leading it. But as to subjects, I love changing subjects. The bigger the turn, the more challenging for me, as a human and a writer. When I say I love change, I’m not kidding.
Julius and Stanley, your wonderfully sweet yellow Labs, seemed like perfect dogs. Why upset the balance with a rescued Border Collie? And then a second one?
To be frank, upsetting the balance wasn’t a good idea, and I can’t justify it. It was hard on all of us, me as well as the Labs. I don’t recommend it. Something in me is drawn to the “lost boys” of the world, human and canine. I believe they can be brought back from the edge if only somebody cares. But three dogs are a lot for a suburban middle-aged man, especially when two of them are border collies. Katz’s theory holds that when it comes to dog ownership, one Border Collie is equal to about five normal dogs. It turned out all right, although it was tough on Julius and Stanley, who probably deserved more attention and peace than they got. It turned out to be fascinating and powerful for me, but I can’t honestly look anybody in the eye and say it was justifiable or right. I’m not sure I would do it again, though even as I think that, I know I would.
You and Devon had some tremendous battles. Why didn’t you just throw in the towel and send him back to Texas?
I was crazy about him from the first night on. I don’t think I ever could have taken him back to that airport and stuck him in a crate. We are both nuts in the same way, I fear. I’m not really into anthropomorphizing dogs, but this one has enormous personality, and I loved him dearly from the start. One reason it was such a brawl was that I knew quitting wasn’t an option. Some people think I won the brawl, but that’s a delusion, really. We fought to a draw, and I like to think we did because we both loved each other enough to hang in there. It took more patience and care than I thought I possessed, which was precisely why it was good for me.
Humor plays a big part in your writing. Why do you think that is?
I see myself as essentially ridiculous, to be honest. Life is sad sometimes but also hilarious, ironic and filled with strange twists and turns and if you take yourself seriously for a second–though, the people (and dogs) around me would never permit that–it would become unbearable. Especially, if you’re a writer, I think, taking oneself seriously is an occupational hazard. Can’t do it. Life is absurd, and so am I. I tell myself that twice a day, and when I don’t, my wife, daughter and friends do it for me.
A DOG YEAR is quite pragmatic and honest. Was there a danger in being overly sentimental? How did you avoid this trap?
I swore when I started to write this book that I would try to avoid what I saw as a big trap for a book like this–sentimentality. Dogs aren’t humans, and no one should mistake one for the other. They are different, alien and ought to be treated that way. I decided to simply write about the dogs, concentrate truthfully on what happened. There are no heroes or villains in A DOG YEAR, just dogs and a human who happened to converge with one another at a key point in all of their lives. I see A DOG YEAR as a lifetime of dog experiences compressed into a year. But whatever emotion is in the book has to be self-evident. It doesn’t need to be described. Nobody saved anybody else’s life, although some lives sure changed a bit. I encounter too many people who over-sentimentalize the dog experience. It isn’t good for dogs to be treated like people. They need to be treated like dogs, which is to say, they need to be understood for what they are, not for what we project on them.
By the end of A DOG YEAR, you have achieved a new balance with two new dogs. Have things settled down or are they still in flux?
Devon is not a mellow personality and once or twice a week, he will remind me of that (as in last week when he jumped through a screened window and into a neighbor’s house in pursuit of a cat, who he chased up to their attic. Two broken lamps). But it’s astonishing how mellow we are most of the time, how much he has calmed down, how long and quietly he naps by the family, how sweet he has become with other people. With Border Collies, unlike Labs, things are always in flux. They never really totally settle down, are always eager for work and new experiences. But compared to A DOG YEAR, it feels almost placid to me. He is a good boy with a great sweet heart and I am immensely grateful he crashed into my life. We have more fun than I would have imagined a man could ever have with a dog. He keeps me moving.
But are things really calmer?
No, not by a long shot. Okay, I like to kid myself that we have placid days, but that’s a ridiculous idea when you think about it. Last week, I was knocked nearly insensate by a rampaging herd of sheep. The dogs have been chased by wild dogs, butted by goats, and they constantly pursue countless squirrels, mice, chipmunks and raccoons. There is no such thing as a totally calm day with two Border Collies, especially when one of them is Devon.
I notice that Homer appears to have a knack for sheep herding. Have you pursued this further?
Yes, very much so. I am deeply into sheepherding. Homer and I take weekly herding lessons, have been to weeklong training camps several times. I’ve taken dog training classes, and he and I graze a Pennsylvania herd of 140 sheep three or four times a week. I love it, and plan to continue. He has won several ribbons (or I should say we have–the first thing I’ve won in my life). I find herding deeply satisfying, difficult and even spiritual. I love doing it. I’ve never had a hobby before, and this one is the one for me.