By Lois Alter Mark
“There’s a rule by, like, the Author’s Guild of the Universe,” said Garth Stein during a recent luncheon hosted by The Downtown Breakfast Rotary Club of San Diego and Warwick’s. “One dog book per author.”
Stein was in town to talk about the follow-up to his beloved best-seller, “The Art of Racing in the Rain,” whose canine narrator, Enzo, has touched millions of readers during the book’s whopping 158 weeks on The New York Times Best Seller list. If you’re a dog person at all, you’ve most likely read, cried through and quoted the book — and bought copies to share with everyone you know.
His new novel, “A Sudden Light,” is already receiving rave reviews, despite the fact that it never once mentions a dog.
“I’m going to talk about my new book,” Stein assured the crowd, “but everyone loves ‘The Art of Racing in the Rain,’ so I’ll tell you how that came about. In fact, there’s now a children’s book, ‘Enzo Races in the Rain!’ The illustrations are so cute.”
Stein wrote “The Art of Racing in the Rain” in four months. He got the idea from a film called “State of Dogs.”
“There’s a belief among nomadic Mongolians that the next incarnation for their dog will be as a person,” he explained. “I thought that was so cool, but I had no idea what to do with it.”
Then he heard former Poet Laureate Billy Collins read “The Revenant.” The first line of the poem is, “I am the dog you put to sleep, as you like to call the needle of oblivion, come back to tell you this simple thing: I never liked you — not one bit.”
As the audience burst into laughter, Stein continued, “A light bulb went on. I thought, ‘That’s my dog!’ The idea of a dog coming back as a man only works if the dog tells the story and he has a chip. He has to be kind of angry and smart. As I wrote it, though, Enzo changed and became less bitter.”
Although it’s hard to believe now, no agent would touch “The Art of Racing in the Rain.” When Stein finally found one who championed it, he kept the voice mail in which the agent cried and practically begged to represent the book, for months.
Because of the book’s phenomenal success, Stein had no problem getting “A Sudden Light” published, leaving the drama to the story itself.
The book revolves around the Riddells, dysfunctional heirs to a once-great timber fortune, who are haunted by secrets from the past — and maybe even a ghost or two.
“It’s my interpretation of a ghost story, but it’s more spiritual than scary,” said Stein. “Really, the story is about fathers and sons. It’s about how this primal relationship ripples through a family over generations. It’s about decisions that were made in the 1800s that still affect one particular family, and also decisions that were made on a larger scale and still ripple. It’s epic yet personal.”
The story is set amid the natural beauty of the Pacific Northwest and is based on a wealthy Seattle enclave near where Stein grew up. The book is so rich, it whets readers’ appetites to learn more about the fascinating history of that time and place — which they can do at ASuddenLight.com, a gorgeous website that’s a great companion to the book. It features an artist’s rendition of The North Estate, the site of the Riddells’ crumbling mansion, and readers can hover over the different buildings to get more information about subjects like the timber industry, railroads, paranormal, spiritualism, transcendentalism.
“I’m reading the book now and am loving it,” called out one member of the audience. “I can’t wait to see what happens.”
Apparently, she’s not the only one. After Stein’s talk, guests lined up to get their own copies signed and to chat with him.
“Garth was delightful,” said Nancy Vaughan, president of the Downtown Breakfast Rotary Club of San Diego. “He’s intelligent, humorous and engaging, and everyone in the room was entertained. Getting him as our guest author was a coup, and it will be very hard for someone to compete with him.”
Julie Slavinsky, Warwick’s director of Events and Community Relations, agrees. “He truly is a delight. It was wonderful bringing him to the downtown area, and we are looking forward to hosting more author luncheons with the Downtown Breakfast Rotary Club of San Diego in the future.”