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Author Chat with Garth Stein

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Transcript of Live Chat
August 11, 2008

Miriam Good evening, everyone. I’m Miriam Tuliao of The New York Public Library, and it is my pleasure to welcome you to a very special Summer Reading program. Joining us tonight for a live online discussion is Garth Stein, the author of three critically acclaimed novels including How Evan Broke His Head and Other Secrets (winner of the 2006 Pacific Northwest Booksellers Association Book Award) and Raven Stole the Moon. Garth’s latest novel, The Art of Racing in the Rain, is one of the nineteen celebrated works of fiction featured on this year’s Summer Reading booklist for adults, Metamorphosis @ Your Library. A Kirkus reviewer wrote that The Art of Racing in the Rain is “pointedly inspirational.” The Seattle Times has also praised the novel: "Joyful in its language, creative in its narration and affecting in its story, this is a terrific book..." Please join me in welcoming our special guest, Garth Stein.

Garth_Stein Thanks, Miriam. I appreciate the chance to chat with your readers!

Garth_Stein I would love to know, first off, if any of you have read the book. If you have, do you have any questions about it? If not, I'd be happy to tell you a little bit about it....

Stephanie Yes, I've read the book and enjoyed it very much. It was wistful, but heartwarming.

Garth_Stein I like to call it life-affirming. Yes, it's Enzo's last night on earth, but it's also the beginning of the rest of his many lives to come....

picturegoers I have a question - what can the art of racing tell us about the art of living?

Garth_Stein Excellent question, but might take a 300 page book to explain! Racing is about balance, anticipation, patience. All these things apply to our daily lives as well....

Garth_Stein Also, in racing, a driver is trained to not think about mistakes or mishaps that have just happened. We must only focus on what's in front of us. So that is something we can take to our daily interactions as well.

Miriam How would you characterize Enzo’s view of the world?

Garth_Stein Enzo is always hopeful. He believes he will return to the earth as a person in his next life, and he wants to learn what he can while he is here. Enzo does not believe that his existence is limited to his life on this earth. He sees many more incarnations.....

Garth_Stein Lisa, I think you wrote a question that got swallowed by cyber-space.... What was it like to write from a dogs' p.o.v.? Honestly, I didn't think too much about that. Enzo believes he has a nearly human soul, so it was more about writing from the p.o.v. of a soul who is trapped in a world in which he can't communicate or interact as he would like. Secondarily, it was fun to think from a dog's eye view! The smells!

Stephanie Is Denny truly heroic?

Garth_Stein Is he not? How do you define a hero? The classic definition is of a character who is drawn into a drama, sometimes against his or her will. A character who must overcome obstacles in order to achieve his or her goal. And one who may or may not achieve the goal, but who has achieved something, learned something, grown in some way. In my opinion, Denny is truly heroic, yes.

Lisa Is racing an art?

Garth_Stein With any activity, I think we have to define two elements: art and craft. Craft is the stuff you can learn. The stuff that can be taught. Art is the stuff you can't learn, you have to discover for yourself, somewhere deep down inside. Racing has a lot of craft, just as writing has craft, painting has craft, mowing the lawn has craft. But Racing certainly has art, just as the others do. It depends on the participant, which level you want to take it to....

picturegoers Had you not written them, what would you characterize as the motives behind the actions of Eve's parents? Were they simply reflections of two broken hearts?

Garth_Stein Misbegotten. They love Eve so much, the lose sight of her. They love her so much, the lose sight of love.....

Stephanie Do you think that you will continue to write from a dog's perspective? Enzo is so appealing as a character. He's a little like Yoda in Star Wars. Super wise!

Garth_Stein I think this is my one and only dog narrator. I have a new book I'm working on and there's no dog in sight. That being said, my publisher once clasped me on the shoulder and said: "Never say never, lad..."

Stephanie What drives Denny?

Garth_Stein The joy of existing entirely in the moment. What do you think drives him?

Lisa How would characterize Enzo's relationship with Denny?

Garth_Stein One of the themes of the book is unconditional love. With our relationships with our animals, we exhibit unconditional love, but with with our friends, relatives and loved-ones, we often have many conditions. Enzo and Denny have no conditions. Their relationship is love in its purest sense.

Stephanie He seems to love the thrill of sport.

Garth_Stein Yes, of course. The thrill of the sport is the thrill of life. It is acting in an arena in which your actions have real consequences, real results. It is elemental.

picturegoers He must make lives for himself and Zoe after much strife, including the (physical) death of Enzo!

Garth_Stein If we act with joy in our hearts, the result will be good.

Lisa Enzo seems especially mature and world-wise. And Denny less so.

Garth_Stein Good observation. Perhaps Denny is less cynical than Enzo? Or maybe Denny understands that the race is long. He doesn't react with anger or defensiveness at every turn. Think of it this way, perhaps Enzo is Denny's alter-ego. Enzo is how we wish Denny would act. Denny has his own pace. Remember that in the end, Denny achieves his goals. Sure, it's a long and tough road, but he gets there....

Stephanie But not everyone in the book has a joie de vivre. Most of the principal characters have angst.

Garth_Stein To live with joy is something we strive for, not something we turn on like a light switch. We all struggle. I struggle. I want to not be defensive with my family, for instance, but it's something I have to work at. When I coach my son's soccer team, I tell them we learn more from a game we lose than from a game we win. Same thing with life. We must struggle. Through struggle comes self-understanding.

picturegoers Enzo "thinks" this statement - "to finish first, first you must finish." This seems elementary, but is so true!

Garth_Stein Yes! That's an old racing cliche, but cliches are cliches because they are true!

Lisa They have a sound relationship, full of understanding and empathy.

Garth_Stein Would I have such relationship with all the family I have around me! One of the most important passages for me is the passage about listening! We must learn to be better listeners! This is something I work at constantly!

Lisa I think that your novel captures the warmth between animals and humans.

Garth_Stein Thanks. It's the unconditional love. We love our dogs and cats and animals....even if they forgot to take out the garbage and clean the basement and water the plants....

picturegoers Enzo is certain that when he returns to the world, he will be a man. Are you, the author, as sure of that as he is?

Garth_Stein That which you manifest is before you. Find your goal. Go after it with your entire being, your entire essence. Is Enzo certain? He has to be. It is the only possibility acceptable to him. Am I, the author, sure? No. My job is to reveal Enzo's voice. Perhaps he falters. Perhaps it doesn't end the way he wants it to. But when I am with him, I belive him. His enthusiasm is infectious!

Stephanie What is the significance of rain?

Garth_Stein Rain, in racing, adds an element of unpredictability. It also narrows the margin for error. In rain, you must be at your best. No mistakes are allowed!

Lisa The custody battle was a true struggle.

Garth_Stein With a story about a race car driver--in which a single mistake or lapse of concentration can result in death--the stakes must be very high indeed. Denny needed to struggle through a challenge that would be commensurate with his chosen profession. He needed to have everything on the line.

Stephanie Are you meeting a lot of readers who find a connection with the book because of the narrator?

Garth_Stein Yes, that's what's so great. Everyone loves Enzo! I'm so thrilled, because I see Enzo not as my creation, but as my friend. I'm so happy he chose me to be the teller of his story!

Lisa Is the Art of Racing in the Rain a fable of sorts?

Garth_Stein Yes, it is. And this is where some detractors of my book get it wrong. They get bound up with the idea of "a dog thinking," and "how can you know what a dog would do or think in that situation?" But it's a fable. It's a story told from an outsider's point of view. It's a tale about how we can be better people, and it's told by a dog. No big deal. Suspend your disbelief!

Lisa Different scenes in your book give readers an opportunity to listen. Dialogue is sparing.

Garth_Stein Enzo is the ultimate fly-on-the-wall. Through him we get to witness all sides of the controversy. And, remember, people rarely say what they really mean. Subtext is a huge element of dialogue. I love working with that stuff.

picturegoers The "replacement zebra" is the ghost of the past. Can we ever escape our pasts - and should we strive to?

Garth_Stein One must come to terms with his past so he can move on to the future. The zebra never goes away until you make it go away.

Stephanie Do your other novels deal with the topic of love and family?

Garth_Stein Yes. Raven Stole the Moon is about a woman coming to term with the death of her child. How Evan Broke His Head and Other Secrets is about a 31-year-old rock musician (with epilepsy) who is faced with raising the 14-year-old son he's never met. It's all about family.

anthony_Loum Hi Garth: This is Anthony, former resident of Seattle. I will be in Seattle on the second week of September. My question is what motivated you to write a book with a dog being the narrator? Secondly, what were you trying to accomplish?

Garth_Stein Hey, Anthony, good to hear from you. It wasn't so much being motivated, but being inspired by a dog as narrator. The idea kind of found me. But once I embraced it, we morphed into each other....

Lisa What authors or books have inspired you?

Garth_Stein I love Ken Kesey. I love many playwrights: Eugene O'Neill, Tennessee Williams, Bernard Shaw....

Stephanie Do you aim to write life-affirming books?

Garth_Stein I try not to aim. I try to write what's in my heart!

Lisa You see your role as giving voice to characters. What are your goals as a writer?

Garth_Stein I want to have people read my stories! Honestly, I'd be happy to give my books away if more people would read them. Unfortunately, that's not the world of commerce. People need to pay the bills....

Lisa Enzo is incredibly likeable. He's not a puppy, but a dog--not a boy, but a man. Mature.

Garth_Stein Yet with a certain naivete. "The more I know, the more I know I don't know...."

Stephanie Do you enjoy the role of fabulist?

Garth_Stein Absolutely. (And the alternate definition for fabulist is "liar," but I embrace the dichotomy!)

picturegoers It would have been a very different book had it been narrated by someone "inside" such as Denny ...

Garth_Stein True. The story without Enzo would have been not very interesting. It is through Enzo's puzzling out of motivations and intentions that we feel the tension. How hard it is to communicate!

Stephanie What is it about the topic of family that you find so appealing as a writer?

Garth_Stein I don't know. It's what I have.

Stephanie How do the playwrights inspire you?

Garth_Stein The theater is about immediacy! Everything has to be honest. And when I say that, I don't mean honesty of a character, but honesty of a writer. You cannot "cheat" in the theater. You must know everything, you must see everything. As a writer, you can't take short-cuts. When I teach writing, I always tell my students to take acting classes, to learn drama--both in structure and in style.

picturegoers Enzo wanted Denny to act (like Emmo) but in the end comes to the realization that "the champion" is in all of us!

Garth_Stein We must find it. Yes. For some, the search is easy. For others, the search is quite difficult. The champion is there. It's up to each of us to discover.

Miriam This concludes tonight’s online program. Thank you all for participating in this discussion. And a very special thank you, Garth Stein, for joining us.

Garth_Stein It's been a real treat for me to be involved with the NYPL discussion. Thanks Miriam and Andrew, and all of those who joined in. You're the best! Happy manifesting! Garth

Miriam Have a wonderful evening!