09 October 2023

From paw to page.

After twenty plus years of thwarted efforts to publish a novel, I scaled back my ambitions to conform to the somewhat circumscribed audience still available to me: 


When my agent, the late Mary Jack Wald (a paragon of hope, persistence and faith in lost causes) encouraged me to rewrite one of my many failed forays, the first thing I did was add a key character to the action.

A dog.

The sole reason for this was my wife and I had finally, after many years of longing on her part, acquired a dog. My habit was to write on the front porch of our house on Long Island, and since the new dog was a constant companion in this setting – and as all writers know we seek stimulation from our immediate surroundings – it was nearly impossible to concoct a scene in which no dog was present.

A published book followed.  You do the math.   

I was immensely fortunate that our dog, Samuel Beckett (a soft-coated Wheaten Terrier named after a lesser-known Irish existentialist), who passed away about fourteen years ago, was in possession of an outsized personality.  Dog owners know that some dogs are dogs, other dogs are strange people who live with you.  So it was with our dog Sam (coincidentally the name of my protagonist – I can’t explain it) who was a thoroughly reliable source of literary subsistence in both form and content.

His fictional counterpart is an eccentric named Eddie Van Halen.  While Eddie’s received his share of fan mail, most of the recognition has come from reviewers, who write things like, “...and his lovable mutt, Eddie”, and “…the anti-Marley, Eddie Van Halen”. 

One of the best reasons to include dogs in your fiction is they give your protagonist someone to talk to, and hang around with.  The dogs don’t have to talk back, they just have to be themselves, which is enough in my case, since most of my dogs are bottomless fonts of reliable inspiration.

Our dog Sam shared with his alter ego Eddie Van Halen a characteristic dominant in all exceptional canines – unpredictability.  Experts on animal behavior will tell you that dogs are highly programmable routine freaks.  Nothing makes them happier than the noon walk, the six o’clock meal, the seven thirty am tummy rub. 

Sam liked his routines, Lord knows. But he also loved to mix things up, in a way far more reminiscent of a practical joker than a habituated, monotony-loving house pet.  I heard him howl exactly twice, both times on a corner in Southampton as a fire truck passed by. He stuck his head out the window of a moving car exactly once, for reasons neither of us ever figured out.  A dog who showed nothing but disdain for conventional chew toys would suddenly become enamored with a polyester squirrel and spend the greater part of Christmas morning eviscerating the poor thing. 

 Sometimes, very infrequently, he’d walk up to me, look me in the eye, and issue one loud, imperious bark.  I’d say, “What.”  He’d bark again, and then walk away, disgusted.  I know these exchanges meant something to him, but I’ll be damned if I know what it was. 

Since Sam, I’ve had other, equally productive characters living in my home.  The most recent, as mercurial and unpredictable as their predecessor. 

However, I’m way ahead on the deal.  I get to have characters I can write into my books whenever my imaginative powers flag, with little need for invention.  All I give in return is a concentrated ear scratching, a walk around the block (or whatever direction their moods dictate) and an occasional cigar. 




  1. A delightful blog. I must add that I have found cats another useful source of literary inspiration.

    1. Cats are under rated, especially by those who are biased against cozies, a benighted minority. I've known countless cats with giant personalities, with the added quality of pure mystery and contrariness.

  2. Pets are invaluable, for companionship, amusement, exercise - and inspiration. Thanks!

  3. Chris, you make me miss my late dog so much (Sunny the huge frankenpoodle was a feature in my only young adult book, Crime Club). "Seems they gone and crossed a poodle with a grizzly bear" says a character in the book. Damn, I miss having a dog! Thanks for the sweet post this morning.

    1. Thank you. My dog Jack, the small but valiant Lakeland Terrier, thanks you as well.

  4. Jingle sends wags and woofs of approval for this blog post. As do I.

    1. Thank you, Barb. Send Jingle a woof from my boy Jack.

  5. I know what you mean about unpredictability. Our daughter's dog Rex - a black Lab with dauschund legs (I am not kidding) - was given a purportedly indestructible chew toy, an Abominable Snowman with a squeaker in his upper chest/heart area. Rex enjoyed shaking it wildly and pursuing it, of course. But one afternoon, many days later, he simply decided the squeaker had to go. With the full, frightening focus of a surgeon on steroids, he ripped and tore at the "indestructible" toy's heart, removed the squeaker and (we think), and ate it. Then it was back to shaking wildly and pursuing, as if nothing had happened. We love the guy.

  6. Your excellent piece reminds me of an NPR piece on animal and human interactions. The expert noted that dogs were the most domesticated animal, the animal most attuned to human behavior. He noted that having a dog in your house is like living with a sociologist who is constantly studying your behavior.


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