Garth Stein has never been a stranger to small audiences. He’s stage managed “theater at sea” on cruise ships. He’s written stage plays produced by community theaters. He’s made documentary films. He’s written well-reviewed novels published by independent presses. Put it all together, and he’s done the very thing so many people aspire to do but so few accomplish: simply make a living by making art.
And then, he did what some might imagine to be the equivalent of literary suicide: He wrote a book from the point of view of a dog.
It was called The Art of Racing in the Rain. And the unique perspective of its canine narrator, Enzo, who longs to be a human race car driver, had so much heart that that 2008 release did find a slightly bigger audience—to the tune of more than 4 million copies sold and over three years on The New York Times bestseller list.
Where do you go from there?
Well, if you’re Garth Stein, you buckle in for the ride of your life. You go on tour. You sell movie rights. You create a special edition for teen readers (Racing in the Rain: My Life as a Dog) and a picture book adaptation (Enzo Races in the Rain!). You pay it forward, joining forces with other published writers to create a successful and growing nonprofit, Seattle7Writers. (“We should be marshaling our energy for the greater good,” Stein tells WD, describing the organization
as a “win-win-win” for author-members, local bookstores and libraries, and the reading and writing public.)
And eventually, of course, you write something new.
A Sudden Light, centered on the descendants of lumber barons and the fate of their crumbling mansion, is part coming-of-age story, part ghost story, part reminder of the price nature has paid for man-made fortunes. In October, a few weeks after its hardcover release, it made a brief appearance on The New York Times bestsellers list. And then …
Well, the next chapter has yet to be written. Can lightning strike twice for the same author? In the February 2015 Writer’s Digest, Stein spoke with WD about what it takes to write a book you truly believe in. Here, in these bonus online exclusive outtakes, he talks more about the founding of Seattle7Writers, and why every writer should have another writer friend.
What inspired you to co-found Seattle7Writers?
What happened was, there are a bunch of writers in Seattle and we’d get together and complain about agents and marketing budgets and all that kind of stuff—things you can’t complain about to civilians, because they’d be like, “But you have an agent! You have a marketing budget!” So we needed to complain amongst ourselves because we understood the nuance.
Then The Art of Racing in the Rain took off. I was in Phoenix doing some events, and there’s a racing school [nearby], Bob Bondurant [School of High Performance Driving], and Bob Bondurant was a big fan of the book—he has a dog, Rusty, who drives around with him in a Corvette and all kinds of stuff. So he [invited me out] and I did a couple things at the track. And he said to me, “I have this nonprofit that I like to support, Gideon’s Angels—it’s therapy dogs for teens who are victims of abuse. I’d like to do something that raises money for them. What could we do?” So we worked it out with Changing Hands Bookstore where we did an event at a shopping mall, and Changing Hands did the book support, and there was a global coffee shop giving away free copies but selling pastries, and Bob was there, and I was there signing books, and the supporters of this organization came, and bought the books, got them signed, and Changing Hands donated a percent of the proceeds to the organization. So, my publisher was thrilled—they’re selling 300 books. I loved talking to people and signing books, the organization loved getting the support, and Changing Hands was like, “We just moved a lot of books!” It was a win-win-win situation.
So I went back to our group of complaining writers—we started as seven of us, by then there it was 10 or 11—and I said, “We should be doing this. We should be marshaling our energy for the greater good—to energize the reading and writing public, to support local bookstores, to support libraries, to make sure readers have books.”
[Seattle7Writers was born, and now] we have all these different programs. It became very successful and people started to join in, and now we’re up to 73 traditionally published writers. When a new writer comes in, their publisher donates copies of one of their books to us, the author signs them, and we put together these book bags that we then donate to educational programs to use as raffle items or as auction items at fundraisers. Another win-win-win. The publisher gets to promote their author among other notable authors in the Northwest, the organization gets to raise money, and whoever buys the bag gets autographed editions of these books.
That’s how we sort of started—now we do all sorts of things. Our pocket library program has really taken off. We get donations of books from individuals as well as from publishers and bookstores, and then we re-hone them into places where they have need but they don’t have a budget for a library—halfway houses, shelters for battered women, shelters for runaway teens, correctional facilities. And we donate to food banks, which is highly successful, because people are coming to get food to feed their families, and now here they have a bookshelf: Take ’em. Bring ’em back if you’d like. It’s an honor system.
What we believe in our group is that you can take away someone’s job and you can take away their house and you can take away their car but you can’t take away their imagination. And so we want to make sure people, just because the situation might be unfortunate for them right now, we want to make sure that they have access to reading material.
Reading is really so fundamental to promoting empathy, to sharing experiences from outside of ourselves. It’s how we learn about the world around us. We can’t be everywhere all the time, but by reading we can see that people in different circumstances have the same sort of issues that we have, and we can see how these people handle their difficulties or accomplish their goals, and then we can decide: Do we emulate that? Would we have done something different? And by doing so, then we increase our empathy. And by increasing our empathy, we become more compassionate, and better members of our communities.
We have a ton of programs—it’s unwieldy to talk about, really. We teach writing workshops to both students and adults; we raise money for other literacy organizations; we do a book sale every fall.
Also, we do a thing called Write Here Write Now. It’s a one-day writing intensive in January or February, and we believe that writer’s conferences are great, but what do you do at a writer’s conference? You talk a lot about writing, but you don’t actually do very much writing.
The easiest thing to do in the world is not write, and the most fun thing to do in the world is to talk about what you’re not writing. I’m not writing right now—I love it, let’s stay on the phone! [Laughs.] So what we do is this writing intensive, where it’s one day, it starts at 8:00 in the morning, and 45 minutes out of every hour are spent writing. Bring your laptop, we have plenty of plugs, and you sit there and write—not emails, not Internet. We’re not going to share it. You need to write, and you need to practice writing and see what you can get done in 45 minutes. And then 10 minutes of every hour is a mini lesson taught by one of our many Seattle7 authors—a lesson about backstory, or about POV. And then at the end of the mini-lesson that author gives a writing prompt in case you want to use it—you don’t have to use it, but if you don’t have a project you’re working on, each author gives a prompt so you can have something for the next 45 minutes. And then 5 minutes of every hour is a bathroom break. And we do this seven or eight times. And then afterwards we have some fun. We crack out the beer and wine and have kind of a funny lightning round where authors have 10 seconds to answer questions asked by the audience in advance, and stuff like that. At the end of the day, people are exhausted, because they just spent 45 minutes out of each of 7 hours writing. But they’re smiling. And I always give the closing remarks, and I get to say to them: Do you see what you’re capable of doing? That’s discipline. You need to have that discipline if you’re going to be a writer. It’s exhausting, and it should be. But look how much you’ve written today. If you start a timer, and you eliminate the distractions, see what you can get done.
What would you say to writers who don’t have those connections to other writers—who feel like they’re writing in a bubble right now?
Certainly every writer has a writer friend, right? So get together once a week. We used to do this—a bunch of people would get together, sometimes four or six or eight people, and we’d spend the morning [sitting side by side, writing, with a timer set], and then go have lunch together.
What it does is it forces you to write because everybody else is tapping away at their keyboards. And you think, I’m just sitting here looking at my screen—I’ve got to type something. The problem that happens with writing I believe is that we have high expectations for ourselves and we want it to be really really good and we for some reason think that everything we write has to be gold. And everything we write isn’t gold—it isn’t. The gold is hidden in the rocks. The expectation that every draft that you write is going to be brilliant genius is just, it’s wrong. Don’t have that expectation for yourself. Understand that writing is a process, and you have to enjoy the process, you have to partake in the process. You can’t just wake up one day and have a finished book that’s going to win the Pulitzer Prize. You’re going to have to work really hard for that, and part of working for it is writing stuff that isn’t correct, and then changing it, modifying it, or throwing it out. And that’s OK.
If you enjoyed these outtakes with bestselling novelist Garth Stein, featuring straight talk about what it really takes to get a story right, meeting reader expectations, and much more, check out the February 2015 Writer’s Digest.