Tuesday, May 13, 2008

Marley and Me

Today, I have John Grogan, author of the bestselling memoir, "Marley and Me," which was just released in paperback. John talks about writing a bestselling memoir, how it's changed his life and yes, a little about the movie adaptation due out this Christmas.
John would also like to answer one of your questions and give a book away to someone who asks a writing related question. Simply click on the word "comments" below and ask your question before 5 p.m. today (Tuesday). You don't even need an account to sign in. If you don't want to sign in with a google account, just click on the option that says name/URL. I will randomly draw one question and John will answer it on Thursday and the person will also win a book!

Tell us about yourself.
You can read a detailed autobiography at www.marleyandme.com, but basically I'm a guy who loves to write, to express myself and explore my feelings and experience with words. When I'm not doing that, I usually have my hands in the dirt. (I'm the former editor-in-chief of Organic Gardening magazine.)

Your book, "Marley and Me" was a huge hit, enjoying a long run on the New York Times best-seller list. Some of the book was taken from columns you had written over the years. When did you know you had a full-length memoir about the human-animal bond?
Over the years, I wrote a handful of newspaper columns about my manic Labrador retriever, and pretty early on I understood he was a source of good fodder. People always responded enthusiastically to my Marley anecdotes. Like most journalists, I dreamed of writing a book, and about halfway through his life, I began to think there might be a collection of funny essays centered around him. But I didn't yet see a fully formed story with a narrative arc. It was only after he died and I wrote a column in the Philadelphia Inquirer saying goodbye to him that I saw the bigger picture -- how he affected the family we became and helped teach us what matters in life.

The buzzword in the business these days is "platform." Do you feel your columns helped build your platform for the book and how important do you think that was in the success of the book?
The column served as a sort of trial balloon to test out ideas and narrative strings, but I don't think it played much role in the book's success, certainly not outside South Florida and Philadelphia where my columns appeared. The fact that I had the titles "Philadelphia Inquirer metro columnist" and "former editor-in-chief" of a national magazine helped me land media attention. The media seems to love people with titles.

In your book, you describe taking an ordinary life and finding the universal. Is this the key to a great memoir? If so, how do writers find this for their own memoirs?
I believe every life is a story worth telling. Every life, even the most ordinary, have extraordinary moments that, when examined with sensitivity, can help illuminate the human experience. When I speak with writing students, I always encourage them to look within themselves for subject matter and tell them they might be surprised what they will find if only they peel back enough layers.

Were you surprised the book was such a big hit? Why?
Oh yeah. Totally surprised. I was proud of my finished manuscript and believed it would find an audience, even a decent-sized one. But it was such a highly personal story that I thought it's reach would be somewhat limited. My editor didn't want me to get my hopes up too high, and before my pub date cautioned that mine was not the kind of book to get a lot of serious critical attention, and sales would likely be a long, slow build. The week before the book came out, Janet Maslin gave it a positive review in The New York Times, then a string of other reviews followed. In it's first week, it landed on the Times' nonfiction hardcover bestseller list, where it remained for 76 weeks, 23 of them at No. 1. No one really saw it coming, least of all me. I spent the first 18 months pinching myself on an hourly basis.

Many journalists aspire to become authors. Was this an aspiration of yours? How do you have to change your writing habits from creating a 1,000 word piece to a 50,000 word manuscript?
In my case, I went from a 700 word column to a 90,000 word manuscript, but I found the process amazingly similar. My column often was grounded in my personal experience, so I had already grown comfortable with writing in the first person and laying my life out there. When I began the book, I psychologically broke it into small column-like chunks. Thirty chapters, and each chapter was roughly the length of four columns. In this way, I was able to build the book one scene at a time without becoming overwhelmed.

How did you initially find your agent? What do you believe is the most important thing writers should keep in mind while seeking an agent?
I sent out a proposal letter and writing samples to twelve agents whom I found randomly off the internet. Eleven of them promptly rejected me. The twelfth, Laurie Abkemeier, saw a spark of promise and asked me to bang out a couple sample chapters. I did and she signed me the day after reading them. What I like about Laurie, and what I would look for in another agent, is that she is not all about the sale. She's all about the book, from start to finish. She was an important sounding board, mentor, and cheerleader as I wrote, revised, and polished the manuscript. As I said on my acknowledgment page, Laurie believed in the merit of my book before even I fully did myself. You can't fake that kind of enthusiasm -- and that's what the best agents will bring to the table.

What is the most important thing you did in your writing career that prepared you for writing a hugely successful book?
I've kept a journal since college, and it was invaluable in preparing me to write a successful book. A journal is a wonderful and safe place to practice the craft, a place you can take chances without risk of embarrassment. For a memoirist, it also is a great document of your life. The first thing I did when I began Marley & Me was pull out my journal entries for the thirteen-year window covered in the book. Not only did the journal have detailed accounts of day to day life, including many incidents that otherwise would have been forgotten; it also helped shape the book, leading me in directions I otherwise would not have thought to go. One example: It never would have occurred to me to put an entire chapter in the book about my wife's miscarriage, but in the journal I found a long entry written the same day, and it was so immediate and powerful that I pretty much pasted it unedited into the manuscript. It became what I consider one of the stronger chapters in the book.

Journalists and other writers might have a few people pay attention to an article for a day, or week - of if it is particularly controversial, maybe a month. Authors first live with their manuscript for a long time writing and editing. Successful authors have the joy (or the curse) to have to live with that book for the rest of their lives. How have you dealt with the huge success of the book?I've been talking about Marley & Me nearly nonstop for the past two and a half years, and I must admit I'm ready to find some new talking points! (Fortunately, my next memoir comes out later this year so I'll have a whole new topic to discuss.) But I've considered every day of Marley's success an incredible gift. The book's success has allowed me to say goodbye to my day job as a newspaper columnist and focus exclusively on book writing, which is an amazing indulgence. I'm working harder than ever but love being my own boss and answering only to my own muse.

Is there pressure to produce another best-seller? How has "Marley & Me" affected what you write now?
Marley & Me was such a phenomenon (a term frequently used in the media to describe it), with more than 3 million copies in print in some 30 languages, that I actually don't feel too much pressure. I don't think anyone expects me to match those kind of numbers. Even before Marley & Me came out, I knew what my next book topic would be. What I did not want was for my publisher to buy the next book on a one-page proposal based on the success of Marley. So I wrote it on spec, not showing it to my publisher until I had a completed manuscript. That allowed me to write the book I wanted to write and to remove speculation from the process. I showed the new manuscript to my editor and publishers at William Morrow earlier this year, and a couple weeks later we had a deal.

"Marley & Me" was just released in paperback. What's next for you?
The film version of Marley & Me is scheduled for release on Christmas day 2008, and I've been visiting the set and consulting on the script. It's exciting for me to see not only my writing but my life adapted for the big screen -- and to have Owen Wilson portraying me and Jennifer Aniston portraying my wife. They're really great. As I mentioned above, I just completed my next book, a memoir rooted in my childhood growing up in an Irish Catholic family in the Detroit area, and it is tentatively slated to be published in the fall. I also have a second illustrated children's book (A Very Marley Christmas) coming out in fall 2008, and two more illustrated children's books under contract with HarperCollins Children.


Anonymous Anonymous said...

Because of my background writing about dogs, my agent really wants me to do a dog book. So far, we haven't found the right idea. I'm worried that by the time we do this dog trend will be on the downward slide. Do you think it's a blip in the market? Or, is there a chance good dog books will always have a home?

9:06 AM CDT  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

I have a question:

Like you, I keep a daily journal and have been writing daily since age 11. I am now 44. I have a very inspiring and incredible grandmother, nearly 104 years of age, who has a fascinating story to tell. I have written short bursts about her and those have received positive responses. I want to move ahead with this into a book about her life. She has lived a life beyond anyone's dreams, traveling the world, holding a world record, raising two doctors, both of whom are Rhodes scholars, one of whom assisted with the discovery of the Hepatitis vaccine. She helped to raise and guide former presidential candidate, Bob Dole.

How do I go about writing this book? It is difficult to know where to begin...interviews with her? Family? Friends? I want to move on this, as, at 104, who knows how much longer she will be here. Of course, she has claimed pending death since she was 75...and look at her now! She still loves a good margarita! And she knows about those "sexy sites" on the Internet. (Calm down, Grandma!)

I have had this desire and need to do this for a few years now and do not want to waste any more valuable time.

Any suggestions or thoughts on how to initiate the process and see it get published? I know it will be a great book!

Thank you.

Ann Butenas

9:07 AM CDT  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

You sound very grounded and disciplined in your writing approach. What is your daily work routine like, especially now with the success of your book and new demands on your time? Did it require some adjustments?

10:19 AM CDT  
Blogger Unknown said...

Congratulations on your success with Marley and Me. I always love to see a former newspaper person make it big (I spent 10 years at daily newspapers).
My question is this: I have an idea for a memoir but I have a very sketchy memory and virtually no journals (I know -- what kind of writer doesn't keep journals?). Much of the memoir would be based on my experiences going forward, so the lack of past journals isn't necessarily a hindrance. Do you have any advice for someone with a not-so-great memory on how to keep track of thoughts and experiences? I assume I need to start keeping a daily journal, but the idea is daunting to me -- are your journals "written" or more a series of notes? How long do you spend on your journal each day? Do you record your entries by hand or on the computer? (I'm much more comfortable with a keyboard than a pen.)

12:00 PM CDT  
Blogger Babette said...

I was a big fan in your OG days--and now I cannot wait to sink into Marley and Me. I wonder, do you miss the garden writing?

12:05 PM CDT  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

It sounds like you have a lot of plans for writing kids' books. Have you thought of writing fiction for adults? Why or why not?

2:51 PM CDT  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

How easy was the transition from columnist to novelist? Since your columns were usually 700 words, did you find yourself trying to edit your work as you wrote your book? Also, what characteristics made Marley different than other dogs of his breed?

Debra DeCoster

3:28 PM CDT  
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