Wednesday, June 29, 2011: Maximum Shelf: A Dog's Purpose

Forge: A Dog's Purpose by W. Bruce Cameron

Forge: A Dog's Purpose by Bruce W Cameron

Forge: A Dog's Purpose by Bruce W Cameron

Forge: A Dog's Purpose by Bruce W Cameron

Editors' Note

Maximum Shelf: A Dog's Purpose

In this edition of Maximum Shelf--the monthly Shelf Awareness feature that focuses on a new title that we love--we present W. Bruce Cameron’s A Dog's Purpose, which is a May 2011 paperback reprint. The review and interviews are by Marilyn Dahl and Ron Hogan. Forge Books has helped support the issue.


Forge: A Dog's Purpose by Bruce W Cameron

Books & Authors

Book Review: A Dog's Purpose

A Dog's Purpose: A Novel for Humans by W. Bruce Cameron (Forge Books, $12.99 trade paper, 9780765330345, May 24, 2011)

After spending 19 weeks on the New York Times bestseller list, A Dog's Purpose--the marvelous novel by W. Bruce Cameron--is now available in paperback. It has received raves from such disparate fans as Rachel Ray, Alice Walker and Temple Grandin--and my favorite, from Maya, age 12: "Everyone will love A Dog's Purpose, it's a happy dead dog book!" It's sweet, it's heartbreaking, it's funny, but thankfully it's not cute. Cameron (8 Simple Rules for Marrying My Daughter) has more on his mind than cute; primarily, how dogs think and what motivates them. Seen through the eyes of a dog in four incarnations--Toby, Bailey, Ellie and Buddy--Cameron takes on life's big questions: Who am I? Where am I going? Why am I here?

The dog's first memory comes shortly after his birth, when he figures out the warm smelly things squirming around next to him are his sister and two brothers, and "the large and beautiful shape with the long wonderful tongue was my mother." They live a feral life, spending most of their time hiding and looking for food. One day they are caught by men who take them to a compound, owned by Senora, filled with other dogs. He is named Toby, and loves his new world with playmates and toys and good food. But one day all the dogs are taken by the authorities to a shelter, where Toby is put to sleep. As he sinks into slumber, "the sadness I'd felt from Senora washed through me, and I wanted to squirm up to her and lick her palms and make her happy again. Of all the things I'd ever done, making Senora laugh seemed the most important. It was, I reflected, the only thing that gave my life purpose."

After much time passes, "the way a nap in the afternoon sun will span the day," the dog is a newborn again, in a cage with a larger and lighter-colored mother and seven siblings. "Why was I a puppy again? Why did I harbor a nagging feeling that as a dog there was something I was supposed to do?" One day he opens a gate with his little teeth and paws, and starts out with no hesitation. He's rescued by a woman who takes him home to her young son, Ethan--instant love for dog and boy. "I guess I had never bothered to consider that there might be such a thing as a boy, but now that I had found one, I though it was just about the most wonderful concept in the world."

The dog is named Bailey, introduced to his first cat (ho-hum), and is housebroken, a baffling experience as seen through a dog's eyes. He learns new words and new jobs like licking the dishes when Mom isn't watching. But his main job is Ethan: " with the boy was my whole purpose in life. From the second we woke up until the moment we went to sleep, we were together." And then, inevitably, life changes--something called "school." But they spend summers at the Farm, where Grandma needs Bailey to be on hand to test her cooking. He has acres to roam with the boy, and learns a new game, Rescue, pulling Ethan out of the farm pond over and over. One day, after Ethan is in college, Bailey realizes he is dying. Death holds no fear for him--he's been a good dog, he's fulfilled his purpose in loving Ethan and making him happy--but he feels a profound pain at causing his boy grief. 

Later, Bailey wakes again–-"a puppy who suddenly remembered being me again"--wondering why he has been reborn, this time as a female German Shepherd. Ellie, as Bailey is now called, goes on to become a search and rescue dog. She realizes that her new purpose is not just to Find people, but to Save them. Even after she has retired, she still has more jobs to do, including one that forces her to call on her past lessons with the boy. As Ellie comes to the end of her life, she is at peace, looking forward to rest, so she is quite surprised when she finds herself staring up at her new mother, who has a big, black face and a warm pink tongue. It makes no sense. "What could possibly happen now that would justify my rebirth as a puppy?" So Ellie, a male again, begins his final adventure as Buddy and discovers his last, true purpose. Everything he has learned in all his lives, from scrounging for food to Find and Save, would come into play.

Bruce Cameron has written an amazing book. In writing about animals, there is so much potential for sappiness and sentimentality, which he nimbly avoids; instead, A Dog's Purpose is imbued with gentle wit, dignity, sadness and love. Cameron makes us feel the magic of the dog-human bond: "There simply was no better feeling in the world than to be hugged by my boy." If a dog's purpose is to love humans and teach them how to love unconditionally; if love is a verb, then Toby, Bailey, Ellie and Buddy are truly guide dogs in action.
--Marilyn Dahl



Forge: Emory's Gift by W. Bruce Cameron

W. Bruce Cameron: "A Tennis Ball in My Mouth..."

Until last year, W. Bruce Cameron was probably best known as the author of 8 Simple Rules for Dating My Teenage Daughter, which became the basis for a popular sitcom starring John Ritter in his last television role. Now, after nearly five months on the New York Times hardcover fiction bestseller list, his claim to fame may rest with A Dog's Purpose. The inspiration for the novel came from his daughter's work in animal rescue, and connecting with others in the field was crucial to its early success. For one book promotion, Cameron encouraged independent bookstores to sell preorders by arranging for 10% of the revenue from those sales to be donated to local animal charities. "We raised a lot of money for a lot of important charities that are doing really good work in the field of animal rescue," he reflected, "and it put the book squarely on the radar of a lot of people involved in animal rescue." But the novel has gone on to find a wider audience as well.

In what ways did the book's success catch you off guard?

There's an immense network of people involved with dog rescue for whom this is a passion. Of the fans of A Dog's Purpose on Facebook, thousands and thousands of them are into animal rescue and welfare. In a way, this is a book that was written for them. What I did not anticipate is what we're seeing every single day on our fan page: the number of people who say that this is a book they're going to give to a friend because he or she lost their dog, that this is the book that you buy for a friend when their dog dies to help them with the healing process.

It's also gotten to be very popular with children. I get emails every day from children--11, 12, 13 years old--talking about A Dog's Purpose. I didn't write it for children, but my slogan's long been "I write things that you wouldn't be ashamed to show your grandmother." So there's nothing in A Dog's Purpose, I think, that anybody could object to in terms of sex or violence or profanity.

This is your first novel, but is it the first time you've tried to write fiction?

I've written novels in the past; none of them were ever published. But I'm a humorist, and a humorist is a real person who lives in a fictional world. I've often wondered why we call humor nonfiction, because it clearly has fictional elements. You have to come up with funny situations, and those situations are probably not going to be written exactly as they happened, if they happened at all. So I have written fiction, whether it was classified as fiction or not.

What were some of the challenges for you in writing this story, and finding this narrator's voice?

To get into the mind of a dog, I had to walk around with a tennis ball in my mouth....

I think the difficulty for me, really, was just trying to stay true to the idea. Although I'm telling a story, and I have to use descriptive words, when it comes to the words that the dog actually understands, there are very few. This is not the kind of dog that sits there and understands everything that's being said. He hears them--dogs have good hearing--but he doesn't understand what they're saying. So it's a little disconcerting.

I had to draw up a set of rules by which I would operate, and occasionally I'd have to explain things from the dog's point of view--and he may not understand what's going on. He didn't understand kissing, for example, but he understands the affection two people show when they push their faces together.

What was the point at which this story just clicked for you, and you knew you were on the right track?

This whole story and the character came to the way the best books do, which is whole cloth, almost as if someone had slipped the DVD into my brain and showed me the movie. I altered the book very little from its initial concept--it was just that whole story, the outline, that popped into my head.

At what point did you learn about The Art of Racing in the Rain? Did it set you back creatively to see another novel narrated by a dog out there?

I actually finished A Dog's Purpose and sent it off, and we couldn't sell it, and then I got word there was another dog novel out there, with reincarnation as a theme. So I thought, oh, great, and since we hadn't sold it, I figured I had to move on to something else. When The Art of Racing in the Rain came out--they're obviously different books. That dog understands English, he learned it by watching television--my reaction when I finally read it was, "Okay, this is a completely different book. We're not competitors at all. We're no more competitors than we were competing with Edgar Sawtelle, just because we all had dogs in our books. Most books have people in them, and that doesn't mean that if you wrote a story about people, and another book with people in it came out, you're out of luck. --Ron Hogan

photo: Ute Ville


Kristin Sevick: Simple Can Be Complex

Kristin Sevick is an associate editor at Tor/Forge. In her five years with the company, she's developed an expertise in crime, historical and women's fiction, but ever since the success of A Dog's Purpose, she's been getting a steady enough stream of canine-themed submissions that she jokingly worries about being typecast as "the dog editor." (If the story's good enough, though, she'll pick it up without hesitation.) She wasn't familiar with W. Bruce Cameron's work when she first saw his manuscript--although she'd seen the sitcom 8 Simple Rules, she hadn't connected him to the show--but she's an unabashed fan now: "He's got a wonderful gift for storytelling," she said, "and it's easy to let him go and let his voice come though."


Let's talk about how the novel wound up in your hands.

First it was submitted to one of my coworkers, who had a good read on it, but isn't a dog person. So he asked if any other editors were interested, which I was--I have a dog--so I took it. It was 5:15 on a Friday, and in lieu of doing anything on my to-do list I started to read it and I kept reading it, and it was 5:30, then it was 5:45, then it was coming on 6:00. So I thought I should go home, but I decided to take it with me on the train. I hadn't read the cover letter well enough to know the dog was going to die and be reborn. So the dog just died on me in the middle of the train. I was crying on the N train. I don't cry on public transportation!

Of course, I turned the page and saw he was reborn.... I read the whole thing that night. My husband was like, "What do you want for dinner?" "I don't know. I'm busy reading this book...." I think that's the only manuscript I've read in one full shot like that. It was heartbreaking and heartwarming at the same time, and it had made me cry in public. I knew I had something special if it could provoke that kind of emotional response. I came back to work the next week, and started talking to people here about it. Our associate publisher, Linda Quinton, also loves animals, especially dogs. I asked her to read it, and she loved the book as well. So we went from there to acquiring the project, and we just got so much in-house support for this book. It was amazing.

What were some of the ways people showed their enthusiasm early on?

I think the early enthusiasm was key to the book's success. When I was going out for endorsements, I'd get an email back from an author where they'd blurb the book, and then say things like, "I gave it to my husband and he loved it!" or "I gave it to my mother and she loved it!" That, for me, was when I really realized we had something here, when authors were passing the advanced bound manuscript on to their loved ones.

At the sales conference, marketing asked our reps who have dogs to send pictures of them with their pets, and they interspersed those on slides during the conference. So that was a fun way to get the reps involved from the start, too.

Was the manuscript you got pretty much how the story ended up?

There were subtle changes. One of the things that we worked on was the timeline; we had some discussion about how the dog moves in a linear fashion, but it's not as though he dies and is reborn the next day. So we took the iPods out of the earlier sections of the book, when they wouldn't have existed in the timeline. And we worked a little bit more on having the personalities of the people come through, which is hard to do with a canine narrator. But for the most part it was already there.

What did you think of the dog as a narrator?

It was a deliberate choice on Bruce's part that the dog was on the level of what you would assume a real dog would be. Obviously, we don't know what dogs think, but I can tell you that while my dog is probably not thinking about philosophy, I'm pretty sure she's excited about car rides and dog biscuits. So I felt when I was reading the book that I was really connecting with my dog on a personal level as well.

Sometimes simple can be really complex. The dog's vocabulary is somewhat basic, but it can be hard to use that limited perspective and still tell a really engaging story, and Bruce really pulled it off.

What can you tell us about the sequel?

I don't have the manuscript yet, so I can't speak too much about it, but it's in the pipeline. It's the same soul, going through more lives, alongside a person in particular need of a guardian. I'm very anxiously waiting for it, because it's going to be... he's going to make me cry on the subway again.--Ron Hogan


Book Brahmin: W. Bruce Cameron

W. Bruce Cameron is the author of 8 Simple Rules for Dating My Teenage Daughter, which was turned into the hit ABC series starring the late John Ritter; 8 Simple Rules for Marrying My Daughter; and How to Remodel a Man. He has twice received the National Society of Newspaper Columnists award for Best Humor Columnist and was recently named Columnist of the Year by the NSNC. His nationally syndicated column is published in more than 50 newspapers. Cameron's fiction debut, A Dog's Purpose (Forge Books), is a New York Times, USA Today and Los Angeles Times bestseller and is soon to be a live-action film from DreamWorks Studios. Cameron's second novel, Emory's Gift, will be released by Forge Books in September 2011.


On your nightstand now:

I was lucky enough to be sent an advanced copy of Families and Other Nonreturnable Gifts by Claire LaZebnik. That's what happens when you sell a lot of copies of your book, people start sending you novels for free. It's really cool.

Claire's latest deals with a nutty family gone nuclear meltdown. It's about how we all think our families are crazy and that we need to escape them, but ultimately we are them, and they are us. There's a story arc concerning a 50+ mother hitting the dating scene (much to the distress of her grown children) that I think will really resonate with readers.

Favorite book when you were a child:

I'd have to say The City Boy by Herman Wouk. It was the first "adult" book I read--meaning there were chapters and no pictures and none of the words rhymed. I was in third grade. I was so taken by the plight of the boy, Herbie Bookbinder, though his plight was really just that he was a boy, which I already had figured out wasn't always going to be easy.

Your top five authors:

The last time I tried to name my top five favorite authors I gave up at 50. I'm going to be honest, though, instead of dredging up 14th-century French poets so that I'll appear smart.

Currently, Michael Connelly would have to be on the list because he's writing maybe two books a year and, man, can he ever structure a story. Kazuo Ishiguro is a master at weaving a tale made fascinating and often suspenseful based purely on his astounding ability to capture characters. Elmore Leonard has written what, two billion novels? They are every single one of them an enjoyable read. Temple Grandin's books should be read by everyone who likes animals, has animals, or has seen pictures of animals. And my all-time favorite author is Cathryn Michon, who wrote the Grrl Genius series of books--I like her so much I married her. This list probably would change every time you asked me, but Cathryn would always be on it.

Book you're an evangelist for:

Innocent by Scott Turow. I know it is a bestseller but in my opinion it deserves to be a huge bestseller, read by everyone. Even more fun if you go back and read the first one, Presumed Innocent, before plunging into this one.

Book you've bought for the cover:

Love Wins by Rob Bell, because the subtitle says "A Book About Heaven, Hell, and the Fate of Every Person who Ever Lived." I thought if this guy can cover that much in just 200 pages, he can teach me a lot about structure!

Book that changed your life:

I read The Caine Mutiny by Herman Wouk in fourth grade and also flunked reading that same year. It turned out that I wasn't very good at reading kids' stories and answering questions about them because my handwriting was painfully slow to hit the paper. My mother petitioned to have the grade raised because I clearly wasn't an "F" reader, and the teacher refused. I realized then and there that my relationship with books was going to set me apart from other children--I wanted to read and read, and the more books like The Caine Mutiny, the better.

Favorite line from a book:

"Call me Ishmael." I took a class one semester in college called "Moby Dick." I assumed that we'd read a spectrum of Melville, but no, we read one book, dissecting virtually every word, writing whole papers on one paragraph. The final exam was, to my recollection, limited to one question: Please write down, word-for-word, the novel Moby Dick.

That opening line of Moby Dick still evokes in me a sense that things may not turn out the way you think they will.

Book you most want to read again for the first time:

Dandelion Wine by Ray Bradbury--the first time I read it, I thought I'd stumbled upon the perfect novel, and I immediately read it again.

Trends in current literature that either surprise you or trouble you:

I look at the popularity of YA novels--Harry Potter, the Hunger Games series, etc.--and wonder why more authors don't write books that can be read by the whole family, why we have to employ a whole separate category to keep young readers segregated. There's nothing wrong with adult-themed books--I read them all the time--but often I'll remember that fourth grader reading The Caine Mutiny, and ruefully reflect that there just aren't that many novelists confident enough in their work to avoid shoving gratuitous sex, language and violence into a few scenes just to make sure adults are titillated.

photo: Juliet Norris-Clay

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