When customers called Battenkill Books in Cambridge, N.Y., recently to order copies of Going Home: Finding Peace When Pets Die (Villard, $22), they were in for a surprise. Manning the phones for a day was the book's author, Jon Katz, who lives nearby. Some readers screamed in excitement, others demanded to know if it was truly him and one, who rang just as he was signing a copy of the book for her, dictated exactly what she wanted written. "It was a riot," said Katz. "It was like a bunch of old friends getting together by the wood stove."
Avid fans from Texas to Tasmania have ordered more than 450 copies of Going Home from Battenkill since early August, starting some two months before the book went on sale. After seeing a notice on novelist Jennifer Egan's website directing readers to her local bookshop to purchase signed, personalized copies of her books, Battenkill owner Connie Brooks asked Katz if he would do something similar.
Almost immediately after Katz blogged about the offer on his website, "the phone started ringing off the hook and emails started coming in," said Brooks. She and her two employees have been working around the clock to fulfill the orders. "I thought we might get 30 or 40 requests, and we're well on our way to 500."
Brooks is planning to do something similar with other local authors. A mention on Jenna Woginrich's website of her new book, BarnHeart: The Incurable Longing for a Farm of One's Own, a December publication, has already generated more than 100 advance orders. Offering personalized copies has been a significant draw, noted Brooks. Many customers are asking to have Going Home inscribed to friends in memory of pets they recently lost.
Katz lives not far from Battenkill Books, on Bedlam Farm, which he shares with a menagerie of dogs, cats, donkeys and other assorted creatures, some of whom have been featured in his previous books. His 20 works include the memoirs Soul of a Dog and Izzy & Lenore, the novel Rose in a Storm and the children's title Meet the Dogs of Bedlam Farm.
Part memoir and part advice guide, Going Home wasn't a book Katz had thought about writing until he spoke at a veterinarian conference. He was asked by doctors there if he would consider addressing the death of pets and the grieving process, something they were often asked about but had no resource to recommend to their human patrons. It turns out the vets were onto something.
Many books on the death of a pet focus on the idea of an afterlife and one day being reunited with the animal, while Going Home "gives readers specific tools they can use," noted Katz. "It gives them a license to feel bad, and it gives them a license to feel better; to grieve and then to move on." He spoke with several hundred people while writing the book and includes the perspectives of veterinarians and pet owners, in addition to sharing his own stories of loving and losing animals.
At Katz's inaugural signing for Going Home, about a third of the audience members, many of whom were eager to tell tales of their own furry friends, were moved to tears. "This is new terrain for me because I consider myself a storyteller. I've never actually written a book like this or had to deal with that much emotion from the other side of the podium," Katz said. "It was very personal communication between a writer and an audience."
A Facebook page dedicated to Going Home, started by Katz as a place for animal lovers to display pictures in memory of their pets (among them cats, dogs, horses, ferrets and iguanas) and to share their grief, has inspired a deluge of postings and comments. A YouTube video he created using some of those images has received more than 58,000 hits, while an excerpt from the book on Slate.com has been viewed more than a million times.
Several years ago, at the suggestion of his agent, Katz began blogging, posting videos and photographs on his website, and using social media. "He said to me, if you want to stay a writer, you're going to have to get off your butt, and I did," said Katz. "My blog has so improved my writing life and advanced it. I feel grateful that I did it. It has enabled me to bring people into the life of the writer, which makes the books all the more relevant to them."
A popular feature on Katz's blog, "The Farm Journal," offers videos featuring the antics of Simon, a donkey rescued from an abusive home and adopted by Katz. Simon has garnered legions of fans, including a van full of Pennsylvania tourists who once came searching for Katz's farm and happened upon man and beast out for a stroll. They recognized Simon and stopped for a photo op.
Katz is on the road promoting Going Home, including visiting a number of bookstores on what he has dubbed the "Support Vermont" leg of his tour. The devastation in the state caused by Hurricane Irene in late August "touched my heart," Katz said. "I think these stores need some attention and need some morale."
One Vermont bookseller Katz is looking to support is Lisa Sullivan. He was a frequent guest at her Brattleboro store, the Book Cellar, until it was destroyed in a fire earlier this year. Sullivan's second retail shop, Bartleby's Books in Wilmington, sustained heavy damage during Hurricane Irene and is scheduled to re-open by Thanksgiving. The store's event with Katz on November 3 will be held at the Deerfield Valley Elementary School. Donations will be accepted for the Wilmington Flood Relief Fund.
On the Farm Journal, along with drawing readers into the daily happenings at Bedlam Farm, Katz is chronicling his book tour and offering updates on the Herculean efforts of Connie Brooks and her staffers. On the day he spoke with callers at Battenkill Books, "every one of them said thank you to me for supporting the store. I never saw so much firsthand evidence that people really do care about bookstores," said Katz, whose event last week at Battenkill was standing room only. "I think this absolutely demonstrates people want to support bookstores if we can help them do it." --Shannon McKenna Schmidt