Greater Harrisburg's Community Magazine

Dog’s Life: Author Garth Stein shares life, Hollywood lessons in book talk

Author Garth Stein speaks at Market Square Presbyterian Church.

The heavy mist that descended upon the capital city last Thursday evening was a fitting backdrop for bestselling author Garth Stein’s inspiring words to a captivated crowd of about 200 book-lovers at Market Square Presbyterian Church.

As the charismatic author of “The Art of Racing in the Rain,” now a major motion picture starring Milo Ventimiglia and Amanda Seyfried, the Seattle-based writer proved to be as insightful as the heart-tugging book’s narrator, a wise dog named Enzo. The memorable book was a fixture on the New York Times bestseller list for a remarkable 156 weeks.

Stein spoke with self-deprecating humor and fluidity, offering simple life lessons and inspirational wisdom as he shared anecdotes about his rocky journey to publication and beyond. He also spoke about the movie-making experience in Vancouver “(“Hollywood is so weird”), his love of race cars and dogs, his task-master/“muse” wife and their three sons, his devotion to the Seattle Seahawks football team, the desperate need for civil discourse, and much more in an hour-and-a-half.

Even TheBurg magazine drew praise from the author for its excellent writing and promotion of local bookstores and businesses in the city.

“You want Main Street to be a vibrant place,” he said, in praise of libraries, local bookstores, teachers, small businesses and community publications like TheBurg. “We want to make sure our communities are rich places.”

Sponsored by the Dauphin County Library System, Stein’s talk was offered free to the community. Goodwill donations will help support the library’s “Paws 2 Read” program, which allows children to gain better literacy skills by reading aloud to dogs, who would never judge a stammer or a struggle.

It is a program Stein would embrace.

With his stylish salt-and-pepper hair, dusting of a goatee, dark jeans and casual suit jacket, Stein could pass for one of the movie stars he has come to know on a first-name basis: “Milo” and “Amanda” (Ventimiglia and Seyfried), Kevin Costner and Patrick Dempsey (Dr. McDreamy), who was interested in making the movie in early discussions.

His blockbuster book is narrated by a soulful dog, and that was the intellectual hurdle that his first agent could not scale.

“Who would read a book narrated by a dog?” the cynical agent kept asking.

Stein wound up firing that skeptical agent, prompting his kids to ask, “When are you going to get a real job like the other dads?” His wife started demanding 40 pages a day.

Later at a book club, Stein shared his “fired agent” story. A fellow writer revealed that his book was narrated by a crow, and it managed to get published. Stein sent his book to that writer’s agent, who called him crying. So, bingo: Stein found his new agent, and it is an understatement to say that the rest worked out well.

His book reflects the uncommon wisdom and old soul found in man’s best friend, drawing comparisons to “Marley and Me,” “The Alchemist” and “Jonathan Livingston Seagull.”

The idea for the book came from Stein’s time after graduation from Columbia University in New York City working as a documentary filmmaker. He helped distribute a film about Mongolia, where they believe dogs are reincarnated as people. He was also inspired by a clever poem by Billy Collins called “The Revenant,” which is “written” by a dog in heaven. That is when the lightbulb went on in his head.

He had to continually remind filmmakers: “This not a book about a family and their dog. It’s about a dog and his family.”

He laughs when recalling a T-shirt he saw that read, “Never judge a book by its movie.”

Now that the movie is made, he has returned to Seattle.

“My chariot has turned back into a pumpkin,” he said.

He is working on a graphic novel and a novel inspired by –but not about, he laughs–his spunky 89-year-old mom, “A Couple of Old Birds.”

“A writer’s job is not just to write books,” he said. “It’s to get people to read books.”

One patron commented on Stein’s talk, saying, “The library really hit a home run with this one.”

In taking questions from the audience, Stein left with this thought: we place such low expectations on our dogs—don’t pee on the floor, don’t puke on the carpet. We should place far fewer conditions on our loved ones.

“We need to treat humans more like dogs, in a good way,” he concluded.

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