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Interview with Garth Stein, Bestselling Author

Arts & Entertainment

Photo: Frank Huster

Garth Stein is the author of the New York Times bestselling novel, The Art of Racing in the Rain. He has also written a full-length play entitled Brother Jones and has produced several award-winning documentaries. He currently lives in Seattle, Washington, with his wife, three sons, and their dog, Comet.

Tell me about your background as a writer. When did you know that writing is what you wanted to do?

In a sense, I always knew. I consider myself a storyteller first, and the medium that I’m currently using to tell stories is long-form fiction or the novel. I made documentary films for a number of years, and I’ve also written a play. When I was a student, I did a lot of writing. I always wanted to be a writer, but I was concerned with the economics of it because the starting salary for a novelist is zero. So, I tried other things and did other ventures and eventually got around to writing. My first book came out in 1998, so I was 34 years old. It took me a while, but life is about detours.

What was the first book you ever wrote? How have you grown as a writer since writing your first book?

It was called Raven Stole the Moon. It’s a spiritual thriller. I like to think of it as magical realism, but when it first came out, my publisher thought of it as horror, which kind of frightened me. I don’t spend a whole lot of time focusing on my artistic trajectory, but if I spent a moment thinking about it I would say that I write with much more economy these days. With my first novel, I was very concerned that people wouldn’t get it, so I was over-writing. With my second book, I had a friend who’s a writer read it and he said, “You know, you’d really benefit from going through your book and cutting the last line of every paragraph.” So I looked at it, and realized he was right; since I was concerned that the reader wouldn’t get it, I said it again.  As I became aware of that, I was able to write without the last sentence.

I think it becomes a question of trusting oneself as writer. When you can write with much more economy, it changes the nature of the narrative because everything speeds up; you get people rushing ahead, and that’s good. One has to learn to trust oneself.

I understand you have a M.F.A. in film from Columbia University. Why did you choose to study film? And how has your degree helped you as a writer?

This goes back to the economic thing. When I was in college I wanted to be a writer, but I didn’t want to go into journalism; that wasn’t my bag. So, I decided I would go to film school and learn screenwriting and write screenplays because people who write screenplays actually get paid. But when I went to film school, I had an allergic reaction to the medium; I just couldn’t deal with it. A lot of it was me, and a lot of it was having some bad instructors. But that’s when a documentary film editor by the name of Geof Bartz brought me into the editing room and said, “Let me show you how to tell a story.” He taught me the world of documentary film editing, and I really loved it.  That’s why I went into documentary films for a number of years. It proved valuable to me because, as I said in the beginning, I always consider myself a storyteller first. The medium is secondary to the fact that I love to tell stories and build drama. By doing documentary films, I was telling stories with found objects, rather than telling stories from inside my own head. It still had a dramatic structure, but I needed to use archival footage, photographs, and interviews in order to tell the story. By doing so for about 8 or 9 years, it allowed me to learn the craft of storytelling. It also allowed me to mature as a person and as a writer so that by the time I sat down to write a novel, I knew what I was doing.

Just because you choose a path, that doesn’t mean you know where you’re going to end up. The same is true for storytelling.

The Art of Racing in the Rain has a very creative plot. How did you come up with the idea for this book?

A writer always has to have an ear open for ideas, characters, situations, and drama. Then, they should tuck them away, whether in a journal or in memory.

A lot of things came together for this book. The dog being reincarnated as person came from a documentary film I had seen when I made documentary films. The idea of the dog narrating came from a poetry reading by Billy Collins. The dramatic situation is a mix of different people I know who have gone through some difficulties. The racing comes from my own racing experience: I’ve raced for about four years with sports cars.

Really, it’s like making a soup; everything gets thrown in and then hopefully, once it cooks down, you have something that’s very flavorful, yet you can’t necessarily identify the ingredients. That’s how you write a book!

Animals aren’t usually the protagonist in a novel. How were you able to make Enzo a believable and lovable main character?

The problem with me is that sometimes I don’t have that inhibiting factor of self-doubt; it never occurred to me that there would be an issue with having a dog as the narrator. But I was really fascinated by the character; the idea of a nearly-human soul trapped within a dog’s body, who’s really frustrated by not having thumbs and not being able to turn doorknobs. This character, as I started to work with him, began to grow and I realized that he was trapped in a double-bind; he wanted two things that were mutually exclusive: he wanted to hurry up with this current lifetime so he could be reincarnated and get his thumbs and his tongue that would make words. At the same time, he loved his family so much that he wanted to stay with them. Out of that conflict grew situations and it allowed this great character to express these frustrations to us. It’s not like I said, “Oh, I’m going to make a dog a main character, but how am I going to make that convincing?” I just liked the character. I think that if you have a character that is believable and plausible, then the audience and the reader will go with you for that.

What do you want your readers to learn from reading The Art of Racing in the Rain?

It’s not my position to want the reader to get any one thing; that’s not my job. Reading is a conversation; it’s a dialogue, not a monologue. The writer is not shouting down a well, “This is the message, and you’d better get it.” When I was in college, I took a poetry workshop. The poetry professor would make us bring our poem into class and hand it to the person next to us, who would then read it for the class. Everyone would discuss the poem, but you weren’t allowed to say a word. The professor said, “You can’t follow the poem around for the rest of its life, looking over everyone’s shoulder, saying, ‘What I really meant here is this…’”. If you really meant it, then put it in. The bottom line is, it is a dialogue and every person is going to read a book or a poem differently, through his or her own values, ideas, and experiences, and everyone will get something different out of it.

I have my own ideas; I didn’t just put a bunch of words together so that people could waste time. I have objectives, but it’s not my position to impose. Because if someone didn’t get my intended meaning or got something different from the book, that is just as valid as something I would have hoped for.

And lastly, many students at SPC love to write. What is your advice for the aspiring writers at our school?

The stock answer you will get from any novelist is read, read, read and write, write, write, but I have some more specific things. Here’s a specific one: take acting classes. Acting classes are great, especially improvisation classes, because they teach you how to make a decision right now. An actor has to prepare for playing a character by learning about motivation; in other words, if I’m going on to do a scene, I have to know exactly what I was doing before the scene started. That’s what an actor does to prepare. The playwright doesn’t necessarily do that. But what happened before is going to affect what’s about to happen. What writers often do is they get slack with that and they start pushing the characters around, making them do things that the character wouldn’t really do. When that happens, it becomes contrived. If you take acting classes, you’ll learn about motivation and intention and how important they are. That will really help your writing – I promise you. It will also help with dialogue, because it will give you a good ear for listening to how words flow. It’s very important to develop an ear for dialogue.

When I’m writing, it also helps me to read out loud. I can read to myself out loud, but that’s not the same as reading to a person out loud because then I know right away if something is wrong. So another thing for writers to do is find a peer group that can be supportive. It’s very difficult; writing workshops can be highly competitive – those are not good situations. But you do need to find a peer group who can give you an honest reading and advice that isn’t, “I like your title”.

Also, don’t eat your own tail. What happens with younger writers is that we’re so earnest about wanting to write that it’s like a snake eating its own tail. Eventually, we become writers writing about writers writing about writers. We have to go out and get experiences. We have to get a few bad jobs and a few good jobs. We have to fall in love a few times, and then fall out of love a few times. We have to travel the world and experience other cultures. We have to be patient with ourselves; we have to allow experiences to grow so that we have something to write about.

Lastly, you have to be forgiving of yourself. A lot of times, we get very precious with our words and we think that everything has to be gold. But by doing so, we get so frustrated because it’s not happening right now. Sometimes, you have to write through the rock. Gold isn’t just a big hunk of gold; sometimes, you have to mine it, and boil it down. You have to get past the rock so you can get to those flecks of gold. The same is true for writing. Sometimes you have to write a lot of crappy stuff to get to the good stuff – that’s okay. You don’t have to show it to anybody until you want to. Feel free to write for three hours and have it all be garbage and throw it away because with another fifteen minutes of writing, you might get the good stuff. We get impatient and we force it. Then, we get frustrated. Then, we start to get tight and tense, like an athlete. Athletes do it all the time. They get out on the field and they start getting nervous and begin thinking about what they’re doing, and then they don’t do it. So, we have to be relaxed, easy, and forgiving with ourselves. Then, that’s it! You’ve written a novel.

Originally published March 4, 2013.

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