A native of Detroit, John Grogan spent more than 20 years as an investigative reporter and columnist, most recently at the Philadelphia Inquirer. He also is the former editor of Rodales Organic Gardening magazine. His first book, Marley & Me, was a #1 New York Times bestseller with six million copies in print in more than 30 languages. It was made into a movie starring Owen Wilson and Jennifer Aniston. Grogan's second book, The Longest Trip Home, also a national bestseller, explores the author's loving but complicated relationship with his devout Irish Catholic parents. John lives with his wife and three children in eastern Pennsylvania.
Superstition Review Editor Britney Gulbrandsen conducted this email interview with John Grogan. She says of the experience, "when I got the reply that John Grogan had agreed to be interviewed, I couldn't believe it. John Grogan has accomplished so much. It's such an achievement to have your first book be number one on the New York Times bestseller list for twenty-three weeks and then made into a Hollywood film shortly after. I do have to admit that I had a tough time coming up with the right queries to ask Mr. Grogan. Questions were crossed out, rephrased and rearranged. I kept going back to his words to try and find something new to ask, something that we could all learn from. Mr. Grogan's writing is so versatile. It is captivating and moving in ways I cannot even describe. I loved reading Marley and Me and recommend it to anyone who has not yet picked it up. I want to thank Mr. Grogan for providing me with an experience I will always cherish."
Superstition Review: Marley and Me brought tears to my eyes at many different moments. You have a gift of explaining memories that evoke emotion even from those of us that never knew Marley, your children, your wife. What techniques do you use to draw the reader in?
John Grogan: I really just try to turn off my brain and open my heart. When the brain is too engaged, the writer worries about whether he or she is being too boring, too flippant, too sentimental, too stilted, too revealing—too everything. All valid concerns, but I try to ignore them until the editing and revision stages. I've learned over the years to trust my heart. It doesn't often steer me wrong. And what isn't quite right in a first draft can always be fixed on later passes. I also believe we humans all share certain emotional touchstones, and I've learned to trust that if I feel emotion in what I am writing, I can be quite confident the reader will feel that emotion, too. In other words, I just surrender to my feelings and let them run the show.
SR: Toward the beginning of Marley and Me, you have a section on the heritage of Labrador retrievers. Please discuss the element of research in your work—how much time do you spend researching, how do you know what needs to be researched, how do you know you are finished learning about a topic.
JG: I spent twenty-some years as a newspaper reporter and columnist, so reporting and research are deeply engrained in my sense of how to tell a story. Reported facts, these little nuggets that filled my notebooks, became the building blocks with which I could then sit down and begin constructing something that hopefully people would want to read. The more blocks in the toolbox, the sturdier the foundation for the story. Over the years, I found that the more I reported, the easier the writing process and the more dynamic the storytelling. When I began writing Marley & Me, I just instinctively began researching and reporting. I dug up information on Labrador retrievers and their history; I pulled police reports and news clippings on events in my neighborhood; I dug through my old journals and receipts; and I informally interviewed people (including my wife) who were present for the events I described. That said, a memoir is foremost the writer's story to tell, and so in the end I relied most heavily on my own memories and internal sense of where the story should go.
SR: Please explain your thoughts on the movie version of Marley and Me and how you feel it reflected your writing.
JG: I'd say the movie version was about eighty percent true to my book. If you read the book and saw the movie, you know that the scriptwriters took some liberties in order to boil 300 pages down to 110 minutes and to provide the narrative arc they were looking for. My handsome, dashing best friend, played by Eric Dane, for instance, was a fictional creation. But he represented a truth in my real story: the many journalists with whom I worked and inevitably compared myself to as I tried to balance professional ambition with family commitments. Jenny and I both laughed at how we were presented in the movie: she was a superstar reporter and I a buffoon who could barely be trusted to cover a garbage fire. In reality, we were both at similar levels in our professions and were both doing a lot of high-profile stories for our respective newspapers. But the scriptwriters and director were looking once again for a strong narrative arc. They wanted Jenny's sacrifices to the Mommy Track and my rise to a popular columnist to both be more pronounced. All of that said, I think the film was good and did a thoughtful job of capturing the spirit of our real story.
SR: It's amazing that your first memoir gained such popularity that it was made into a full-length movie. What an accomplishment. If this had happened to me, I think I would feel a lot of pressure regarding my future books. How did you deal with this while writing The Longest Trip?
JG: I was lucky in that I knew exactly what my second book would be before Marley & Me was ever published, let alone made into a movie. For that I'm eternally grateful. Had I not had my topic already locked in place, the pressure I think would have been unbearable. How does a writer follow up a book that spent twenty-three weeks at #1 on the New York Times bestseller list and was given the Hollywood treatment? But I already had my topic and it was one very close to my heart: the story of my childhood and my loving but complicated relationship with my parents as I moved into adulthood. My father died in 2004, just as my manuscript for Marley & Me was going to the printer, and that's when I knew with absolute clarity that this was the next story I needed to tell. As I was writing The Longest Trip Home, I surrendered my heart to the past and tried to block out all the hubbub over my first book. For the most part, it worked.
SR: In The Longest Trip you take on a daunting task-recalling your childhood. Please discuss how you recalled enough information to write this book.
JG: Daunting is the right word. In Marley & Me, the story was limited to a thirteen-year window of my adult life—a period filled with my daily journal entries, my newspaper columns, and other documents that helped me rebuild the past. But The Longest Trip Home begins with my earliest memory and follows a forty-year path into middle age. Especially when writing about my early years, I had precious little source material to fall back on. There were some things—report cards, class photos, my father's daily calendar entries—but mostly I was alone with my memories. In order to make sure these distant memories were as reliable as possible, I discarded all but the most vivid ones. Some events in life burn deep into the brain and stay there. Others merely visit briefly before vaporizing. I fell back only on the permanent residents of my collective memories, the events I remembered vividly, right down to what was spoken. Even with this filtering going on, my problem was not one of finding enough material to fill a book, but rather of winnowing down a huge reservoir of anecdotes into a cohesive book-length narrative. Too much material is always a good problem to have; it allows the writer to be choosy about what goes in.
SR: In your memoirs, you relate the memories with the perfect amount of emphasis, ending at just the right spot. How do you know when you've given enough recollection on a memory to communicate the desired effect on your readers?
JG: Oh man, that's the trick isn't it? Giving just the right amount of yourself, not too little or too much? At what point does fully formed self-examination turn into overblown self-indulgence? I actually spend a fair amount of time agonizing over this as I write. Every memory I consider including has to pass the “Who gives a flying fuck” test. I actually ask that aloud. Does the anecdote serve a purpose to the larger story? Does it help connect the dots and advance the narrative? Does it offer insight? Deepen the understanding of character? And then the ultimate question: Will others find this interesting? If I can't answer yes to these questions, I try not to use it. But I must confess to sometimes including moments simply because I like them. I do think that my years as a newspaper columnist writing to exact word counts has trained me to choose carefully and to get in and out, making my point without too much extraneous blather.
SR: Your Marley children's series is just wonderful. It's funny, instructive, and entertaining. My son loved reading them with me. What made you decide to create a children's line of books?
JG: My Marley children's stories came about somewhat accidentally. I wrote Marley & Me for adults and included a fair amount of mature content—marital situations, miscarriage, violent crime—that I knew really wasn't appropriate for kids younger than 13 or so. And yet at my book signings across the country, the lines often included children as young as 8 waiting to have their copies signed. That's when I knew they needed their own version of Marley & Me, and I worked with my publisher to come out with a middle-age version targeted to 8-12 year olds titled Marley: A Dog Like No Other. Another phenomenon at my book signings was the presence of young parents bringing their preschoolers to hear my stories about the crazy, insane dog that had turned my family upside down. Watching the children's delight at the concept of bad dogs (of both the canine and human variety) wreaking havoc inspired me to try my hand at a picture book. That effort, Bad Dog, Marley!, became a #1 bestseller and led to a series.
SR: You began your career as a newspaper writer. Please compare that type of writing to writing a memoir.
JG: When my first memoir came out, many people asked, “Wow, how did you ever make the transition from journalistic writing to memoir writing?” But for me, the real transition—the sea change in how I viewed my writer's voice—came when I went from being a reporter and straight-news writer to being an opinion columnist. For the first 12 years of my career and all through journalism school before that, I was hammered with the journalist's creed: Neutral objectivity. Keep yourself out of the story; remain an invisible third-party observer. Then literally overnight my editors wanted me to suddenly abandon that ethic and write columns giving my personal take on the news. And more importantly, to put myself into the columns. It was a difficult transition, and those first columns of mine were really more reported vignettes. Only gradually did I become comfortable writing in the first person and using my own life as a framework for exploring the topic du jour. By the time I began writing Marley & Me, I was fully comfortable mining my life for material, and readers had rewarded me for it. I found that the more of myself I exposed in my columns, the more readers responded. Consequently, the transition from column writing to memoir writing was not hard for me. It was just a longer-form extension of the same craft. In fact, Marley & Me the book was born from a column I wrote in the Philadelphia Inquirer after the dog's death. Hundreds of readers responded to that column, and I knew then I had a bigger story to tell.
SR: On June 10, 2003, you wrote an article titled “A Refresher Course in Parenting 101.” The format of this article was so unique. Sometimes it's hard to write and share something in a way that hasn't already been done. How do you come up with such fresh ideas?
JG: Every columnist will occasionally have a day when none of his or her ideas are panning out. How I safeguarded against getting skunked was to keep a folder of various news clippings highlighting egregious human behavior. I would group these by topic: bad parents, dumb criminals, obnoxious Little League dads, etc. At a certain point, my collection of clips would gain critical mass and on a slow day I knew I could pull them out and fashion them into a column for the next day's paper. In the case of this particular column, as I read over the long string of news items about shockingly bad parenting skills, it occurred to me that a fun approach would be to offer tongue-in-cheek Parenting 101 suggestions. It can be a challenge to find a fresh take on well-worn topics. I just try to relax and take a chance on an approach a little off the wall.
SR: On March 4, 2003, you wrote an article titled “What's Good for the Goose? Us.” I loved this article. You wrote an entire piece on geese, and yet made it so thoroughly entertaining. How do you take simple, seemingly boring topics and make them captivating and fun?
JG: This column, as I recall it, is a good example of the adage “Necessity is the mother of invention.” It was mid-afternoon on a deadline day and the news-based column I had been planning fell apart for reasons I no longer remember. I was looking at a 6 p.m. deadline and a 650-word hole on the metro page of the paper. I had nothing. To clear my head, I went out for a walk around the parking lot and noticed hundreds of Canada geese colonizing the grounds of the Inquirer's printing plant. I had noticed them many times before and always found them, and their cheeky disregard for suburban social mores, amusing. With the deadline pressure building, I suddenly saw in this flock the makings of a column. Two hours later, I had it knocked out. Looking back on my body of columns these several years later, I find many of my favorites are those pinch hits I was forced to pull out of thin air while on deadline. The lesson I take from that is that writerly deliberation and forethought are all fine and good, but sometimes spontaneity and risk-taking can be a writer's best friends.