No one expected Barley to have an encounter with the Messiah. He was homeless, hungry, and struggling to survive in first century Jerusalem. Most surprisingly, he was a dog. But through Barley’s eyes, the story of a teacher from Galilee comes alive in a way we’ve never experienced before.
The Story Behind The Dog Who Was There
Tell us a bit about the story behind your latest novel. Where did you find inspiration?
It came to me as all my writing ideas do. They just sneak up suddenly and unexpectedly and arrive in my head. It usually happens when I am calm and blank and not looking for any ideas at all. And when it happens, I get this odd feeling that this is both a new idea, but somehow something I am remembering from somewhere deep inside me. When I get that particular feeling—that a nugget from some very old place in me has been blown by the winds of idle thinking into my conscious mind—that’s when I know it’s an idea or notion I will pursue. After that, I just keep the idea in my head for months on end and get to know it by letting it keep me company when I take long walks.
What was the hardest part about writing your novel: Getting started? Keeping it going? Finding the perfect ending?
Without question, on the novel, the hardest part was shaking the emotion after I was done working. People don’t understand—when a character leaves your story, they leave your life. And sometimes, within a story, when a character dies or leaves the story for good, it breaks your heart. Even if you know you have let them go. There’s a passage of poetry by Mary Oliver that, I think, captures the feeling for me. Any real writer who reads this will understand what I am talking about, the emotion of loving a character that they have to allow the story to take away from them:
To live in this world
you must be able to do three things:
to love what is mortal;
to hold it against your bones knowing
your life depends on it;
and, when the time comes to let it go,
to let it go.”
–Mary Oliver “In Blackwater Woods”
What trait do you love most about your main character?
The trait I love in the dog who is the lead character if my book is that Barley sees the good in people. And, when he does, they suddenly start to see the good in themselves. If I had one main life lesson to impart—both as a long time teacher and as a writer—it is this: Look for the small spark of light, whether it’s in a student or a story. Do not worry about the dark all around it, look for the small flame that can be expanded. It’s not effective to engage too much with the dark. It’d be like going a dark room with a shovel and trying to shovel out the darkness. It doesn’t work very well. You get rid if the dark by increasing the light. Just because a light may be tiny at first, just a fragile flicker, it can get big very fast if it’s kindled, protected, encouraged. The creative process is not a fight against darkness, it’s about learning to increase the light in whatever you’re working on, in the hope that you book will, maybe, do that for the light in an individual reader. Then, maybe, they’ll go out and do that for people in their own lives and, soon, there a light bright enough that darkness doesn’t stand a chance. For me, that’s the key to the creative process. And I think it’s the key to education. I also think, that is the message Jesus put at the very center of his ministry.
When readers get to the last page, what do you hope they take away from the story?
I got an e-mail from my editor when she reached the last page of the final version of The Dog Who Was There. She had just read the last chapter of the book while sitting on her back-porch and the sun was setting. She said as soon as she was done with the last page she looked up and saw there was a finch perched on a branch of a dogwood tree in her back yard and singing. When readers get to the last page of my book I want them to look up and see a finch in a dogwood tree.
Meet Barley the Dog
Tell us about yourself:
My name is Barley. I’m a dog. I wasn’t always a dog. At first I was a pup, but then I grew up and now I’m a dog . . . which I like being . . . although there are things about being a pup that I miss. Mainly my Mother. The most interesting thing about me? My Master, of course. It’s always the most interesting thing about a dog. Any dog will tell you that.
What three words describe you?
That’s hard, because words mean something different to me than they may to you. I guess if I had to say three words that I have deep inside me they would be: Please. Be. Mine.
What do you do for fun?
I chase birds. I know I will never catch them, which is what makes it fun. I know I will never have to hurt them and can just play at chasing them.
Share about a special childhood memory:
I once knew a small boy. He was the first human being I ever heard laugh and the first one I ever saw cry. Since you are not a dog you will never know how beautiful it seems to us when we see a person laugh or cry. Especially a child.
What is your motto in life?
“Show me the next good thing.” A piece of bread? A stick to play with? A sunbeam to stretch out in? A person with a soft lap I can lay my snout on?
If you could change one thing about yourself, what would it be?
It would be the way people sometimes leave me. If I could change the world, I would make it so the people we love never leave us.
What is your favorite food?
What a great question! It’s stale bread. I love it! It’s crunchy, brown, powdery-smelling, tangy-tasting and warm when I swallow it. What a good thing bread is. If human beings were food, they’d be bread.
What is the most important thing to you?
That’s easy. My Master.
Biggest pet peeve:
Now that you mention it, my biggest pet peeve is the phrase “pet peeve.” Pets don’t usually have peeves, so I wish people wouldn’t use that phrases. In fact, pets are the opposite of peeves. And I bet that people who have pets tend to have less peeves than people who don’t. If you want to get rid of your peeve, get a pet!