“YOU SHOULD WRITE ABOUT DOGS” by Todd Strasser
In 1979 my first YA novel, Angel Dust Blues, was published to good reviews. I managed to follow up through the early 1980s with more well-received novels, but like most careers that get off to a good start, mine was bound to hit a pot hole sooner or later. And so not surprisingly, toward the end of the decade I sank into a rut with books that neither sold well nor received particularly good reviews.
As a result, invitations to speak at major conferences started to slow, along with interview requests, bookstore signings, etc. I began to fret that readers, and my publisher, might be tempted to assume that my best work was behind me.
Worried about my future as a writer, I resolved to stage a comeback, and worked extra hard to create three new proposals for timely, cutting-edge, hard-hitting YAs that, I believed, were sure to be praise-worthy, money-making award winners. My strategy was simple: if I pitched three, my editor would feel compelled to approve at least one of them.
When the Day of Judgment arrived, I clomped into my editor’s office armed with engaging plot summaries and detailed outlines. I pitched the three book ideas passionately, describing key scenes and plot points, surprise twists, and unexpectedly satisfying conclusions.
Having put everything I could into this effort, I ended by telling my editor how eager I was to begin work on at least two of the books immediately.
The office grew quiet. My editor sat back in his chair and gazed at the ceiling. He pressed the tips of his fingers together thoughtfully. I assumed he was trying to decide which of these three fabulous books he wanted. As the seconds ticked past, I grew even more hopeful. Was he considering two of the three proposals? Perhaps even all three?
Finally, the moment of truth arrived. He leaned forward, looked me straight in the eye and said, “Todd, I think you should write some books about dogs.”
Once again, the office became still while I struggled to understand the meaning of these words. Was it some kind of joke? If so, I couldn’t see the humor, nor the connection to the important, history-of-YA literature-changing books I’d just pitched.
Meanwhile, my editor waited for my reply. In retrospect I probably should have asked him what had prompted his suggestion, but I think I was simply too surprised to think straight. I’d never owned a dog, had hardly spent any time with them, and had never said or written anything that might have implied that writing about them would be an interest of mine.
Then … could this have been some veiled way of suggesting that perhaps it was time for me to pursue a new career? Or at the very least, a new publishing company?
Whether intended or not, that meeting marked the end of my relationship with that particular publishing company. I would go on to write books for other publishers, but many years would pass before I would see, or speak to, that editor again.
Not long after that editorial meeting, my daughter, Lia, was born. If her first words were not, “Can I have a dog?” then they followed very soon. We were living in New York City at the time and pets weren’t allowed in our building, so we gave her Gund dogs and promised that we would get her a real dog as soon as we “moved to the country.”
Several years passed, Lia seemed content with her Gund dogs, and, to be honest, I forgot all about that promise.
Then we moved to the suburbs. No sooner had we settled into our new home than Lia reminded us of our promise, and kept on reminding us regularly. It wasn’t long before we added an adorable, pudgy yellow lab puppy to the family. His name was Mac, and we all adored him.
However, having had no experience living with dogs, there were many things we weren’t quite prepared for. Chief among them was that within two years adorable little puppy Mac would grow to weigh 75 pounds and be exceptionally strong, muscular Mac. As a result, we learned that there was only one person in the family physically capable of walking him – me – and even I had to get an extra-long retractable leash so that when he unexpectedly took off after a squirrel he didn’t instantly yank my shoulder out of its socket.
I also learned that when you’re a dog, love is never conditional. They are the best creatures on Earth. Perhaps because, as a writer, I was home more than anyone else in the family, and fed and walked him the most, Mac and I became nearly inseparable.
You’ve probably figured out what’s coming next: Mac, under the nom de guerre, Lance, began to appear regularly in my Help! I’m Trapped in… series, and even starred in two of them: Help! I’m Trapped in Obedience School, and Help! I’m Trapped in Obedience School Again. He later resurfaced in the role of Byte in Y2K-9: The Dog Who Saved the World, and was scheduled to return yet again in the role of Furry Mason, dog detective, but sadly that series was not published.
In addition, he auditioned for the role of Wordsworth in a six-book series about a curmudgeonly, talking canine who becomes the unlikely savior of a family of eccentrics, but lost out to our neighbor’s basset hound, who was more suited for the position.
In other words, I’ve now written twelve books about dogs, nine of which have been published. I sometimes wonder what inspired that editor all those years ago suggest I do so long before I ever thought of it myself. Was there something he saw in me that I wasn’t aware of? Did he just happen to have dogs on his mind the day we had our meeting? Sadly, I never got the opportunity to ask him, so I’ll never know. But I do hope to write more books about dogs. Even better, I hope that someday soon to once again have one to call my own.
Todd Strasser is the author of many award-winning YA novels, including The Wave, Give a Boy a Gun, and Fallout, which the New York Times called, “Superb entertainment… and gripping suspense.”
His newest novel, The Beast of Cretacea has received numerous rave reviews. Publisher’s Weekly said the book is, “Equal parts Moby-Dick retelling, environmental cautionary tale, and coming-of-age story. Strasser’s fantastical SF epic blends disparate pieces into a harmonious whole.”