I sat down with Garth Stein, the internationally bestselling author of the contemporary classic, The Art of Racing in the Rain. A major motion picture starring Kevin Costner, Milo Ventimiglia, and Amanda Seyfried, The Art of Racing in the Rain has sold more than 6 million copies worldwide, been translated into 36 languages, and spent more than three years on the New York Times bestseller list.
Gretchen Tarrant: While it has gotten perhaps the most attention, The Art of Racing in the Rain is not your only literary work. Could you walk us through your evolution as a writer and your process for this title in particular?
Garth Stein: I was always a storyteller. I made documentary films for a number of years, and really enjoyed that process. But I got frustrated with the funding aspect–I lost a grant and suddenly had to stop making a movie. That’s when I started writing my first book, Raven Stole the Moon, which came out back in 1998. It got some nice reviews but didn’t sell a whole lot of copies, but I enjoyed the process and thought ‘Well, I’ll keep writing’. It took me a while but I wrote my second book How Evan Broke His Head and Other Secrets which came out in 2005. Again, nice reviews but not a whole lot of book sales. Then I had this idea for a book narrated by a dog, turns out it became sort of a hit. I got hooked up with a great publisher, and it went on to spend 3.5 years on the NYT bestseller list. After that, I wrote my latest book, A Sudden Light, which came out in 2014. Actually, I’m just about to turn in my latest book.
As for the process of the Art of Racing in the Rain, it was a largely unremarkable process. As usually is the case with people who are writing books that become major bestsellers, no one had really read my earlier books so no one really cared what I did. I could write whatever I wanted, and I did, and it turned into a big deal. Now I need to think about things a little bit differently–wondering about what my readers will think and how would they respond to this and that. When I wrote The Art of Racing in the Rain I was free from that encumbrance. I think it would be best if all writers were free of that encumbrance at all times. But that’s not the case, because of course we build a relationship with our readers over time.
GT: We didn’t know you were working on something new! Are you able to share anything about that?
GS: Yes, my new book I’m turning in today [9/6/19] is called A Couple of Old Birds. It’s about an 87-year-old woman who’s assuming she’s nearing the end of her life here on earth and looks to get everything sorted so that she’s not a bother to anyone. In the process, she unearths some skeletons in her closet and meets a new best friend, and the next thing you know… maybe life is beginning again for her.
GT: Each of your titles is unique and extremely fitting. How do you decide on a title?
GS: Titles are all different and they come in different ways. My first book I remember struggling. I ended up at the Museum of the American Indian since my story took place in Alaska and my mother’s family is descended from the Tlingit Indians, and I thought that maybe I would find my inspiration there. Sure enough, I turned a corner and there was this giant painting of Raven stealing the moon. I thought ‘That’s my title right there.’ For The Art of Racing in the Rain, that came from a driving coach that I had who handed me a pamphlet he had written up with that title. So really, it’s what resonates and what feels right.
GT: What about characters?
GS: Origin stories I find fascinating. Character names are a good example. I can trace some names, some are just arbitrary. Do people grow to fit their names? Or are they given their names in some weird cosmic clairvoyance where the universe has bequeathed this name upon them… these things are fun to think about.
GT: One of the reasons The Art of Racing in the Rain became so popular is exactly that sort of introspection, these slivers of wisdom that you share with your readers through Enzo. Where you draw those from?
GS: Some of it came sort of out of the organic character of Enzo. Some of it because I needed to justify things. For example – Enzo having all his favorite movie actors. Well, I didn’t sit there and think ‘well I’m going to have this character and this character’s a dog and he loves watching movies.’ No, no. What I did was say, ‘ok I’ve got this character, and the character believes he’s going to be reincarnated as a person, but how does he know he’s going to be reincarnated as a person?’ Surely dogs aren’t born with this innate knowledge, so I’ve got to get this information to my dog in some way. So that was just a purely technical plot point that I needed to build. So I built it, but then I asked myself ‘where does that go?’ If you spend all day watching television and never really leave the house except under close supervision [as Enzo does], you’re going to have kind of a distorted view of reality.
I started to explore these things about Enzo: developing his theories of evolution that are not quite right, and developing his list of favorite actors from movies he’s seen, etc. So sometimes the bits of wisdom that Enzo has are spontaneous from this character that I created that just sort of spoke to me. Some of these bits of wisdom come directly from the racetrack, “your car goes where your eyes go”, for example. That’s actually something they teach you when you race cars. I was fortunate enough that it all kind of came together in a fun way to create Enzo.
GT: You had some experience on the racetrack and that obviously translated. There are some other pretty poignant experiences in the book. How did you manage to pull in all these different areas in a way that was so convincing from the first person?
GS: I think that a good writer is a very clever thief, to be honest with you. My job is to listen and to observe and to process and to assemble things then in a new way, into a different kind of flying machine. Many things that happened in the course of The Art of Racing In The Rain are true, but they didn’t happen to just one person and they didn’t happen at just one time. I’ve accumulated people’s experiences and stories. Sometimes they can see themselves in them, sometimes they can’t.
My mother can never see herself in my writing, which is good because she’s in everything. Denny is loosely based on a friend of mine who is a semi-pro race car driver named Kevin York. The character in the book who is the race-driving coach, Don Kitch, is actually a real person and I used his real name. So I do sprinkle reality into things but I also cobble together sort of piecemeal Frankenstein-like stories. Some things may have happened to me but maybe I’m in denial about them.
GT: You mentioned before the shift in reader expectations. Of course, when you wrote The Art of Racing in the Rain, it must have been difficult to predict it would explode the way it did; but when you were finished, did you know you had something special?
GS: As Stephen King says, sometimes you step up to the plate and you hit the ball and you think to yourself, ‘I really got a hold of that one.’ I think to a degree I sensed that. I wrote the first 40 pages and I gave them to my wife and she read them (she’s always the first reader) and she handed them back and said: “Enzo’s going to go around the world.” And Enzo has gone around the world–he’s in 38 languages—so we had a sense that if things lined up correctly, this book would be something special.
That being said, when I sent it to my former agent in New York he promptly called me up and said, “you know you can’t do this, no one’s going to read this book.” So I fired him.
GT: Wow, so a number one international best-seller almost didn’t go to print?
GS: I think that’s an important message for everybody. Ultimately, you’re responsible for where you are, or at least you’re responsible for getting yourself someplace else. You can’t put yourself at the mercy of other people.