Columnist Embraces a Dog’s Life, To the Top

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By: Miki Johnson

Philadelphia Inquirer columnist John Grogan says the past few months have been “like a fairy tale.” His first book, Marley & Me, debuted at No. 10 on The New York Times Bestseller list Oct. 18, and was still there six weeks later in the No. 7 slot.

Like most reporters he knows, Grogan admits he’s always wanted to write a book. After years searching “outside” himself for topics, he realized there might be a book literally lying at his feet: Marley, his family’s badly behaved golden Labrador retriever. His book includes some outrageous stories, but transcends the “bad dog book” label by also exploring what Grogan calls “the coming together of these two lives” ? his and his wife’s ? and “how this crazy dog helped shaped us.”

Instead of Tuesdays with Morrie, it’s “Every Day with Marley.”

After his dog died in December 2003, Grogan eulogized him in one of his Inquirer columns. More than 800 responses poured in. But while this interest contributed to his eventual book deal, Grogan doesn’t like the way it’s been characterized as the instant catalyst for a book. He had written about his hairy companion previously in his columns, as long as seven or eight years ago while at the South Florida Sun-Sentinel in Fort Lauderdale, and their warm reception had long ago tipped him off to the potential of a Marley tome.

By February 2004 Grogan had found an agent, and she encouraged him to send her a chapter a week. The discipline taught by a columnist’s schedule helped him in keeping up with her request. Four days a week Grogan would rise at around 4:30 a.m., brew a pot of strong coffee, and diligently work on that week’s chapter until it was time to get his two children ready for school and head off to the Inquirer, where he writes the “Pennsylvania” column on Mondays, Tuesdays, and Fridays.

Thirty weeks and 30 chapters later, Grogan’s agent shopped the book and had six potential buyers within a week. William Morrow came out on top, and editors have already expressed interest in seeing more from him.

Despite the success of Marley & Me, Grogan has no plans to quit his day job. After giving up his column at the Sun- Sentinel in 1999 to edit Rodale’s Organic Gardening magazine ? a decision he later regretted ? Grogan feels “so fortunate to have landed back at a major daily as a columnist.”

Grogan says his experience as a columnist helped him to focus and hone his book. He conceived each chapter as a long column, in which a writer normally would have “700 words to get in and get out and make your point, and get your reader’s attention. I think that discipline really helped,” he says. “Your instinct is to get to the heart of the matter.”

His column-writing experience also taught him the importance of another kind of “heart.” Grogan says he always tries to engage his readers emotionally as well as intellectually ? a tradition he’s carried on to his book, judging from the online responses. “The most common comment I’m getting from readers is, ‘I really laughed hard through most of book, and then I really cried hard at the end,'” he notes.

One part of the “Marley and Me” Web site (www.marleyandme.com) invites visitors to share their own dog stories, and Grogan says several new ones are posted every day. “Part of the phenomenon is there’s this very interactive element to it,” he says. “They want to be able to tell their story about their dog.”

The Philly columnist keeps up his end of the interaction by posting frequent blog entries, from his speechless reaction to making the Times Bestsellers list to his perilous run-in with Hurricane Wilma. After avoiding hurricanes for 13 years while living in Florida, Grogan’s two days there as part of his recent book tour found him stranded at Wilma’s ground zero. With his day job never far from his mind, he called the Inquirer city desk and filed a live column, complete with podcast, from his glass- and debris-ridden hotel.

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