In You Had Me At Woof: How Dogs Taught Me the Secrets of Happiness, author Julie Klam lovingly details her adventures with rescuing and fostering Boston terriers. But Klam (Please Excuse My Daughter) is not merely satisfied to traffic in heartbreaking-yet-hilarious-dog-story territory — though that certainly would have been enough to make this a deeply entertaining listen. She has much to say about parenting, money and how to make life in a small New York City apartment work. Throw a little mortality in the mix and you’ve got one of the most charming and engaging books of 2010.
Jami Attenberg recently spoke with Klam about listening to someone else read her life story, what kind of music dogs like best, and if she spoke to her dogs in funny voices. (She does.)
I admired how much You Had Me At Woof reads as a love letter to New York. Even when you’re interacting with crazy New Yorkers giving up their dogs for adoption, it seems like it’s done with a real affection for their eccentricities. My favorite writing comes from a place of affection rather than criticism. Can you talk about what it’s like to be a Manhattan dog owner versus a suburban or country dog owner, and your connection to New York and New Yorkers?
Wow, that’s such a lovely thing to say, Jami. I think probably my life is a love letter to New York. I love this city so much and you know, it ain’t easy. I find it heartbreaking when someone has to give up their dog — unless they’re thoughtless jerks, which I’m less interested in writing about. I believe the relationship New Yorkers or city people have with their dogs is much more intimate. You aren’t just “letting them out,” you are walking them on a leash and they’re pretty close to you all the time…my husband might say too close.
And what was the emotional starting point for this book?
I was four months pregnant with my daughter, Violet, when my first Boston, Otto, died and I was at a doctor’s appointment and my obstetrician was concerned because I’d lost weight. I said, “My dog died.” And she said, “Oh, I’m a cat person.” And it struck me so hard that one would never say that to a person who lost, say, a grandfather (“I’m not really an octogenarian person.”) and that the framework for grieving for a dog was just not there.
When I got involved with rescue and there were all of these wonderful caring people who knew how I felt and what I was going through, it was like, “Aha! They exist! I’m not alone!” And I’m not a person who calls my dogs my fur kids, but I do other crazy things. I wanted to write the book for people who had intense feelings toward their animals that they might not have realized was more common than they knew.
Having an audiobook of your memoir is this close to having a movie made of your life. Can you talk a bit about the experience of hearing someone reading your book and pretending to be you?
Well, I never actually think it’s her being me. I think of it as an actress reading my words — which it is. I’m very literal.
My mother was the one who freaked out. She is a huge audiobook fan and she called me about 50 times from the car when she was listening. She read the book but she’s like a speed-reader, so she misses a lot. One day I got a call from her and she said, “HANK BIT VIOLET?!” And I said, “He did? Who’s Hank?” I thought she’d gotten a call from Violet’s school or something. Turns out she was talking about Hank the foster dog from Chapter 3.
And how do you feel about all the interpretations of all the people in your life?
The narrator, Karen White, did a kinder job than I would have. There aren’t any screaming Bronx accents, which many of my family members have.
Did you have any involvement in the creation of the audiobook, and how you feel about audiobooks in general?
Karen called me several times before recording the book to ask me for pronunciations of words. Some of them I had to find out about because you know, just because I know how to write it doesn’t mean I know how to say it.
Do you like giving readings yourself?
I like having readings, but I don’t like reading to people as much as speaking with them. I kind of feel like when I’ve got my eyes on the page they could be getting up and going out for a sandwich and I wouldn’t know. I also have this terrible thing where I shake — whether I’m nervous or not. Recently I read at the Housing Works bookstore as part of the Dickens Marathon and I had to hold onto a banister. I think I need a hypnotist or something.
Have you ever attended any readings in particular that blew your mind, where the text transformed for you?
I’ve been to readings where I wasn’t the least bit intrigued but then ended up loving the book. Some people are great readers of their work — my brother Matt is such a good reader — I think I’m okay if the audience is responding. Oh, Arthur Phillips is another person I would love to hear read. I think for me at a reading there is so much going on that I’m not as tuned in to the person’s work as I am when I read it myself, and my brain is focused. I’m kind of mentally challenged in the attention department.
Do you read your work out loud at all when you write? And if so, does that help the process at all, because your work is so snappy and dialogue driven it asks to be heard as well as read?
Yes, I do! I read something out loud if I’m not clear that it’s working. I talk to myself a lot, too, when I’m writing. As far as the dialogue, it’s really my pretty amazingly retentive memory at work. I am very good at remembering exactly what someone said and that’s what makes it sound right to me.
Do you use any particular kind of voice when you talk to your dogs?
There’s a special excited voice I use for them that they love. I sound a little like Edith Bunker or Ethel Merman. They go nuts, they know it’s their special voice.
You talk a bit about singing to your dogs in the book. Do you play them any music?
I leave classical music on for them when I leave them alone so the sounds of my loud-ass neighborhood aren’t too disturbing.
What kind of music do dogs prefer, or do they have individual preferences depending on the dog?
I was just about to say they liked the Beatles but I remembered that was my daughter when she was a baby. I don’t think my dogs respond much to music. When I was growing up they used to howl when I played my flute. I think it hurt their ears. It hurt mine. I played the flute for years and years and years and for some reason I never got any better, in fact, I think I got worse. I shouldn’t have played the flute, I realized that with the flute, you can’t sing along.