Chloe Shaw, WHAT IS A DOG?

Chloe Shaw, WHAT IS A DOG?

Zibby is joined by author and dog mother Chloe Shaw to discuss her debut memoir, What Is a Dog? Chloe shares her unique literary career as well as the stories of some of the dogs who have impacted her the most. The two also talk about the importance of community in Chloe’s life, why this is the perfect book to gift any dog lover, and how the many forms grief may take are all equally valid.


Zibby Owens: Welcome, Chloe. Thanks so much for coming on “Moms Don’t Have Time to Read Books” to discuss What Is a Dog?

Chloe Shaw: Thank you.

Zibby: I was crying in the first chapter of this book, which is when I know I love a book. It’s so good. You’re such a good writer. It’s so amazing and emotional and beautiful. Bravo to you.

Chloe: Thank you.

Zibby: Why don’t you tell listeners a little about what your book is about? What inspired you to write this memoir?

Chloe: The book is about the six dogs that I’ve been lucky enough to have in my life, two of whom I still have. It really was inspired by an essay I wrote about Booker, who’s on the cover of the book, the dog that my husband had when we met. I had a beloved dog in my childhood who carried me through really from five years old through up to college. Almost the day I left for college, she died. I’m an only child. I lived in a loving but quiet household. There wasn’t a lot of shared emotions. I learned to lean on Agatha, my Scottie, to kind of express myself and be in my room with her and spend time under our piano with her in dinner parties. I was a little shy and a little anti-social at times but also could perform when I needed to. There was a lot of back-and-forth with that. I felt like, honestly, she really helped me work some of that out. Booker, when I met him, he was six years old. I just became his immediate dog mom as an adult. I think of Agatha more as my sibling. She was like my sister, my friend. I really felt like Booker’s mom when I came into Matt’s and Booker’s life. I had to take responsibility, things like going to vet. He had a surgery. He had several surgeries. Then he was starting to fail.

I really had to show up in a way that I never had. Even when my beloved grandfather died, I still regret that I wasn’t able to show up more for him or for that experience. It was just too much. I hadn’t really learned how to face that kind of grief. Booker really taught me that, I have to say. Matt and I, we dug a huge hole in our backyard for a week knowing we were going to say goodbye to him at the end of all that. I just let myself go through all of the feelings instead of avoid them. It took me a couple of years to write about him. I wrote an essay that was published. I never planned on writing a memoir. That was not my idea. An editor found the essay and asked me. I, of course, said immediately, yes. Then I thought, oh, my gosh, what did I just say? Even writing the book, it took a couple years, but it was just the most therapeutic thing. It also allowed me to think of all the dogs in my life in that way that I — I anthropomorphize. I do all the things we all do with our dogs. It actually allowed me the time and space to think about what they really have meant to me. Why are we so attached to them? So many people have dogs. Especially in the pandemic, I know a lot have come home with people, which is great. It really allowed me the space to think about it on almost a more philosophical level.

Zibby: One of the things — as my dog shakes and rattles in the middle — that made it so poignant was the macro extrapolation of what it all means. What do dogs know? What do we know? The souls circulating, all of that, it just was beautiful. Tell me about the title for two seconds, What Is a Dog? Did you have other titles? Why did you pick this title? I know it’s discussed, but I’m just curious.

Chloe: Yeah, sure. I have to say this. Moms Don’t Have Time to Have Kids is my favorite title.

Zibby: Thank you.

Chloe: The best ever as the mom of two young kids. It came out of the essay that I wrote. I kept asking — there was kind of a repetitive meditation, almost. What is a dog? When I was born, my parents had a dog. She was old. She was their first baby. She was an Afghan hound. I never knew life without dogs. I don’t know that I really bonded with her. She died when I was about four or five. I don’t think she was thrilled with my arrival. She was kind to me. She wasn’t aggressive in any way.

Zibby: You said you had one picture or something of you guys together, right, and that was it?

Chloe: That’s right. Afghans are big, so it was a big presence in our house. We had an apartment in Brooklyn at the time. Well, I was born in Miami, so it was first there, but I don’t remember Miami. I moved when I was eighteen months old to Brooklyn with my parents and Easy, the Afghan hound. When she died, when I was thinking about that experience, I do remember her — I should back up a little bit. My editor was really helpful in saying, “I want you to think about this book as a meditation on dogs.” I kept coming back to that line. When I started to think about her and my experience with her, it suddenly occurred to me, it’s so interesting, kids who don’t grow up with certain — you grow up the way you grow up. I grew up with dogs. Some people don’t. At some point, I must have been like, what is this thing that doesn’t look like us? It was really just a line that came out of the essay when I imagined the first time I thought, what is a dog? What is this?

Zibby: Love it. Tell me about your relationship, because I know you mentioned in the acknowledgments too, to John Irving, who I’m the biggest fan of ever. Is he just a neighborhood friend of yours? No?

Chloe: No. I was very lucky enough — my first job out of college, from ’97 to ’99, I was his assistant. I worked with him and his wife. I lived in Vermont nearby, but I worked out of their house. I would take care of their house and their dog, Dickens, whenever they left the country to travel or whatever.

Zibby: Aw.

Chloe: I know. It was a very special experience. Truly, he’s the one — I’ve had such wonderful mentors. Jim Shepard, in college, was certainly — actually, he shepherded me job in terms of my writing. John really taught me, just watching him and observing him and working with him every day, the athleticism of writing. I took it very preciously for a while, as a lot of us do. I would be in Brooklyn coffee shops with my computer like everyone else just trying to write. Stuff happened. I feel like it was all practice, for sure. John, it was eye-opening. I was also an athlete as a younger person. I’m still athletic, but I was a squash player and a softball player. I knew about practice. I knew about honing your skills and all of that and putting the time in. John had such a diligent schedule. He would get up early in the morning. He’d already be at the — at that time, he used a typewriter. What was hilarious is, I was so nervous that part of my interview would be to see how I type because I type with two fingers. I never learned how to type properly. So does he. He types with his two fingers. I think now he uses a computer, but he used a typewriter, this amazing typewriter. He would just click it out. I would transcribe all of that into the computer upstairs.

Zibby: Oh, my gosh. What book was he working on then?

Chloe: A Widow for One Year.

Zibby: Oh, my god, that was so good. I think that was one of my favorites, and A Prayer for Owen Meany. I loved A Widow for One Year. I remember when that came out.

Chloe: That’s what he was working on. His taking writing not as a precious thing and kind of a job — actually, I heard — I listen to a lot of comedian podcasts these days. I really relate to, I think it’s humor, but the darkness, too, in it all. Mike Birbiglia is one of my favorites. He said the other day, something like, treat it like it’s a job until it is. I loved that so much because I think that’s a John — I don’t know. It is a job. You treat it like a job. You just show up. You can definitely have moments of inspiration. It’s not like that doesn’t exist, but it helped me to see that when you take the magic dream out of it, in a way, and you just keep showing up every day — some days are going to be terrible. Some days are going to be great. You just keep showing up.

Zibby: Wow, what a way to enter the literary world. What did you do after that?

Chloe: Then I went to work for Vogue magazine for two years, which was a really good experience. It definitely was not a great fit for me. Where I was, it was, meaning that I was in the features department working on cultural pieces and books and theater and dance and movies. It was really fun for two years. I just knew it wasn’t a long-term situation.

Zibby: Did you dress for the part?

Chloe: I tried as best as I could, and I failed.

Zibby: I interned at Vanity Fair one summer. I am just not that — I did my best too.

Chloe: I think I did my best in those two years. It was fun to walk over to the fashion side. The office is in two sections. The features department is on one side. The fashion is on the other side. At least, it was back in the day. It was always fun to go back there. You might run into Serena Williams trying on some gown. You’re like, oh, my gosh. It was amazing. I was also like, oh, gosh, I just want to be in my jeans right now. I enjoyed dressing up sometimes, but it’s not my natural habitat. I had a great experience.

Zibby: I get it. Then what?

Chloe: Then I got my MFA at Bennington in fiction writing. That’s a low-residency program, so you’re not on campus full time. You have to be there for two ten-day sessions, once in June and once in January, for two years. The first year, I actually lived here in Connecticut. Then the second year, I moved to LA for a year just because my friends were moving to LA. I could be anywhere. I just thought I’d never do something like that. I lasted 364 days. as my uncle was driving me out of town, I was like, wow, I didn’t last a full year. It was such a fun year, but I am just such an East Coaster. It just was not my thing.

Zibby: Which part of LA did you live in?

Chloe: North Hollywood.

Zibby: I have similar things in that I grew up in New York. I spent a summer at Bennington doing a fiction writing program when I was sixteen.

Chloe: Oh, sixteen.

Zibby: Yeah, fiction and photography. Then after college, I lived in LA for two years. I made it two years.

Chloe: Wow, you made it two years.

Zibby: I made it two years. Then I was like, I miss my home. Now I spend a lot of time there. I like going back and forth. I always feel like this is home, and that’s vacationland. I love vacationland, but then I need to get a dose of home.

Chloe: That’s exactly the way I felt. The phrase that keeps coming to mind is, I didn’t want to put my roots down there. My roots were back here. Honestly, it’s even weather-related. Of all things, I’d wake up and see the sun and be like, oh, my god, it’s another sunny day. I didn’t know what time of year it was. They have, sort of, seasons, but I really longed for that cycle that I have known my whole life, so I came back.

Zibby: I’m trying to get to your book through the life story up until the book. Then you came back. You did your MFA. I didn’t even know you could get an MFA in twenty days a year. That’s pretty awesome.

Chloe: Two years, though. I was working the whole time, but you can be away from the actual campus.

Zibby: Okay. Then what?

Chloe: Then I came back to Brooklyn. I ended up getting a job at a law firm called Skadden, Arps as a word processor.

Zibby: I’ve heard of it.

Chloe: Aside from John Irving, being his assistant and being in that house with them and being in their family, I really, along with that — the work community was so great. We worked for all the lawyers, obviously, just, honestly, editing their documents. They would just hand us documents. We’d format them. I had to learn all this stuff. Still typing with two fingers, which I tried to hide, which I guess I did for a lot of years. All of my coworkers were aspiring writers, musicians, artists, actors. It was such a wonderful community of people to be around. I did have to learn — when I started, you have to start with at least one graveyard shift, so I had to work from eleven PM to seven AM, which I’d never done in my life. That took getting used to. It allowed me time to write. Basically, I just committed at that point to trying to get some writing done. The job paid well. It was flexible. Then I ended up actually going full time there, so I just worked during the daytime. That’s when I met Matt and Booker. As you read, I had just come out of a bad breakup and did not have any interest in meeting this guy at all. My beloved friend from college was like, “No, you need to meet this guy.” She just wouldn’t let up. Then she finally said, “I don’t think I told you he has a dog.” I said, “Hmm. I’d meet the dog.” We went on a walk together, the three of us. Actually, the four us because she had a dog at that time, JJ, too. It was instantons. We went to college together. We just didn’t know each other. I was a freshman. He was a senior. Once we got talking, I realized we had some friends in common, but I didn’t know him in college. That was it. That’s why, also, to come back to what you asked me initially about this book, Booker also was why I agreed to even meet my husband. It was pretty special. He really was one of those dog of dogs.

Zibby: Your description of, is this dog’s quality of life worth living — how do I know? When does the dog tell you? Your line about how animals just know or something, but how do you know as the human when you’re responsible for that? And the other dog coming to say — oh, my gosh. My husband’s filming a movie right now. I was on the set for one day. I was chatting with one of the people on the crew. Of course, as I do, I’m like, “Anybody reading anything? What are you reading?” She’s like, “I’m too busy to read with all these projects.” I was like, “Actually, my podcast is ‘Moms Don’t Have Time to Read Books’.” She’s like, “Ha ha. I’m a dog mom. I’m not a real mom.” I was like, “Oh, I have the best book for you. You have to read What Is a Dog?” I had just started it. She’s like, “Oh, okay.” I was like, “Where do you usually get your books?” She’s like, “Usually, I just get them off this app at the library. Then it downloads.” I don’t even know. I was like, “I’m just going to send you a copy.” I took out my phone. I was like, “Just put your address here on Amazon.” I shouldn’t even say Amazon, but I did do it because it was really fast. I’m sorry. I will repent. Anyway, I had her enter her address. I sent her a book. It got there yesterday.

Chloe: That is so sweet. Thank you.

Zibby: I know she’ll love it because anybody who loves dogs will love this book. It can’t help but tug at your heartstrings and raise really important questions. My brother’s dog is on his last leg. Poor Raleigh. It’s just such an important reflection on such an emotional, important time of life that doesn’t get elevated to the mainstream conversation that often.

Chloe: For so long, I just avoided that kind of feeling, even with Agatha when she died when I was eighteen. My mom took her off. I said goodbye to her. I think we all knew she was not coming back. She took her off. Even reflecting on what that day was like for my mom just to go by herself having now gone through Booker — when I met Matt, I had two cats who I loved. Both of them died within the last five years, but one of them died right as the pandemic was starting. I just took him by myself to the vet. I knew it was time. He was really sick. He was my first baby. I had him when I was back in Brooklyn. He was fifteen, though. He lived a nice, long life. I didn’t even have time to mourn him. That was the week my kids came home from school and just never went back. I mean, not never. They’re back now, but for a really long time. I have friends who have lost children. I have friends who have lost spouses. We all know people in our lives with that heartache. I would never compare those griefs. They’re different, but they also are both very real. I also just wanted to reach out, too, to people who feel that. It almost feels, sometimes, embarrassing to feel so sad about a pet dying or being sick. One of my dogs, Otter, has had two leg surgeries in the last eight weeks. I’ve been a dog mom, dog nurse for so much. He’s had a rough time. He’s doing well now. I’ve been in tears many nights about it with my husband. I think because maybe writing the book, I feel that’s valid. It’s okay .

Zibby: It is valid.

Chloe: It’s very upsetting to not be able to communicate easily, too, and be like, you’re going to be okay. This is going to hurt for a while, but you’re going to be okay. You can’t communicate in the same way, so you have to adjust.

Zibby: It is a hundred percent shared by so many, that love. There is something like, the act itself of taking care of something engenders love between people, babies, pets, all of it. The more you take care of something, the more you love them. Any time that love is threatened to be taken away, that’s huge. That’s the most painful thing there is. It’s like losing love. What’s worse than that? Do you have any advice for aspiring authors?

Chloe: Just don’t stop. It’s pretty simple and been said many times. I’m forty-six years old. In high school when I read Sandra Cisneros’ House on Mango Street is when I was like, I want to do this. I don’t know how she did this, but I want to do this. I really haven’t stopped. There have been plenty of failures. Don’t stop. Don’t give up. Also, what I was saying earlier about John Irving I think is really important, and not make it just too precious, but show up whether it’s, you have one hour in the morning. You set a time. You almost make it a little bit regimented. That’s worked for me. I know it’s not for everybody. Now that I have kids, it’s a little different. I would always just get up. I would stumble toward the computer. I would get some coffee, stumble toward the computer, and just let myself — that was the first thing before I looked at anything on the internet, before I talked to anybody, before I did a single thing. I just let my mind work and wake up. My husband has a poet friend who, he used to wake himself up at four AM to write because he said his internal editor wasn’t awake yet, which I thought was so wonderful. I don’t quite do that anymore because of kids and all the other responsibilities, but it was my favorite time to work, was first thing before you even know what’s going on in the world. It just feels like this pure moment. Those are my two.

Zibby: Amazing. By the way, have you talked to Jenna Blum? Do you know her, the author who wrote Woodrow on the Bench?

Chloe: No.

Zibby: You two have to do an event together. Her book came out yesterday. She’s amazing. She runs A Mighty Blaze also. I’ll email you right after this together. Actually, I don’t have your email, but if you get to my email through your publicist or something.

Chloe: I will.

Zibby: I’m happy to moderate or something. There should be a dog-love event somewhere between the two of you. Let me know if you want me to try to put it together.

Chloe: Thank you.

Zibby: You two should talk. All right, have a great day. Thanks for coming on “Moms Don’t Have Time to Read Books.”

Chloe: Thank you so much, Zibby.

Zibby: Take care. Buh-bye.

Chloe: Bye.

Chloe Shaw, WHAT IS A DOG?

WHAT IS A DOG? by Chloe Shaw

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