Zibby is joined by Garth Stein to talk about his classic novel, The Art of Racing in the Rain, which 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. Garth shares his unique journey to writing, as well as how very few people believed in the book’s potential early on. The two also discuss Garth’s work with the author and bookseller communities through the creation of the Seattle 7 writers group and his position as chair of the Author Leadership Circle of Binc, which elements of The Art of Racing in the Rain are real and which were from Garth’s imagination, and which book he’s currently listening to.


Zibby Owens: Welcome, Garth. Thank you so much for coming on “Moms Don’t Have Time to Read Books” to discuss The Art of Racing in the Rain and your career and all the good stuff.

Garth Stein: Thanks for having me. It’s a pleasure.

Zibby: It was so great meeting you in Seattle in person. That was such a highlight. Thank you to Jenn Risko from Shelf Awareness for introducing us and everything. That was wonderful.

Garth: That was a lot of fun. It hasn’t rained here since you were here. That’s all good news.

Zibby: Really? Wow.

Garth: Oh, yeah.

Zibby: Oh, my gosh. I want to hear about so many things. I want to talk about your book, but also how you started — what was it called? The Seattle 8? What was it called?

Garth: Seattle 7 Writers.

Zibby: Seattle 7 Writers and how you really started this whole Seattle lit scene and everything and how it’s grown. Let’s back up for two seconds, and how you became an author in the first place and all of that and the story that you told me about the difficulty you had in selling The Art of Racing in the Rain, which, of course, went on to become a massive best-seller.

Garth: If you heard that The Art of Racing in the Rain took off, it was actually my third book, believe it or not. I wrote two books previously that nobody paid any attention to. Interestingly, when I was listening to some of your podcasts, I was scrolling through — on my first book, I had four editors. Talk about being an orphan. It was a disaster. My fourth editor on that book was Greer Kessel Hendricks, who you had on.

Zibby: Oh, no way. I love Greer.

Garth: Now she’s a big, famous writer. It was kind of cool that I know people from back in the day. I used to make documentary films. That’s what happened. I grew up in Seattle. Then I went to New York to go to school. Then I started making documentary films. I love it. I love the process. I loved doing it, but it was all about raising money back in the pre-digital age. I was making a film about these two homeless rap musicians in Brooklyn. My grant ran out. I said, geez, now I got to stop everything, go raise more money. I said, let me keep doing something creative while I’m doing that. That’s when I started writing what I thought was going to be a short story or maybe a treatment for a film. It turned out to be my first novel, Raven Stole the Moon. Then I was like, oh, okay, this feels right. There’s some times when you’re doing something and you’re like, oh, I resonate in a different way when I’m doing this. That’s when I turned to writing full time. It wasn’t until my third book, then, that everyone else thought I was a writer.

Zibby: How did you decide to write from the point of view of a dog? Tell me the story again about how hard it was to sell that idea.

Garth: It didn’t occur to me that one was not allowed to use non-human narrators in a book. I grew up, like you did, reading Charlotte’s Web and stuff like that. You can’t tell anybody Charlotte’s Web is not a legitimate book because there’s not a human narrator. I had this idea. I was racing sports cars here in Seattle. I had moved back to Seattle after a certain time. I was racing cars and had a family and had a dog and had everything. I was like, what a great setting for a story, would be to raise a dog trying to interpret — dogs love cars, as we all know. Then I saw this documentary film made in Mongolia that was about the belief among the nomadic people in Mongolia that the next incarnation for their dog will be as a person. I was like, hold the door here. If you’ve got a dog who really aspires to be a person in his next lifetime and so studies all of human interactions to glean clues about how to be a good person, that’s a great character. Suddenly, Enzo the dog was born. I just started writing it. It came very quickly to me, oddly. Usually, I struggle. Four months, I wrote the first draft. I sent it off to my agent in New York. He said, “This is a disaster. You’re ruining your career. Why are you doing this? Go write me something I can sell,” etc., etc., etc. I didn’t know exactly what to do. These two words popped into my head. I said, “You’re fired.”

I didn’t know what to do. I went home. I sheepishly told my wife. I’m like, “I don’t know.” She’s like, “You’re going to find a new agent. That’s what you’re going to do.” I sent it out to agent after agent. They all said the exact same thing. They’re like, “We like the writing. We like the story, but it’s narrated by a dog. We don’t know how to sell a book like that.” I was at my wit’s end. I was also at a fundraiser for King County Library Systems here in Seattle. I was talking to another writer. I was telling him about my problems. I’m like, “I got this book. I think it’s really good, but it’s narrated by a dog. No one will touch it.” He looked up. He said, “You should talk to my agent. He sold my book, and it’s narrated by a crow.” I just said, “Give me his name.” I got his details and sent him off my pages. Two days later, he called me up, my great, lovely agent Jeff Kleinman. He said, “I love this book. You have to let me represent it.” He was right. He got it into the right hands of people. I ended up at HarperCollins, the Harper imprint. They did a great job with it. It went on to live for three years on the New York Times Best Seller List, thus proving that people will read a book narrated by a dog.

Zibby: Now it’s also a movie and everything. Were you involved with that piece of it, or no?

Garth: No, not really. They didn’t want me around. They really prefer to not have the writer around because they have to make changes. They have to do things. The author of the book is like, but on page thirty-seven, it says it’s a yellow house. They’re like, now we have to paint the house yellow. Especially with a book that I knew was going to be difficult to translate into a movie because it’s narrated by a dog — movie directors famously say, never direct anything with a dog or a kid in it because they’re impossible to direct. I was a little concerned, but Patrick Dempsey picked up it. He set it up at Universal. It sat in limbo for ten years. Then finally, I got a phone call from a director in England saying, “I’m going to be directing your film.” I was like, “Get out of here.” It was fun because they shot most of it up in Vancouver, which is right near me. They shot enough in Seattle to show the Space Needle. I got to take my kids and my ninety-year-old mother. I took her up to Vancouver. We walked around on the set. It was amazing. It was a racetrack thing they had set up. My mother turned to me. She’s like, “All these people. I’m never going to complain about the price of a movie again.” It was a lot of fun. The process was a lot of fun. They had to make their changes to the story, which is fine. Look, they can’t change the book. The book is the book. My big fantasy came true. I said, one day, it would be so cool to get on an airplane and have to fly someplace and on the seatback video screen, there’s The Art of Racing in the Rain. It came true. I was watching it on an airplane. I was thinking, this is surreal. It was a lot of fun.

Zibby: Wow, it’s so cool. I hope somebody took a picture of you in the seat watching the movie. Yes?

Garth: I had so much fun in the red carpet. That stuff is intoxicating. I went down to LA for that. It’s hanging out with movie stars and all that. I was talking to Kevin Costner and Amanda Seyfried and all that. It was really cool. Then I realized that, man, if you live your life like that full time, it’s a distorted world. Everywhere you go, there’s someone — they had a groomer following me around powdering my cheeks and making sure my eyebrows weren’t sticking up or something. I was like, this is really cool for a week. Then I want to go back to — turn that whatever you call it back into a pumpkin. I lead the pumpkin life here in Seattle.

Zibby: When you were writing the book — there was a lot about being a dog that I didn’t even know. There was the scene where Enzo gets left alone for three days. You talk about how dogs can live without food. This is how they reserve their energy. This is what they need. This is why. All of that. Did you just know all that stuff? I’m a dog owner. I don’t know all the details of dog life. Did you research? How did you know so much?

Garth: That’s a good question. I pick up stuff. Part of what I do — my kids make fun of me. I have an answer for everything even if I don’t have an answer. I can always come up with an answer that is very convincing. Most of the stuff, I was really dealing with Enzo, the character. That’s why I never thought it was a problem to have a dog as a narrator, because I didn’t see him as a dog. I saw him as a character in the story. In channeling my character, he said things. I don’t even know if they’re true. He says one of the things dogs have is that they can go for several days without food because you’re out hunting in the woods, and they don’t run into any prey for a while. Made sense to me. He says people, of course, in exchange for their big brains and their opposable thumbs, are also susceptible to salmonella, whereas dogs aren’t. That is true. I learned that from my vet. There are little things that I try and put in there. Mostly, many things were not actually true. Enzo is convinced that dogs are the evolutionary rollout not of monkeys, but of people. People are evolved from dogs, not from monkeys. He has this whole theology that he sketches out in the book as he’s trying to understand his role in the world and his role in humanity or as a prospective human.

Zibby: I figured that was not necessarily true or provable.

Garth: You never know.

Zibby: You never know. You hear this all the time, that dogs can sense illness more than people. They can often ferret out a cancer that’s brewing. They know, but how do they say it? That’s one of the things about Enzo. He’s like, I knew what was wrong with her. I knew what was going on.

Garth: That is real. I didn’t do extensive research. My sister grew up with a very severe form of epilepsy. I made a documentary about it back when I was making documentary films. She had brain surgery back in 1993. It was a film that was put on PBS and the whole deal. It was pretty successful. It was following the family around for this. I learned in the process of making that film that in fact, there are dogs who are trained to smell the aura of an epileptic seizure. Not all, but most seizures, when the brain chemistry starts to go, it changes the whole everything. A dog can actually sense it before the person can. An epilepsy dog will then take his person into where other people are and alert the person that, you’re about to have a seizure, so you might want to sit down and find yourself someplace safe to be. That then, I looked into more research of it. Sure enough, there’s dogs who can smell skin cancer, lung cancer. They can smell your breath. Dogs, their sense of smell is actually crazy, crazy accurate and specific. If we could only talk to them and reason with them a little bit more clearly. Sometimes your dog just wants to chase the tennis ball. It’s like, no, come on, you got to get to work smelling people.

Zibby: My dog is the only dog that does not like to chase anything or play with any toy or whatever. She just sits. She just sits under my desk. You throw her a ball, and she’s like, no thanks.

Garth: You get it.

Zibby: Talk about the Seattle 7 and how you founded this whole movement there.

Garth: Seattle 7 Writers, it started as seven of us. One of us was a former member of The Weather Underground. Thus, we took the name the Seattle 7 because of the real Seattle 7, which is referred to in The Big Lebowski as — it was supposed to be the Seattle 8. That’s why I thought it was funny that you said that. In The Big Lebowski, he’s like, they’re actually the Seattle 8, but they only caught seven of us, that kind of funny thing. It started out as seven writers who would get together and, we said, whine and wine. We’d get together to complain about the business and drink wine. We found that we couldn’t really do these kinds of complainings around civilians. I don’t like my agent. My marketing budget isn’t big enough. I don’t like the font they used for my last book. These are things that only people who are in the nitty-gritty business would to complain about. We kind of had a safe space.

Then The Art of Racing in the Rain hit. I was going everywhere. I was doing all sorts of events. I started doing benefit events where I would go to Changing Hands Bookstore, for instance, in Arizona. They would do an event for me not in the store, but in a shopping center. Then they would donate proceeds of the sales to an animal welfare group. I was like, that’s actually win, win, win. Everybody’s happy about that. I brought it back. We started doing events as seven of us. We ended up growing up to be about — I think we were eighty-three at the max, eighty-three local writers in the Northwest. One of our favorite things was, back in 2011, we did an event — I’m pretty proud of this; it was my idea — called The Novel Live. Thirty-six writers wrote a novel live in six days taking two-hour stints at the typewriter. We were simulcasting it on the internet. People could chat in. We would auction off character names and stuff like that. You could name one of the characters after your uncle or something. It was all a fundraiser for literacy. It was a lot of fun to get writers out of their comfort zone, put them on a stage, put a video camera in their face. We would simulcast. The computer would be projected on the screen so you could read as they wrote.

Zibby: No.

Garth: Yeah.

Zibby: Oh, my gosh, that’s my worst nightmare.

Garth: It was so much fun. It was great.

Zibby: I don’t think I could do it.

Garth: We had a screen that you could put up if you wanted to feel like you were in private.

Zibby: Wow. Was it any good at the end?

Garth: No, but it was published.

Zibby: It was? Oh, my gosh.

Garth: It was published, yeah. Hotel Angeline is the title that it came out as. We still get royalty checks. I have one right here. It still sells. A hundred percent of the profits go to literacy, so I have to turn this around. What I’m going to do — Seattle 7 dissolved after ten years of doing all this great work. We separated and said, let’s go do other things. One of the things that I went to do was become the chair of the Author Leadership Circle of Binc, which I know you’re a big supporter of, Zibby. Binc Foundation supports booksellers and bookstores who need emergency funding because of natural disasters, for instance, the flooding that is going on. It started because of Hurricane Katrina. If you think of all the fires in California, the floods in the Southeast, and all the things that can go wrong, bookstores can come to Binc. They can say, I needed two grand just to keep my lights on. We can turn that grant around in forty-eight hours and make sure that these bookstores remain part of our literary ecosystem. That’s one of the things. This money that we made from Hotel Angeline goes straight to Binc. Then Binc can do great things with that.

Zibby: It’s not just the store. It’s the booksellers and their lives, too, if they have some sort of personal crisis or whatever.

Garth: Trust me, I have to have a tooth — am I supposed to do a root canal or an extraction? People say don’t do root canals. I’m so confused. You got to pay for that. Someone’s got to pay for that. If you’re working two jobs and your car breaks down and you got to get your kid to school and all that, it’s a problem. You may lose both jobs. We try and give them some money so that they can get their car back on the road and not have to — we can’t lose booksellers. It’s such a delicate system. It’s not a high-profit world. As writers, we need to also support — sometimes writers, you go cave dwelling. We like to go into the cave and pull a rock over and say, I see nothing. I hear nothing. We’re Sergeant Schmidt, or whatever, from Hogan’s Heroes. We have to push the rock away and come out and interact with booksellers, with librarians, with our readers, with our fans. That’s part of our obligation, is to cultivate the vegetables.

Zibby: Have you seen this new show called The Offer about Paul Ruddy, who founded Hogan’s Heroes?

Garth: Oh, my god, it’s awesome. That’s probably why it was in my head.

Zibby: I can’t stop thinking about it. It’s so good.

Garth: It’s amazing. I love the period cars and all that stuff. They did such a good job. The dude who plays Al Pacino, it’s freaky. It’s freaky.

Zibby: I am obsessed. I think I’m going to watch the whole thing again. It’s crazy. It takes so much time. It’s so good.

Garth: There are two kinds of people in the world, Zibby. There are the people who believe The Godfather is one of the three best films ever made, and there are those who don’t. I’m glad that you’re one of us. The Godfather is awesome.

Zibby: Now I think The Offer is one of the best things ever made, the movie about the movie. Anyway, I’m getting off topic. When you said Hogan’s Heroes, I’m like, oh, my gosh, Paul Ruddy. I do think Binc is really important. During the pandemic in particular, it was just like, what are the booksellers going to do? What’s everybody going to do? I’m actually going to look at two spaces this afternoon for bookstores.

Garth: Get out!

Zibby: I really want to open a bookstore. It’s been a lifelong dream. I don’t know if I’m totally ready, but I’m going today. We’ll see. I don’t know. I’m excited.

Garth: The advice they give people who want to get into racecar driving is, if you want to make a million dollars, start with two. I think it’s the same with the bookselling world. I’m sure you’ll be fabulous at it, Zibby, because you have such a keen eye. It’s a tough world, man. Good luck. The people are amazing. I love going to conferences. Bookstores all get together and have their conferences, their regional meetings, and the American Bookseller Association. The people are so great. I wish I could have a bookstore, but I’m supposed to be writing books.

Zibby: What are you working on now?

Garth: I’m working on a couple of things. Book two of my graphic novel series is coming out. We’re going to launch that in July of ’23. We’re finishing up the artwork. It’s a long process. I can write a script way quicker than my illustrator can illustrate it. It’s great. It’s called The Cloven. It’s about genetically modified goat people who live among us, but they hide right in plain sight. They live among the homeless population where people don’t want to look. They say, I don’t see that. I don’t see those hoofs. I don’t see those hoofs. The Cloven is the adventures of one of these experiments gone awry. It’s black comedy, satirical. The second book is coming out next summer. We’re launching at Comic Con. Then I’m working on two novels alternately. I hate doing that, but one hasn’t come up and grabbed me, said “I need you full time” yet. It’s probably going to happen. I’m sensing it’s going to happen with one of them.

One of them’s about two eighty-seven-year-old ladies who become new best friends, based kind of on the adventures of my mother, who wanders around with her best friend getting into mischief and drinking too much wine at lunch and stuff like that, which I think is hysterical. Then the other is a speculative fiction about what this world is headed toward with artificial intelligence. It grapples with the soul and consciousness and what it means to be a person. When we start looking at these photos that we’re seeing from outer space of Jupiter and stuff, it’s just amazing to think that we are a little, teeny, itty-bitty speck of dust among this vastness of this universe. To think that we know all the answers about how things work is just egregiously full of hubris. We don’t know anything. We’re lucky we know what we know. We should be happy with that. We should always be striving to understand the bigger context, which is vast. I’m grappling with those kinds of ideas in my new book.

Zibby: Nice and light.

Garth: I know. My agent’s like, “Can’t you just write a book narrated by a cat?”

Zibby: No, stop. I love the idea of the eighty-seven-year-old women. I think there is a huge void. I’m trying to address this at Zibby Books. We have some books focusing on older characters. Not that I could ever convince you, but if you wanted to send the book to Zibby Books, we would be excited.

Garth: I love it. Absolutely. Are you kidding me? You’ve gone insane. You’re a gigantic brand. How do you have time to do all this stuff? You’ve got your podcast. You’ve got your bookstores coming up. You’ve got a publishing house.

Zibby: I know. I was just on my team call this morning. I’m like, “Okay, I’ve got another idea, because we don’t have enough to do. Let’s do this. Let’s do that.” I know. It all is making sense to me and coming together as a piece of this literary lifestyle brand. It’s all just different elements. It’s all making sense to me in my head, but we’ll see.

Garth: God bless you for doing it because I think it’s so important. I read your memoir, which I thought was fantastic, Bookends, by the way. I think everybody should rush out and buy a copy because it’s really, really good.

Zibby: Thank you.

Garth: It’s really important that literature is a part of our lives as human beings because it makes us feel a greater sense of empathy. We have to put ourselves in someone else’s shoes and say, geez, what would I do in this situation? Then by doing so, we learn that we all may have different opinions and different backgrounds and all that kind of stuff, but as goofy as it sounds, we all share this human connection and desire for meeting, talking, communicating, of love, of sharing. All these things enhance our empathy. They make us better as a society. We need to have someone like you to be our champion of the literary world. Thank you for the great deeds that you are doing.

Zibby: I’m so honored you read my book. Thank you. Thank you for those kind words. I know. I think that the connection that books make is unlike anything else. You and I talking about both watching The Offer, that’s awesome. All these people reading books, it’s the same thing. It’s ten hours of time that we all spend, but then what do you do with that? I want to talk to people who have read that book like I want to talk to people who have read that show. I was just saying, this total stranger had a book event for me the other day. I was like, sure, why not? I’m up for anything. Then at the end of my post, I was like, nobody’s a stranger who has read the same book. Once we’ve all gone through this collective experience together, there’s just something that we have to harness. It’s so unique. I think we’re competing with people, younger people, if you will, who want something in three seconds. We have to resell the idea of a book. It doesn’t sound good. Spend ten hours. Sit still. Don’t do anything else. Use your brain only. It’s like, no, I’m not going to do that.

Garth: It is, absolutely. You’re absolutely right. It is hard. The competition is stiff. Twitter has, no offense, but kind of destroyed our ability to concentrate.

Zibby: It’s not offensive to me.

Garth: I just don’t want to be struck by the bolt of Elon Musk’s lightning or something like that. He can do big, powerful things. I’m sure if I say anything — although, he doesn’t like Twitter anymore, so this is not a big deal. Attention span is a big issue, for sure. We’re moving. I hate that. I’ve been assigned to paint rooms and so forth, and so I’ve been listening to the audiobook of War and Peace, which I never read. It’s fifty-five hours of audiobook.

Zibby: Oh, my gosh.

Garth: I’m thirty-some hours into it. It’s a great book. It’s great. No wonder it’s considered a great book, because it is. Here I am listening to it and painting. I’m thinking, this is perfect. I was like, why do I have to justify my time? Why do I have to double — I don’t mind doing it, but in the old days, you could actually just sit down and read the book and not do anything else. Here I am, I can kind of justify reading the book because I’m doing something else constructive. I think that’s unfair to literature, but it’s part of how our world is going. If you aren’t doing three things at once, you’re not really getting enough done. We should be able to indulge in literature and hold that space. Again, moms don’t have time to read. You’re pointing out this exact problem. We have to hold the space to be human. Without that, it’s going to be a dark, dark world that we’re heading into.

Zibby: I totally agree. All the things we don’t make time for, that’s what it’s all about. Everything gets pushed on the backburner. Before you know it, it’s all over. I’ll leave you with that lovely thought.

Garth: That’s so depressing.

Zibby: You’re welcome.

Garth: Go back and edit that and spin it in a more positive way, okay? Then it’s over.

Zibby: Now it’s over. Sorry. Look, life is short. We all make choices every single day. All we have is today. We make the choice of how we’re going to spend our time. You’re going to spend your time painting and listening to War and Peace. That’s such a cool image, by the way. That’s just so cool. It’s the most badass literary visual I could think of, you with your tattoos painting in your scruffy beard with the overlay. It’s like a movie. That’s awesome. Or you choose to spend another three hours doing whatever stupid stuff that adds up to nothing. I don’t know. We all get to make our choices. I think without books and this ability to literally read each other’s minds, you lose out hugely. I don’t need to tell you this because you’re on the same page.

Garth: I’m on the same page.

Zibby: Nothing like a little meaning-of-life conversation at nine in the morning.

Garth: I know. We’ve squandered our half hour talking about the meaning of life. What is going on, Zibby?

Zibby: Thanks for coming on “Moms Don’t Have Time to Read Books.” I really appreciate it.

Garth: It’s been a pleasure. I want to come on for The Cloven when it comes out and when my old lady book comes out. I have the title. I’m not telling it, but when it comes out. Maybe you and I will talk about it being a Zibby Books production. I’m all for it. The old ladies would love it, man. Old ladies are so funny, in a good way.

Zibby: Old ladies are just us in a few years, just me in a few years. They’re just as smart and engaged and open. It is such an untapped market. It’s ridiculous.

Garth: They buy books. They read. It’s all good.

Zibby: I’m all about it. I can’t wait to read it. Have a great day, Garth.

Garth: Thanks, you too.

Zibby: Bye.



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