Writers are always looking for a muse. James Herriot aside, in the course of conducting interviews with a variety of authors in the past year, I discovered that many writers often find their muse residing in the four-legged companions at their side. And those four-legged muses often take the writers on imaginative trips to faraway lands.
Take James Ellroy, author of crime fiction novels like L.A. Confidential. His Bull Terrier, Dudley, was named after a character in that book. According to Ellroy, Dudley has a long and complicated life. “I’ve bestowed superhuman characteristics on him,” Ellroy says, as Dudley leaves the kitchen of his Tudor-style home in Kansas City, Kansas, and stops to inspect me. Low-key and laid-back – the antithesis of his owner – Dudley moves on to more interesting things. “I love him!” Ellroy exclaims. Dudely’s adventures – via Ellroy’s imagination – have taken him from the grassy knoll in Dallas, TX on the day of JFK’s assassination (the locus of Ellroy’s latest novels, American Tabloid and The Cold Six Thousand) to the boudoirs of some very famous women. “For years, people wondered why Bridget Bardot became an animal rights activist,” says Ellroy.
“It was because of Dudley,” he adds, sotto voce. Dudley’s historical adventures seemed to have had an affect on Ellroy as well. He no longer writes crime fiction books, preferring the larger canvas of history. “I’m a historical novelist now,” he says. Perhaps his next book will center on the historical adventures of a furry, four-legged chap named Dudley.
John Irving has always shown an affinity for animals in his quirky and comedic novels, often using them for symbolism. The Hotel New Hampshire featured a flatulent Labrador named Sorrow, who seems to owe something to Stranger, a part Husky, part German Shepherd dog Irving owned in the seventies. Irving’s latest, The Fourth Hand, features Medea, a mongrel owned by the character of Dr. Zajac. Medea suffers from “dietary indiscretion,” eating everything from sticks and shoes to tennis balls. Irving’s inspiration seems to have been a chocolate Labrador named Dickens, which he bought for his nine-year-old son, Everett. As Irving lifts weights in a Toronto gym, he relates an event that took place not long ago while he and his family were spending the summer in his cabin near Lake Huron. Dickens, still a puppy, found a mussel that “he swallowed whole,” says Irving. Unfortunately, the shellfish lodged in the dog’s throat and had to be surgically removed. According to Irving, “irrigation tubes had to be inserted in the dog’s neck” while the wounds healed. Dickens is fine, of course, but for weeks after the operation, Irving and his son would delight in scaring guests by getting Dickens to bark right after drinking water, turning him into a living sprinkler.
A writer of literary science fiction, Colorado resident Connie Willis has loved her various English Bulldogs (all family pets) so much, that she gave them roles in a few of her novels. Traveling through time, the dogs have found themselves in futuristic England (Doomsday Book) and Victorian England (To Say Nothing of the Dog). With the Rocky Mountains looming large in the distance, Willis shoos away her cats Molly and Hildy (named after characters from the movie His Girl Friday), because one of them has stared to chew on a tablecloth in her home in Greeley. Asked if her new English Bulldog, Gracie, will be part of the cast in forthcoming novels, Willis, with a wry smile, says, “Gracie should be cast in something – possibly cement. She is the naughtiest bulldog we’ve ever had. The bulldog in To Say Nothing of the Dog is based on our three earlier bulldogs, who were all saints. Patient, loving, mellow – with a delightful sense of irony. Gracie is a very large toddler who is always getting into trouble. She does not get to be in any books until her behavior improves.” Recently, Willis recanted, giving Gracie a small cameo in Passage, an otherworldly novel that explores near-death experiences. Willis expects that Hollywood will come calling for Gracie any day now.
A well-known lover of dogs, California native Dean Koontz contributes regularly to organizations that train guide dogs for quadriplegics and paraplegics. They are, says Koontz, “Very complexly trained guide dogs that do tremendous tasks. When I watch them and work with them, I see some special quality that I don’t see anywhere else in the animal kingdom.” That love and respect for canines translates to Koontz’s fiction. In novels like Dark Rivers of the Heart and One Door Away From Heaven, dogs are featured quite prominently. “Dogs have always seemed to me to be of special character. My relationships with dogs tell me there are special hearts there; there is a special connection between man and dog. [In my novels], dogs also allow me to reveal things about human nature by contrasting with that of a dog.” Koontz’s own dog, a Labrador named Trixie, is featured with him on the dust jacket of his latest novel. And in his second book written for children, The Paper Doorway, there are several poems inspired by dogs. In fact, the last poem in the book (“Poem by My Dog”) is credited to Trixie. Obviously, Koontz feels that the intelligence of dogs is far greater than most people think. “I’m collecting amazing stories about my own dog’s intelligence for a nonfiction book one day about that very subject,” says Koontz.
Perhaps the most amazing fictional homage to a petcan be found in the writing of Harlan Ellison. While still a bachelor, the Los Angeles fantasist shared his home with Ahbhu, a Puli or Hungarian Sheepdog. Named after a character from the 1941 film, “The Thief of Bagdad,” Ahbhu became Ellison’s closest companion, and, according to Ellison, the life of every party. Although relationships with various women would end, Ellison claims they came back from time to time to visit Ahbhu. One of them even took the little Puli for Sunday drives on the beach. It was Ahbhu who inspired the whip-smart character of Blood, the telepathic dog and close friend of Vic in the novella, “A Boy and His Dog.” Ellison says he wrote the story “about the nobility of canine companionship” specifically for Ahbhu. The novella won Ellison one of his many awards for fantastic literature. Another award-winning story, “The Deathbird” (both stories can be found in The Essential Ellison), has an essay about Ahbhu folded into its center. Passionate and heart-wrenching, it’s the sort of writing that leaves no reader unmoved, and every writer cognizant of the fact that animals can be both beloved companion and blessed muse.