No Wonder My Fourth Novel Stars a Rottweiler -- I Grew Up in a Menagerie of Cats and Dogs
Editor's Note: Michael has kindly agreed to give Dogster readers three signed hardcover copies of his new book, Rotten. Find out how to enter below!
It was probably inevitable that I would write a book about a boy and his dog -- and also that the dog would be a rescue. The house I grew up in was a menagerie. My mom was an animal-lover to the nth degree, and my older brother, Matt, and I were carried along. She had a passion for adopting animals, and we had as many as eight at a time. About half were cats and half were dogs; half were rescues and half the pick of someone’s litter (often our own).
The cats included an uncommonly loyal Maine Coon and a truly devious Siamese, but it’s the dogs I remember best. Growing up among so many made an indelible impression on me -- sometimes literally. Running to get the phone one afternoon, I made the fateful decision to hurdle a dog gate protecting the front of the house from the soggy depredations of our latest arrival.
I was a freshly minted teenager and thus convinced that the call was vitally important (and for me). The decision seemed sound, and the leap was more than adequate, but our house had been built in the 1800s, when life was simpler, people were shorter, and doorframes lower. I hit the crossbeam mid-skull and was knocked out cold.
I came to on my back in the living room, with Fluffy heroically licking my face. She was a Poodle my mom had coaxed off a street during the year we spent living in a rough patch of Hartford. Her fur had been so filthy that we didn’t realize it was white until she’d had a thorough bath and clipping. Now this rescue dog was attempting to return the favor, using the only medical equipment at her disposal.
Fluffy was the exception among my mom’s rescues. Most of the others, canine or feline, came from the Little Guild of St. Francis in West Cornwall, CT. That’s probably where mom got Max, too, but I can’t be completely sure because I was in college at the time.
Max had some enormous paw prints to fill. He was replacing a black Lab mix named Little Bit. For my brother and me, “Boo Boo” had been the great dog of our childhoods. He was our Lassie, our Skip, not to mention an escape artist for the ages. His back legs had finally given out (a phrase that still guts me) shortly after I’d left for New York University. It was as if, after seeing two boys up and out, his job was done.
Max was a Brittany -- at least he seemed to be (he was suspiciously large for the breed). More to the point, he was a rescue who’d been abused. My third young-adult novel, Rotten, is dedicated to both of them -- “To Little Bit and Max, two great dogs, two good boys” -- but it was Max who made it possible for me to write the book.
Rotten is about a troubled teen named JD and a rescued Rottweiler named Johnny Rotten. I had long known that every dog has its own personality, but Max opened my eyes to how years of abuse can both shake and shape those psychological foundations. One example: He responded to the first safe, loving home he’d ever known by constantly trying to escape. That first summer Max was with us, we practically had to build an airlock on the front door.
At first, his escape attempts made no sense to me, but then I realized that, after years of wanting nothing more than to get away, Max couldn’t just walk into a new place and flip a switch. He had to learn to trust us in order to feel safe. And we had to give him the time he needed, and to try to understand not just what he did, but why he did it. It took a while, but we got there. Max became a prince of a dog, and a tremendous comfort to my mom during her final battle with cancer.
Maybe I could have learned those lessons earlier, from Fluffy. She’d also had a rough go of it, but I’d been too young to fully grasp the changes in her -- from tiny dog shaking in the corner to valiant face-licker -- and I was always hitting my head back then, anyway.
When the time came to write my third novel for teens, I decided it would be about a rescue dog. I knew early on that I wanted to write about one of the so-called “bully breeds,” because they are subject to the same sort of knee-jerk suspicion and distrust that teen boys often encounter. Here in NYC, I’ve seen people cross the street to avoid both.
And, frankly, the idea that some dogs are inherently dangerous based only on their breed drives me a little crazy, as do breed-specific laws. It’s worth remembering that when I was a kid, German Shepherds were still widely vilified.
For this book, the Rottweiler jumped out at me (so to speak). Less overtly politicized than Pit Bulls these days, Rotties still get a bum rap. But dog-lovers know that the breed is famous for its courage, obedience, and devotion. They have huge hearts and love to work. They were bred to herd. They’re also my dream dog, for the day I no longer live in a fourth-floor walkup.
I did a lot of research on Rotties -- I met some amazing dogs, quizzed their owners, and even visited their home turf in Germany -- but I also thought a lot about Max and Fluffy and the rest of the menagerie. I thought about how much they changed and grew, based on nothing more than their own personalities and some decent treatment.
Seeing those things with my own eyes and then hearing about supposedly irredeemable dogs was a disconnect I needed to explore. A young adult novel seemed like the perfect venue. Teens have an acute sense of right and wrong. It’s a dramatic and not always fair age -- and, of course, they love an underdog.
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