Interviewed by Sue Leonard.
Published in the Irish Examiner. 21st February 2009.
John Grogan’s second book is about his Catholic childhood near Detroit. His parents were dogmatic, but this is not a misery memoir. Far from it. Fervent Catholics, who acted out their faith, and expected their children to do the same, John’s parents were also fun loving. And their house was full of love.
“I was out with my friends all the time,” John tells me, on a snowy morning in Dublin. “My mother was a joker and my friends liked to hang out at my house. It was a lovely environment to grow up in.”
The friction came later. Much later, when John was 29. He announced that he, and his non-Catholic girlfriend Jenny were moving in together. And his parents were horrified.
“I had spent years fudging on the truth about mass, and going to church on Sundays. And when Jenny would visit I would say she stayed over with a good friend. They were happy to accept that at face value.
“In hindsight that was destructive. It would have been much better if I had been more upfront as a teen.” As, indeed, he is in his memoir. It’s a hilarious take on his childhood and teenage years.
John has Irish roots. He’s travelled Ireland in search of ancestors, and says he feels very comfortable here. Especially when it comes to discussing the issues in this book.
“People nod knowingly here, and say, ‘yeah, like my home when I was growing up,” he says.
This former journalist rocketed to fame three years ago, when the memoir about his dog, Marley and Me became an International best seller. Last night John spoke in Dublin, before the pre-premiere private screening of the movie, which stars Jenifer Aniston and Owen Wilson.
What was it like watching his life on screen?
“It was an out of body experience,” says John. “It was kind of my life, and it does feel like a trajectory of our life as a couple. And yes, it felt pretty darned good to be married to Jennifer Aniston. My wife would say the same about Owen Wilson!”
The movie about the Labrador that John describes as ‘the worst dog in the world’ is heart warming and emotional. At the end of the screening, most of us in the private cinema were wiping away tears.
It keeps pretty close to the book, except for the way it portrays John’s professional life.
“They wanted a little dramatic tension, so they portrayed me as such starting out. In reality I was well regarded as a journalist. And I very much worked for my column; I wasn’t at all reluctant to take it on.”
The youngest of four boys, John has always wanted to write. A bad student, he shone at English. He thought like a writer too.
“The summer when I was 10, some kids came to stay from Detroit. They were with us to escape the riots there. And even then, I thought I’d like to write something that captured that magical summer. I knew it was an extraordinary moment in my life.”
As school, John started an underground newspaper, in protest, when the official school magazine censored articles. He got into trouble for his pains, and he expected his father to explode. But he didn’t.
“It was not something he would have approved of because of our use of language and our questioning of authority; but he was proud of me. He was pleased that I had felt motivated enough to do something.
“That was a defining moment. It made me realise that my parents, although they were conservative and dogmatic in their faith, also gave their children a fair amount of license to spread their wings.”
The memoir shows the journey of that father son relationship from innocence, through conflict, to acceptance, and, finally, great love. All this is done with humour. Like the time, knowing he had a duty to give his son a sex education, his father demonstrated the act, by showing how the male and female parts of a hosepipe screwed together.
John enjoyed his early sexual experimentation. But when his first serious girlfriend, Anna, said she didn’t want to go all the way, he felt relived.
“I was afraid too, but I didn’t want to admit it. The social pressure was that at all costs the male wanted to get laid; but I was not ready either. It was a big step.”
His parents didn’t suspect when he did, finally, make out with Anna. He didn’t tell them that he was sleeping with his next girlfriend, Becky, either. Yet by that time, he was away at college, studying journalism and English.
After college, unsure whether he preferred journalism or creative writing, John got a job as a news reporter.
“I thought a journalist wrote facts in an inverted pyramid. I thought I would write fiction at night when I got home. But I soon realised that there were two kinds of journalist.
“There are reporters who write. They put all their energies into the gathering of facts, and the writing of it is an afterthought. Then there are writers who report. They use the facts as building blocks to create a portrait. They put a lot of thought into it. I was a writer who reported.”
After working for six years John won a scholarship into a graduate programme in Ohio state, where he studied literary journalism.
“We learned how to use the devices of a novel writer in journalism, and my style changed.”
John felt more than ready to write the column on the South Florida Sun Sentinel, as described in Marley and Me. It had a huge following, and his readership increased when he began to write about his delinquent dog.
“When Marley was two years old, and chewing walls, we still hadn’t figured how to tame him. As a home owner I was appalled, but as a columnist I was delighted,” says John. “I started testing the stories about him at dinner parties, and over the back yard fence. People loved the stories about Marley being kicked out of training school, and eating the turkey off the counter. The columns about him always got a huge response from readers.”
The biggest response of all came after Marley’s death when John wrote a farewell column to him, telling reader what joy the dog had brought his family.
“And then I saw this whole book. And it’s really the story of a couple growing up together and growing into responsible adults and parents. The illness and death of my father, too, made me see what the book really was.”
He’d decided to write The Longest Trip Home before that first book was published. But he didn’t start writing it for a year, by which time he had given up his journalism.
“I think I have another two first person non-fiction books in me,” he says.
“And I would love to write a novel. I’ve had a story tinkering in my mind for years. I can see the characters and the settings.”
The Longest Trip Home by John Grogan is published by Hodder and Stoughton at 14.99 euro.
© Sue Leonard. 2009.