Dancing toward a novel
by Susan Wilson
In Susan Wilson's latest novel, one lost Sheltie helps a couple dealing with a devastating tragedy discover there is more to living than just surviving—and as Mack's owner Justine desperately searches for the dog she loves, she realizes that you don't always have to be lost in order to be found. In a behind-the-book essay, she explains how The Dog Who Danced originated.
When I set off to write The Dog Who Danced, it began with a completely different set of characters. My heroine was a 20-something television producer of a local morning show attached to a creepy boyfriend. She had very little “juice” in her, and within a few pages she’d failed to develop and, frankly, had even become rather blah. Or, to put a word on it, boring. Of course, I, as her author, didn’t recognize this, at least not on any useful level; I tend to get caught up in the prose, sort of like not seeing those trees for the, well, you know the rest. Fortunately, my editor did. “She’s not gritty enough.” “There’s no reason to like her.”
Who has the most claim on Mack, the person who lost him or the people who found him?
The scales fell from my eyes and within a week, my heroine, renamed and re-imagined, became a character who flew off the pages. Giving Justine Meade life was a thrill ride, because I had to write to her tough side, but also had make her into a believable and compelling character so that readers would get behind her and want her to succeed. A very fine line. I ditched the creepy boyfriend in favor of a creepy truck driver. And my grieving couple, Ed and Alice Parmalee, emerged to tell their story.
Justine Meade becomes separated from her beloved Sheltie when she is abandoned at a rest stop in Ohio while the driver continues on, only belatedly aware that her dog is still in the cab. Her story is her desperate efforts to find her dog, while at the same time fulfilling her commitment to be at her estranged father’s side as he dies. Along the way, Justine has to come to terms with her past and her relationship with her own estranged son.
Mack the Sheltie, who is literally kicked out of the truck on the side of the Mass Pike, finds shelter with Ed and Alice Parmalee, a couple who have lost their only child and now live in an empty marriage in rural Massachusetts. Mack is at the heart of the book and his character, written in the third person (third dog?) allowed me to tell much of the story through his eyes.
Justine is looking for her dog and the Parmalees have found him. The ultimate conflict is who will, in the end, claim him.
When I was a child, I was given a set of Junior Classics. This compendium of 12 hardcover volumes broken down into topics was a wonderful early education. One volume was fairy tales, another contained the retelling of classic myths of the world: Greek, Roman, Norse. But my favorite was always the brown covered Animal Stories. There I read abridged stories from Jack London and Albert Payson Terhune. One of the stories was “Brown Wolf” by Jack London. In it, Madge and Walter Irvine befriend a magnificent half-wild dog. After months of effort, the dog finally becomes settled with the couple, and in all appearances is happy. Then on a walk through the woods, the Irvines encounter a man recently back from the Klondike. Wolf, famously aloof and even hostile with strangers, is clearly overjoyed to see this man, who quickly claims him as his stolen sled dog, Brown.
Who has the rights to this dog? Who has the strongest claim on him: the people who have tamed him into being a housedog or the man who raised him by hand from a pup? In the end, at Madge’s suggestion, they let dog himself choose.
This theme of dog loyalties and the anguish of losing a beloved pet resonated with me then, as now. Hence the ultimate conflict in The Dog Who Danced. Who has the most claim on Mack, the person who lost him or the people who found him? Who is more deserving of him? Who does he love best? No spoiler alert here, I won’t spill the beans. But I will say that it was the hardest plotting I’ve ever had to do. I didn’t know how this story was going to end until about three weeks before I got to the moment. I struggled with it. My loyalties were completely divided among the characters I had come to know so well. King Solomon anyone? I couldn’t find a reasonable and comprehensible solution.
How often have we heard of people splitting up and custody of beloved pets having to be shared, or, given up entirely, or, worst of all, used as punishment? Could a shared custody work with the characters who live on opposite coasts? Is it plausible for Justine to give up her dog after such a dramatic search; or, for the Parmalees to give back the dog that has brought them back together and helped them heal from their devastating loss?
As a dog person who is completely ruled by my family’s current canine incumbent, Bonnie, I can easily project myself into the anguish suffered by Justine and by the Parmalees. As a writer, I can also project myself into the anguish experienced by a dog having to make such a choice. What would Bonnie do? Like Wolf, if put to the test, would she turn her back on someone she loved? Of course, I’m assuming that she loves me best. I’m the one that brought her home, I’m the one who feeds her, grooms her, takes her to the dog park every day regardless of rain, wind, snow, heat of summer; makes her take her pills when she has to and applies the flea killer. The hubby is good for snuggles on the couch and endless rounds of tug o’war but has forgotten to feed her in my absence. Then, without intending it, a test of her loyalties came up.
My husband and I were at the dog park recently and he needed to leave before our complete circuit was done. I marched on, absolutely confident that Bonnie, who believes that a full tour of the park is her God-given right, would keep going with me. She didn’t. She stood in the middle of the path, staring at him leaving and me going in the opposite direction. Her ears were folded back and her obvious distress at our separation would have been cute, if it hadn’t been so sad. I rejoined my husband and we all went home.
I did finally come up with a solution for Justine and my friends the Parmalees that worked. Because I had grown to know Justine well, especially given her false start, I knew exactly what needed to happen. And to find out what that was, you’ll have to read the book.
Susan Wilson is the author of Beauty—a modern retelling of Beauty and the Beast which was made into a CBS TV movie—as well as four other novels, including One Good Dog. She lives on Martha’s Vineyard.