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'Marley and Me' author recounts improbable tale of success



Author John Grogan reads from his latest memoir.

The author of the phenomenally successful Marley and Me franchise shared reflections on his writing, his unlikely commercial success and the challenges of memoir writing with an audience of nearly 400 in Packard Auditorium Thursday afternoon.

Writer John Grogan detailed the process that led to the book that was recently brought to life in a hit movie that featured Owen Wilson as Grogan, and Jennifer Anniston as his wife, Jenny, raising an impossibly misbehaved and spirited yellow Labrador retriever, Marley.

Grogan said he agreed to a request to come to Lehigh to talk about his books and memoir writing after spending months in Linderman Library working on his latest book, The Longest Trip Home .

“How could I refuse? I owe them one,” he wrote on his Web site.

“The library is a beautiful old stone structure that was recently renovated top to bottom,” Grogan wrote of Linderman. “With its soaring ceilings, stone fireplaces, wrought-iron balconies and leaded-glass windows, it looked like something out of a Harry Potter movie. More importantly, it had the kind of creative energy I was looking for. It was a place meant for quiet study, and yet I could be surrounded by students and teachers deep in their own work. Their energy was contagious.”

The Lehigh community returned the gratitude by offering the author a warm reception, with many attendees lining up for more than an hour afterward, waiting for an opportunity to have well-worn copies of Marley and Me and crisp new editions of The Longest Trip Home autographed by the author.

Grogan recalled how, as a newspaper columnist and magazine editor, he often thought about writing a book. “Every time I wrote about a major story in the news, or a big political scandal, I would think, maybe this is the book I’ll write,” he said.

But a column he wrote for the Philadelphia Inquirer about the loss of his beloved 13-year-old dog ultimately helped Grogan realize that the “book I was meant to write had been literally lying at my feet all along, and often chewing my shoelaces off.”

The column that Grogan wrote after Marley died drew incredible reader reaction. “It was easily 25 times more than I had for any other column I wrote, on a good day. I knew that I had somehow struck a chord with people and that’s when I started to write the book.”

Realizing what’s important



Grogan, who wrote much of his latet memoir in Linderman Library, stayed for more than an hour after his talk, greeting fans and signing autographs.

The energetic and irascible puppy Grogan adopted shortly after he was married quickly grew into “100 pounds of pure, unbridled, neurotic energy….this enormous body with this little tiny brain.”

Marley thought of himself as more than a pet—“He was a firm believer in democracy. He felt he had an equal vote in our house.”—and became a catalyst in the Grogan marriage.

“He was the irritant forming the pearl, forcing us to confront things we wouldn’t have confronted otherwise,” Grogan said. “He taught us values. He helped us realize that that the important things are not the car you drive or your zip code, but your family and your relationships. And as we were going through this process, figuring this all out, he was challenging us and changing us. It was really only after he died that I saw what the real story was.”

Selling the book was another matter, he said. He sent his book proposal to 12 literary agents, and 11 of them immediately rejected it. One, he said, even took the time to phone him to tell him how much of her time he wasted.

“I hope she remembers me now,” he said to laughter from the audience.

His sense of vindication is well-earned. Marley and Me debuted on the bestseller list at number 10, before shooting to number one and remaining in the top spot for 23 weeks. In total, it spent 76 weeks on the bestseller list. The surprising success of the book led to a series of children’s books, another book for young readers, and eventually, a phone call from an executive at 20th Century Fox.

“My wife and I were at a book event, and got the call that they wanted to make the book into a movie, and I immediately said yes, with some trepidation,” he said. “I’d heard how these things get out of hand. I mean, they could have made Marley a chihuahua and me an…..arsonist.”

A two-hour dinner in Philadelphia with the movie producer assuaged his concerns. Soon, he and his wife found themselves on a Miami movie set, watching well-known actors recreate their life together.

“It doesn’t get much more out-of-body than watching Owen Wilson on a set, playing you,” he said. “And Jenny wasn’t too disappointed to be played by Jennifer Aniston. I mean, couldn’t they find someone better looking?”

Coming home



The line for the book signing snaked along the hallway outside Packard Auditorium.

Before his Lehigh appearance, Grogan had just returned from a trip to Europe, where he promoted his most recent book, The Longest Trip Home , a personal memoir that takes readers back to his Michigan childhood in a devoutly Catholic family and through his father’s devastating illness at the end of his life.

Before dissecting the painstaking process of picking through saved letters, columns and photographs to help jog his memory and recall pivotal moments in his life, Grogan shared a humorous passage from his book that illustrated the growing pains he felt in separating from his parents and building a new life with his wife.

In it, Grogan and his bride returned to his parent’s home, where his mother transformed his parents’ bedroom into a “honeymoon suite,” complete with fresh flowers, a turn-downed bed and chocolates on the pillows.

Still in place were the symbols of their faith: a large portrait of a smiling pope, vials of Holy Water, several crucifixes, a life-sized statue of the Virgin Mary, and a string of wooden rosary beads that looked like they were made for mythical lumberjack Paul Bunyan.

Grogan’s lecture was sponsored by the Friends of the Lehigh University Libraries. He was introduced by Heather Rodale ’74, ’76G, ’05P, who met Grogan when he was editor of Organic Gardening magazine, published by Rodale Inc., for three years.

--Linda Harbrecht

Photos by Theo Anderson


Posted on Friday, February 20, 2009

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