The amount of research which goes into your books is inspiring. How long did this one take you to write? How much help was the dog?
My elderly gentleman of a Labrador, Ludo, now approaching 14, was (as I’m sure he’ll begrudgingly admit) both a help and a hindrance. A help: his inspiring presence made me appreciate the value of dogs more, and take care in describing all their attributes. He was a brilliant guardian of my time, often blocking the exit of my office until I had completed a new section of the book, but never once neglecting to tell me when it was time to take a break (i.e. time to give him lunch or supper or afternoon walk). But he was a hindrance because he initially wanted to write quite a lot of the book himself. If you’re a dog owner you’ll know the pattern: he began by offering just a few helpful hints, but matters came to a head when he started demanding royalties; I suggested that he would only get royalties if he made a significant contribution to his feed and vet bills, and he quietened down after that.
What was the inspiration for this book?
My editor. We were having a discussion about what I should write about next, and she suggested something she knew I cared about a great deal. I looked down at my dog Ludo and he looked back in approval.
Who do you think is your typical reader, if such a person exists? Who would you love to read your book? Do you think non dog-lovers will enjoy reading it?
I think this one is primarily for the dog lover, though not necessarily for the dog owner. It’s a wide-ranging history, which is another way of saying it’s a rather idiosyncratic and subjective one. Like many of my other books, it takes a big topic and tries to tell the best (i.e., most informative and amusing) stories. I’m not sure I have a typical reader, beyond the fact that they’ll have a curious mind and obviously impeccable taste…
There are some sobering chapters, particularly the World War II section. Was it difficult to write those without being upset?
Yes, I only had a very vague idea about how we had treated our dogs during the wars, so the details really shocked me. But overall I tried to make the book a celebration of dogs, and something that would bring pleasure to the reader. So I shied away from stories showing cruelty towards dogs, of which there continues to be too much.
You write very passionately about dog breeding, and the importance of it being kept within responsible and humane bounds. What do you think about the huge increase in puppy sales during lockdown?
I think it shows the best and worst of us. I’m cheered by the fact that people want the comfort of dogs in difficult times, the fact that rescue shelters are seeing a lot more interest, and that we all realize their worth (companionship, solace, exercise, the re-routing of responsibilities and priorities). But of course I’m appalled by the downside of this – the power of the market in increasing the cost of buying a dog, the ghastly puppy-farm breeding to meet this new demand, even the dog-napping from outside shops. And then there are all those stories about new owners not thinking their purchase through, and the rescue shelters filling up again. One can only hope that dogs will be loved and cherished far more than they are used and exploited.
The section on scientific research, particularly cloning, is unsettling. Do you think it likely that cloned dogs (or other animals) will ever become the norm?
It’s certainly becoming more popular among people with more money than sense.
Do you have much time to read? Do you read for pleasure or for work?
Most of my work-related reading is non-fiction, and most of the reading I do purely for pleasure is fiction. I love almost everything by Michael Chabon, Richard Yates, James Salter, Ann Patchett, Lorrie Moore, Colm Toibin, Roddy Doyle - all American and Irish for some reason.
How do you write? Do you have a special place, rituals, or a system that you like to use?
During lockdown I’ve been writing from home in my office, but ideally I’d be at the London Library or a good coffee bar. And my terrace when the sun’s out.
Do you have a favourite genre or author? What books or authors would you say were significant influences on you ?
Early on it was all the New Journalists like Tom Wolfe, Gay Talese and Hunter S. Thompson. Some John Gregory Dunne. These days it’s Tracy Kidder, Francis Spufford, Nicholson Baker. Most of it just really deep reporting.
The Covid situation has affected us all in different ways. How have you been managing in the lockdowns?
Managing fine thanks. Like a lot of authors, I’m finding the lockdown to be my default position – ie sitting on my bum, looking at a screen. But I do miss all the inspirations – theatre, music, people, the outside world.
What would your perfect day look like?
A good day’s writing, a walk on Hampstead Heath with the dog, a good day’s writing, great food with my wife and friends, maybe a play or a film at a real cinema rather than our living room.
What are you reading at the moment?
Through The Looking Glass, a clever and unexpected history of reading glasses and seeing by Tavis Elborough.
What was your favourite book as a child?
Who’s your favourite dog in literature?
I’m not sure you’d call it literature, but Snoopy. Of course it’s literature! In books rather than comic strips, maybe Maf the Dog in Andrew O’Hagan’s novel about Marilyn Monroe.
And, inevitably, what’s your favourite breed of dog? (We loved this: “Tastes differ, of course: if they didn’t we’d all just own Labradors.”)
Thank you very much for speaking to us, we wish you every success with the book.