This might sound strange, given the subject of this blog, but I am not an animal lover. Before you start to dislike me, or at least view me with the kind of uncomprehending huh that most people feel when someone makes the confession I just did, please hear me out.
Animals make me sick. Physically sick, that is. And I don’t just mean a few sneezes, take-a-Claritin kind of sick, I mean laid out for days. I remember going on a romantic getaway with my then-fiancé and deciding to try horseback riding. Sometime in the middle of our ride, I became so weak that I nearly fell off my horse. I had to be taken back to the inn, and I didn’t get out of bed until it was time to go back home. Goodbye, getaway.
When I was very young we had two cats and although I was frail and sickly, I didn’t have the typical allergic symptoms and my parents didn’t realize what was causing the problem. One day I crawled underneath my crib and collapsed. Our apartment had to be vacated for days, and my beloved Andrew, who used to let me tow him around in a sled, got adopted by a kindly neighbor who probably didn’t harass him nearly as much as I did.
So, you see, once upon a time, I was an animal lover. In the years that followed, I became a writer, and animals found their way into my books in ways I couldn’t predict. I think it was my attempt at sublimating all those years and pets I had to go without. In my debut novel, Cover of Snow, there’s a black Lab named Weekend. I get a lot of questions about Weekend’s name, and this is the story I tell of how it came about.
I was on a beach with my husband, my brother, and some friends. We were all in our twenties, doing the kinds of things you do at night on a beach when you’re that age. Bonfire hissing, drinks being poured. And re-poured. Suddenly this guy and his dog come along, and I hear the guy call, “Weekend! Here, boy,” or words to that effect, as he clapped his hands.
In that expansive way assorted libations can instill, I stumbled through the sand to admire this dog—from a sneeze-free distance.
“Great name,” I told his owner.
The guy looked blankly at me.
“Your dog,” I explained. “I love his name.”
“Oh,” the guy said. “Really?” And then he added, “Fido?” Or Rover, or something so unoriginal that probably few people—tipsy or not—had ever gone out of their way to admire it.
But that was okay. I had my name—and a new character for my book.
There’s a dog in the novel I’ll publish next year, and he plays an even more pivotal role than Weekend does in my first novel. This dog was inspired by an animal I met on book tour in 2013. She belongs to a bookseller at McLean & Eakin in Michigan, and she is a rescue dog. Loveable and affable and sweet. But she has a past that nobody—animal lover or not—could bear to think about, and to this day, the dog has trouble being without the beloved folks who rescued her. She follows them all around the bookstore. When I heard this, while patting and complimenting the sweet animal, I immediately thought, What a perfect situation that would create in a book. A dog who can’t be left alone.
Wait a minute, you’re probably saying right now. Did you say you patted this dog? What about your allergies?
It’s a funny thing, but they seem to have gone away. I can be around dogs now, cats too occasionally, although I haven’t dared try horses yet. The heroine of my first novel is allergic to dogs at the beginning, and by the end she becomes Weekend’s caretaker and human.
They say life imitates art. Maybe one day I’ll have a black Lab—or a rescue dog—of my own. Till then, I’ll keep putting them in my books.
Jenny Milchman’s debut novel, Cover of Snow, was chosen as an IndieNext and Target Pick, won the Mary Higgins Clark award, and is nominated for a Barry. Jenny’s second novel, Ruin Falls, just came out and she and her family have hit the road on a 4 month/20,000 mile book tour.