For you dog lovers like me, this week’s post is a treat for you. Linda Gray Sexton is here to talk about her new book BESPOTTED: MY FAMILY’S LOVE AFFAIR WITH THIRTY-EIGHT DALMATIONS, a memoir speaking to the growth of its author into a different phase of her life—one dominated by joy—and uniquely examines how one family, and one breed, found their way through life together. After the death of her mother, the poet Anne Sexton, Linda became the literary executor of the estate at twenty-one years old and edited several posthumous books of her mother’s poetry, as well as publishing ANNE SEXTON: A SELF-PORTRAIT IN LETTERS and BETWEEN TWO WORLDS: YOUNG WOMEN IN CRISIS. Linda’s other books include four novels (RITUALS, MIRROR IMAGES, POINTS OF LIGHT and PRIVATE ACTS) and two memoirs (one a New York Times Notable Book of the Year).
We’re thrilled to have Linda stop by the Debutante Ball! Here are Linda’s answers to our Deb interview.
Your cover is so gorgeous. Is that one of your Dalmatians? How did the cover come to be?
The story of how BESPOTTED’s cover came to be is actually an amusing one. When I first received a proof, I was very excited about the design. What I was not excited about—what I, in fact, hated, was the dog they had displayed so prominently. It was a truly ugly Dalmatian. I don’t know where they dug it up, but in any case, I told my editor it was a no go. I said my Dal friends would make fun of me with such a pathetic example of the breed dominating the cover of my book, and anyway, I wanted one of my dogs up there as the main event. “But how,” he asked, “would you get that look of total adoration as the dog looks up at its master? And what about that worn red collar—you’ll never find one of those!” “Don’t worry about the pose,” I answered, “and I’ve got the very same collar in my dog drawer. Give me till tomorrow.”
And so that night, my husband and I posed all three of our Dalmatians in front of a blank wall in the bedroom and he got out his camera. I stood them up so they looked pretty and then got out of the shot, but still in front of the dog—with a hot dog in my elevated hand. Presto! “The Look!”
We put all the shots up on the computer and were pleased to find several of each dog that were terrific. I sent my editor one each of Cody, Breeze and Mac and let him choose. He picked Mac, who, ironically, is the only dog not in the book, as he was born here after the manuscript went into galley. I wanted to write a little epilogue about him, but my editor said enough was enough. “At the rate you’re going Linda, we’d be revising around the dogs into the next decade.”
What are you working on now?
I’ve decided to switch gears for a bit and I am working on a novel. I never talk about the subject of a book until I’m deep inside “its head,” so I can’t really say too much, other than it is fun to return to my first love in writing—fiction. I published four novels before the three memoirs, but that was several decades ago. So, I would say it’s a bit on the frightening side. It’s a real challenge—maybe even more so than my first novel ever was.
I loved the passages in your book about how your Dalmatians helped you through the difficult times in your life. Do you think there’s something specific to the breed that makes them empathetic or is this the nature of a dog?
In BESPOTTED, I write a great deal about how the dogs in my life, especially some very special ones, have been therapy dogs for our family, or specifically, for me. When I was growing up my mother was extremely depressed and she often turned to our Dalmatians for comfort. When I was getting divorced and hit a really rocky time, I found Gulliver, the dog of my heart, who would lie beside me for hours, lap away every tear, and keep me company when no one else would. He was a true therapy dog and never asked for anything in return. There was just a great deal of loving coming my way. I feel he was my greatest supporter.
I think any breed of dog can be this sort of therapy dog, or “heart dog,” as long as he or she is outgoing and empathetic. It is in a dog’s nature to cleave to his humans, to love unconditionally, and to really “be there” for you. Some dogs are more independent and don’t always display this particular kind of affection, but I don’t think it is breed specific. I get hundreds of emails from readers who say that their dog is their greatest companion, supporter, and friend. We rely on our dogs in a way we simply cannot rely on the people in our lives, because our relationships with people are so infinitely more complicated. So a Golden can be your therapy dog, or a Dachshund or a Beagle. It all depends on what you give, what you put into your loving, and whether your dog loves you as much as you love him—which more often than not is the case.
How was writing this book different than your other books?
Writing BESPOTTED was a totally joyful experience, even when I had to write sad chapters about beloved dogs passing on. Both SEARCHING FOR MERCY STREET and HALF IN LOVE were much more difficult as they delved into more difficult parts of my life. BESPOTTED showcases my love for my dogs and their love for me. Some people think the book is solely for Dalmatian owners, but that is not true. Just as Marley and Me was not only for Golden Retriever lovers, BESPOTTED reaches out to a general dog loving audience. Overall, writing the book was a tremendously enriching experience, as I got to relive each dog’s life, beat by beat, and remember how wonderful they all were.
What advice do you have for anyone considering welcoming a dog into their life for the first time?
That’s an excellent question. Because I breed dogs, I have first-time owners come into my home with every litter that arrives. Everyone has lots of questions, and I encourage all of them. First, you have to realize that a dog is an enormous commitment—not a toy—and that ownership has to occur at the right time in your life. You have to be in the right place, both physically and emotionally, to take on such a responsibility. After all, remember that a dog will be part of your life for the next twelve to fifteen years. And dogs in general do not do well with being alone or being ignored out in the backyard. Dogs are companion animals and need your attention and company. It’s not unlike getting a child, even though it is easier in some regards, but not in terms of responsibility to another living being.
You also need to educate yourself about the breed you are choosing. If you live in a small apartment and are inactive yourself, don’t choose a breed like a Dalmatian or a Beagle. Dals are active and have tails that whip around and knock over everything in a limited space, and Beagles, while small in stature, howl and bark all the time. Your neighbors wouldn’t be pleased with your choice—a Cavalier King Charles Spaniel would be a better one. Think “lap dog.” However, if you’ve got a backyard or like to take walks, then consider the more active breeds. A Dal is perfect for this, though they can be couch potatoes as well. Mine are asleep at my feet as I type! Consult the guides on the AKC website to find a breed that fits with your lifestyle—don’t just go with any cute puppy. There are cute puppies in every breed.
My most important piece of advice is to find a good breeder. The AKC runs puppy ads from breeders, but they don’t screen them. It’s a better idea to find local clubs throughout the country—though preferably in your area, state or nearby states—and ask who has a current litter. Then call the recommended breeder and talk with them. Go with your gut, but ask intelligent questions as well. Don’t just ask the price! I rarely sell a puppy to someone who starts out by asking the price off the bat. If you are worried about the initial cost of a puppy you shouldn’t be in the market for a dog—when you are finished with food, toys, supplies, vaccinations, kenneling or dog sitting, and the inevitably huge vet bills over the years, the price you paid for the pup will be a drop in the bucket. (So, you should also assess whether you can even afford to keep a dog!)
A reputable breeder shouldn’t mind giving you referrals to people who have previously purchased a pet from him or her. Call the references! Find out what their experience has been. And, another good sign of a serious breeder is whether their contract contains a “take back” clause. Anyone who cares about his or her pups will take back a puppy who just isn’t working out—for whatever reason. I’d rather have to rehome a dog than discover it up for sale on Craig’s list, or in a kill shelter. So, this is something you should also look for.
Of course, some don’t want a dog from a breeder. They want to do a rescue. And that’s good, too. Without rescues we would have even more kill shelters and more dogs being euthanized. Try to find a reputable rescue that can give you references for dogs they have placed. Ask how many dogs come back to them. What is their success in placement rate? How do they screen the dogs that are in their care? What is the background of the dog? If it is one who was thrown from a moving car and abandoned (I know of such a case) then you know you may have extra work on your hands in terms of rehabilitation.
Personally, I think it is safer to go to a breed rescue (one that rescues the specific breed you are interested in) than to go to a general shelter. Nearly all breed clubs try to pull their dogs out of shelters and get them into their Rescue. However, if breed doesn’t matter to you, and you just want to get a dog in need, then go to a shelter—but ask intelligent questions about where the dog came from, why it was turned in or the circumstances of its abandonment, whether it has a history of aggression toward people or other dogs.
Find out as much as you can about its background. As wonderful as it is to save a dog’s life, it is not wonderful if, in the long run, you have to return the dog later to be euthanized because it bit someone. If you know as much as you can about the dog before you take it home to live with you, you’re a lot more likely to succeed in keeping it. Also, research the breeds that will fit with your home, just as I mentioned before, and if it is a mix, then research those of which it is a combination. Make sure all this fits in with your lifestyle and that you are being realistic. Don’t make the mistake of going in and “just looking.” You will always find a sad, needy and adorable face in a shelter that you can fall in love with. Try and make an intelligent choice, not just an emotional one. Your safety and health—as well as the dog’s life—could depend on it.
Thank you, Linda, for joining us today on the Deb Ball!
GIVEAWAY: Comment on this post by Noon (EST) on Friday, November 21 to enter to win a copy of BESPOTTED. Follow The Debutante Ball on Facebook and Twitter for extra entries—just mention that you did so in your comments. We’ll choose and contact the winner on Friday. Good luck!
Linda Gray Sexton is the daughter of Pulitzer Prize-winning poet Anne Sexton. She has written four novels and two memoirs, HALF IN LOVE: SURVIVING THE LEGACY OF SUICIDE and SEARCHING FOR MERCY STREET, both published by Counterpoint. She lives in Redwood City, California. Please visit lindagraysexton.com to learn more about Linda’s books and connect with other readers.