As we celebrate the 20th Anniversary of Goodnewsforpets.com, we pay tribute to the legendary Mordecai Siegal, a longtime goodnewsforpets.com columnist who passed away on April 1, 2010. The picture above was a favorite of his and the column below was one of his last. A pet writer of over 35 books, he was also president emeritus of the Dog Writers Association of America (DWAA) and a founding member of the Cat Writers’ Association. He was born in Philadelphia but spent most of his adult life as a New Yorker. And what a New Yorker he was. Thank you for all you did to contribute to Goodnewsforpets.com and to dog writing, Mordecai.
To view all 38 of Mordecai’s goodnewsforpets.com columns, click here
New Book/ Old Book
I’m sitting here in my work space at the little desk given to me 10 years ago by a friend whose father used to write on it at the Wall Street Journal. It is a sweet old thing and it gives me a sense of humility whenever I sit down to work. It is the perfect size for a small studio apartment. So far, I have written six books and dozens of columns and articles on it, including the very next one.
Speaking of which, I am holding in my hands the first complete sample of the jacket cover for my latest baby, Dog Spelled Backwards. Soulful Writing by Literary Dog Lovers. As you can see, its’ periwinkle background showing a colorful dog with its back to us is quite a fetching cover; one that I hope will appeal to browsers in book stores across the country and encourage them to buy it. I mention this not only as a form of shameless self-promotion (it’s tough to sell a new book) but because I think the history of this, my 34th or 35th book, tells a story about the involvement with dogs and everything about them in our American culture.
Back in 1973 when my first book came out and I enjoyed an unexpected success, there was no such thing as a dog or pet section in bookstores. As a matter of fact, there were only a handful of books about dogs available which included the AKC Complete Dog Book and Blanche Saunders’ Training You To Train Your Dog. My new book, Good Dog, Bad Dog:, Training Your Dog At Home was lost in the NATURE section. There it sat between a book about elm trees and another about gorillas until our sales rose dramatically, and then was placed in the front window of the main Doubleday Store on Fifth Avenue. Although we eventually sold over a million copies of our humble dog training book for pet owners at the time the publishing business had not yet caught up with the depth of the dog-owning public as a legitimate book market thirsting for information about dogs. Our editor at Holt, Rinehart & Winston rejected the idea of a second dog book, despite our success, on the grounds that my coauthor, Matthew Margolis and I had written about all there was to write about dogs in our first book. How wrong he was and how sweet it is to think about it, so many books and so many years later. Not even my then-literary agent understood any of this at the time.
I have been a client at the William Morris Agency since 1969.
I have been a client at the William Morris Agency since 1969, not their richest client, not their greatest money-earner, and certainly not their most distinguished author. I was signed as a novelist and playwright, not as a dog writer. So when I marched into the office back in 1979 or 1980, with a four-page proposal in my hand for what I thought was an inspired idea for a dog book, I was surprised at the lady’s reaction. After all, I already had a number of successful dog books under my belt and I was the monthly pet columnist for House Beautiful among other such distinctions.
In those days, a signed client could just pop in on the agent to say hello, mooch some coffee, bite of prune Danish, some casual conversation, and present a book idea. Little did I know such behavior was a luxurious privilege, no longer practical. Of course, ever since 9/11 you cannot get into any office building in Manhattan without looking into a camera, showing a photo ID, and swearing to God Almighty that you were there with good intentions and you had an appointment.
I remember proclaiming through a mouth full of Danish, “Marcia, I have a great book idea and I really want to do it.” Now I have to tell you that I had a great crush on this woman (I was married though and kept it to myself) and it always made me a little nervous to talk to her under the best circumstances. She was a very smart woman and very attractive in a tweedy sort of way. I said, “I want to do a book titled ‘Dog Spelled Backwards.'” That’s as far as I got before she exploded with laughter. She splattered her coffee over the desk and I think some of it spilled out of her nose.
I always made her laugh.
I always did make her laugh by telling her stories about the extremes that dog lovers went to like the couple that wouldn’t get married without their dog being present as ring-bearer. Or the dog owners who threw a birthday party for their dog (unusual at the time) with a magnificent birthday cake made of cottage cheese icing covering two layers of Alpo with doggie guests seated at a table, wearing shiny red party hats. These stories always got a laugh out of her and made me welcome in her office. Now I wanted her to take my book idea seriously and she thought I was horsing around. She said, “That title is the most irreverent thing I ever heard,” and she buried her head in her arms on the desk and laughed uncontrollably. I said, “No. This is for real. People feel very strongly about their dogs and think of them as being spiritual creatures. A lot of great writers have . . . ”
It was no use. I couldn’t convince her that it was a serious book idea and that I could make it into an enjoyable reading experience. I really wanted to do it, but I don’t fault her. It was just symptomatic of a time when few people took seriously the intense, meaningful relationships that we develop with our dogs. The love of dogs was considered a frivolous thing (mostly by non-dog owners) and even cruelty cases were not given due justice in the courts by judges who treated such matters as comic relief. It was a source of anger and frustration by serious humane workers.
I remember leaving my agent’s office, way back then muttering to myself with my precious proposal clutched in my fist. I went home, smoothed the four pages with the flat of my hands. I didn’t want to type it all over again. This was before computers and laser printers that did all the work for you. I remember putting the proposal in a hanging file marked NOT NOW and shoved it all the way to the back of the file drawer. And there is sat for twenty years. Every once in a while I’d come across an idea that would have fit into the book and I’d clip it and just drop it in that paper mausoleum where book ideas go for the literary winter.
I rediscovered four pages, blew away the dust and fell in love with the idea all over again.
It wasn’t until the year 2000 that I re-discovered the four pages, blew away the dust, fell in love with the idea all over again and sent them to my current representative at the great talent agency. The irony is that back in 1979 he was an agent-in-training working for dearest Marcia. When I showed him the idea, he was a bit more receptive than his former mentor but was just as skeptical. And then Bingo! How about that? A very smart, pet loving editor at St. Martin’s Press connected with the idea and made an offer. It wasn’t a big offer but I didn’t care. I was fat with two other lucrative book contracts going at the same time. At least someone wanted to publish my little book idea and I didn’t want to let that possibility pass by.
Of course, by the time I was ready to go to work on Dog Spelled Backwards our beloved Trade Towers were attacked; five months later I came down with leukemia (I do believe there is a connection) and disabled me from working for a year and a half. So, here at last, is the sweetheart book of my dreams, a true labor of love. Researching it, writing for it, and putting it all together like a love song for dogs is what is surely my favorite of all my books. What it must mean is that the connection between dogs, humans, and God has deepened beyond all expectations and is a reality well worth exploring.
Mordecai Siegal is President Emeritus of the Dog Writers Association of America and a founding member of The Cat Writers’ Association. He resides in New York City.
“Dog Spelled Backwards. Soulful Writing by Literary Dog Lovers” (St. Martin’s Press) is Mordecai’s latest book and is available wherever books are sold. He is also the author of “I Just Got a Kitten. What Do I Do?”(Simon & Schuster/Fireside); “The Cat Fanciers’ Association COMPLETE CAT BOOK. The Official Publication of the CFA,” (HarperCollins), comparable to the AKC’s Complete Dog Book; “The Good Life: Your Dog’s First Year” (Simon and Schuster). His most durable books are “Good Dog, Bad Dog” (Henry Holt); “When Good Dogs Do Bad Things” (Little, Brown); the 10th Anniversary Revised Edition of “I Just Got A Puppy. What Do I Do?” (Simon & Schuster/Fireside); “The Cornell Book of Cats” (Villard); “The Davis Book of Dogs” (HarperCollins); and “The Davis Book of Horses” (HarperCollins).
Updated from original post of April 9, 2010.