I first read Kari Neumeyer’s memoir Bark and Lunge: Saving My Dog From Training Mistakes about half a year ago and immediately wanted to write about it. But my dog was dying and I was afraid that if I wrote a review of a book where (spoiler alert!) someone else’s dog dies, then my dog would die, too.
Now that I’ve said goodbye to my dog, I had the chance to return to Neumeyer’s book, which is warm and funny and sad and heartbreaking and heart-affirming and all of the things a memoir should be.
I’ll admit that I was initially put off by the title. Saving My Dog From Training Mistakes sounded like a training manual, and while training manuals are both good and necessary, they don’t normally make for lively reading.
But Bark and Lunge isn’t really a training manual. It’s the story of a woman and her reactive dog, Isis, and the lengths she and her husband go to try to find help for their dog’s behavioral problems.
It’s also a story of love, and regret, and trying to make an impossible situation that much more possible. In the end, Bark and Lunge isn’t about training mistakes and reactive behavior so much as it’s about hope.
What I loved was the subtle streak of humor that weaves through the book, such as how Neumeyer opens Chapter Two: “Rob and I decided to exchange only small gifts that Christmas, because we’d spent so much money on toys and other accouterments for the puppy.”
Yes, yes, and yes.
So I decided to invite Neumeyer over for a little bloggy chat about writing and dogs and how we never let go to the things we love.
Q: Why, and when, did you decide to write Bark and Lunge?
A: Is it horrible to say that I knew on the drive home from work the day that Isis died? Before I even knew what happened to her, I wanted to tell her story. During her life, I began a novel based on some of the wacky experiences of raising her, but that was before she bit anyone. I didn’t know I had a full memoir about her until I knew how her story ended.
There was such a clear arc to her life, and we made so many mistakes. I would have taken such comfort in a book like mine if one had existed. My hope is that Isis’s story can help other dog owners going through what we went through.
Q: Can you give us a little on your writing background? Have you always wanted to write? Were you a voracious reader as a child?
A: I wanted to be an author when I was a kid, but set that aside in high school all the way until after college, when I decided to go to grad school for journalism. In the 10-plus years I’ve earned my living as a journalist, I’ve worked on a few novels that were thinly veiled memoirs, and plan to revisit those after I finish my current work-in-progress, a novel about a young woman who trains in mixed martial arts and rescues pit bulls.
I plowed through books when I was young. I remember lying on my bed and reading and re-reading some of my favorites, like the Ramona Quimby books and later Christopher Pike’s young adult thrillers. I can’t imagine having the time to re-read books now; there are so many I haven’t read! I also used to read on every car trip and was shocked to learn that some people can’t do that because they get carsick.
Q: What about your love for dogs? When did that hit you, and how?
A: Only in the last few years have I discovered that dogs are my true calling. I always liked dogs, and had a few growing up, but my relationship with Isis is what turned me dog crazy. I’m gaga over Mia and Leo, our dogs now, and I love all the dogs I get to walk as a volunteer at my local humane society. I’ve never met a dog I didn’t love… not even the ugly ones (it’s not their fault), and especially not the badly behaved ones!
Q: How difficult was it writing Bark and Lunge and bringing up all of those memories of Isis? Was it bittersweet to have Isis so close in your thoughts again? Was it hard to let go at the end of the book?
A: The writing process was pretty therapeutic. It kept Isis alive and close to my heart for a few more years, and I always felt like Bark and Lunge was a tribute to her. I didn’t find it hard to let go at the end, because I felt so proud of the finished product. I still cry every time I read the final chapter. The last time I read all the way through, I closed it (with tears in my eyes) and knew that I had written exactly the book that I had wanted to.
Q: How did you elevate B & L from just another I-love-my-badly-behaved-dog story into a powerful memoir?
A: Thank you for the compliment! All along, I wanted to distinguish the story from other “bad” dog books. Marley and Me comes to mind, and while I envy the tremendous success of that book, I felt it lacked an exploration of why Marley acted that way. He flunked out of obedience school (as did Isis), but the owners didn’t try all the training methods I did. One of my main goals in writing this book was to convey the message that old-fashioned training techniques like chain collars are not necessary, and can even be damaging to reactive, fearful, or aggressive dogs. I want to advocate for force-free training methods.
Not that training techniques elevate it to be a powerful memoir.
One of the things that makes it emotional is also what makes it hard to sell: the unhappy ending. My copyeditor very flatteringly compared my book to Where the Red Fern Grows, saying that Isis’s early death makes the story more poignant. While that was beyond my control, I did my best to tap into the universal feelings of pet owners (and parents, really) who want to help our babies live their best lives, how disappointed we are when they fail, how excited when they succeed, and how devastating it is when we lose them too soon.
Q: Did you struggle with how much of your personal life to include in the book? Worry that you were revealing too much? Not enough?
A: I do not envy my writer buddies working on memoirs about more personal aspects of their lives. Rob was always very supportive that this was my story to tell, no matter how he was depicted, although I did read aloud scenes I thought might bother him (they did not). While my relationship with Rob is central to the story, I had no reason to write about how we met, fell in love, what our sex life was like, because none of that was relevant to Isis’s story. After the first draft, I did go back and write more about my emotional experience to help readers better understand me. That may have resulted in the two-star review on Amazon that suggested I consider Prozac. Success!
Q: How long did it take you to write B & L? What was the most difficult part? And were you ever tempted to give up and walk away?
A: It was a little more than two years from the time I started writing until it was ready to be copyedited by someone else. The most difficult part was realizing that writing a memoir is not the same as writing a blog or a journal. Books need narrative structure and scenic depiction. I learned a lot of that in a terrific memoir class taught by author Laura Kalpakian. I never considered giving it up though, because I wanted so badly to tell Isis’s story.
Q: What was the publishing and editing process like? What would you change in retrospect, or what is the one thing you wish you had done differently?
A: I published the book independently after getting turned down by a few traditional houses because 1) I don’t have a TV show, 2) The book doesn’t have a happy ending, and 3) Readers can’t identify with an aggressive dog. I disagreed with the last point, and there was nothing I could do about the first two. Rather than spend another year courting publishers, I decided to do it myself. I hired a professional copyeditor, cover designer, and interior designer. I loved the cover (by Debbie Glovatsky of Glogirly.com) and was happy with how the eBook files turned out, but I would design the paperback differently if I had it to do over.
Q: You mention, in the last chapter, that there are some dogs that burrow more deeply into our hearts, and perhaps even our souls, than others. Why do you think Isis was your heart dog? And because she was, do you think that this made it more or less difficult to write about her and the whole experience?
A: This is a tough question! That must mean that it makes it harder to write about her. I really needed for people to understand how special Isis was. I needed for people to relate to this “aggressive dog,” especially since a publisher told me they wouldn’t.
Was Isis my “Once in a Lifetime” dog simply because she was the first dog I had as an adult? I don’t think so. It’s possible that her flaws were the tool she used to burrow into our hearts. Through her anxiety and neediness, and mine, we formed a codependent relationship. She used to come into the bathroom with me and rest her head on my lap while I sat on the toilet. (I guess that answers question 6 about things too personal to put in the book. You’re welcome.) I know lots of dogs do that. Leo pushes the bathroom door open sometimes too, and I sing a little song that goes, “Bathroom invader! Bathroom invader!” But it’s different. When Isis did it, I felt this total connection with her. Isis and I were one. I gave her dialogue (which has been criticized as moving the book into the fantasy realm), because I knew what she was thinking. Isis was my heart dog because we are the same.