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Canine Companions

My writing life with dogs

Illustration by Fran Pulido of two books that look like open books next to a microphone.

If you’re Edgar Allan Poe, you have a raven. If you’re Margaret Atwood, you have a cat. If you’re Lord Byron, you have…well, an entire menagerie. But I like to think that writers fare best with dogs. After all, dogs won’t shed feathers on your desk, nor will they, purring, deposit a gift of a not-quite-dead-yet mouse onto your laptop. Even if they do occasionally get things wrong, it might be for the best. When Steinbeck’s dog ate the first draft of Of Mice and Men, the author noted, ‘I was pretty mad, but the poor little fellow may have been acting critically’.

In Lebanon, where I grew up, animals didn’t fare too well. Stray cats were frequently poisoned. Young men strutted out of the local woods toting rifles and feathery bouquets of dead sparrows. Nonetheless, I was an avid animal-lover, and over the years was the young owner of hamsters, terrapins, budgerigars, rabbits, and (whisper it) cats. Cats, admittedly, that had wandered into our apartment as strays. One beautiful fluffy, green-eyed cat, later christened Buttons, gave birth in the bottom of our wardrobe, and it would have been heartless indeed if we hadn’t let the new family set up home with us.

Did I want a dog? No, not especially; it had never crossed my radar. People in Lebanon did not, at that time, keep dogs as pets. No one we knew had a dog. No one we’d even heard of had a dog. No one at all. And yet one day my English grandmother’s powder-blue Alfa Romeo pulled up outside and she entered the apartment carrying a tiny creature half-obscured by tissue paper. The puppy was a birthday gift for my mother. It seemed unsurprising to me at the time, but my grandmother was the sort of woman who was able to procure a pedigree Yorkshire Terrier in wartime Beirut as though that were absolutely normal.

Samson was a revelation — intelligent, faithful, and bursting with character. How could an animal be so canny, so communicative? Here was a dog who seemed almost human and yet delightfully not so.

A few years later, he was fatally run over outside our apartment. A friend of my brother’s saw it happen; said that the driver sped up when he saw Samson. We were devastated, no one more so than my mother, who refused to ever have a dog again.

And so began The Dogless Years. They were bleak, woofless, wag-free. Instead, I turned my attention to fictional dogs — Snowy in Tintin, Timmy in The Famous Five, Buck in The Call of the Wild, Bobby in Greyfriar’s Bobby. We moved to England, and I was allowed to have a gerbil and a rabbit. Once a tortoise wandered into the garden, stayed for an hour or so, then (slowly, admittedly) wandered off again. It had a certain charm, and yet. I looked after a neighbour’s ducks, but – and this is not to denigrate duck-kind – ducks were definitely not the same thing. A duck would never, like Argos in The Odyssey, hold out for twenty years until its master’s return before permitting itself to die. Nor would it, despite the worst mistreatment, waddle faithfully after a scoundrel like Bill Sikes in Oliver Twist. Such dogs were closely integrated into their stories. They said something about the world they were living in, as well as about their human companions and themselves. This was interesting.

The Dogless Years dragged on through university and beyond, to the series of rented accommodations where no pets were ever allowed. To fill what was by now a gaping hole, I spent every Friday volunteering at Battersea Dogs (and later Cats) Home. As someone who had been uprooted in childhood, I felt a particular affinity with these displaced animals. And so, rain (read showers, downpours, sleet, snow, hail, mizzle and drizzle) or shine, I would take one dog after another to tramp around Battersea Park. Some, frustrated and hyper, dragged me along, while others were all too happy to amble and explore. Greyhounds were a doddle. I quickly learned to leave Springer Spaniels till last.

It was around this time that I started to write fiction. The very first story I submitted to a competition was set at Walthamstow dog track. It got published, and from that point on there was no turning back. Dogs consistently find their way into my fiction, where they work hard to earn their narrative keep.

Now, I have far greater first-hand experience on which to draw. My first rescue dog, Gertie, was a large, scruffy mutt with a sense of smell so acute that she was able, across vast distances, to pinpoint the exact location of fox excrement. Galumphing over and rolling in it was, to her mind at least, the next obvious step. Rescue number two was Maggie, a black Staffie cross with an unashamed ball obsession. Like a cartoon animation set on repeat, she would continue for hours if you’d let her: fetch, return, drop, wait open-mouthed and panting; fetch, return, drop, and so on.

My current canine companion is Alfie, a street-dog from Crete with a spectacular tail and regal bearing. Whenever I throw him a ball, he gives me a disdainful look: me fetch that for you? Often, I glance up from my work to see him patrolling the periphery of the garden, convinced that cats lurk just out of sight — on the tops of sheds, tightrope-walking along fences, slipping behind branches like quicksilver. His escapades are multiplying to the point where I’m considering turning them into a series of picture-books.

And can dogs teach you something about storytelling? Absolutely. Living with a dog is a rollercoaster of events and emotions that can feed into a writer’s work. There is drama (the postman, an individual who despite constant warnings persisted in trying to break into the house every morning, who quickly became Public Enemy Number One). There is flair (charming treats from complete strangers, once even a Flake 99 from an ice cream vendor). There is trauma (bearded men with walking sticks were once definitely not welcome). There is surprise (a drooling, maddened beast standing over a deep hole that wasn’t there an hour ago, at the bottom of which lay a rounded ball of hedgehog). There is comedy (the carpenter carrying on a conversation with you, seemingly oblivious of the dog madly humping his leg). There is heartache (going into the vet’s with a dog, coming out with only a lead and a collar). The diversity of human experience is here, and its proximity makes it perhaps that bit easier to tap into when writing fiction.

And of course, let’s not undermine the importance of walking to the sedentary writer’s life. Dogs continue to force me to get out and walk, move, get the cogs whirring. To breathe and think more deeply, while putting some distance between myself and the flickering screen. And if I’ve become too engrossed and worked past walkies-time, a dog with a feather-duster tail will wander into my eye-line, yawn and perform a few exaggerated stretches (for quite apart from having no sense of time, they are dim creatures, these humans; one must be certain they get the message).

And so, I push back my chair, have a stretch myself, and go to fetch the lead.

Exit pursued by a dog.

Nathalie Abi-Ezzi is the author of the novels A Girl Made of Dust and Paper Sparrows. She also writes poetry and short stories.

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