Justin Cook chats with The Art of Racing in the Rain author Garth Stein. The book-to-film adaptation is available now on digital, Blu-ray and DVD…
Who knew that when Garth Stein published his book The Art of Racing in the Rain, he’d still be talking about it over 10 years after its release to promote the home video release of the movie it spawned. Stein himself even admits that having the book be a part of his life for so many years is “weird.”
But, the impact of The Art of Racing in the Rain is undeniable. With over six million copies sold since its release, race car enthusiasts got a proper racing book, dog lovers got a quintessential dog book and, even more than that, readers got an emotionally resonant story that spoke to many on a personal level.
Flickering Myth spoke with Stein about what he’s learned as a writer since 2008, his thoughts on the movie, the suggestions he made to the film adaptation’s director Simon Curtis during production and plenty more.
The first thing I wanted to ask was, the book came out in 2008. It spent, I believe, 161 weeks on the New York Times bestseller list and 10 years later here you are talking about its impact and the film that it spawned. So, what’s been like having this book be a part of your life for so many years?
Garth Stein: It’s kind of weird. I gotta be honest with you. I mean it’s funny, when I first was writing the book, I had maybe the first 40 pages and I gave them to wife to read, she’s always my first reader. And I was like, ‘Am I on the right track with this?'” And I gave them to her to read and she handed the pages back to me and she said, ‘This dog is going to go around the world.’ So she knew right away what was going on, and that’s exactly what happened. It’s a great privilege, I totally appreciate it. I’ve written three other books, which have done well for books, but not Enzo numbers. So, I’ve seen the clouds from both sides and I kind of like this side. It’s cool to have a book that just keeps going.
And if I’m not mistaken, when you showed your wife those first 40 pages, she made a suggestion. Am I right?
Stein: Yeah, that’s true, you’ve heard that story! When I first wrote those 40 pages, Enzo was not named Enzo, he was named Juan Pablo after Juan Pablo Montoya, the race car driver. I thought it was funny, and she was like, ‘No.’ So, she came up with Enzo … so I put Enzo in because obviously Enzo Ferrari, but what’s interesting is that there’s never a direct connection made between Enzo Ferrari and Enzo the dog. I left that as an easter egg for people to find if they know, but by now everybody knows.
How do you think you’ve changed or evolved as a writer since the book came out? Do you think the person that published The Art of Racing in the Rain in 2008 could write it in 2019?
Stein: I think so. I mean, it would be different. The era was a little bit different. A lot of things changed in society. As far as me as a writer, what I’ve learned over the years is to really trust my readers. This goes for any audience — the audience wants to be engaged. The audience is usually pretty smart and they want to figure things out. And what happens a lot of times with younger writers and artists is that they don’t believe that the audience is going to ‘get it,’ so they say it again. I can write with a lot more economy now because I know what my readers are going to ‘get,’ so I trust them that they’re going to figure it out. I don’t have to say it three times, I say it one time.
This book is extremely personal to you and it’s, of course, a difficult thing handing over your book to a major studio for them to turn it into a movie. Did you have any reluctance handing over the ownership of this book that you spent so much time with?
Stein: It’s a good question. I didn’t know what I was doing. I mean, no one paid any attention to me before The Art of Racing in the Rain, so suddenly people were paying attention and then this really nice guy kept on calling me up on my cell phone and talking to me over and over again, and I’m like, ‘Patrick Dempsy, stop calling me all of the time!’ It was kind of cool … he secured it with Neal Moritz and then it went into 10 years of development, which is how it works, right? At a certain point, I really believed that there was no way they were going to make the movie. I thought it was over. But then, I got a phone call from a dude with an English accent, Simon Curtis, the director. He [was] like, (fake British accent) ‘I’m going to be directing your movie.’ And I was like, ‘Wait, what is happening?’ It is weird in a way, but it’s an easy metaphor to say it’s kind of having a kid. My oldest is 23 and graduated from college last spring, and so, therefore, is living at home right now. There’s this journey that you do with your kids where you’re with them and you want everything to be perfect, but they have to go into the world on their own at some point and develop their own relationships. And same thing with a book in a weird way. It goes out there, and it starts making friends on its own, and it starts meeting people that I have nothing to do with, but it’s always got a place here, with me. I am respectful and appreciative of its journey.
Do you find that there are certain parts of the book that people respond to emotionally more than they do in the movie? And are there parts of the movie that people respond to more than while reading the book?
Stein: I know that people respond to different things … so it’s kind of cool to have written something that people can plug into on so many different levels. I really think that the movie got it right. There are changes, there are differences — that’s fine. The heart of the movie is in the right place and that’s my chief concern always. In that sense, it’s a big success.
I know you weren’t directly involved with the movie on-set, but were there any places where you stepped into the filmmaking process to either request a change or offer another suggestion or steer things in a different direction?
Stein: Yeah, for sure, I read the scripts as it went by. I had several conversations with Simon [Curtis] to, sort of, clue him in on what over the years I’ve noticed are parts of the book that people love. Little comments that Enzo says. There’s the great line where Eve is pregnant and Enzo presses his faces to her belly and feels the creature move inside and he says, ‘You know, it must be amazing to have a body that can carry a creature inside — I mean other than a tapeworm which I’ve had.’ That’s a huge laugh line when I read that passage at a reading or something, so things like that I had to say, ‘Simon, be sure to put the tapeworm in because people are going to love that.’
So there are a lot of iconic moments in the book that are realized for the big screen in the movie. In particular, what were your thoughts seeing for the first time, fully realized on the big screen, Enzo in the car on the racetrack at the end? Because I know you read that chapter at a lot of book readings, so I know that’s a particular scene that stands out in the book.
Stein: That is a great scene, and there’s a dramatic inevitability to certain aspects of the story. It goes back to the great Russian playwright Anton Checkov, the gun on the wall theory, which is the same thing with Enzo wanting to be a race car driver. At some point, I knew he was going to have to get into a racecar. Just it has to happen. And I didn’t know how it was going to happen, but when I was writing the book, I felt that I had gotten far enough that people were going to go with Enzo, and even though it was a little contrived to have him strapped into a race car — you know, it’s funny that I thought that was kind of wild and crazy, and I got a phone call from a guy named Bob Bondurant, who’s a great car racing coach. He taught Steve McQueen and Paul Newman how to drive. So he calls me up from his racing school in Phoenix and he’s like, ‘Oh, I loved your book! And I take my dog Rusty out in the race car all the time.’ I was like, ‘People actually do that! Is that OK?’ So it was cool to see it. I will say, just a quick note that they had an animal welfare person at all times on the set, especially when Enzo was in the racecar, making sure that Parker the dog was treated properly and was not undergoing too many G-forces and all that kind of stuff. There was nothing dangerous about it, but it sure was fun to see him in a fancy Ferrari.
In a lot of your work, there’s a father-child dynamic that’s explored. Like in this book and movie, there’s a father-daughter dynamic, and then even in A Sudden Light, it explores a father-son dynamic, so what do you think draws you to those sort of relationships in text?
Stein: Dude, here’s the thing: If I knew the answer to that, I would be a well-adjusted person, and I wouldn’t write a book!
So it’s a mystery to you, too!
Stein: I think all writers are grappling with their own internal conflicts in the stuff that they write and part of the fun of it, or part of the therapy of it, is not being too aware, so to answer that I would have to become introspective, I would have to think about my life for a little while, and then I might reveal all sorts of secrets to myself that I don’t want to have revealed about my relationship with my parents.
It would an impromptu therapy session.
Stein: It’s really funny, too because it’s way so true. My first book Raven Stole the Moon is about a woman whose son dies in a tragic boating accident, and How Evan Broke His Head and Other Secrets is also father-son based. And then this new book I’m just turning in called A Couple of Old Birds about an 80-year-old woman and her relationship with her adult son. So, all of that stuff is in there and in fact, an editor friend of mine once said to me, ‘What happened to you in your childhood.’ All of your books are about abandonment. And I was like, ‘I don’t want to think about it.’
Can you tell me a little bit about The Cloven, the graphic novel you’re working on right now?
Stein: The Cloven is about these mutant goat people, these hybrids that were developed in a secret laboratory on Vashon Island here in Seattle, and it was an aborted experiment, it went awry. It was an experimentation in the late 90s. They mothballed the project, but one of the scientists, with a heart of gold, didn’t want his experiments to be euthanized, so he steals all of these little kids who are mutant goat people and lets them go in the Cascade Mountains … and one group of them ends up living underneath the freeway in Seattle. We have this huge homeless problem in Seattle … Part of what I’m writing is a satire and a commentary on the situation that’s going on in Seattle right now. But part of it is just, let’s have some fun … goats are the funniest things on the planet. And so goat people, have to be by default, funny. We’re launching it at the Comic-Con in San Diego in July. So I’m really looking forward to it.
My last question, to bring it back to The Art of Racing in the Rain — what did you think of the “Have You Ever Seen the Rain?” needle-drop at the end of the movie?
Stein: That cracked me up so much. What they did was they were like, ‘We don’t want you to see it, we don’t want you to see it, we don’t want you to see it.’ I’m like, ‘C’mon, guys,’ and Simon’s like, ‘OK, you can see it now.’ So they’re going to show it to me on April 1st, and I’m petrified. They’re like, ‘Come down to the studio, and you’re going to see it by yourself in this screening room’ … So my number two son is in college, down in LA, so I was like, ‘You gotta come with me, hold my hand please.’ So he came and we watched it, and I’m like bawling through this whole thing and then at the end that song played and I was like, it’s freaking brilliant … “Have You Ever Seen the Rain?,” c’mon!
It’s a perfect bow to wrap up the movie with.
Stein: And I said it, I said it, too. As soon as the lights came up when the movie was over, Simon was in my face saying, ‘What’d you think.’ And I’m wiping tears away from my eyes, I’m like, ‘Simon, you gotta give me a second here man.’ So I got myself together and was like, ‘That music is brilliant.’
Whether you’re a dog lover, racecar enthusiast or fan of the book, pick yourself up a copy of Simon Curtis’ The Art of Racing in the Rain!
THE ART OF RACING IN THE RAIN is a heartfelt tale narrated by a witty and philosophical dog named Enzo (voiced by Kevin Costner). Through his bond with his owner, Denny Swift (Milo Ventimiglia), an aspiring Formula One race car driver, Enzo has gained tremendous insight into the human condition and understands that the techniques needed on the racetrack can also be used to successfully navigate the journey of life. The film follows Denny and the loves of his life – his wife, Eve (Amanda Seyfried), their young daughter Zoe (Ryan Kiera Armstrong), and ultimately, his true best friend, Enzo.
Many thanks to Garth Stein for taking the time for this interview.