First things first: tell us about your dogs.
We have a Border Collie, an English Mastiff and one who has a lot of Shepherd in her, and maybe a little Dane. And then we have a mutt we found in a parking lot; he was really on his last legs. We were going to take him to the pound, but he gave me the look, and that was that. Then he promptly threw up all over the car.
Who was your first dog?
Her name was Tessie—she was a Miniature Collie. My parents got her for me when I was three or four. She wandered away when we were on vacation and I never saw her again. That helpless feeling of loss found its expression through Abel’s journey.
The book is many things, but at heart, it’s a story of woundedness and healing. How do you see dogs as a part of that?
I’ve never gone through the sort of travails I put Abel through, but I spent a long, long time trying to be a writer—trying to get Wilderness to the table. I could not for the life of me figure out how to get anybody interested in it. And then I got sick and couldn’t work on anything for the longest time. It was a nasty bout of Bell’s palsy—a nerve branch that feeds half of your face seizes up and dies. So half your face is paralyzed. For six months, I didn’t leave the house, and it really started to wear on me.
But I had my dogs. And they didn’t care what I looked like, and they licked my face. (Not to say that my wife wasn’t the same way, except for the face-licking.) But I could always count on throwing an arm around my dog, or my dogs, and feeling a lot better. People have said that Abel suffers from PTSD. I don’t know about that, but I do know that dogs will heal you.
How do your dogs help you write?
I always have a dog here in the room with me—usually two. One lies right behind me, or right on my feet. It keeps me connected and honest.
Wilderness is an achingly beautiful book. It takes you deep into the heart of a Civil War veteran scarred by nearly unspeakable tragedies and losses, and traces his ultimate redemption, which begins the moment a red-blond dog steps out of the forest and into the light of his cook fire.
When we meet this man, Abel Truman, he lives in a shack by the sea on the wild coast of Washington state, alone save for his dog. Old and sick, haunted by memories, he sets out to cross the mountains to make peace with his past. As Abel and the dog make their way through the rugged landscape, we learn Abel’s story in a series of flashbacks: the events that shattered his young family, the astonishing carnage of the Battle of the Wilderness, the former slave who nursed him afterward.
Once Abel begins his journey, his dog—and a mysterious wolf-dog who slips in and out of the tale—leads him in directions he never intended to take. The animals move him to take risks and reconsider his past, and to safeguard the life of an orphaned child.
Weller writes beautifully; his descriptions of the landscapes are nothing short of magnificent. So are his descriptions of the dogs, and of the bond between humans and dogs. The wolf-dog harries an elk, Weller writes, “low to the ground, moving like water over stones.” Abel, seeing that his dog is sick, feels “something break apart inside him.”
Though the book contains violence and cruelty, it has tenderness, kindness and wisdom at its core. It’s true and deep, funny and real. Ultimately, it evokes the essential ways that dogs weave their way into our lives: as sentinels, guides, companions and catalysts for crucial turning points in our journeys.