Following her discovery of a small pamphlet about Dogtown, a long-gone Massachusetts hamlet, Anita Diamant set to work creating a deeply imagined story of its life, and its demise. She captures the town’s story in her latest book, The Last Days of Dogtown (Scribner), in which the lives of its few remaining citizens, and the pack of dogs tat lived in their proximity, are perceptively rendered. Recently, Anita was kind enough to indulge a few of Bark’s questions.
Let’s get the obvious out of the way: Do you live with a dog?
YES. Buddy (Miniature Schnauzer from Schnauzer Rescue of NE) is my current canine companion. He is my mood elevator, exercise machine and pal. He is also the “neighborhood dog,” especially beloved by the kids on the block. He is my third dog: first was the Beagle, Bartholemew, them Pom the Poodle. I have written about my love of dogs for publication, too. (See the “Dog and Katz” essay in my collection, Pitching My Tent: On Marriage, Motherhood, Friendship, and Other Leaps of Faith.
In your research, did you come across information on dogs of the time—how they lived, how they were regarded?
I didn’t come across anything about the dogs of the 1800s. There were farm dogs, wild dogs, and pet dogs, as there have been for centuries. In all matters canine, Elizabeth Marshall Thomas’ wonderful book, The Hidden Life of Dogs, was my guide.
What led you to incorporate dogs into the story?
Well, the name of the town was Dogtown. However it should be noted that “dogtown” was kind of a generic and not-very-nice term for a place that was on the skids, especially a rural, “slum.” Someplace that was “going to the dogs” was called a dogtown.
Can you say more about the way you conceived the relationships—between the people and the dogs—Judy Rhines and Greyling, Ruth and Tan, then Cornelius and Tan? And of course, the relationships of the dogs to one another.
In all of these cases, the loving relationships were not planned by the humans. These were not farmers, who kept working dogs, but very lonely poor people, for whom dogs were a sort of last resort, and for whom the shared affection comes as a surprise, and ultimately, a form of salvation from loneliness. As for the relationship of the dogs to one another, I really, really tried not to anthropomorphize (in honor of Ms. Thomas) though that’s probably not possible for a human.
What lay behind your decision to tell part of the story through Greyling’s eyes?
I suppose I wanted an outside perspective and also to introduce the intelligence of the dog. That was a challenge since, even in that case, I really wanted to avoid “humanizing” the canine. So while she’s intelligent, she’s totally non-judgmental, which is a non-human attribute.