The title of Ellen Cooney’s latest novel conveys exactly what you need to know. “The Mountaintop School for Dogs and Other Second Chances” is a book about dogs and teaching, redemption and love.
Although this is Cooney’s ninth novel, its arrival comes with more than the usual trepidation. No, the dogs don’t narrate the story, as has been the fashion with some canine chronicles. But the book was three years in the making, with no guarantees of any kind. Cooney feared it would be difficult to find a publisher for a title that defied neat categorization.
She was pleasantly surprised to receive multiple offers, which hint at the book’s broad appeal. “Mountaintop” is a book with substance and heart – and not just for dog lovers. It’s the story of a dog refuge and training school where strays, both human and canine, find new life.
Like her novel, Cooney, now 62, can’t be easily pigeonholed. A writer who teaches, she has alternated between the two disciplines for much of her life. At her most recent gig, she was writer-in-residence at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, where she taught undergrads and enjoyed being “the dumbest one in the room.” A long-time urbanite, by way of Cambridge and Boston, she’s now happily transplanted in midcoast Maine.
Cooney spoke recently by phone about her life as a novelist, teacher and dog whisperer. This interview has been edited for length and clarity.
Q: What prompted you to write about the bond between canines and humans?
A: I have three dogs. My middle dog, Skip, was a rescue – very difficult, like a wild animal. I didn’t dare bring him to a class because I couldn’t trust him not to attack dogs or people. I became his teacher in a home-school way. Many times I almost gave up on him. But in working with him, something began to happen inside me and, gradually, he became very deeply attached to me – and I to him.
I realized what I was doing with him was really not very different from my experience as a really young mom, being the teacher of my little boy who was born with cerebral palsy. When he was 12 or 13 years old, my son made me make a vow that I would never write about him. So I wouldn’t have wanted to write about being my son’s teacher. But I wanted to write a novel about teaching.
Q: How different is it writing about one’s family versus these dogs, other than that you don’t need anyone’s permission to write about the dogs?
A: Exactly! This is my ninth novel. I have never drawn directly from my own life or my own family. But as a fiction writer, you’ve got the raw material of your real experience that goes through this dynamic thing that’s my imagination.
I wrote my first poem when I was incredibly young. I was always a writer. I never became one – I just always was one. And my whole childhood and adolescence was about writing. So when it came time to be a mom to my wonderful little baby, who was so handicapped and who I adored, it was natural to me to be creative with him. I just taught him and taught him and taught him.
Q: You’ve talked about the distinction between teaching and training. Is teaching inherently more reciprocal or more respectful?
A: There’s a really big difference. Teaching is harder and it takes longer. And it is totally reciprocal. You can train people to use adverbs really well, but you’re not doing anything about their mind, or their powers of being creative and intelligent. So I took a lot of that, and I put it into this book. The main character, who is becoming a dog trainer, is deeply intuitive with animals. At the beginning of the book, she doesn’t know anything about dogs at all.
Q: What lessons from the classroom can be applied to working with dogs?
A: So many. Number one: Patience, which is the hardest thing for me. You know, it takes a long time to work with dogs – especially rescue dogs, who have really good reason to mistrust people. If you think animals are inferior to humans, and therefore they don’t matter, then it’s easy to say that they probably don’t even feel pain.
I’ve always been interested in the idea of domination. One group is privileged to have power, and therefore everybody else has to be subordinate. I think that’s what I’ve been fighting all my life. What I care about the most, and which I think is in all my books, is that it really matters to care.
Q: For a novelist, are there particular challenges in writing about another species?
A: Yes, you can’t rely just on words. When you talk to a dog, it doesn’t matter what you’re actually saying; it matters what your tone is and what your manner is. My dogs have a vocabulary. They all know, for example, what the word “bagel” means because that’s one of their treats. But it’s not just the word “bagel.” It’s the way I say it.
When I was writing this book, I had to get more in touch with my own senses, with hearing and smell and touch. It’s like working in a completely different wavelength. I love to do internal monologues with characters. But I couldn’t do that; I couldn’t have a dog having an internal monologue.
But also, going back, when I was a young mom, I had to imagine what was it like to be a human being like my son, who was never going to be able to walk. And I had to know inside myself what that was like, so I had experience with that, too. As a novelist, I use everything.
Q: In the book, are you trying to show that love or kindness are not human qualities so much as they’re creature qualities?
A: I think that’s really what this book is about. In my own home, my oldest dog is a golden retriever and my little dog just loves him.
You see her with him, and there’s nothing to call the way she looks at him except love. She trusts him absolutely because that’s her brother. And I would say that any human brother and sister could not love each other more, or better, than these two.
Q: If you were a book reviewer, what would you say about this book?
A: I don’t know. I’m not there yet. I’m still having issues because I finished this book, the first draft, over two years ago. But I still can’t stop missing those characters. The book just took me over. It always happens.
You know, I don’t make outlines for my work. It’s like setting off on a journey and you have no idea what’s going to happen. But before I set out, I am really, really well-equipped. I did so much research and I volunteered at a shelter.
I really got attached to the human characters of this book – and the dogs. And I started to wish that I hadn’t even written this yet, so I could write it.
Q: Is it typical that you’re still with the characters this long after having put them on the page?
A: No, it’s usually not this long. And I have started another novel. It’s not going to be a sequel, but it’s going to be a dog book.
In “Mountaintop,” I realized I only scratched the surface; there are things that I started to think about that could not go into that book.
I want to do more with this thing called empathy. I’m really interested in how it works, how come there isn’t more of it, why it can be so hard to just see that everybody is somebody.
Joan Silverman writes op-eds, essays and book reviews. Her work has appeared in The Christian Science Monitor, Chicago Tribune and Dallas Morning News.