Editor’s note: This story, one of our staff favorites mentioned in City & Shore’s 15th Anniversary issue, first appeared in the December 2008/January 2009 issue of the magazine.
By Jonathon King
City & Shore Magazine
Once upon a time, in the kitchen of your first home in West Palm Beach, you are wrestling with a big-pawed, attention-deficit-disordered puppy trying to get a pregnancy test strip out of his slobbery mouth, and now you are sitting on a Miami sidewalk watching Jennifer Aniston, as your wife, yelling at Owen Wilson, who is trying to act like a bewildered you, and there is one simple thought that sums up the arc of what was then and what is now:
“It was very much an out-of-body experience,” says John Grogan, the former South Florida journalist whose phenomenally popular memoir, Marley & Me, begins its run as a major motion picture Christmas Day in theaters nationwide. “Seeing Jennifer Aniston as my wife trying to buck up Owen Wilson who is being me, that was very otherworldly.”
Coming from Grogan, who worked at the South Florida Sun Sentinel as a daily reporter and columnist with a front row to the oddities of Broward, Palm Beach and Miami-Dade counties, the phrase “otherworldly” comes with a foundation of experience.
“Well, you know South Florida,” Grogan says, looking back on the 12 years he lived here. “There’s a lot more raw material there than what you’re ever going to see anywhere else, and it has its own certain flavor.”
As a journalist, Grogan wrote about an Irish Republican Army cell in South Florida that tried to buy a Stinger missile. He told the story of a father and son whose plane crashed into the Atlantic on the way home from a Bahamas fishing trip and who survived several days bobbing among sharks. And in a column he documented one of those only-in-Florida condo flights when an owner’s dog gained too much weight to fit under the maximum pet size and the board tried to evict them both.
But it was the antics of his own crazy, accident-prone, big-hearted mutt that became the inspiration for a memoir that exploded onto the best-seller lists three years ago.
“Never in a million years did I think the book would do even a tenth of what it did,” Grogan says now from his home in Pennsylvania. “But something just took hold. Readers responded and the word-of mouth engine started running. All of a sudden we had this phenomenon on our hands, and I use that word only because that’s what everybody in the industry started calling it.”
Could such success happen to a nicer guy? I doubt it.
I am not unfamiliar with Grogan. For the sake of journalistic disclosure, he and I worked at the Sun Sentinel at the same time that Marley was bumping around in his home. He and I are both from Michigan, Midwesterners who carry a natural working-class tradition with us. We are both dog lovers: my South Florida-born golden retriever, Travis (named after John MacDonald’s iconic Florida fictional character) was Marley’s age, though with the opposite demeanor. I met Marley once, during a party at the Grogans’ Boca Raton home at which the beast was finally let loose from a closed laundry room and proceeded to plow through a tray of mozzarella and tomato-and-basil appetizers and almost made it into the pool to wash his face before John was able to tackle him. Marley was indeed certifiable.
Grogan, on the other hand, is bright and charming and witty. He is a true family man whose background is steeped in an Irish-Catholic upbringing. He’s got a bit of the Irish twinkle in his eye and a bit of that Midwestern “aw shucks” in his voice. And he very much likes people.
After he left South Florida in 1999 he worked in Pennsylvania as an editor and writer for a gardening magazine, but soon found that he missed just talking with folks. In 2002 he returned to newspapers as a three-times-a-week columnist for the Philadelphia Inquirer.
“The part that I missed and still miss about working at newspapers it the daily feedback from the readers,” he says. “You know, you’d write a column the day before and by 9 o’clock the next morning you’ve got a bunch of e-mail from readers.”
And it was from those readers that Grogan took the motivation to produce his phenomenon. After writing a heartfelt column about the death of Marley (Oh, come on, it’s not a spoiler. The dog would be 30 years old by now!) The response from his Philadelphia-area readers was overwhelming.
“The next day I had an overflowing message queue,” Grogan says. “Something like 400 people had sent e-mails before I even got into the office.”
Now we in the news business, the cynical ones anyway, can recall a dozen stories about pets and animals that have pulled more heartstrings than any tearjerker put together about elderly folks or even children. But when Grogan snatched up the inspiration to write a memoir about life with Marley, it wasn’t meant to be just another pet story.
“I’d done columns about Marley before,” he says. “But the context was usually paired with something Jenny (his wife) and I were learning as a young married couple starting out in South Florida.”
With those columns as a foundation, Grogan began writing in the morning and on weekends while still doing his columns for the Inquirer. His themes were not just of the unpredictable antics of Marley but the unpredictable turns of life: buying a first house (a cottage in West Palm), unexpected tragedies (Jenny’s miscarriage), and the blessings and demands of children (of which they now have three ranging in age from 11 to 15).
“Yes, I know the book resonated with a huge core of dog lovers, but I really believe it was the universal values, the family relationships, the building of strong family ties, that made it more than a dog book,” Grogan says. “The lessons that Marley taught us about what really mattered in life was what I really ended up writing about.”
The universal appeal of the story was also recognized by the publishing types who read Grogan’s manuscript in 2003 and predicted a winner.
“We ended up taking it to auction and six different publishers bid on it,” Grogan says. “It was only after we got the great responses from the publishing houses and the comments from so many editors and in-house readers, that I started thinking about the best-seller lists.”
It is perhaps not widely known to the general public that thousands of new manuscripts for book proposals are sent to literary agents and American publishers each month in this country.
Those in the business will tell you that everybody has a story and it seems all the manuscripts end up stacked in the offices of agents and editors with scant chance of ever seeing a bookshelf. And then those that do get edited and have a cover put on them and get sent to a store rarely make money for an author.
Although it is a difficult number to come up with, it is a certainly in this country that less than 3 percent of published authors ever make enough off their prose to live on. (I’ve even seen estimates as low as 1 percent).
Grogan admits that in that kind of competitive field, timing can sometime be magic.
“I don’t want to say Marley was an accidental best-seller, because I believed in the book,” he says. “But if I had set out to write a memoir about life with my dog, the ups and downs of my marriage, the lessons we learned, and consciously tried to make it into a best-seller, it would have been a flop.
“Once you start worrying about how many copies you want to sell, you’re lost. Writing is part craft, part art and part heart, and I don’t think you can set out to write memoir thinking about putting it on the best-seller’s list.”
But onto The New York Times’ list Marley romped. When the book hit the stores in October 2005 it opened at number 10 and then stayed on the list for 76 weeks, 23 of those at number one.
“My stretch goal was to get it on the best-sellers list, maybe at number 15 just so I could say it was a best-seller and then see it stay there for a few weeks,” Grogan says. “And the only reason I had that goal was because of the great response it got at the publishing houses.”
The publisher now estimates that Marley & Me has sold some 3 million copies worldwide.
And with that success, Grogan learned another lesson. In the world of books and marketing, the author who sits alone at his early morning desk, writing in silence with only his inner thoughts to wrestle, now climbs onstage to become a personality.
“The first year (2006) was quite surreal for me,” he says. “One of the ironies is that the theme of the book was to appreciate and celebrate the simple pleasures of home and family. But then because of the book’s success, suddenly I wasn’t home because I was running all over the country doing appearances and signings.”
When Grogan returned to his day job, he spent another year trying to juggle the still-growing demands of the book’s publicity and his column writing.
“Finally, I gave in,” Grogan says. “The newspaper world was changing, there were new owners of the Inquirer, and friends of mine were being laid off, I was ready to leave my job and I suppose I rationalized it by saying that I might have saved one for someone else.”
Don’t say I didn’t warn you about the nice guy thing. Not that Grogan was in need of a paycheck. Even going by the standard for royalty payments in the publishing world – an author usually earns 10 percent of the cover price of a book – Grogan has made himself a millionaire on Marley’s tale, so to speak.
Earlier this year, Grogan and his family moved into a vintage, 1790s Pennsylvania farmhouse with 19 acres, and he has refurbished a Civil War-era cottage now being used as his writing studio.
“It’s only four miles from our old house,” he says, “so the kids will be going to the same school. We haven’t disrupted their lives too much.”
Besides Marley & Me – book and movie – Grogan has stayed busy with the children’s picture-book version of Marley and Me, for which he wrote the accompanying text, and the writing of The Longest Trip Home, a memoir about growing up in the 1960s in an Irish Catholic family in Detroit. The book debuted in October to many favorable reviews.
So do his kids love the movie starring their old puppy?
“Jenny and I took our three kids onto the movie set and they got to meet Owen and Jennifer, who were very sweet to them. Any doubts they had about a having a major motion picture made about their family evaporated pretty quickly,” says Grogan, who was involved in reading the script and giving his input to director David Frankel.
He also pointed out that the movie studio used 23 yellow labs doing Marley at different stages of his life, ranging from newborn puppies to senior dogs.
And what would one expect from one of the nicest guys in the writing game and obvious dog lover?
“We ended up adopting one of them. Woodson, who is in early scenes in the movie,” Grogan says. “What can I say? He’s very Marleyesque, and man, what an appetite. And thus the story starts again.”