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Powell's Q&A

Ken Foster

Describe your latest project.
Ken Foster Dogs I Have Met: And the People They Found is a collection of essays about... dogs I have met. And the people they found. After my last book, the memoir The Dogs Who Found Me, I began to receive lots of letters and phone calls from people who wanted to share their stories with me. At readings, dogs showed up in the audience — and there's really nothing more reassuring than looking out among a crowd of strangers to see dogs scattered about, poised to listen to every word. My publisher thought I should do some kind of follow-up, and to be honest, I wasn't sure I liked the idea. But then I kept getting all this great material as I toured the country: a pit bull that adopted a piglet; a junk yard dog that becomes a spoiled mama's boy in Manhattan; the dogs that returned to my New Orleans neighborhood with their owners; etc. What was really interesting to me was the relationship between dog people, and between readers and writers, that emerges through these stories. Our dogs connect us. But books connect us too.

  1. Dogs I Have Met: And the People They Found
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    "[W]ell-told, moving stories..." Library Journal
  2. The Dogs Who Found Me: What I
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    "[A]n absorbing and quirky memoir....Foster's style is blunt, funny and poignant." San Francisco Chronicle
  3. The Kind I
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    "Foster...combines depth and simplicity in a way that makes for potent reading..." Library Journal

    "Wonderful, just short of too hip." The Village Voice


What's the strangest or most interesting job you've ever had?
Gosh... some have been strange and some have been interesting and some have been both. I was the director of a student apartment complex at SUNY-Purchase and had to always let Parker Posey back into her room; she never took her keys with her because she was afraid of losing them. I taught a literature class for singles at the 92nd Street YMHA. I worked at a bar owned by Michael Imperioli — on Sunday nights I tended bar while he waited on tables. I was the slowest person working the window at Motor Moka in SE Portland. I was briefly the spokesperson for Snoop Dogg when he had just signed up to write a memoir — I spent a lot of time reminding people that he was no longer called Snoop Doggy Dogg. But the strangest job may have been making waffles in a display window on the boardwalk in Wildwood, New Jersey. It was so repetitious, it was like public meditation. Every now and then I'd look up and realize that the same group of people had been watching me for half an hour, one waffle after the other.

Writers are better liars than other people: true or false? Why, or not?
A good writer finds ways to inspire their readers to question things. A good liar doesn't inspire or provoke any questions at all. Yet to write well, we have to find ways of adapting the skills of a liar in service to telling the truth. It isn't possible for words and letters and squiggles on the page to really reflect three dimensional life, so all writing is a trick of some kind, but hopefully we're trying to coax our readers toward the aspects of the world that they have already found around them and helping them to see things in a new way. But I frequently tell my students to cut back a little — they try too hard to convince me, which is a problem with bad liars and writers alike. Confidence is everything.

Why do you write?
For the same reason everyone does: to bring order to our disorderly existence. Whether I'm writing fiction or non-fiction, there's always some puzzle I'm trying to solve. Sometimes when I start out, I don't know exactly what the puzzle is, or where the core of the solution to understanding it might be found. When I wrote The Dogs Who Found Me, I really didn't know why I kept stopping to pick up dogs, so the book became an exploration of places and ideas I hadn't really fully explored. That mystery is part of the process of writing as well, and sometimes the only order we can impose on events is the form in which we portray them.

Share an interesting experience you've had with one of your readers.
I was shopping in Canal Place in downtown New Orleans and my cell phone rang. It was someone from California who was calling from Atlanta, where he was visiting a terminally ill friend who had a dog — part pit bull — who needed to find a new home. He had read The Dogs Who Found Me and thought I could help. I still don't know how he managed to get my cell phone number. I've actually had several people call me at home to tell me that they enjoyed my book, and I always worry that I'll never get them off the phone, but that's never been a problem. They just say what they have to say and then they say goodbye.

Of course, in person, at readings, people always bring their dogs, or photos of them. Once, in a library in Michigan, there was a pit bull waiting for me in the stacks.

Who's wilder on tour, rock bands or authors?
I think we could give them a run for their money if we had as many handlers as they do. But we're usually pretty much on our own. The first time I went on tour — for my story collection, The Kind I'm Likely to Get — a friend helped book my hotels. He worked as a travel agent for rock stars on tour, so he was able to get a much cheaper rate for me. Rock stars apparently get better rates than any of the rest of us. I ended up staying at the Phoenix in San Francisco. It is an old motel, with all the rooms overlooking the pool. 98 Degrees was staying there at the same time, and when I passed their rooms I could see the shadows of "activity" silhouetted on their closed curtains. They were definitely having a better time at the moment, but I wonder if they remember it now.

On a clear and cold day, do you typically get outside into the sunshine or stay inside where it's warm?
I live in New Orleans, so clear and cold outside and warm inside are completely foreign concepts. But that's the great thing about New Orleans — no matter what the weather is, I spend a good part of the day outdoors.

Aside from other writers, name some artists from whom you draw inspiration and talk a little about their work.
I used to write to music a lot, particularly when I was working on fiction. But in recent years I seem to have stopped listening to music at all unless I'm in the car. Now that I've bought a house, I'm spending more time at home and listening to music again. I'm completely obsessed with Suzanne Vega's new one, Beauty & Crime. It's all about NYC in the old, pre-9/11 days. There are a lot of ghosts on it, the kind that haunt us as we walk familiar neighborhoods that aren't what they used to be. Having lived in New York through 9/11 and New Orleans through Katrina, it really hits me emotionally, no matter how often I've heard it. It is gorgeous and sad and completely takes me back in time to my days in Manhattan, which included lots of writing and listening to music. Great songwriters are, I guess, a huge influence on me: I listen to the way they use mood, the way they pace things, they way they introduce themes and come back to them again. And the way that all great songs tell stories.

Recommend five or more books on a single subject of personal interest or expertise.

Five Books in Which Dogs Play a (small but) Pivotal Role:

They Came Like Swallows by William Maxwell
This is a book in which every word serves the story, yet it took me a while to figure out the purpose of the family dog loitering mostly in the background. In the final scenes, the dog is the only creature to whom the father can express his grief.

When the Emperor Was Divine by Julie Otsuka
In the first story/chapter, Mother abruptly kills White Dog, the old family pet, rather than leave him behind when they are shipped off to US internment camps during the war.

My Friend Leonard by James Frey
Bella and Cassius, two pit bulls, form the emotional core of this book. But that shouldn't come as a surprise.

Last Night by James Salter
An excellent, unsettling story collection. In one piece, a woman becomes obsessed (that's the polite word for it) with a poet's dog.

A Perfect Stranger by Roxana Robinson
In the story "Family Christmas," a dog named Huge takes a part in the class structure of the narrator's grandparents' home. I once had the pleasure of hearing the author read from this story, while her own dog sat in the front row, utterly transfixed.

÷ ÷ ÷

Ken Foster is the author of The Dogs Who Found Me, Dogs I Have Met And the People They Found and a New York Times Notable collection of short stories, The Kind I'm Likely to Get. He lives in New Orleans, with at least three dogs. spacer

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