Sheltering: Jennifer Finney Boylan on Boyhood, Dogs, and Unconditional Love
The Author of Good Boy Talks to Maris Kreizman
On this episode of Sheltering, Jennifer Finney Boylan speaks with Maris Kreizman about her new memoir, Good Boy, the story of Jennifer’s boyhood and early manhood, accompanied by the seven dogs that were in her life. Boylan tells us about being in quarantine with five members of her nuclear and extended family, about “coming around to pugs,” and what she misses about book tour. Her favorite local bookstore is Print: A Bookstore. Please order Good Boy through their website, or through Bookshop.
From the episode:
Transcription generously provided by Eliza M. Smith
Maris Kreizman: Welcome to Sheltering. I’m Maris Kreizman, and I am delighted to be talking to my Twitter friend Jenny today. Welcome, Jenny!
Jennifer Finney Boylan: It’s nice to be here. It’s nice to be anywhere, actually, other than locked in my bedroom.
Maris: Why don’t you introduce yourself and then tell us how you’re doing.
Jenny: Well, my byline is Jennifer Finney Boylan, although no one around the house actually calls me that, so I’m Jenny Boylan. I am okay, I think. I’m in a house in Maine with my family—that means my wife, Deirdre, my daughter, Zaira, and her fiancé, Ezra. Also under this roof is my brother-in-law, whom we call Uncle Todd, and a flat-coated retriever named Chloe.
Jenny: We’ve been together for about a month now. I wrote a column for the New York Times—for the last five or six weeks I’ve been doing a journal of the plague year, which essentially has been a small series of blurbs around what’s going on in our lives in this little Maine town as we shelter in place and one, try to get our work done; two, try to enjoy each other’s presence; and three, most importantly, try to avoid killing each other.
Maris: Yes! I can only imagine.
Jenny: It’s funny, I’m hearing two very different stories from people who are isolating, and one of the stories is—I’ve seen this in my students too, with whom I’m Zooming every week—some of them are genuinely alone and are in their apartments in New York City and haven’t left the house for a month, so they’re experiencing the pain of being alone. Then there’s people like my family, where we have five people in—it’s not a small house, but it certainly feels smaller than it usually does, and every day is kind of like another Thanksgiving dinner.
Maris: I love that. And how is your dog handling this?
Jenny: Chloe’s been a little sick actually. Not to give you too much information, but she’s been unexpectedly peeing. We had to take her to the vet and find out what’s going on, and the vet said, well, this is actually a thing with older female dogs that have been neutered, they start to get incontinent, so what you’re going to need to do is give her some estrogen. And I thought, really? You too? Some of your readers might not know, I’m a transgender woman, and I’ve been on estrogen for twenty years now, but I’m just thinking geez, Chloe. But Chloe’s fine. She’s aware something weird is going on. There shouldn’t be this many people in the house. On the other hand, more scraps falling on the floor, so for Chloe things are working out just fine.
Maris: That’s amazing. So you wrote this lovely, lovely book, which I’m going to hold up to the light, Good Boy.
Jenny: Oh, I’ve got a few of those!
Maris: I’m sure you do. Show us yours.
Jenny: I’ve got three here. Mine is the hardcover, Maris, so look out.
Maris: It only occurred to me as I was reading it that, of course, taking stock of your life based on the dogs that were in your life at the time is such a brilliant idea, but also grappling with your own boyhood.
Jenny: Yeah, and it’s something that I wrestle with: what does it mean to be a middle-aged woman that had a boyhood? And I should say that I’m aware that there are plenty of transgender women who wouldn’t speak in those terms, and I want to be really careful because I’m certainly not the transgender poster child, and what’s true for me is not true for other people, especially women who come out at a much, much younger age. But I came out when I was forty, so I did have forty years of certainly appearing to be, to the rest of the world, like a boy and later a young man. So, the question that I’m interested in is how does that affect my womanhood? And I want to make sure people understand, I don’t think it undoes my womanhood, I don’t think it’s anything I have to defend or apologize for, but it is a thing that makes my life a little different from many of the other women that I know.
I think about that boyhood kind of in the way that an expatriate might look back on the country where they were born. I don’t want to go back there, but that doesn’t mean that I don’t occasionally have dreams where I find myself there. It struck me as a good way of making sense of this history was through the dogs, because there was a dog in every moment—there was a dog in boyhood, there was a dog when I was Joe Cool in college, there was a dog of being a boyfriend and a young husband and a father. And the dogs were always there. So, in a way, it’s through the dogs that I can now most make sense of that experience.
Maris: I love that. And I love—you’re right, we like to think that dogs offer us unconditional love, but that is clearly wrong. Good for you for calling that out, because my dog is always plotting to get something from me. She’s manipulative.
Jenny: Right. What’s unconditional is the love we have for them. When writing about men and boys, I think it’s worth observing that for many men and boys, love is a thing that’s hard to express, or can be hard to express, but not necessarily so when it comes to dogs. My own father, who was—I wouldn’t call him stern, but he was reserved at times, had no such reserve when it came to expressing his love for some of our dogs, including our truly questionable dog. We had a dog named Playboy when I was really just a child. He would get down on the floor and roll around with Playboy. The one time I remember seeing him cry, we were watching a TV show in which a bloodhound had died, and I remember seeing my father sobbing, which when you’re a kid, for me it was really eye-opening. And he just looked at me and said, “Well, it’s sad.”
Maris: Tell me about some of the dogs specifically. I always heard dalmatians were hard.
Jenny: We had three dalmatians over the years. Dalmatians are hard because they were overbred thanks to 101 Dalmatians. They became the poster dog for puppy mills. They’re a good breed, but the overbreeding, it happens cyclically: in the early sixties when 101 Dalmatians as a cartoon came out, and then in the nineties when 101 Dalmatians as a live-action Disney movie came out, and then wasn’t there 102 Dalmatians? There’s always more dalmatians. The ones that we had, each one was crazier than the one before. But I should also say that each of the dogs that I have had has taught me something a little different about love. Here I am, I know—people should be forgiven for rolling their eyes when I start talking about love, because it’s the thing we don’t like to hear people talking about because it’s corny and annoying. But if you’re going to talk about dogs, you have to talk about love because that’s what they’re here for. Actually, it’s what were here for too, to tell you the truth.
So what did I learn about love from Playboy? I learned that it’s okay if everyone hates you, as long as you’re truly loved by one person. And the one person in this case was my father, who just loved that dog. We hated Playboy. He was a mean dog. He bit people, he growled, he stole Thanksgiving dinner off the table and ran around with the turkey in his mouth.
We had another dalmatian, Penny, who I got for my eleventh birthday, and I just adored her when I was eleven. I carried her around like a ragdoll. But she was another sad dog. She was overweight; she lost all the hair on her tail. I remember my sister looking at me accusingly when we were cool sixteen-year-olds. She would say, “You see that? That’s your dog. You did this.” So by the time I was a teenager, I was embarrassed by my dog. What I learned from Penny, or Sausage as we called her, was that love can fade, and it can be hard to keep a promise at one age that you made at another.
There are seven dogs in the book. I’ll just mention one more. In some ways I think the star of the book is a dog that originally belonged to my sister named Matt the Mutt, and he was just a love machine. Not just a love machine; he was either impossible or glorious depending on how you feel about him. He would run around the house; he would knock people over. As you came in the door he would come barking and jumping up on you. He’d lift his leg and pee anywhere he felt like. He would hump anything with a heartbeat. He was in love with my grandmother’s leg, and my Irish grandmother, Gammy, would sit there with her vodka in her glass and watch the dog humping away, which interestingly she always kind of thought was funny. I remember her saying, “Well, he’s got more spunk than you grandpa!” From Matt the Mutt, what I learned about love is sometimes it’s the people who make everyone else’s life impossible that are the happiest.
Maris: I love that. I have a show and tell. My dog is in the other room, but this is Bizzy. [holds up portrait]
Jenny: Oh! Is that a pug?
Maris: It’s a pug. I know that’s a thing you have to get over.
Jenny: My pug problem? I’ve warmed up to pugs. My friend Zero warmed my heart to pugs. Originally, I thought they were the dog for people who really wanted a cat.
Maris: My dog is a little cat-like.
Jenny: My friend Zero—I call him Zero in the book anyway—had a pug, and his pug was named Oscar, and I finally got it. Now I’ve been converted to the pug thing. Pugs make this funny little sound, I don’t even know what you’d call it.
Maris: Grumphs, we call them.
Jenny: They’re comical and loving dogs. This is one thing I’ve learned, and it’s not only true about dogs: you don’t want to get in the business about questioning the love that anyone has for anyone else. If someone is in love with a pug or a pit bull—or an alligator, for that matter—god bless you If you have the opportunity to express this love. It’s so hard to give your heart to anyone or anything, and if it’s a little baby alligator that’s going to make you smile and put your arms around that little alligator face, god bless you, folks!
Maris: Absolutely. Tell me a little bit about what your book tour might have been, and what you’re doing now.
Jenny: Now you’ve made me cry. I don’t know how you feel, I love book tour. I’ve always loved book tour. I’ve been on lots of different kinds of book tours. I’ve been on a marginal one where the publisher wasn’t really sure, or maybe the publisher already was sure but they couldn’t quite bring themselves to tell me no, where they sent me to Atlantic City one weekend. I’ve been on took tours where I’m flying around business class coast to coast staying in fabulous hotels. The best hotel in the world for a visiting author is the Alexis Hotel in Seattle, where they have a suite of rooms which is called the Authors Suite, and if you’re an author on tour you get to stay there, and the room is full of the books of the authors who have been on book tour there. When you arrive—I don’t know if they still do this, but they used to—they bring a bottle of champagne and a copy of your book, which you sign and they put on the wall. I remember being there a bunch of times and sitting there in the room with a fake fireplace going—even though it was eighty degrees out, I had the fake fireplace so I was going to turn it on—drinking the champagne in the middle of the day, which is not a good idea, and signing my book and putting it on the shelf. I remember I picked one book off the shelf, I think it was Dave Sedaris had signed the book, “For the Alexis Hotel. I’m Amy Morrison.” Then he signed it, and underneath in parenthesis he wrote, “And she stole all the covers!”
I really like being on the road. I like meeting readers. I like performing, and it is a performance, let’s admit that. it takes a while to work it up—what’s the piece you can read from the book? It can’t be too long. You have to learn how to sell it, and you have to do more than one of these, because you can’t just do the same thing in every bookstore you go to. I had actually done that. In fact, back in January—how long is this book? It’s what, 250 pages or something? I took the book and I turned it into a 1,500-word essay. Which is not an excerpt, but it’s literally almost the whole book. I think I took out two of the dogs, so it’s a life in five dogs. But I made a piece that kind of amazingly stood on its own, and we sold it to where? Reader’s Digest. I’ve never been in Reader’s Digest before. Turns out, they have like eight million readers. I mean most of them are at the dentist getting their braces taken off. I was really excited, and now I had this reading copy of the book, which I was able to do at the Winter Institute of the American Booksellers Association back in January. So I had my performance piece, I was ready to go, and then one by one I saw things being cancelled.
Look, there are many, many more important things in this world than my book and my book tour. I mean, please. But I have to say, it just broke my heart because you know, you spend three or four years working on a book, and then you look forward to—the book tour in some ways is the reward. At least for me, it’s the reward. I get to go and meet readers and stay in the fancy hotel. So to not get to do that just felt really sad. And it also, quite frankly, will affect book sales. There are a lot of things I was going to do. I was going to be on one of the morning news shows. But again, I feel kind of stupid lamenting all of this because it’s not life and death. I’m fine, I’m under a roof with my family and I have enough to eat and I’m loved and I have a good dog, so what am I going to do? Complain?
Maris: Yeah, but still.
Jenny: But still.
Maris: Is there an indie bookstore that you would like to shout out where we can send people to buy your book?
Jenny: Oh, there’s so many! The two that are closest to my house are Print Bookstore in Portland, Maine. I think it’s technically called Print: A Bookstore. I’ll be giving an online Zoom reading sponsored by Print Bookstore next Wednesday night, so that’s Wednesday the 22nd, and I’ll be Zooming with Richard Russo. On pub date, which is Tuesday the 21st of April, I’m doing one of these for Greenlight Bookstore in Brooklyn, and I’m being joined by—this is kind of cool—musician Sia is making one of her rare public appearances to Zoom with me and talk about men and women and dogs and music. So, that’s going to be cool. Greenlight Bookstore next Tuesday with Jenny Boyland and Sia, and Print: A Bookstore in Portland, Maine, next Wednesday with Richard Russo. I think both of those events are in the evening. Celadon has a website where all of the virtual book tour information is being stored and kept. There’s going to be a lot of events that I’m doing like this. I’m trying to mix it up so it’s not just other writers, who I love and who are my people. Over the years I’ve met so many wonderful characters, so I’ll be going one with comedian Kathy Griffin in May. I’ll be doing one with actor Wilson Cruz from Star Trek toward the end of the month.
Maris: What a group!
Jenny: And my dear friend Jodi Picoult, with whom I am co-authoring our next novel, coming out in 2022. We’re doing an event on Friday the 24th, and that will benefit Porter Square Books in Boston. This is more than you asked for.
Maris: No, this is wonderful.
Jenny: It’s pub week! Look, I’m on book tour!
Maris: Yes, you are!
Jenny: So here it is, friends. Here’s Good Boy. I hope you like it. I hope you check it out.
Maris: Thank you so much, Jenny.
Jenny: You’re so nice to have me on this. It really fills a great hole, and it’s not just for me, it’s for all authors that you’re doing this for. It’s a great, selfless act to help us all out and to help keep the culture going. Because the culture’s not only measured in the amount of sourdough bread we can make at home. It’s also measured by the art that we make, and you’re really helping that happen, so I’m very grateful.