In his middle years, John Grogan’s trips back to Michigan were aimed at connecting with his aging parents.
Like so many sons and daughters throughout millennia, he hoped to re-establish some of the uncomplicated relationship he’d had with them when he was a rule-bound lad. As an adult, he’d wounded them deeply by actions that departed from the strict Catholic code they clove to.
“To say my parents were devout Catholics is like saying the sun runs a little hot. It defined who they were,” he wrote in The Longest Trip Home (2008).
He’d previously penned Marley and Me (2005), about a young couple building their family and the nutty labrador that made mischief in their lives for 13 years.
Grogan, 55, will speak of those books and his path from newspaper reporter/columnist to author at 7 p.m. Thursday in the Stranahan Theater at the Authors! Authors! series cosponsored by The Blade and the Toledo-Lucas County Public Library.
Gardener (he edited Organic Gardening magazine), backpacker (just returned from hiking a Vermont leg of the Appalachian Trail), and singer/guitar player (a way to relax and unwind), his spirituality is ignited by the great outdoors.
IF YOU GO
John Grogan speaks at Authors! Authors! at 7 p.m. Thursday in the Stranahan Theater, 4645 Heatherdowns Blvd. He’ll also answer questions and sign copies of his books, which can be purchased at the event. Tickets, $10; $8 for students, are sold at library branches and the door. Information: 419-259-5266.
“I find spiritual guidance and solace in things that are outside of the church or any man-made structures. I love being out in nature; for me it’s a moving and spiritual relationship. I marvel at the grandeur of the natural world whether I’m in the woods, out in my garden, or out on the sailboat in open water.”
He lives with his wife, Jenny Grogan, on 19 acres in a stone house built in the late 1700s an hour north of Philadelphia and less than 100 miles west of Staten Island. Their children are Patrick, 20; Colin, 19, and Colleen, 15.
After Hurricane Sandy, they were without power for a week but better prepared than most. Before the storm they filled the bathtub with tap water; after it hit, Grogan hauled water from a stream on their property. They had plenty of wood and a wood-burning stove to heat part of the home, along with a propane-fueled kitchen stove, outdoor grill, and lanterns. Being an avid backpacker, he’s used to simple living. At night he read books with a head lamp.
Thoughtful, articulate, and kind, he spoke to The Blade from his “toasty” 16-foot-by-20-foot writing cottage, also warmed by a wood stove, on the property. With a sleeping loft upstairs, it’s “more of a man cave” where he’s likely to do phone work, edit, and proof read. But for writing (he’s working on both a fiction and a nonfiction book), he heads for the library at Lehigh University, 15 minutes away.
“When I’m doing writing or anything creative I do it at Lehigh usually. There’s too many distractions at home. Eighty percent of The Longest Trip Home was written at Lehigh. I go there a couple times a week,” he said. “I think of writing as this totally mysterious energy force that I have no control over and sometimes it’s flowing and sometimes it’s not. I’m a little superstitious about it. I don’t want to do anything that’s going to mess it up. I’ve found things that help. Strong coffee is one of them.”
He grew up in Orchard Lake in Oakland County north of Detroit, the youngest of four to a white-collar General Motors employee and homemaker. The family, particularly his mother, told stories.
“They amused us in good times and soothed us in bad. They filled the awkward silences when things were not right and fueled the warmth when they were. Mostly they provided the context that made us something more than six people related by blood — the context that made us that messy, imperfect, spectacularly infuriating and confounding and essential entity, a family,” he wrote in The Longest Trip Home.
He graduated from Central Michigan University and worked for a newspaper in southwestern Michigan, earned a master’s degree at Ohio State University on a fellowship, and was hired at the South Florida Sun-Sentinel in Fort Lauderdale where he worked for 12 years. He and Jenny, a journalist he’d met in Michigan, married shortly after moving south.
After six years of news reporting, he was offered an opportunity he came to love: writing a column with first-person perspective.
“It suited me very well. I figured out pretty quickly this is my comfort zone. I was a reporter by day and at night, toiled away at creative writing and short stories. I found as a columnist I could combine them; I could get my creative juices out in a column that was read by a few hundred thousand people every day as opposed to something I’m writing at night that stays in my dresser drawer.”
Seeing an ad for editor of Organic Gardening magazine, he decided to blend his love of gardening with a career and in 1999, the family moved to Pennsylvania. “I was totally wrong. Suddenly the passion wasn’t there. It felt fairly pedestrian to be writing and editing gardening stories,” he said. He left in 2002 to write a column three times a week for the Philadelphia Inquirer, working on Marley and Me from 5 to 7 a.m. each day, completing a chapter a week that he’d send to his agent.
“Once you push that send button it’s kind of psychologically out the door,” he said. “I refused to look at it again. I didn’t want to get bogged down with endlessly trying to perfect something.”
After 30 weeks, he reopened his 30 chapters, read the work, “and was pretty happy with it. I didn’t spend a lot of time agonizing over it.”
He was as surprised as anyone when it became an international best-seller and was made into a 2008 movie starring Owen Wilson and Jennifer Aniston. The story took on a life of its own, and he rode the wave into shore. Marley, he said, is now a brand, and includes a chapter book for middle schoolers, and a series of I Can Read books for new readers.
“I’m honored that so many people were touched by my story,” he said. “One of the great gifts that Marley gave me was the freedom to follow my muse and to not feel that I have to sell something every year to pay the electric bill. I’m free to let my creative juices take me where I want ... Hopefully I’ll have something to share with my readers down the road.”
Contact Tahree Lane at firstname.lastname@example.org and 419-724-6075.