It’s Thanksgiving, and if there’s one part of my life I give tremendous thanks for beyond the human members of my family, it’s the four-legged creatures who fill my life with joy and laughter. Following so many author blogs and the Facebook pages of writers I admire, I can’t help but notice just how many people post regular photos and updates of their pets…and how many comments and likes they get when they do.
My Romance Writers of America chapter (go Pocono-Lehigh Romance Writers!!!) recently had the fabulous Caridad Pinerio give an incredibly informative workshop on social media for authors. One point she mentioned was that recipes and pets (with accompanying photos) are pure gold when it comes to social media. Considering what I stop to read I completely believe her, but it made me wonder, what is it about authors and their pets that we find so appealing?
I imagine that it’s a combination of shared experience and humanization. We have something in common with even a famous writer like Lord Byron (who wrote the most heartfelt poem to his Newfoundland Dog Boatswain who he buried with a headstone that exceeds Byron’s in size) or Mark Twain. Ernest Hemingway may have been a misogynist, but I bet he had to clean up something heinous his six-toed cats horked up around his house at some point, right? So he and I would theoretically have a conversation starter if we ever met on a distant plain (and I could steer away from the fact that I’m not the biggest fan of his writing).
There is also the nature of writing – it’s lonely. You usually do it all by yourself, in some cramped, cluttered corner of your house while the humans around you steer clear because you are a) overcaffeinated, b) talking to people who don’t exist (i.e., your characters) and/or c) haven’t bothered to shower because you are headed to a deadline. You know who doesn’t care? Your pet. Your cat selfishly feels you are a terrific source of heat and food as you snack at your desk and your dog simply loves you so much that he or she is willing to drape themselves on your feet and let their bladder the size of Montana fill until you realize it’s been 11 hours since you’ve taken them outside to pee. You do not get that kind of devotion from a person (okay, rarely you do), which could explain writers’ propensity for animal fandom.
I definitely think that authors like Dean Koontz (who actually has given his late golden Trixie her own webpage while celebrating his current golden, Anna) and Janet Evanovich are onto something when it comes time for the author photo. Having a pet in the shot not only differentiates you from the pack, but instantly sends the message, “Oh, wow, this person is an approachable, nice human being” because let’s face it, animals usually only like nice people and are able to detect when some bitchy person carries a whiff of sulphur still lingering from their portal to hell transportation. In Midge Raymond’s “Tips for the Author Photo” article, Raymond emphasizes the importance of maintaining a natural look and that includes your facial expression. It’s virtually impossible to have a pet in the shot with you and not look natural, because you are busy worrying that your dog or cat is going to pee on a light or start barking at a shadow and embarrass you, rather than about how fat your upper arms might look or if you are getting a weird shadow that’s going to make you resemble Winston Churchill when you want the cool J. R. Ward badass vibe (which you probably won’t get unless you have a cool cat in the shot, like a panther).
Let’s not forget that the presence of animals in a portrait has always meant something (other than announcing you carry a powerful lint brush in your purse everywhere you go). In the 17th to 19th centuries, animals in a portrait, usually dogs, often indicated that the person or persons in the portrait were worthy of admiration and loyalty, or the breed of animal hinted at the intellectual refinement or wealth of the subject. One of my favorite portraits involving a dog is Anthony Van Dyck’s portrait, Five Children of King Charles I which you can visit in all its splendor in the National Portrait Gallery in London. The gigantic dog being used as an armrest by the future Charles II of England is probably an early variety of Mastiff and the bitty poindexter in the lower right hand corner looking at the chubby (and seriously underdressed) Princess Anne is an early King Charles Spaniel. Mastiffs were frequently owned by the aristocracy for protection, and the King Charles Spaniel was actually named for the young Charles pictured here since he loved toy spaniels, including the one that would eventually carry his name.
Luckily for us, we no longer look for the deep symbolism when someone takes either a formal portrait immortalizing their puppy or a selfie with their ginormous cat, but readers are still fascinated by the relationship of pets and authors. In the world of romance, we are fortunate to not just have authors who write in terrific animal characters into their books (Laura Kaye’s fabulous three-legged puppy in Hard As It Gets comes to mind, as well as all the animal characters of Jill Shalvis’ Animal Magnetism series), but who actually advocate for them. Lori Foster, Vicki Lewis Thompson, Brenda Jackson, Catherine Mann, Virna DePaul, Jill Shalvis, Kate Angell, Jacquelyn Frank, and Lisa Jackson are just a few of the authors who come to mind to heighten awareness of animal causes and who even create anthologies where the proceeds go to animal charities.
I’ll leave you with the poem Lord Byron wrote for his Newfoundland’s gravestone since it summarizes a lot of the relationship we have with our pets. Maybe you’d even consider making a donation to your local animal shelter in honor of your favorite romance author – I’m sure they’d be thrilled to hear about that kind of fan appreciation! Whatever your thoughts on how to honor the animals who inspire you – whether they live in your home or are online – let’s all consider ourselves fortunate to have these wonderful giving creatures in our lives and in our imaginations.
Epitaph to A Dog
Near this Spot
are deposited the Remains of one
who possessed Beauty without Vanity,
Strength without Insolence,
Courage without Ferosity,
and all the virtues of Man without his Vices.
This praise, which would be unmeaning Flattery
if inscribed over human Ashes,
is but a just tribute to the Memory of
BOATSWAIN, a DOG,
who was born in Newfoundland May 1803
and died at Newstead Nov. 18, 1808.
For more great pictures of writers and their pets I’d recommend the following articles:
“Animal Muses: The Pets Of Famous Writers And Artists” by Alice E. Vincent from The Huffington Post UK (June 25, 2012)
“Portraits of Writers With Pets: The Humanizing Animal Connection” by Emily Temple from The Atlantic (November 28, 2012)
“Literary Pets: The Cats, Dogs, and Birds Famous Authors Loved” by Maria Popova from Brain Pickings (April 29, 2013)