Garth Stein, author of the bestseller "The Art of Racing in the Rain," is definitely a dog person -- just not that kind of dog person.
"I've always loved dogs -- the book is dedicated to Muggs, my old Airedale -- but I don't have dogs, you know, sit at the table and eat with me or anything like that."
For his 2008 novel, which was on the New York Times bestseller list for 94 weeks, Stein combined two of his passions -- dogs and car racing -- into one golden, reader-pleasing plot. He is honoring the first of those lifelong interests by appearing Friday at a benefit for the Home for Life senior-pet shelter in Stillwater. The event starts at 6 p.m. at the Metropolitan Ballroom, 5418 Wayzata Blvd., Golden Valley.
In the book, a philosophical dog named Enzo reflects, on the last night of his life, on the time he spent with a family, especially Denny, the race-car driver father, with whom he's sometimes along for the ride. Enzo is conflicted; he wants to be reincarnated as a human, but at the same time can't bear to leave his human family.
Despite the glut of dog-themed books making the rounds, something about the way these two characters weather strife and tragedies together continues to steal readers' hearts. The book, often chosen for "community reads," in which entire towns form a book club over one title, has sold 1.4 million paperback copies and been translated into 25 languages.
Stein, who lives in Seattle with his wife, three sons and a Labradoodle named Comet, said that he never worried that readers might find it somewhat corny to place a philosophical dog in the role of narrator.
"Fiction is supposed to heighten certain elements of reality in order to create a unique perspective," he said. "I've found that more than 95 percent of the people are able to accept it, but unfortunately, the rest are book reviewers for major newspapers. I sometimes want to say, 'Come on guys, lighten up.' "
Stein, 46, grew up in Seattle but spent nearly 20 years in New York before returning. After graduating from film school at Columbia University in the late 1980s, he was a documentary filmmaker. The germ of the idea for "Racing" occurred to him after he saw a doc on dogs in Mongolia, where people believe they are reincarnated, and then heard poet Billy Collins read a poem from the point of view of a dog who dislikes its owner.
The book has been optioned for a film, with Patrick Dempsey said to be on board to play the human protagonist.
"Never trust Hollywood until you can buy a ticket, but they're supposed to start filming in the spring," Stein said.
Stein appears at several charity events a year, usually related to animal or literacy programs.
Lisa LaVerdiere, executive director of Home for Life in Stillwater, said she asked Stein to come because she loved that the book was written in a dog's voice -- and that Enzo wanted to come back in the next life with opposable thumbs.
"All we try to do at Home for Life is to try to get people to see our forgotten animals for the great spirits they are, and here's a book that has the dog speaking his mind,'' she said.
Stein's next book, which he describes as a "nontraditional ghost story," takes place on Puget Sound. He's behind schedule, but hopes it will come out next fall. He describes himself as a "binge writer. I go in spurts. Right now I'm working about 20 hours a day because it's late, but then you need to take time off and let your brain heal, then go at it again."
His dog, Comet, is seven years old, and is, he says, "no Enzo. I love her, she's a great dog, but she's not the sharpest tool in the shed. I think she has a few more lifetimes before she reaches human status."
Kristin Tillotson • 612-673-7046