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Housebreaking by Dan Pope


Dan Pope

As both an author and a bookseller, Dan Pope is well-versed in the world of books. A true bibliophile, Dan has been selling books on AbeBooks for over 10 years. In that time he’s written two novels and a selection of short stories for Postroad, McSweeney’s, Crazyhorse, Shenandoah, Gettysburg Review, Witness, the Iowa Review and more.

His latest book, Housebreaking, is described as powerful, provocative, and psychologically gripping. The novel explores the ways that two families-and four lives-can all too easily veer off track.

When asked what inspired him to write Housebreaking, Dan answered, “A dog.”  Keep reading to find how a dog inspired a novel that The New York Times Sunday Book Review calls a “heartfelt chamber piece of flawed personalities, calamitous decisions and ­unexpected moments of grace.”

“She appeared by the back door of my parents’ house one evening over the holidays, howling.  This happened about twenty years ago. I was home from university.  She was a malamute, a bit overweight, with heavy gray and white fur.  She had somehow escaped from her home by breaking the link of her thirty-foot vinyl dog-line, which was trailing behind her.

Instinct – well, love – brought her, to seek out my brother’s Akita.  We let him outside to romp around with her for ten or twenty minutes, which ended with him making a half-hearted attempt at mounting her.  She growled and hissed and they had to be separated.  Then he came inside and happily went about his business, while the malamute stayed outside, sleeping on our front porch, apparently lovelorn. We let her into the house to warm up, but she immediately ate all the cat food and started on the dog bowl, which didn’t sit well with our Akita.  So we had to put her out again.  She stayed all night.

The next morning, her owner appeared, a lovely woman with her son, who was in his teens. They lived two streets over.  They’d been searching the neighborhood for their runaway.  They gathered their dog and took her home.

Housebreaking by Dan PopeA few days later, the malamute was back.  The same interactions occurred: dog-roughhousing, attempted humping, separation, reunification the next morning with rightful owner.  This happened often – more than a handful of times, over a few years.  The malamute had a talent for escape.

As I said, this happened a long time ago. I would see this woman and her son when I came home to visit my parents.  The mother and son would take walks around the neighborhood after dinner. The boy was blessed with a wonderful nature, intelligence, good looks.  I never really got to know him or his mother.  But we exchanged phone numbers, and whenever the malamute would appear, we would let the dogs play, then call to inform the mother or son of her escape.

A few years later, the story appeared in the newspaper.  The son had died in tragic circumstances overseas. It seemed impossible that this young man could be so suddenly gone. The dog disappeared around that time, too.  I don’t know what became of her.

That experience – the dog, the tragedy of the son – was the first germ for the book, although I had no intention of writing this novel back then. But much later, when I began to form an idea for a novel that took place in my hometown, that episode came to mind and became, in some way, the spine of the novel.

I started work on the book when I was 42 years old, when I returned to my childhood home in Connecticut after the death of my father, to help care for my mom.  The town, West Hartford – particularly the north side of town – is a quiet, comfortable place. After dark the neighborhood shuts down, even in summertime.

I would go out for walks at odd times of night – midnight, 2am – and I’d be more likely to see deer than people.  Once, a pack of coyotes ran past me, jumping over a split rail fence and disappearing across a lawn, as nimble as thieves.  The houses were silent and dark.  Once in a while you would see a blue glow of a TV or computer monitor through an upstairs window.  I got stopped by policemen more than once on these light-night jaunts:  “Do you live around here?”  I couldn’t blame them.  Anyone in the suburbs out that time of night is suspicious.  “Trouble sleeping,” I would tell the cops.  I didn’t want to admit the truth, that I stayed up to four in the morning writing this novel, every night, and that the air cleared my head when I get blocked.

Writers are, in a way, weirdos; they don’t really fit into the suburban vibe.

Being back there, in the rooms where I grew up, summoned, of course, a host of old memories.  But what struck me, more than the past, was the danger and tragedy that managed to find its way into this peaceful, affluent place.  A car crash on a sleepy side street took the life of a high school boy.  A troubled kid from the next street got his hands on a handgun and shot it off on his front lawn. Someone started breaking into garages and vandalizing homes.

All of this stuff, in some way, shaped the book I was writing and the feeling that came upon me, so different from how I used to view my neighborhood as a child, that the beautiful houses, the fine lawns, the orderly streets – it was all an illusion, a false promise that things would never change, that life was indefinite.”

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