When journalist John Grogan sat down to write his first book—a memoir about life with a huge, joyfully incorrigible, loveable maniac of a dog named Marley—he never imagined that he was tapping into a national reservoir of affection for crazy dogs. Marley & Me was published in 2005 to rave reviews and instant success: in hardcover it spent 76 weeks on The New York Times bestseller list (23 weeks at No.1), and was followed by a paperback edition, a version for school-age readers, and two picture books, including the newly released A Very Marley Christmas. The film, starring Jennifer Aniston and Owen Wilson, opens in theaters Christmas Day.
LHJ: Somehow I feel compelled to tell you about the time our puppy tried to chew up my husband’s shoe while he was still wearing it.
John Grogan: Everybody who has a dog has a story! What’s funny is that so many people are clearly proud of how bad their dogs are. [Loud crashing sound interrupts.] Hear that? That’s my new puppy picking up his steel bowl and then crashing it onto the floor.
LHJ: In the book, there’s something about Marley’s absolute joy in being bad that you, too, secretly admired.
Grogan: Most of us play largely by the rules; we’re responsible employees, spouses, and parents. But I think we all have a little streak in us that says, “Wouldn’t it be nice if I could do everything I ever wanted to do without worrying?” Marley was this free spirit who didn’t care what people thought of him.
LHJ: When did you realize that this free spirit would make a good book?
Grogan: Pretty early in Marley’s life I figured he was good material. I would tell stories about him at dinner parties, or at the water cooler at the office, and people would always laugh.
LHJ: Did you have any idea about the kind of response this book might bring?
Grogan: If I had sat down and said, “I want to write a book that has the biggest shot of being a New York Times bestseller,” I would probably have done nothing like I did in this book. If you’re writing a funny book about a dog, you wouldn’t take a whole chapter to write about your wife’s miscarriage, or a girl in the neighborhood getting stabbed. But Marley was a central character to many of these life-changing events in our life as a couple. He was right there at our side, so it felt natural to tell those stories.
LHJ: You write movingly in the book about what living with Marley the dog taught you about life and love. Has the phenomenal success of Marley the book taught you anything, too?
Grogan: Marley changed my life. He changed it when he was alive, but he’s changed it in the aftermath through this story that’s gone all over the world. I get emails every day from Brazil and China and Taiwan and France, you name it. It’s given me this sense of connectedness to humanity all around the globe, this brotherhood, and that’s been a great thing.
LHJ: Have you seen the movie?
Grogan: Not yet, but Jenny and I were on the set for several days. And the trailer is a hoot. The first time we saw it in a movie theater, we screamed.
LHJ: Was it weird to see yourself being played by a movie star like Owen Wilson?
Grogan: It was incredibly weird, just like an out-of-body experience.
LHJ: Was Jenny beside herself when she heard she’d be played by Jennifer Aniston?
Grogan: She absolutely was not complaining.
LHJ: Did the film truly capture Marley’s personality?
Grogan: Clyde, one of the dogs who played Marley was very well trained but very high energy. Right in the middle of a scene Clyde would leap up and give Owen a big kiss on the face while he was trying to deliver his lines. Or Jen would be holding him, and all of a sudden she would be pulled off the scene—just whoosh, and she was gone.
LHJ: Dave Barry wrote a hilarious newspaper column about playing an extra in the movie. Were you tempted to join him?
Grogan: Actually, Jenny and I are extras in one scene—the dog obedience class, where Marley gets kicked out. We didn’t have to do much, which is fortunate because neither of us knows a thing about acting.
LHJ: I understand the cast and crew gave you a very special souvenir.
Grogan: Woodson is what you heard upstairs, dragging the steel bowl around. He’s the dog that Owen, as me, brings home the first day. He’s a puppy, so he’s spunky, but already he’s much calmer and more focused than Marley.
LHJ: And you already had another Lab, too?
Grogan: I call her the anti-Marley. I tell her, “Gracie, you’re a great dog, but don’t expect me to write a book about you. It would be the world’s most boring book.”
LHJ: At the end of Marley, you were heading out to look at a different dog.
Grogan: That’s the question I always get from readers: “Whatever happened with Lucky?” We went to see him at a private, no-kill shelter a mile from our house, and when we walked in with kids, they said, “We’re not adopting him out to anyone with children because he’s unpredictable.” He’d been chained out in the backyard his whole life and he’d never been socialized.
LHJ: Your new book, The Longest Trip Home, is called a “prequel” to Marley.
Grogan: It’s the story of growing up in this loving Irish Catholic family, of breaking free of my parents’ orbit to become my own person, and then, before it’s too late, coming back home again. Marley’s in there briefly, but it’s not a dog story.
LHJ: In reading the book, did I see a little bit of a Marley theme in your own rambunctious phase?
Grogan: I was somewhat Marley-esque as a child. I definitely marched to my own drum, and, yeah, my parents always stuck with me and tried to guide me.
LHJ: What’s next for you?
Grogan: I have two or three book ideas, but this upcoming year is going to be busy with The Longest Trip Home. And with all things Marley. It’s been quite a phenomenon—it just keeps going.
Sidebar: Behind the scenes of Marley & Me
Marley is actually played by 22 different dogs, reveals the movie’s head animal trainer Mark Forbes. Puppies grow so fast that it took 11 of them to film Marley’s early life. For the adult Marley, trainers would choose from a pool of 12 dogs depending on which obedience skills a scene required, and whether Marley was supposed to be calm or hyper in that moment.
Two dogs in particular—Clyde and Ziggy— played Marley at his most incorrigible, and to prep them for their roles, Forbes and his staff had to break most of the usual dog-training rules. “If they were jumping up, we encouraged it. If they were tearing something up, we encouraged it,” Forbes says. “It was a completely different way of training.”
As if there weren’t enough dogs running around, both Jennifer Aniston and Owen Wilson brought their pets to the set every day, says director David Frankel. “They’re both real dog people. Jen’s dog Norman and Owen’s dog Garcia were with us for the whole shoot, hanging out wherever we went.”
All the movie dogs were much better behaved than the real Marley ever was, but Clyde definitely had some of his spirit, Forbes says. In one scene, Marley comes across a big Tupperware container full of dog food. “The script called for Clyde to just chew on it a little bit and leave,” Forbes remembers. “But Clyde being Clyde, he started chewing on the container, tipped it over, braced it up against a wall, and knocked over a whole bookshelf. We just kept rolling the camera. He finally rips the lid off it. You couldn’t have trained him to do it; it was just classic.”