Last month we were honored to share out book on the Charlotte Readers Podcast. Listen here.
Last week I took my old dog on a 500 mile trip to see my daughter at college. I spent a lot of time thinking about why we care about dogs so much.
The most important lesson I’ve learned putting this book together is that dogs are family.
We’ve had a busy December and there’s still a lot to go!
Hollywood Legend Jimmy Stewart shares a touching poem about his dog Beau.
We’ve been promoting our book for a couple of months now, and if you’re following along you no doubt know about the heartwarming stories and poems, and the remarkable photography of each dog.
But there’s another element of the book that I want to bring into the light—the design.
When I had the idea for Gone Dogs in 2014, the first person I talked to was my wife. The next was someone I respect in the publishing industry. The next was Laurie Smithwick, a friend since the mid-2000s, who is also one of the most talented designers I’ve ever known. And, being in advertising, I’ve known plenty. If this book was going to become a thing, Laurie was the person I wanted marching this long road with me. Because I knew she was the one who would make it beautiful.
Boy did she.
From a design standpoint, I only had one suggestion—that my dog Sydney be on the cover. That was it. Everything else was Laurie.
From the moment you hold the book in your hands, you feel its quality. When you open the cover, you’re hit with a green full-bleed liner that she custom created. (The one in the back of the book might look the same, but it’s actually different.) The weight of the pages, Laurie. The composition of the stories, Laurie. And the photography, as beautiful as it is, was sent from people all over the world in multiple formats and resolutions, and all required intense Photoshop work. Laurie.
But there’s something else that to me is the most important design element in the book.
Every story and poem begins on a left page. Clearly not all of the stories/poems are the same length, so some of the them also ended on a left page. Which meant we had to decide what to do with the empty right page. It was something we thought a lot about. Then one day Laurie said, “I have an idea.”
The result of her idea is the brightly colored pages that complete stories that end on a left page, with an outline of a dog in white on the right page. Simple. Elegant. Beautiful. Right?
But there’s more.
They’re not just outlines of dogs. They’re not even just outlines of the kinds of dogs in the story they bookend.
Every dog lover knows, when a dog dies it leaves a hole in your heart. A hole in your life.
This seemingly innocuous design element is actually a stroke of genius, and precisely why I wanted Laurie on this project back in 2014.
When I asked her about these “holes,” she told me that the idea is from a line in the book, “The God of Small Things,” by Arundhati Roy, which reads, “Joe was dead now. Killed in a car crash. Dead as a doorknob. A Joe-shaped hole in the Universe.”
“I read the ‘The God of Small Things’ in 1998. That line has stayed with me ever since. And seemed like a perfect fit for our book.” – Laurie Smithwick
Design is important, kids. And this book is as much a tribute to great design as it is the dogs who grace its pages. Thanks to Laurie.
Gone Dogs. It’s about love. ❤️
Here we are, nearly five years after having the idea for the book Gone Dogs, in our 11th hour.
Actually, it’s more like 11:59.
So I should be elated, right? To finally see all the hard work come to an end. Come to fruition.
Well, in one sense, I am. But in another, I’m frustrated.
Back in 2014 one of the first people I spoke with about the idea for Gone Dogs was my longtime friend Laurie Smithwick, a designer who I trust and admire. After talking about the concept, we decided to jump in and take it on as a part time project that we’d somehow squeeze into our regular work and busy lives.
We established a brand. We procured and built a website. We told all of our friends—who were highly supportive. Then we built a strategy to glean content, and began to employ that strategy via social media. We established social media accounts for the brand. We created a legal entity (a publishing company) and opened a bank account. We asked friends to tell their friends about the idea. We built a submission engine in WordPress. We opened a PayPal account. We hired a lawyer to ensure that we were protected from copyright and other issues. We launched the website. We spread the word. We used Facebook, Instagram, and Twitter to promote the brand. We used Google and SEO to ensure we were being properly indexed for the search engines. We set a deadline—but didn’t have enough content—so we extended the deadline. We advertised the call for entries on Facebook. We reviewed content. We asked established writers to help us evaluate submissions. We made tough decisions about what content would be part of the book. We edited, proofread, and edited some more. We routinely and effectively communicated with 50 authors to ensure their stories and photographs were correct. We researched how to self-publish a coffee table book. We worked in Word, and Google, and Photoshop (a lot of Photoshop), and Illustrator, and Indesign, and WordPress. We used Slack, text, email, and DMs in every platform to communicate. We had countless in-person meetings. We researched print-on-demand publishing, distribution models, and wholesale markdowns. We did a lot of math. We researched and chose a fulfillment vendor. We researched and found print vendor then established a relationship with them. We decoded their templates, redesigned the book to fit, and sent them files. We ordered a sample book, but it wasn’t up to par on quality—so we hit the brakes, reset, and rebuilt files for other printers. And we waited.
We continue to wait.
I can’t tell you how hard this is.
After all this time.
After all this effort.
When you simply want to be finished with a project, but aren’t willing to sacrifice quality.
And the reason we won’t isn’t for us. It’s also not for our fans. Or even our authors. It’s for the dogs. The dogs and their stories that make up our maiden volume of Gone Dogs will always have a special place in my heart.
Trust me when I say that as excited as you are to have this book, we’re even more excited.
Getting it right takes time. As it turns out. Five years ago I had a 4-year-old dog under my desk. Today he’s getting gray around the eyes.
What started out as a good idea that seemed to have some traction within our networks five years ago has become a remarkable work that I can’t wait to let loose into the world.
It’s coming. And it can’t come soon enough.
The following is a submission by Pamela Desloges, from North Carolina. Throughout the year we’ll feature different stories that have been selected to be part of our book. This is Josie’s story, You Never Know.
Sometimes you never get to see the far-reaching impact of your deeds. But then again, sometimes you do.
When Josie and I picked each other out at the animal shelter, I whispered in her ear that we would have good times, and her eyes sparkled in reply. We hiked mountains, canoed lakes, sat on the village green during summer concerts, spent long weekends with friends in Maine, took walks in snowstorms while waiting for the plow to clear our driveway. She traveled with me from Maine to Alaska and down to Florida. She was seldom on a leash and was welcome everywhere. I always felt safer traveling with her, although she couldn’t drive a standard or read a map.
Josie was a border collie/Lab mix who had a subtle but profound effect on people. When we had been together for two years, I decided it was time for her to get a job. She had earned her Canine Good Citizen Certificate at a local dog show after I signed her up on a whim; she would be perfect for therapy-dog work.
Near our house in the mountains of New Hampshire, there was a private nursing home called The Log Cabin. It actually had log siding and sat off the road in a forested area. It was small—with maybe twenty to twenty-five residents. I brought Josie to meet the director, who reviewed our credentials and was delighted at the idea of my bringing Josie to visit the residents every week. Soon we were spending our Wednesday mornings there.
I initially consulted with the staff about which rooms to enter, and always asked each resident if they would like to see the dog. Some declined. Most, however, were glad to have us visit them. We spent about fifteen minutes in each room, with lots of laughter and chatting. We enjoyed our visits and getting to know the folks.
I remember Alice, who chirped with delight when she saw Josie. Every week, she rubbed Josie’s head and crooned, “What a sweet dog! What’s her name?”
“How old is she?”
“I had dogs. I always had dogs. Big ones like this. What’s her name?”
“How old is she?”
Alice was one of our favorites.
On the second floor, there were fewer rooms; the people there seemed more independent. I guessed that they might have been there because they had no other place to live.
The first time we knocked on the open door of room 206, a woman answered that she did not care for a visit from a dog, but would love to chat with me for a few minutes anyway. Josie and I went in, and Dorothy offered me a chair next to her rocker. While we talked, Josie lay quietly on the floor beside me, pretty much unnoticed. Dorothy was physically fit, mentally alert, and interesting to talk with. I enjoyed our short conversations. Dorothy had a niece who lived nearby and came every week to take her out to lunch and make sure she had everything she needed.
One Wednesday, I looked into Dorothy’s room and she wasn’t there. I assumed she was out with her niece and proceeded down the hallway.
The next week when Josie and I got to her door, I was relieved to see her sitting in her rocking chair. As soon as she saw us, she called out for us to come in. “Bring the dog over here.” She reached out and ran her thin fingers over Josie’s smooth fur. During our visit, she never took her hands off Josie and gazed at her constantly.
She explained that the previous week, she had experienced a “heart incident.” Emergency personnel were summoned and whisked her to the hospital. She said that the ambulance ride was overwhelming, and she was terrified that she was going to die.
“But then I thought of your dog. I kept envisioning her and that comforted me. I pictured her while I was in the emergency room. She was with me all the time at the hospital.” Dorothy held Josie’s face in her hands and kissed her on the nose. “I don’t think I could have made it without her.”
Josie and I spent fifteen years together until she died of old age. Now I, too, picture her. When I think of her, my skin hurts because I miss her so much. But, like Dorothy, I feel a great calm when I see her face. I, too, think of many times that I could not have made it without her.
Sometimes you never know. But I always knew. Right from the moment I clipped a leash onto her collar at the animal shelter. When her soft golden eyes looked into mine and said, We’re good.
We were. Together, we were the best.
Author: Pamela Desloges
The following is a submission by Callum Saunders, from Glossop, England. Throughout the year we’ll feature different stories that have been selected to be part of our book. This is Ruby.
There are many stories I could tell you about Ruby. And many different ways in which I could tell you those stories. But after several weeks of gestation, I kept circling back to one driving force: the only way to truly tell Ruby’s story is through the lens of an old photograph. How a visual image triggers a written story is less an irony and more a confluence of currents.
And as those currents started to become words flowing from my fingertips, it became clear that I wasn’t writing “a story” about Ruby, but more how her story continues to move through me today; how I see, navigate, and sense a world of memories all around me whenever I am back at the family home. Perception, space, and time dance with each other in mysterious ways.
And the flow of Ruby’s energy continues to be felt today.
I found a box of photographs the other day. Real, physical photographs, glossy, tactile and wonderful. Even the most innocuous of memories feels somehow more meaningful when committed to physical print. One of these photographs was slightly bent in one corner, where it had clearly been squashed into the box. I picked it up and looked upon it, instantly transported back to a time and place as the beauty of what it captured drew me in.
The landscape was the Sussex Downs, right behind my mother’s house—up high on chalky downland that has curved and undulated for millennia. I am lying prone on the grass, giving a lower sense of perspective. The midpoint of the photo is the horizon, where the warm, pallid earth meets a pastel sky. My three siblings are there, walking up hilly tussocks toward an eternal July evening. I can feel their motion and hear their chatter right now.
In the foreground, plodding after them, is a black shadow with four legs. To say she is shapeless is not intended as factual, but a reflection of her age; the glossy contours of a Labrador’s prime long gone.
There is no specific symbolism behind this particular photograph, no occasion beyond the very scene it captures. It merely framed a moment in time, when four siblings had managed to come back home together at the same time. I remembered feeling as if we had the Sussex Downs to ourselves on an evening when heaven and earth seemed fused as one.
And it’s this singular image that evokes everything Ruby was to me. Her loyal following and slow gait, her subtle yet constant presence, her inquisitive and loving eyes. Her happiness just lying somewhere, being with her family, and taking in the world around her—as though she existed on a time continuum slower than our own. Even today I often see parts of my own personality in hers: the humanity of a dog is never to be underestimated.
The English poet Edward Thomas penned a poem titled “The Unknown.” Three lines have always struck me:
“The simple lack of her
Is more to me
Than other’s presence.”
I look upon the garden on warm summer days and gaze longingly at the same patch of grass where she lay in her final years. Silent, content, and immovable, she was a black rock: steadfast and true, in the humming, pulsing rhythm of an English garden in August. Her ashes are buried right behind it, and feed a rose we bought for the occasion—a variety named Ruby (what else)—but it’s that patch of warm, baked earth, rather than the blooms her ashes send forth every year, that sings to me and speaks to my soul. “The simple lack of her is more to me than others’ presence.”
At the family dinner table, I can almost feel her head upon my thigh—Labradors and the eternal optimism of a tidbit from the table. How strange it is that she has been gone all these years, and yet my soul still has the muscle memory to outline the shape of her head with my hands, to still know the very weight of that old head as it plodded down upon my leg.
As I move through the family home, there are tens of different spaces—worn patches, scratches, chewed baskets—that still tell her tale to those who knew her and can read the inscriptions. Her story is not reimagined and retold in our minds. It’s there in physical space, while time dances around it.
“The simple lack of her is more to me than others’ presence.”
As I look at this photograph now, I can feel her heat in dusty whispers.
Author: Callum Saunders
My dog is a teacher. Every day he shows me that all we have is this moment. And for one moment last October, I thought I lost him.
We had just arrived at the park—his happy place. He circled me a couple of times enticing me to throw the ball, and when I did, he raced along the grassy slope after it. But halfway down he stepped into a hole and tumbled in a way that I thought his spine snapped.
He yelled out in pain and I ran down the hill and held him. Until then, I’d never heard him so much as whimper—even years before when he got caught under some chicken wire that flayed him from his stomach to his spine. Not a peep. I knew this was bad. My mind raced as he cried.
I carried him to the truck and rushed to the ER vet where they diagnosed him with something called Fibrocartilagenous Embolism (FCE). Basically, FCE occurs as the result of cartilage spurs breaking off and pinging the spine. They explained that he had temporarily lost use of his rear legs, and that he’d be immobile 4-6 weeks. They also told us that he’ll never fully recover to the dog he was just earlier in the day.
During those first days we carried him outside so he could do his business (yeah that was interesting), and made sure he was always comfortable. But Strider quickly grew bored of the injury, and a little over a week later he was dragging himself across the floor to find a ball. It was his love of play that helped him begin walking a month ahead of schedule.
Strider turned seven this summer and all he still wants to do is play. All. The. Time.
But he can’t jump into the back of my truck anymore, and sometimes on our walks he’ll start to limp. You wouldn’t know it from his bright eyes and desire to work, but at seven, and after such a traumatic injury, he is in decline. I know. This isn’t my first dog rodeo.
The funny thing is that Strider doesn’t know he’s in decline. Sure, I sometimes have to cut our neighborhood walks short because of the limp, but he still walks with a playful swagger. In his mind he’s still a fiery puppy.
He doesn’t know that the damage from the FCE will only get worse as the years go by. He doesn’t know that he’ll soon spend most of his days sleeping because that’s what happens to dogs. He doesn’t think about how one day he’ll leave me broken.
He lives for the moment. The chase. The now.
And I can’t help but think that this is what endears me to these animals. Living in the moment is a brilliant lesson in how we all should live life. Not in the past. Not in the future. Now.
Because right now is where life is.
And if I walk out back right now, where he’s guarding our yard from the mailman, he’ll grab a ball, drop it at my feet, and look up at me with his tongue wagging.
I suspect he always will.