As far as significance goes, I’ve always considered the story of how I came to read Markus Zusak’s When Dogs Cry as important to me as the book itself. So in the name of self-indulgence and serendipity:
I first heard of Zusak a week before he was due to visit my high school to deliver what I think was one of those Fremantle Literature Centre young writers courses. I would have been about 14, so I’d been interested in writing for some five years already, and my English teacher recommended I attend.
But I had nothing to go on, no clue who he was (this is pre-The Book Thief), and my determination to write was at an all-time low. Getting published seemed like the kind of thing that happened to people in New York or London, not someone from a tiny private school in regional WA. I had all these silly adults asking me what I wanted to do when I grew up and they wouldn’t take “author” as an answer. “That’s your hobby,” they’d correct. “Perhaps you could be a journalist, then?”
So when my mother decided the following Monday to stay home ‘sick’ with me for the first time in both our lives, I remember feeling a little sad about missing out on Zusak’s appearance, but not enough to reject a day of TV and toasted sandwiches.
It wasn’t until I mentioned this to a friend that I began to think I’d made a huge mistake. He happened to be reading The Messenger, which was a new release at the time, and was enjoying it enough to insist I borrow his copy once he was done. Impatient soul that I am, I went to my school library, to the very end of the young adult section – I always think if I’m an author and my surname starts with Z, I would change my surname – and didn’t find it. The Messenger wasn’t Zusak’s first book, though, even if most people mistakenly believe it to be; it was his fourth. His third was the book I did find on that shelf, and although it was quite thin, and it had a dubious cover, and the quotes of praise on the back were from publications I’d never heard of, I took it home. It redirected me to a path I’ve not wavered from since, the one of doing this crazy and wonderful (and occasionally downright stupid) thing called writing.
I read it in a day or so and then I went straight back to page one and read it again. The narrator is Cameron Wolfe, a teenager born and bred in the Sydney ‘burbs, who idolises his brother Ruben, worries about his sister Sarah and can’t relate to his successful oldest brother Steve or Steve’s upper-class live-in girlfriend Sal. His old man Clifford is a plumber and his mother, whom he refers to as Mrs Wolfe, is a tough-nosed stalwart who works hard to keep the peace. Cam’s just hungry, for who or what he’s not sure, but he knows there’s more to life than what he’s got, more to existing than what he does. Which leads him to the most important thread running throughout the whole narrative. His words.
Very quickly, very suddenly, words fell through my mind. They landed on the floor of my thoughts, and in there, down there, I started to pick the words up. They were excerpts of truth gathered from inside me.
Even in the night, in bed, they woke me.
They painted themselves onto the ceiling.
They burned themselves onto the sheets of memory laid out in my mind.
When I woke up the next day, I wrote the words down, on a torn-up piece of paper. And to me, the world changed colour that morning.
Cam writes about whatever’s on his mind with a disarming level of honesty and poetry. Each of his writings gets its own title, “When dogs cry” being one. Some are quite beautiful but others, admittedly, are unsubtle metaphors hinting at what’s to come in the story, or loosely deconstructing what’s just been. But ultimately Cam is just a vulnerable, hopeful and curious young man, and he makes sense of the world simply by writing. Don’t we all?
Since first picking it up I’ve lost track of how many times I’ve read When Dogs Cry. Many favourite lines I can recite from memory, one being the opener:
It was Rube’s girl’s idea to make the beer ice blocks, not mine.
Let’s start with that.
I have vivid memories of sitting at the back of my school bus reading certain paragraphs with my mouth agape, completely amazed at Zusak’s style and subject matter, and how utterly captivating the whole thing was. Like reigniting my almost-entirely-dead passion for writing wasn’t enough, it inadvertently taught me tools of the trade I’ll never forget.
Most importantly, it doesn’t have any vampires in it. Not one. There are also no zombies, or any mention of any kind of apocalypse, recent or pending. It kept me hooked from first page to last and there isn’t an explosion or a sports car in sight. It’s just a book about family, about siblings, about love, about rivalry, about growing up. This was the first lesson, really the only lesson as far as I’m concerned: stories are only as entertaining as the characters within. And the Wolfe family will definitely stick with you.
She could tell by looking when I came in that night, she reckoned. She told me right away, when I tried to slip past her on my way down the hall to Rube’s and my room.
It was funny.
How could she be so sure – so sure that when I came in, she could stop me and shove her hand to my heart and say with a grin and a whisper, ‘Tell me Cameron. What’s the name of the girl who can make your heart beat this fast?’
It’s here that Mr Zusak slapped me upside the head with yet another Inescapable Writing Truth. All the characterization exercises in the world can’t account for one very simple truth about characters: they’re people. And so they can be anything. They need three dimensions, a voice of their own, relationships, and they need to do and say all the things people really do and say, even when it might not make sense, when you (as writer or reader) don’t agree with them, when they’re being a selfish cretin and you want some other character to beat them with a toaster but really they’re just a nice person having a bad day.
On the way back home some time after that, Steve and I talked a while, but only about small things. In the middle of it, I cut him short.
‘When you first told Sal about Rube and me you said we were losers. You told her you were ashamed of us, didn’t you?’…
‘No,’ he confirmed, and he looked at me with something that resembled anger now, almost like he couldn’t stomach it. ‘Not you and Rube,’ he explained, and his face looked injured. ‘Just you.’
When I eventually had to return the book to my school’s library, I went and bought a copy to keep. Whenever I lose sight of what I’m writing, what I hope to achieve in the long hours between drafts, I take it off the shelf for a few hours. I hope every would-be writer like me has a When Dogs Cry of their own, because I can’t imagine anything sadder than them listening to those silly adults and pursuing a career in – gasp – print journalism.
Liz Newell is a writer of prose and theatre and a former arts journalist. In 2008 she was named Young Australian Writer of the Year and in 2013 was shortlisted for the PlayWriting Australia re-gen Seed Commission. She blogs at For The Record, is part of the programming team at the Perth International Arts Festival and is working on completing her first novel.
Your turn: Have you read When Dogs Cry or Marcus Zusak’s other books? Do you have a When Dogs Cry of your own, a book you turn to when you want to be reminded of your purpose?