An ode to Lily, the million-dollar email@example.com
Lily was stubborn, as many dachshunds are. She was also relentlessly sweet and funny. She would make me laugh, whether it was a cock of the eyebrow or the way she would play with a ball. Later in her life she lost her eyesight and she would miss a doorway by a half an inch; it sounds terrible, I know, but just the way she handled challenges without complaint taught me so much. From Lily I learnt about kindness and unconditional love and grace in extreme circumstances.
Yet, when, aged 12, she was diagnosed with a brain tumour and eventually I took the decision for her to be put to sleep, it really took me by surprise how blindsided I felt by the loss of her friendship. I had lost childhood dogs but this was completely different. Lily was the first dog that I acquired as a puppy and had for her entire life, until old age. I’d chosen her, the runt of the litter, on my 30th birthday and taken her home when she was 12 weeks old. In lots of ways we grew up together. To see a living creature through its entire lifespan, there’s something special about that. It’s not something we get to do usually with humans.
I’d already spent years toiling in obscurity as a screenwriter in Hollywood when Lily passed in July 2013, and afterwards my career ground to a halt. I stopped writing for six months. Finally, I decided enough was enough. I needed to write something. So I sat down and started writing a list of memories of myself and this dog: happy memories, silly memories, imagined conversations we had. I needed to get myself out of this place where I felt stuck. I had to reconcile my own grief over losing this relationship and move on with my life.
What I wrote formed the basis of a short story that I called “The Octopus”, the name I gave to the tumour. Inspired by magic realism, the octopus arrives one day and starts to strangle life from Lily. Others might think: “Why not a rhino or giraffe?” But I wanted to write about attachment and how difficult it can be to let go. To have something with tentacles that can have a stranglehold on you just made sense.
Looking at what I’d written I knew I had the basis for a longer story. And, over a hundred days, driven by sheer naivety and terror, I turned that story into a novel. I was afraid if I stopped the story would dry up, that the metaphorical octopus would take back his ink. As a writer the day will throw every excuse at you not to write, but I made sure that I wouldn’t try anything else until I had worked on the book that day. It was extremely cathartic, although there were parts that were very painful to write, in particular, revisiting the end of Lily’s life.
I sent it out to publishers and was met with silence or, at best, outright rejections. After a year I grew tired of waiting. So I decided to self-publish. I hired a freelance editor to help me polish the book, a typesetter and a graphic designer friend to help me create my ebook. Several months later, in March 2015, just as I was about to publish, the freelance editor called me. She said: “I haven’t been able to stop thinking about your book. Do you mind if I send it to a friend at Simon & Schuster who I think might enjoy it?” I thought, “It can’t hurt”, but I still didn’t imagine anything coming from it. The editor warned me it might take a month or two to hear back. By then, I thought, I’ll be selling it on Amazon.
That was Friday and on Monday I heard they were interested. Things escalated from there. Given that the fee for a first-time novelist can be anything from $15,000 to $125,000, I wasn’t sure if it would be worth it to go with a major publisher who might want to make changes. When I’d sat down to write Lily and the Octopus, I’d taken off my screenwriter’s hat and let my imagination run wild. While it was a book about a dog, it wasn’t a straightforward Marley & Me story, and there was no way I was going to compromise on any aspects of the novel. But Simon & Schuster’s enthusiasm only grew, perhaps thanks to my hesitation. A week later they offered me a million dollars. I was stunned. They loved the book. And most importantly, just as it was.
The press hailed it as a Cinderella story – “debut novelist nabs million-dollar advance” – and the rights were sold to 14 other countries. Yet no one knew about the 15 years of graft before I became an overnight success. Still, I was humbled by the investment Simon & Schuster was willing to make in my book and career. That validation was the biggest reward.
The day it was released in the United States was the end of one part of a long journey and the beginning of another. I wondered if I was honouring Lily in the best way I knew how. The last bits of grief over losing her bubbled to the surface. It was almost as if that was the last day she was exclusively my dog, before her story belonged to everyone who picked up the book. I sat with a few photos of us together and had one last cry. Now, her memory is a celebration.
Writing the book has not only been about letting go of a loved one but about making room for what is supposed to come into our lives. I’m now working on my second novel. And I’ve even got a new dog, a rescue dog named Tilda, after Tilda Swinton. I was nervous to open my heart again but every dog is different and comes with their own personality.
The response from readers has been deeply humbling. Writers always have that nagging voice inside us that devalues our work. My original fear was that if you didn’t know the actual Lily, would the story resonate? But it really has struck a chord and I’m deeply grateful.
The gift the money gave me was that I was able to leave my day job in a law firm, and make writing my full-time work. I wish I could say I spent it all on yachts or exotic travel or something, but writing is my life and I hope to support myself doing that for the rest of my days. Tilda, however, gets a very high-end dog food that’s made fresh from Pacific cod and sweet potato. At least she’s living the high life.