Above: The author with his current canine, a rescued, one-eyed terrier mix named Tilda. Photographed by Matthew Allard.
South Portland native Steven Rowley authors a megabucks bestselling novel, Lily and the Octopus, about loneliness, loss, and man’s best friend.
By Victoria Scanlan Stefanakos
[dropcap letter=”O”]n his Press Herald paper route in South Portland, 11-year-old Steven Rowley would pedal past the home of a backyard dog breeder. He tossed her the morning news, and she tempted him with dachshund puppies. But Rowley grew out of the job, left for Emerson College in Boston, then moved to Los Angeles to try his hand at screenwriting. He never did get a dachshund.
When he came back to Maine to care for an ill family member in 2001, at age 30, he remembered those pups. So, he found a breeder in Waldo and fell in love with the runt of a litter. He named her Lily. They were inseparable from the start.
Lily died of cancer three years ago. Rowley was simultaneously distraught over the loss of his companion and frustrated by a creative funk. He constantly waited for producers to green-light scripts that he wrote and rewrote. One of his romantic comedies came close to production, only to fall through after a writers’ strike. Discouraged, he became a paralegal to pay the bills while he wrote at night and on weekends. Then, in his grief and disappointment, he looked back.
Six months after Lily died, he began a short story called “The Octopus” to help him recall the memories they’d shared. He kept writing — for exactly 100 days — until he had a book, Lily and the Octopus, that gave his personal experience a fictional treatment.
The protagonist, Ted Flask, is a lonely man, unhappy in his work and relationships. But he loves and relies on his 12-year-old dachshund. “I think that animals have two lives,” Rowley says. “Dogs have their life as a canine. Then they also have this anthropomorphized personality. Somewhere at the intersection of those two lives a little bit of magic.”
One way Rowley captures that intersection is through dialogue. In the novel, Lily speaks in two modes: one is printed in all caps: “YES! CHEWY! HAPPINESS! MORE! SALTY! MEAT! FOR! LILY! PLEASE!” “That’s for if I could do an English translation of her actual barking,” Rowley explains. Then there’s the discourse of his imagination: “Although writing is a solitary activity, it’s really only a matter of time before you start talking back to your dog,” he says. “The rest of her dialogue is something like the conversation she’s having with me.”
Growing up in an old farmhouse, Rowley learned that dogs live in the barn, not the home. Now, dogs travel with us, sleep in our beds, and become integrated into our families. That new closeness has complicated the grieving process. “We know they will die long before we do,” Rowley says, “and yet people expect you to get on with it, to go out and get a new dog.”
When Flask realizes that his beloved dachshund is dying from a tumor on her head, his denial spawns a beautiful journey that brings him to the limits between reality and fantasy, pain and joy. “I think there is a timelessness to the heart of the story,” Rowley says. “And while it’s about a man and a dog, I think it’s a story about someone who is stuck in his life. It’s about learning to let go of anger, resentment, and fear. I didn’t realize how in denial I was. We get so good at it, we don’t see it any more.”
Such are the depths of denial that, in the novel, Flask can’t even bring himself to acknowledge Lily’s cancer. Instead, he calls it her “octopus.”
The euphemism is, at first glance, a curious one. “As a kid, I’d sit on the beach and know that the ocean has so many stories to tell,” Rowley explains. “It has a calming presence, and your problems can seem smaller. That’s where the octopus came from. There’s mystery in its depths, and a little bit of healthy fear.” In the dark waters of his own grief, the sea gave Rowley a creature that similarly resorts to ink when backed into a corner. A kindred spirit, maybe.
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After he finished writing the book, though, Rowley couldn’t even lure an agent to represent him, so he hired a friend to edit the manuscript, along with a typesetter to prepare the text for self-publication in two months’ time. His goals were only to share the emotions of his experience and to honor Lily. As a passing thought, his editor asked if she could send the manuscript to a friend over at Simon & Schuster. That was a Friday. The publisher called Rowley on Monday.
“I was stunned,” he recalls. “In Hollywood, writers are on the bottom of the ladder. So when the editor at Simon & Schuster said she deferred to my vision, I almost fell out of my chair.” Within 48 hours, the company had negotiated to buy the book for what Rowley politely calls “a fair amount of money” — widely reported as nearly $1 million in advance of the book’s publication this past June.
Maybe the hefty sum shouldn’t come as too much of a surprise. Heartfelt stories of animals and their humans — The Art of Racing in the Rain, The Life of Pi, Marley & Me — have had epic commercial success. Within a month of hitting bookshelves, Lily and the Octopus had already appeared on the American Booksellers Association’s bestseller list and drawn raves from outlets like the Washington Post and Publishers Weekly.
Rowley, now 45, doesn’t look like someone who was only recently “feeling stuck in life on a lot of levels” and whose “creative energy had dried up.” At a recent book reading in South Portland — wearing a checked vest and a broad smile — he instead seemed eminently at ease.
“It’s really a dream,” he says, adjusting tortoiseshell glasses. “I’m old enough to appreciate every moment of this and to be grateful for it. I’m very much against ideas about guardian angels or whatever people call them. But this has been such a blessed experience, it’s hard not to think that there isn’t a little spirit up there, helping me.”
And on the subject of spirits, Rowley admits to believing that an animal can leave an imprint on the human soul. “For me, that was Lily,” he says, smiling. “I compare the feeling to stories: Sometimes, someone hands you a book that’s the perfect intersection of what it has to say when you need to read it.” Then it just sticks.