Mann attended the University of Iowa Nonfiction Writing Program. His first book, Class A: Baseball in the Middle of Everywhere, profiled a minor-league farm team, the Clinton LumberKings. He teaches writing at the University of Massachusetts, Dartmouth, and lives in Providence, Rhode Island.
Lucas Mann: When I first encountered J.R. Ackerley’s My Dog Tulip, I was in a particularly angsty phase of my graduate-school career. I got my M.F.A. in nonfiction writing, a tiny, separatist sect within the already over-specialized community of literary academia. When anyone asked what I was working on, I couldn’t simply answer “my novel,” and be done with it. This might seem to be a very minor concern, and it is—still, I winced each time someone found out my chosen genre and asked me, with a sneer, “Oh, so what horrible event brought you here?” Again and again, the type of work I aspired to was met by outsiders with either confusion or derision, and that pattern only served to create within me a heightened sense of panic and defensiveness every time I sat down to write. It felt as though the gnawing question that plagues every fledgling writer was extra-magnified for those of us writing essays; it extended beyond What makes you think that you have something interesting to say? into, What makes you think you could possibly have something interesting to say about the petty circumstances of your own life and interests?
As a general guideline, I don’t think this is a bad line of inquiry—ultimately, all writers should put that pressure on their work. But as I wrote about baseball and about my family, two topics that can easily verge into the maudlin or the insular, I faced more than literary self-doubt—I exhausted myself questioning whether the things I cared about were worth care in the first place. Enter My Dog Tulip, a book-length essay dedicated entirely to a poorly behaved German Shepherd that Ackerley cared for more deeply than anything else in his life. (So much, in fact, that he changed her name for the book, as though protecting her from the attention, a detail that still gives me a ton of joy. Her real name was Queenie.) I’d just finished Ackerley’s investigative family memoir, My Father and Myself, which had really resonated with me, and I wanted to read more of him. Still, I came to Tulip with some skepticism. After all, dog writing is … a challenge, to put it gently, something most commonly found alongside tributes to dead grandparents in the personal statements of unsuccessful college applicants. I can’t bring myself to write about my own beloved dog, because I imagine a reader reacting the way I do when a celebrity goes on a talk show and tells a story about their kids as though no other child has ever existed.
But Ackerley, amazingly, seems immune to shame. He spends no energy on the page justifying why Tulip is a worthy literary subject. Instead, he focuses on detail. Every detail. The book features a chapter called “Liquids and Solids,” which is about exactly what you think it’s about, beginning with a quote on a particularly satisfying [bowel movement] of Napoleon’s and then moving into careful descriptions of Tulip in the act: “A mild, meditative look settles on her face.” As the book moves forward, the specificity only increases. At first, the reader is suspended in a sort of purgatory of literary expectation. Something has to happen soon, we reason. The plot will kick in or the larger purpose of the book will reveal itself. But the plot is only that Tulip is alive, and the larger purpose is only Ackerley attempting to support and record that life. Somehow, though, we begin to feel a subtle yet undeniably forceful momentum. It’s as though we’re building to a critical mass of the mundane. I notice this, he tells us. And I notice this, and this and this. When Tulip wakes up, I watch her. When she goes to the bathroom, I watch her. When she falls asleep, falls ill, gives birth, I watch her.