Interview by Adam Wahlberg
Julie Barton remembers exactly the moment she figured out how to write “Dog Medicine.” We remember exactly the moment when we knew we had to publish it. She was in a cemetery; we were on a lake. And so here we are. And what a book it is. It’s not exactly what you think it is. Yes, it involves a mystical connection with an animal. That much you see on the cover. But it’s also a meditation on emotional pain, and an archaeological dig into its sources. There’s not one narrative at play here. There’s three. It’s a tone poem as much as anything. It’s filled with unforgettable moments and images, and features a star for the ages in the unforgettable Bunker. Steve Almond calls it a “glorious howl in the darkness that leads the reader into the light.” We can’t top that. That’s exactly what it is.
TP: The pivotal events of this book took place back in the 1990s. Have you been working on this book in some form since then?
JB: Not really. I got my degree in fiction and I had written a novel first. I thought I wanted to write a dog love story as the next novel, but it didn’t have the same impact for me. And if there’s one thing I know in my life it’s that my connection with Bunker was a true story. So there was a moment where I said to my friend who got her degree in non-fiction that I think I should write this as a memoir. She said go for it.
TP: How did the writing go?
JB: I started by writing a list of memories about the story. I would write just one a day and try not to worry about how they came out. I would sit down for an hour or two and I would write a scene and send it off to my friends and say, Don’t even reply, this is just what I did today. It was a way to keep me accountable. Eventually they started to come together and I realized I had about 40 chapters.
TP: And how long ago was this?
JB: I started writing in 2010 and I posted on Facebook in 2012 that I was almost done. It didn’t come out as a fully formed thing, I backed into it. When you’re writing a memoir, the events are true, but you need to find the through-line and the subconscious of the story.
TP: How do you write? In bursts or long stretches?
JB: It was a long, slow process. I don’t write from nine to give, that’s for sure. I don’t write every day. I write in great fits where I’ll go away and write for three straight days. With kids I’ve had to learn how to write in shorter blocks, when the time is there.
TP: Do you break up the writing?
JB: I would go on long walks. I was on one when I realized the story was contained in this one year of my life. I realized the time Bunker was born was about the time I collapsed. That was a big moment for me. I’ll never forget where I was standing when I realized that. I was walking up a hill in a cemetery near my house. I went oh my gosh.
TP: Do you find the process of examining your life enjoyable?
JB: It’s amazing to look at your life with this amount of focus and in this detail. It’s a way of meditation. It’s really noticing that everything is connected. That was one of the most beautiful parts of writing this book for me, realizing that things were happening for a reason and the universe was taking care of me as long as I was taking care of myself.
TP: What is your novel about?
JB: It’s called “The Dog-Leg Women.” It’s definitely a practice book. It’s about a young woman who’s supposed to be getting married and then does a “Runaway Bride” thing. She flies to Seattle and lives in a boarding house for a while and gets a job in a kennel. And then her mom, who as all along been this everything’s-fine kind of mom, suddenly disappears and it turns out she got in the car and started driving out to see her daughter and was realizing all wasn’t well with her and they had a reconciling in Seattle. And there’s characters in the kennel and falls in love with a dog and a male love interest who ends up being more of a friend. There’s a couple who run the kennel who teach her that you should do what you love. In that first book the part with the dog was relatively minor, and I wanted that not to be the case, which led me to “Dog Medicine.” That first book taught me a lot about structure and arc and that the more you write the better you get. So I had to write a lot of not-so-great pages before my writing started to flow a little bit better.
TP: Was it difficult to write about the painful events you’ve had in your life? I’m thinking about the start of the book when you had your breakdown.
JB: There’s a quote from Brene Brown, when you turn away from your story it owns you. When you turn toward it you own it. That was the case with that particular experience because for a long time I turned away from it because it was scary and embarrassing and there was a part of me that felt it was an indulgence to fall on the floor like that. Of course it’s not and I know that now. It was very empowering for me to write of that part of my life because I was claiming it as my story and something that happened to me. It’s really hard for people who fear something bad happening to them to read about something bad happening to somebody else as they may be living their life on the surface of it because of that fear. I’m not saying that’s right or wrong; a lot of people have different ways of coping. For me it was just to understand what happened here. What did I go through? You can go through something hard and think, well that sucked, I want to forget it. For me it took 20 years to really analyze what was going on with me. But I found it enormously healing.
TP: So it wasn’t upsetting to go back to those moments where you were in trouble?
JB: It wasn’t. Not at all. When I did cry uncontrollably with the writing was with the love. My dad picking me up off the couch and saying we need to take a walk outside and I didn’t know I could. My dog coming to me and leaning on me and seeing me in a way no one else ever had. When my mom and got in the car and drove to get me when I was struggling. Those were the times when I cried while writing. This made me realize that the real power and the real strength lies in the love. You can’t have happiness without sorrow. To live your life to avoid sorrow is like living your life to avoid happiness.
TP: You have to have one to have the other.
JB: I think so. I’m a strong believer in feeling whatever you’re feeling and it’s all part of life. There’s no wrong way to feel. There’s no wrong way to wake up in the morning. There’s no judgment. That’s why dogs are so freaking fantastic, because they don’t have any judgment.
TP: Tell us about that moment when you met Bunker.
JB: It was almost a silence, a quiet, it was like “there you are, I’ve been waiting for you.” Of course I didn’t trust it. I remember exactly the moment. I picked him up and he looked at me and that was it. I don’t think I had any thought process. I just went with it. My thoughts then did chime in as thoughts do. But in the moment it was quiet. It was something landing on a branch.
TP: This was a feeling unique to Bunker?
JB: It was, much to my dismay. I just haven’t had that same connection with any other dog. I wish I did. I have a term for it now. Bunker was my forever dog. I’ve talked to other dog owners and they will tell me they had a forever dog. I talked to one person who said they had it more than once. I was convinced after Bunker that I would find another forever dog. But I haven’t. Forever dogs are really special. They have a wisdom that we don’t have. If we paid more attention to them, and the earth and the trees, they would tell us a lot of things we could use. As a society we could do a little less walking and a little more noticing. Bunker taught me how to do that. He just loved me no matter what. He wanted to be next to me. He wanted to go outside and be in the sun and trees and rain. That was real medicine for me.
TP: But it’s not like life was perfect even after Bunker came along.
JB: It’s definitely not a happily-ever-after story. Things improved for me, and Bunker was a big part of that. But there was the sadness of a short life span, for him and any dog. So I knew I was going to have to figure out a way to live in this world without him. In a way writing this book is in an effort to stall that and bring him back. The moment I first opened up the box of galleys I felt like he was back with me, which was really beautiful.
TP: Have you had any more breakdowns like you experienced in the beginning of the book?
JB: I have only collapsed on the floor like that one other time since, and it was when I had these young children with great demands and wanting to write and really being suffocated by the repetition of motherhood. It’s the hardest thing I’ve ever done. My husband came home from work and put me in bed and just sat next to me while I was struggling. It was depression. It was exhaustion. You’re not able to take care of yourself the way you used to.
TP: You’re clear in the book that you don’t question your meds anymore.
JB: For many years I thought as I was doing better that I might not still need medication. I would be fine if I stopped taking medication. So I would. And it went through four or five cycles before I realized I need to stay on medication and without medication I will not be well. I had to come to terms with the fact that I’ll always be on medication. But thank goodness that it’s there. I need that way to alter my brain. For whatever reason, genetic or environmental, or something got clicked on or off, it’s just how my brain operates. I treat my depression like any disease. I treat it like diabetes. I take my Zoloft. And I have a therapist, I have a counselor, I have a friend who’s a coach. I reach out to them when I need to right the ship a bit.
TP: And it’s not as if getting a dog is guaranteed to be a profound experience. In your book you even talk about taking one back right away.
JB: I don’t think that if you’re depressed you can just go get a dog and your life will be better. I caution against people thinking that. I was in a particularly privileged and lucky circumstance. I didn’t have to work that summer. I had everything taken care for me that summer at home, and I was able develop this relationship with this animal. It just happened that this dog was instrumental for me. But for others it could be hiking or something else that can pull you out.
TP: I like how bold you are with your subtitle: “How My Dog Saved Me From Myself.” Those were the stakes.
JB: Those were the stakes. He saved me.
TP: Part of how he saved you was he needed you to function.
JB: The thing about being depressed is people think she can’t help me she can’t do much right now so I’m just going to not ask much of her. In a way that’s a blessing because you really can’t do much. But in another way it enables the depression. For Bunker to need me to get up in the middle of the night, feed him in the morning, train him. It gave me purpose, for sure. I had to show up. His noticing me saved me. His not needing me to wrangle my emotions and explain to him why I was down saved me. His spirit. His unbridled bliss. Just watching him. Just watching him taught me so much. His silliness, his goofiness. He taught me a lot about self-care.
TP: How was it sharing the manuscript with the people in the book? Awkward?
JB: Some of the best advice I got along the way came from Cheryl Strayed and Pam Houston. They told me two things: the person in your book that needs to look the worst is you. You’re the one this is about. You’re the one who should bear it all, your biggest mistakes and failings and all the problems that you have. Pam told me when I was finished with a draft I should do a compassion read, and look for things in there that would be problematic for people in their lives. I really struggled with the parts of the book about my family. My parents and my brother are my heroes at this point because not only did they give the book their blessing, it’s been a real tool for healing for all of us. We’ve had conversations we probably would have never had. They’re cursed with me as a family member because I don’t ever just let things go. I don’t let anything fester. It’s a problem. (laughs). I need to learn how to not talk about everything. But I don’t operate well when there’s an elephant in the room. For me for years the sibling issue between my brother and I was the elephant in the room. He read the book and loved it and has been incredibly generous. There’s more than one way to apologize. There’s more than one way to say I wish that hadn’t happened. One of the most important things that I would encourage readers to remember is he was a child. We were both children when this happened. He’s a really good man. I owe him a huge debt for his willingness to have this be in the world.
TP: How did you achieve the right tone when talking about pain caused by other people?
JB: Writing about people you love can be dicey. If you’re ever trying to write from a place of anger or revenge or frustration about someone else, it’s just not going to work. The reader will catch on to it in a minute and not be with you anymore. You have to write from a place of love. You have to imagine all sides and that can be healing. It was for me, imagining what was going on with my brother and my mother and my father. No one had bad intentions. Actions were out of hurt and loneliness and frustration. But as a kid I thought there must have been something wrong with me. But the more I unpacked our family dynamics I realized it was just something that was going on. It wasn’t some huge flaw on my part.
TP: You’re obviously a huge animal lover. How many pets do you have these days?
JB: We have two cats, one we found while I was driving my kids to camp three years ago. I saw this tiny ball of fur lying on the road. I thought at first it was a skunk tail but then I looked closer and I realized it was a kitten. His name is Gizmo and he’s the neighborhood cat. The school for my daughters is across the street and when my youngest was in kindergarten Gizmo would sometimes sneak in and curl up on her lap in the class. And then my other cat was discovered when my older daughter was walking to school and saw something in the trees behind the school. It was a kitten, not healthy looking. He climbed high up in the trees and we couldn’t get him. The next day we got him cleaned him up and his name is Gadget. We have two parakeets, Freddie and Ollie — Ollie flew away — they’re both gender-neutral names because we couldn’t figure out their genders (laughs). We still have Freddie. We have a couple fish that we’ve had for years. My youngest daughter yesterday was lobbying for a rat. They want guinea pigs. We’ve had them all.
TP: Are you working on another book?
JB: Yes. I don’t know what it is yet. I know I’m always going to write. I have a lot of essays I want to work on. Whether they turn into a book, I don’t know. A lot of things interest me. A lot of them have to do with how we approach mental wellness and nature and motherhood. I’m sure I have another book in me.