Award-winning Atlanta author Melissa Fay Greene’s new book, “The Underdogs: Children, Dogs, and the Power of Unconditional Love,” is a celebration of dogs and the lifesaving joy they bring to children and families struggling with disabilities, isolation and despair.
Published May 17, the book is the subject of Greene’s appearance Thursday night, May 19, at the Marcus Jewish Community Center.
Known for best sellers “Praying for Sheetrock,” “The Temple Bombing,” and one of my all-time favorites, “There Is No Me Without You,” Greene again shows her ability to captivate us with masterful stories. Surrounded by three of her own rescued dogs in her living room in Druid Hills, Greene sat down for a refreshing and revealing interview.
Jaffe: Dogs are all over media with current research about their intelligence and our love of them. Why this topic for you now?
Greene: It’s a hot topic because science is revolutionizing what most 20th century and many 21st century experts believed about dogs, which was that they had no capacity for thought or emotion. Current research validates the hearts and minds of dogs and other animals. Of course, animal lovers knew this already, but now prominent scientists have come to respect the intelligence and sensitivity of many species. I first published a portion of the book in The New York Times Magazine in 2012.
Jaffe: The book extols a heroine, Karen Shirk, who took action. Can you expound on this?
Greene: Karen Shirk, afflicted with a neuromuscular disease in her 20s, found herself bedridden for years. All the service dog agencies told her she was too disabled to qualify for a service dog. Her nurse encouraged her to find her own dog and seek a trainer. This dog, Ben, brought Karen back to life and inspired her to create a service dog academy more open to people with disabilities, including children. That happened in 1998, about a thousand dogs ago.
Jaffe: You describe an adopted child from Russia with fetal alcohol spectrum disorder.
Greene: Rabbi Harvey Winokur and his wife, Donnie Winokur, of Roswell adopted a toddler from Russia who became so disruptive and oppositional that the family grew desperate for help; 4 Paws accepted them as clients, and their lives were transformed by Chancer, a rescued golden retriever.
Jaffe: Dog trainers in “The Underdogs” refer to the Lassie Myth.
Greene: Many of us grew up watching “Lassie,” a miracle-working fictional dog character. At 4 Paws, trainers warn families against the Lassie Myth so that they will not expect the impossible. And yet, as I describe in the book, many of the dogs perform Lassie-like miracles for children with special needs; meanwhile, cutting-edge scientists are kind of giving Lassie a second look.
Jaffe: With a name like Melissa Fay, you sound like a Southern belle.
Greene: My grandparents moved to Macon in 1939 and became the owners of “the finest ladies’ ready-to-wear in Middle Georgia.” I was born in Macon and spent my early childhood there, but then my family moved to Ohio, where I spent my accent-forming years. Sometimes I miss my Southern accent.
Jaffe: Your last book, “No Biking in the House Without a Helmet,” described your family of nine children: four by birth and five by adoption from Bulgaria and Ethiopia. Are you empty nesting now?
Greene: Not yet! While all of our kids are either grown or in college, last year we brought over the older brother of two of our sons from Ethiopia on an F-1 student visa. He’s 22, going to school and living with us. He’s a wonderful young man who has grown very attached to our family.
Jaffe: Tell us something personal about you. What’s the definition of your good day?
Greene: I love telling stories. When the writing is going well, it’s the most fun in the world. The publishing part is not my favorite. I leave soon for an out-of-town publicity tour. I’ll enjoy traveling, meeting people, and speaking; still, I’m happiest when I can start a day at home with a cup of coffee and a book of poetry, maybe a volume by Kay Ryan, knowing that most of my research is finished and that the task before me is to weave what I’ve found into a story. It feels like playing!
What: Book signing and discussion with “The Underdogs” author Melissa Fay Greene, co-hosted by the Georgia Humanities Council
Where: Marcus JCC, 5342 Tilly Mill Road, Dunwoody
When: 7:30 p.m. Thursday, May 19