Monday, November 2, 2009

Julie Fenster & Kipper

Who is in the photo at right?

Meet Kipper, a purehearted mixed-breed, born with the millennium. I found her at the S.P.C.A. She was just standing in a cage, emaciated, because she was too upset by her incarceration to eat. Later, I saw her official chart, across which the veterinarian had written “BEHAVIOR PROBLEM” in the thickest penmanship I’ve ever seen. I’ll bet he broke the pen.

She did have some strange tendencies. They were hard to miss during our first weeks together. She ate a sofa. She considered pillows dangerous ordnance, to be heroically defused and dismantled. I won’t tell you what she thought Persian rugs were for. And she would run away whenever she detected any chance of escape. But one great day, she came back of her own volition. That was when I knew she was mine. (I had known from the first second that I was hers.)

Anyway, the convenient thing about Kipper is that she understands English, perfectly. It isn’t the inflection; she knows what I am saying at least half the time – which is more than my friends ever do.

Who are you and what do you do?

I'm Julie Fenster. I write books for a living, presidential history by and large. My new book is about the “couple of three” composed of Franklin and Eleanor Roosevelt, and their friend, Louis Howe. When the Roosevelts were down and out, Howe left his own family to move in with them. With what I might call for the sake of Coffee With a Canine “dog-like” devotion and unconditional love, he brought out the best in each of them. That book is called FDR's Shadow (Palgrave 2009). I am working now on a book about Nevada – not the state, but the wild horse that I suddenly found that I owned this past summer.

What's the occasion for Coffee with a Canine?

Angela Lansbury’s birthday.

Kipper and I like to play hooky and watch old movies on television in the morning. Today happens to be Miss Lansbury’s birthday and there is a daylong tribute to her on television.

If Kipper ever became the progenitor of an official breed, the announcer at the Westminster Dog Show would say, “The Kipper Dog Breed is known for its perfect body temperature, along with its ability to lay down next to its handler and cure stomach aches, back aches, stiff joints and even the worst insomnia. The Kipper Dog is most famous, however, for its good taste in old movies and the ability to watch three or four in a row without budging.”

Right now, The Harvey Girls is on. (n.b. Angela Lansbury is a certifiable genius, by the way.)

What's brewing?

Bewley’s is the best coffee; it comes from Ireland. Jacob’s is another European coffee that is excellent. We serve both at the house. Today’s a good day, we have Dancing Deer Bakery cookies, too.

Any treat for your dog on this occasion?

When Kipper arrived, she truly didn’t understand the set-up. She had hated her former owners so much that she came to believe that life consisted of running away whenever possible. To impress a new idea on her -- the idea of home -- I developed the habit of giving her a biscuit every time she came in the door, no matter why she had been outside. She hasn’t run away in eight years, but she still gets the biscuits: Milk-Bone and/or gourmet brands.

We're both happy: Kipper is having her cookies and I’m having mine.

How did your dog come to be united with you?

I am convinced that God gave me Kipper. I’m just not that lucky under normal circumstances. There has to be another explanation. What is past the universe ... when did time begin ... what’s heaven like ... how did Julie M. Fenster get Kipper?

How did she get her name?

I liked the word “kipper,” in English gastronomy. And Kip answered to it. Not long after she arrived, I gave it for some reason a Rumanian twist, Kippenescu. And there was a salvage yard near here called Pelnick Wrecking. In view of her talent for ruination, I called her Kippenescu Pelnikov. Names should be fun to say.

Does she have any influence on your writing?

Kipper is very encouraging in my writing. At those times when I have to turn my back on all else and stay up late at night to finish something, Kipper is the only one who doesn’t try to lecture me about starting earlier, for crying out loud, next time and pacing my work for once. For some of us, that doesn’t work. Concentration is fired by pressure. Kipper is the one who stays by me, even when the night never ends.

What's an ordinary day like for your dog?

Kipper will answer this question ...

Kipper: Very dull. I wish I lived on a ranch in Wyoming.

Julie: Oh, great. I just gave you credit for being so supportive.

Kipper: Don’t ever be a writer’s dog.

Julie: I thought you liked it here.

Kipper: Don’t kid yourself. It’s boring.

Who is your dog's best pet-pal?

Kipper learned an awful lot from The Puppy, my beloved dog who died of old age several years ago. The Puppy instilled discipline into Kipper (and me, by the way). She taught Kipper the rules of the household, as she saw them. For example: food. If Kipper tried to snatch food from a table or counter, it was The Puppy who stopped her. The Puppy gave Kipper countless tips that I can identify – and probably just as many that would be known only to dogs.

What's your dog's best quality?

I like to think that I am Kipper’s favorite, but in truth, she is very dear and makes everyone feel that she loves them best. And, like all dogs, she knows no snobbery. She is very observant, yet never notices what people look like. I have tried to learn that trait from her.

Julie M. Fenster is the author of the critically acclaimed The Case of Abraham Lincoln and co-author with Douglas Brinkley of the New York Times bestseller Parish Priest. Her books include the award-winning Ether Day and Race of the Century.

A regular contributor to American Heritage, Fenster has also written for the New York Times and the Los Angeles Times. She has appeared on NPR and C-Span, among others.

Read about Fenster's new book, FDR's Shadow: Louis Howe, The Force That Shaped Franklin and Eleanor Roosevelt.

Julie M. Fenster's website.

--Marshal Zeringue