Friday, June 11, 2010

Justine van der Leun & Marcus

Who is in the photo at right?

That’s me, Justine van der Leun, seated there. I’m the author of Marcus of Umbria: What an Italian Dog Taught an American Girl About Love. And the spotted creature perched atop me is, of course, Marcus, my five-year-old Italian-born English Pointer. Marcus is a girl, but she doesn’t suffer from any gender confusion. She doesn’t buy into stereotypes.

A girl named Marcus? How did that happen?

She’s a foundling—her puppyhood was pretty dickensian. Just substitute the dank London streets for the wild Italian countryside. I came upon her while I was living in a 200-person town in Umbria, and I assumed she was a boy. She didn’t have a name, so I picked Marcus. It seemed fitting until I saw her ladyparts. I called her Lola for a couple of days, but Marcus had already stuck.

What's the occasion for Coffee with a Canine?

We take a morning run around the park—or more accurately, I jog laboriously as Marcus walks effortlessly at a brisk pace—and then she drinks a large amount of water and I get my morning tea and we spend an hour sitting on the couch before I get to work. I read; she sleeps. It’s our ritual.

What's brewing?

A very large cup of chai tea with honey and soymilk. For Marcus, only the finest Brooklyn tap water.

Any goodies to go with the coffee?

I’m enjoying a bowl of oatmeal with some fruit on top. But I’m not always so virtuous — yesterday, I had leftover lo mein for breakfast.

Any treat for Marcus on this occasion?

Today, in celebration of our appearance on Coffee with a Canine, Marcus gets a Greenie. If she were a human, though, she’d be eating a scone with a pressed napkin spread across her lap. She’s weirdly proper.

How were you and Marcus united?

It’s a classic story with a canine twist: Girl meets boy, girl loves boy, girl moves to backwoods Italy to be with boy, girl meets dog, girl leaves boy and keeps dog. Basically, I fell in love with an Italian gardener named Emanuele and moved to his village to be with him. While our romance was falling apart — a real shocker, right? — I stumbled upon a starving, neglected birddog in a cage in the back of his family farm. I took one look at that dusty little face behind the wire and I knew she was mine. Her owners didn’t want her. We spent a year exploring the brutal, beautiful countryside together, and then hopped a flight back to the U.S. — me in coach, Marcus in cargo.

Obviously Marcus is an inspiration for your writing, but is she more of a help or hindrance when you sit down at the keyboard?

Marcus is the ultimate writer’s dog: Energetic enough to get me out of the house once in a while, but calm enough to lounge in a sunspot when I’m working. She’s very polite, really: No barking, no whining. Her main mode of communication is to fix me with a laser-like stare. If I turn slightly, I see this black and white dog sitting in an extremely upright position attempting telepathy. I guess it works because I immediately take her out.

Does Marcus have any aliases?

I often call her “Monkey,” probably because with her shiny little head and big ears she resembles one. I sometimes inexplicably call her “Pumpkin.” In moments of true weakness, I call her “Monkey Pumpkin,” but don’t tell anyone about that. Someone else refers to her as “Markie-Poo, The Best Dog in the World,” and sings one of two original songs he has composed in her honor. I will not reveal the name of this grown man so that he can maintain some semblance of public dignity.

Where is Marcus' favorite place for an outing?

Marcus is truly a country dog, so she loves running free in the woods, pointing and flushing. She also adores the wide-open ocean beach, where she can stalk seagulls and plovers.

Squirrel, cat, postman...?

Marcus used to be a bit of a chickenaholic, back when we lived in Italy. She was also a diehard fan of wild quail and sparrows. When we lived by the beach in New York state, she was obsessed with birds. These days, she is fixated on Brooklyn squirrels. The squirrels out here are smug, though—they know Marcus is leashed so they just stand there, staring at her, taunting her, while eating a nut. It’s outrageous.

Tennis ball, stick, squeaky toy...?

She’ll begrudgingly play fetch with a tennis ball when there is no wildlife around. She’s also willing to halfheartedly chew a stick. Once in a while, she’ll mutilate a squeaky toy, ripping out its squeaky center. But she’s only truly passionate about things that have a heartbeat. She likes her toys to fly and run. But she’s not a moron, so she doesn’t mess with cats.

Who is Marcus' best pet-pal?

Marcus is your classic type-A, so focused on birds that she often lets her relationships fall by the wayside. She does enjoy the company of two labs named Lucie and Miele. They live by the sea, and Marcus stays with them when I have to leave town. Marcus is also a reluctant friend of Beau the dachshund, who has been featured on this very blog, sharing a coffee with his owner, the author Marion Winik.

What is Marcus’ best quality?

Her dedication. When Marcus becomes devoted to a person or a task, she is unwavering.

What is Marcus's proudest moment?

From her point of view, Marcus’ proudest moment was when she murdered six chickens and two defenseless bunnies at the neighbor’s farm back in Italy. She had been planning the massacre for a year, I think. From my point of view, her entire rehabilitation has been one long, proud moment. With years of training, trust, and focus, she has managed to go from a terrified, under-socialized animal that didn’t fully comprehend affection to a loving, capable, and confident pet. She’s still nervous and cautious, and we have a ways to go, but it’s been amazing to see her blossom.

Her most embarrassing?

Have you ever met a sheep? They’re the wimpiest animals ever. And once, an old ewe managed to stare her down. As she went slinking off, I was mumbling, “Yeah, some hunting dog you are.” We don’t talk about that incident, though. We like to focus on her many victories.

Visit Justine van der Leun's website and read more about Marcus of Umbria: What an Italian Dog Taught an American Girl about Love.

--Marshal Zeringue