‘The Wrong Dog’ leads author David Elliot Cohen
to some long-lasting life lessons
By Lou Fancher
The clock is king in the life and work of author and editor David Elliot Cohen.
Racing from his home in Marin County to an interview about his new book, “The Wrong Dog: An Unlikely Tale of Unconditional Love” (Yellow Pear Press, $22.95, 264 pages), Cohen arrives early, but worries about the time. “Is it 10? My ADHD means I’m everywhere early. These girls have been entertaining me while I wait,” he says, gesturing toward two children who are strangers to him but jump and twirl in familiar ways like young puppies.
Cohen is captivated by serendipitous visuals. His and co-founder Rick Smolan’s best-selling “Day in the Life” book series featured photos taken within a 24-hour period by 100 photographers sent to a city or country. Cohen’s “America 24/7,” four presidential photo-biographies, nonfiction “One Year Off” travelogue and other publications have put six million copies of his work in print. Time, travel, location and stunning imagery are common, unifying themes in the Cohen canon.
“I’ve been phenomenally lucky, the cosmic tumblers just fell into place,” he says about success during photo journalism’s heyday with what he admits are “mostly just eye-pleasing coffee table books.” With cell phones making cameras ubiquitous, Cohen says, “Photojournalism was killed by technology. It’s a billion monkeys typing Hamlet.”
In an era that reduced the $1,000 he might once have had to pay for the Shutterstock image on his book’s cover to $25, he’s aware that for “Wrong Dog” to be profitable, it will need to be more than a book. So it’s no surprise when Cohen says “Wrong Dog” is possibly ripe for the big screen.
“I think this could become a movie. I’ve started working on a film adaptation.”
The story of an urgent, 3,300-mile crosscountry trip that two baby boomer guys take with Simba, an adorable “wrong dog with a secondhand name,” was a tale Cohen had to tell. The labrador puppy chosen by the ex-husband of his wife, Laureen Seeger, had grown into a 90-plus pound bundle that was much loved by the blended seven-member Cohen-Seeger family.
When a new job opportunity for Seeger meant a part-time move to New York City, and Simba was too ill to travel by airplane, the road trip — undertaken with Cohen’s best friend Erick, with stops at visually arresting, historically significant landmarks along the way — was inevitable. As was a crushing deadline to get Simba to New York while he was still alive.
Inevitably, Cohen took notes. “That’s what I do,” he says.
But the notes were only cursory: about 200 words. Even after he sat down to write about the adventure, he thought the story of a dog holding on to life long enough to be reunited with his family was poetic, but maybe not a book. “ I didn’t know it would have larger themes. I just knew it was a good story.”
To find out if it had legs, he did what he’s always done. “I sit down with a blank computer screen and start writing. Twenty-five percent through, I do a complete outline of the rest.” Cohen treats writing like a 9-to-5 job. “Butt in the chair. Write all day until everyone’s home and I cook dinner.”
His first readers are trusted editors, friends and family. “People who’ll tell me if it’s bad. Honest. Smart, too,” he says. Because much of “Wrong Dog” is personal to the family, Cohen made sure Seeger and her family, their children and especially his father were comfortable with the degree of disclosure. The book he thought was about Simba’s survival and inevitable death includes a heart-wrenching visit he paid to his parents’ home and his mother’s “bad death” months later.
“I was completely suppressing grief about my mother’s death. I was like, OK, this happened, I’ll miss her, we need to move on. I had to reconcile that my mother affected my life in amazing, positive ways and (yet) in the last two years of her life, she was astoundingly selfish and self-centered. My dad, who loved her more than any man who’s loved a woman, would say the same thing.”
In the book are Cohen’s revelations: Good intentions matter; the best we can hope for is a good death. A good death is swift, low in suffering and in the company of loving family and friends. A bad death is the opposite. “No matter what we do during the course of our lives, the ramifications can be either much better or much worse. We’re limited to having good intentions. When I judge people now, I don’t base it on how it affects me, I base it on what were their intentions.”
That significant mind shift — along with his obsessive tendency to rewrite even excerpts he pulls from his books for readings — explains why it took him 10 instead of his usual three months to write Wrong Dog. “The first chapter, I rewrote 100 times.”
He submitted the manuscript to 15 publishers and had it rejected as “too similar to books on our list” and other reasons.
Then Cohen’s longtime association with publicist David Carriere led him to San Francisco-based Yellow Pear Press. “I talked to (founder) Lisa McGuinness and liked her. She isn’t a book factory. It was truly collaborative,” he says.
A bicoastal book tour keeps Cohen moving. After racing to transport a dying dog, meet publishing deadlines, and becoming aware that the only way to “beat the clock” is to live with good intentions and die a good death, Cohen has no intention of keeping his readers, family, or the next interviewer wondering if he’ll show up on time.