Interview with a Bestseller: Jenna Blum and her New Memoir

One of the most esteemed and talented novelists of the Boston writing community, Jenna Blum, writer of the New York Times best seller, Those Who Save Us, is currently rolling out her latest writing venture, Woodrow on the Bench. This particular work is a product of great effort and love from an owner to her dog who has passed on. Detailing the last seven months of her black lab’s life, Blum has poured her heart into this work. “This book in particular, it was such a labour of love. It’s about my old dog Woodrow and I loved him so much that after he passed I felt the best way to pay homage to him was to use the muscles I’d spent flexing. I was really happy to write a book about Woodrow.”

Blum’s past works have been almost exclusively novels, making Woodrow on the Bench, Blum’s first Memoir. Blum detailed much of her process, “I finished it very quickly. I did it mostly during the pandemic-I would get up an hour early every morning and work on a Woodrow scene I had mapped to my calendar. That’s how I write. I outline, I break down the outline. I calendarize it. It’s a very structured thing.” On the subject of how this writing process compared to her novel writing, she says; “it’s much easier to do it with memoir than it is with fiction. Invention doesn’t bend to the calendar as easily as something that has already happened.” Though the undertaking of the writing process was concise and tight, it was still an arduous and heartbreaking subject for Jenna Blum to write about.

Writing about the loss of a pet would always be a momentous task and selling it isn’t any easier. Convincing readers to pick up a book where they know a dog will die is a daunting. However, Blum remained undeterred in the face of this mission. She confronted the subject of Woodrow’s loss head on, “We know how this book ends. I’ve heard readers say that ‘because I have an old dog’ or ‘I just lost my dog’ and I say to those readers, ‘This is exactly what I wrote this book for; to hold your hand in that passage.’ It’s hard to ask about grief and what death means in this culture.” She described with the utmost heart and earnestness her goal to reach out to her fellows through this book, “I wanted to provide a community and a lightning rod for loss. I hope that readers will feel less alone when they read this book- Part of the book concerns why did I feel so alone and how did I learn to depend on community? So, if people are looking at untraditional life choices and asking how did I get here and who can I depend on, this is a book for them.” 

Despite the heavy subject matter, Blum was insistent on the brighter themes wrapped around loss. “There’s a lot of humor in Woodrow on the bench. There’s always humor when dogs are involved. They’re just funny, our daily silliness and daily joy.” She delved deeper into her perspective on relationships with dogs and Woodrow specifically, “He was like George Clooney in a dog suit-When I was writing about the dogs in the book, my one challenge with Woodrow was making sure his very urbane and energetic personality still came through despite his illness.” Blum carried this urgency in describing her heartfelt intentions with preserving her dog’s legacy, “I just didn’t just want him to be a symbol of an old ill dog. For each chapter I added a young Woodrow memory, so people could know him as a “baller” as my agent would call him. He really was even when he was older, but I wanted to encode that very essential Woodrow personality in each chapter so you could get a glimpse of him at his young, robust, prime self, as well as his sweet, old, distinguished self.”

Woodrow’s range of body movement was severely limited in the last few months, resulting in the majority of the story being set on the titular bench on Commonwealth Avenue. When asked about the challenge of writing a full book in a singular setting, Jenna excitedly answered, “One of the things I try to avoid in books, novels, and this memoir is repetition, as it makes the reading feel monotonous if you’re doing the same location all the time- it’s why I invented the interstitials.” She further broke down the structure to say, “The chapters are sequential. They run from May to December, and each chapter has its narrative arc- you see Woodrow struggling with illness at the beginning, getting better, what his extremities taught me, then his passage and me having to let go.” 

Blum gives strong credit to Woodrow’s long grip on life as being due to the people of Boston, “Woodrow would tractor beam them into the bench with his crossed paws and George Clooney smile- I think the reason he lived so long was we had this incredible community spring up around us on the bench and I wanted to write them a love letter and say “thank you for helping us, thank you for teaching me how to let people in, how to accept help, how to lean onto people’. That’s what Woodrow is about, not just my love for my dog but my love for these people.”

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