Pennington resident Sharon Sakson is an NBC news producer, dog show judge, and journalist, writing mostly for magazines about dogs. Neil Plakcy is a Florida-based English professor and the author of gay detective novels. The two went to Pennsbury High School in Morrisville, PA, at about the same time, re-connected at a Bread Loaf writers conference, and stayed in touch. A year ago last April Sakson gave a talk to one of Plakcy’s classes, and then the two went out for dinner at a restaurant on the Intercoastal Waterway in Fort Lauderdale. “Neil said ‘we should collaborate on something,’” Sakson recounts. “But what?” she replied. “You write gay detective novels and I’m a journalist and dog show judge.” The two looked at each other, thinking one thought, and in that moment “Paws and Reflect: Exploring the Bond Between Gay Men and Their Dogs” began its journey into print.
The plan was that Plakcy would ask some of the literate dog-loving gay men he knew to write stories about their pets and that Sakson would find and interview gay dog owners. Together they would write introductions to each story.
They put together a book proposal and presented it to New York City-based Alyson Books, which Sakson describes as “the country’s premier gay and lesbian publisher.” Alyson loved the idea, so much in fact that it wanted to rush the book into print and gave the co-authors only seven months to deliver the manuscript. The publisher did, however, express some concern about the mix of self-written memoir and journalism. Sakson and Plakcy assured Alyson that they could pull it off, then, after riding the elevator down to the street, panicked just a bit. “Can we do this?” they asked each other.
It turns out that they could. “Paws and Reflect,” full of stories by famous and not-so-famous dog lovers, goes on sale next Wednesday, November 1.
The publication date is a story unto itself, and illustrates the sensitive nature of sexual orientation for some people. The November 1 date was chosen, says Dale Cunningham, publisher of Alyson Books, because Sakson had been invited to speak about the book at the Marketfair Barnes & Noble on October 25. “We moved the publication date up to accommodate that event,” she says. Sakson and Cunningham, who is also the book’s editor, assembled a panel of five of the book’s contributors, including Animal Planet’s David Mizejewski, to appear at Barnes & Noble. But the event has been canceled, and Cunningham believes that censorship is the reason.
Nancy Nicholson, publicity director at the store, called an editor at this paper to say that she had nixed the appearance after reading the book and discovering, on page 244, she said, a sexual reference with which she was uncomfortable. She indicated that the content of the book was unsuitable for members of area animal rescue organizations to whom she had planned to pitch the event. Nicholson later said that she had not canceled the event, since Barnes & Noble policy does not allow her to do so. But Sakson and Cunningham both say that she strongly discouraged them from holding a signing in her store.
So Cunningham contacted Anthony Johnson, director of publicity at the Princeton University Store, and he invited Sakson to a “Paws and Reflect” reading on Tuesday, December 12, at 7 p.m. After her experience at Barnes & Noble, Sakson made sure that Johnson had read the book and had no problem with its content before she confirmed the event.
“Paws and Reflect,” with stories by playwright Edward Albee, film director Jonathan Caouette, writer Ron Nyswaner, actor and playwright Charles Busch, and 20 others, contains tales of bravery, loss, and love. Within its pages there is a canine hero who makes Lassie look like an insensitive slacker, canine clowns aplenty, and a big hearted dog whose intense drive to protect his owner cost him his life.
Taken as a whole, the stories are poignant as they detail the attention and respect a group of people who for the most part will never raise children, but who almost certainly would be excellent parents, give to their pets.
Letting the book fall open where it would, I first read a story titled “Travis.” It’s a page-turner first-person story by Jay Quinn, author of several novels, including “Back Where He Started” and “Metes and Bounds.” Written in a sweet, funny, decidedly southern voice, the story starts off with Quinn summing up his relationship with one of his three dogs.
“No one can ever say I didn’t want Travis,” he writes. “He was my baby, my buddy. In many ways, he was my alter ego and we glommed onto each other’s neuroses like parent and child often do. I found my entire household working to accommodate his moods and his idiosyncrasies with the benevolence sometimes extended to troubled children. I did everything I could for seven years. No one can say I didn’t.”
I skipped around from there, reading about households where a teacup chihuahua lorded it over a basset hound, where a dog owner overcame his upset at discovering that his pet was deaf and had great success teaching him sign language, and where a dog became an appreciative audience for his young master’s song and dance routines after the boy’s mother died.
One of my favorite stories, “Do Dogs Go to Heaven?,” is a true action tale set in large part on Eagle Lake in the Adirondacks, a pine-scented children’s paradise that was near the spot of my own idyllic Adirondack summers. Sakson put the story together from a series of four vignettes Matthew Phillips sent to her. In one, Brandy, a springer spaniel, saves him from drowning by swimming under his canoe as it is filling with water, and giving it vigorous bumps to push out enough of the water to allow him to paddle to land.
Summer turns to winter, Phillips goes ice skating on the same lake, and, yes, you guessed it, he falls through the ice. He is about to be swept away when Brandy reaches into the hole in the ice, grabs his jacket, and holds on until his brothers can pull him out.
Stories like this have universal appeal. Sakson says that she thinks “Paws and Reflect’s” audience is primarily gay people with dogs and straight people with gay, dog-loving friends, but the audience could easily be far broader than that. An interesting thing about these stories is the ordinariness of the humans — at least in contrast to the animals. Most of the pet owners in these stories are domestic sorts, interested in creating stable homes, and conscientious about giving good care and predictable routines to the canine members of their families. Many of the dogs, of course, are wacky, high-strung, occasionally domineering prima donnas.
As for the page 244 entry that caught Nicholson’s eye, it is an excerpt from the novel, “The End of the World Book,” by Alistair McCartney and contains a six-line comment on Alexander the Great’s Congressman Foley-like sexual proclivities. This is no big deal for anyone who is reading the news from Washington. It is certainly far less graphic — and far less leering — than any of the Foley-to-page Instant Messages widely reported in the mainstream press.
Back to the wholesome pet stories that make up close to 100 percent of “Paws and Reflect.” It is interesting to hear, in this the year 2006, that Sakson had initial trouble finding people to interview. Many of the men she first approached declined, saying that they did not want to be identified as gay. Once she bagged her first interview, though, she found many more men who were eager to talk about the canine members of their families.
Sakson, who had previously written two travel guides, is not a natural book writer. “I need deadlines,” she says. In her day job she produces the 5 p.m. news for NBC anchor Sue Simmons on Thursdays and Fridays. On a typical day, she might be assigned to put together a “block” on a news event such as the Lancaster school shootings. She is given exact time limits for each of the many pieces that go into the segment. There could be several 15 or 20 second intros, a 78-second report from a network reporter at the school, a 90-second report from a reporter stationed at the hospital, and several 30-second background pieces on the town, which she would write.
“It’s incredibly stressful work, and I am so suited to it,” she says.
She was worried that she might get lost in the free-form work of writing a book, so she had Plakcy, her co-author, give her strict deadlines for each segment. The strategy worked, and she has gone on to write a proposal for her next book, about a woman who went to Europe to escape her ex-husband and ended up wrestling in a German nightclub.
With the rapid decline in network news viewership — down from 60 million a night in the late-1970s to 20 million now — Sakson says that most television news producers are freelancers. “Even reporters, people you think are employees, are often freelancers,” she says. The networks save on benefits and pension contributions, and producers like Sakson, a (straight) single woman who keeps her household afloat on her own, often need to look for sources of supplemental income. In addition to writing for magazines, and doing occasional television work, including producing for Court TV, Sakson adds to her income by writing documentaries, judging dog shows, and by once in a while selling the pedigreed offspring of the wippets and Brussels Griffon show dogs that she raises.
Sakson grew up in the Cadwalader Heights section of Trenton. She fell in love with dogs — all dogs, every breed — when her father, the late John A. Sakson, a surgeon at St. Francis Hospital, took her to her first dog show in New Brunswick in 1964. He gave her her first dog soon thereafter.
The next year, when she was 12, her mother, Hope Haggerty Sakson, the daughter of the chief of surgery at St. Francis, died of breast cancer. “There are cures now, but there was nothing then,” she says. “Oncology didn’t even exist.” After her mother died, her father moved the family, which included her brother, John Sakson, now managing partner of law firm Stark & Stark, to Yardley. After graduating from Pennsbury High School, she studied English at Georgetown (Class of 1974), and worked three days a week at ABC news as a typist while she was there. She has detoured from television news, working for three years in a European journalism program sponsored by Columbia at one point, but keeps returning.
She likes that her two-day-a-week job allows her the freedom to take on other work. She is proud of her latest effort, talking about how well the collaboration with Plakcy went. Rather than dwell on being nudged aside by Barnes & Noble, she talks about how happy she is with the book’s introduction. “I wrote the first paragraph and Neil wrote the last,” she says, reading from her book:
“Many thousands of years ago, small wolves pulled up beside the campfires of a newly-emerged species, man, and forged a friendship. Instead of disappearing back into the forest, these canines offered themselves as shepherds, guardians, hunters, and haulers. As time went on, they took an even broader range of duties, as comforters, rescuers, and friends. Dogs have migrated from the primal fireside right into the hearts of our homes.”