Paul Griffin is an award-winning author of several middle grade and YA novels. His most recent, Saving Marty, is a funny, real, and emotional story of friendship that will touch middle grade readers and grown-ups alike. Lorenzo Ventura’s life changes when he adopts a piglet named Marty. This “runt” of the litter turns out to be anything but. As he nears 350 pounds, this pig who thinks he’s a dog and loves with his whole heart becomes a problem for Lorenzo and for his mom, who is trying mightily to keep their family farm afloat. With some help from his best friend, Paloma, Lorenzo does everything he can to save Marty. But will it be enough? We were thrilled to chat with Paul about the real-life inspiration for Marty, how he captures the special bond between humans and animals, and what it means to be an everyday hero.
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Saving Marty is a quick, engaging, and oftentimes fun read, but it’s also threaded throughout with weightier topics. How did you strike the balance between the joyful and heavy parts of the story?
Life as I’ve experienced it is full of laughter and sorrow in equal measure, and often the two come together. I used to tell myself, “Well, if I can just get through this tough time, everything will be okay.” But challenges present themselves constantly, and somehow everything actually is okay.
As an author, you really shine at showing the bonds between humans and animals. Why do you feel this is such an important connection to write about?
Thank you for your kindness. Animals have been so good to me, always. I would be much for the worse without my dogs. They are so constant, so non-judgmental. They are there for us — here for us — in good times and in bad, and with the same priorities: to love and be loved. They distill and focus what’s truly important: to be there for each other. If all else fails, and we’re kind to those who need compassion or could use a shoulder to cry on, we’re in good shape. My dogs remind me of this daily.
Throughout the course of the book, best friends Lorenzo and Pal exhibit the sort of kindnesses we don’t often read or hear about. Are they idealized versions of kids? Or do you think kids don’t always get enough credit for their everyday kindnesses?
I think kids don’t get enough credit for a lot of things. There are industries built around the idea that kids are problematic. People in general are problematic, with kids, in my experience, less problematic than adults. Kids generally have more hope than adults, and hope is where kindness comes from. Each kind act is a vote for the human spirit, the belief that it exists, that it’s most obvious — and most wonderful — when we’re good to each other.
The characters in Saving Marty (Lorenzo, Pal, Double Pop, Mom, Mr. Lee, even Mr. Taylor) are all experiencing their own kind of sadness. Do you think we all carry around a certain amount of sadness?
You can’t be human and empathic without understanding that the world is equal parts horror and joy. I have found there’s a big difference between being a positive person and somebody who focuses only on the positive. Ignorance is not bliss. It’s destructive. The trick is not to let the sadness overtake the opportunities for joy.
Even for a pig, Marty is bursting with personality. How did you conduct “research” for his character?
I had a dog, a huge dog, a boxer-mastiff mix, 120 lbs. His name was Marty. I was walking him one day — he’s huffing and puffing along, almost snorting — and a little girl runs up to me and says, “Your dog’s ugly. He looks like a pig.” I thought, Hmm, a dog who looks like a pig. What about a pig who acts like a dog? I learned that pigs are smarter than dogs, that they can be as goofy, as constant in their friendship. My friend adopted two pigs. They’re amazing, very dog-like, huge-hearted. The one rolls right over for a belly scratch. I’d adopt a pig, except that they’re illegal in NYC.
One throughline in the book is the concept of heroism and what makes a hero. Can you talk a little bit about how that theme appeared in your writing process? What does heroism mean to you?
A hero is someone who puts others first. That kind of selflessness is often frowned upon, especially in western culture. Those car commercials, “Own your own road,” with the driver speeding along his very own highway — we’re bombarded with the idea that we’re supposed to put our interests ahead of others’, rather than looking out for everybody equally. I’m not religious, but I like the Buddhist idea that compassion is a muscle, and you have to work at it to be strong there, to be empathic. When I remember that we’re all connected, that we’re all in the same boat, I feel so free — free to be joyful, to reach out, to let somebody else merge onto the highway, to listen to somebody who’s having a bad day, to do my best to understand where someone is coming from, especially when that viewpoint is different from mine. Being a hero doesn’t have to hurt. It can and should be an opportunity to celebrate empathy. How it came into the book — well, I’m at a point in life where I want to celebrate the good we do. I try to surround myself with nice folks. I try to find opportunities to lessen suffering. That search seems to have slipped into my dreamworld too, into the writing.