WASHINGTON - Carolyn Parkhurst types on her silver laptop at a small table in her neighborhood Starbucks most afternoons. The 32-year-old writer, whose first novel has soared in popularity since its June release, is anonymous in this Washington coffee shop.
Both the Book of the Month Club and NBC's Today Book Club picked Parkhurst's The Dogs of Babel as their June selection. Her novel also enjoyed five weeks on the New York Times Best Sellers List.
She took a break from her writing one recent afternoon to sit outside the coffee shop and talk about her novel. "It's gotten more attention than I ever would have thought," Parkhurst says. "It's been kind of amazing."
The story of The Dogs of Babel unfolds through the eyes of Paul Iverson, a linguistics professor in his mid-40s whose wife, Lexy, has fallen to her death from an apple tree in the back yard. Distraught and desperate to understand why Lexy climbed the tree, Paul turns to their large dog, Lorelei, who was there the day Lexy died. Paul takes a sabbatical from work to attempt to teach Lorelei to talk. The Rhodesian ridgeback is not too interested in her owner's new endeavor.
"The premise about teaching the dog to talk is kind of a hook that gets people interested, but there's a way in which readers have to get past the premise in order to get into the book and give themselves up to it," Parkhurst says. "It's more about this guy coming to terms not only with his wife's death but whatever failures they had in their relationship with each other."
Paul and Lexy approached life very differently. Paul is methodical and calm, while Lexy was creative and stormy. An artist, she made festive party masks until she became consumed with making death masks. After Lexy's death, details of the woman and the marriage unfold dramatically as Paul becomes engrossed in his dog training and memories.
"I take a lot of inspiration for my writing out of my own sort of deeply held fears," Parkhurst says. "Certainly losing the people I love is my biggest fear, as it is for most people. The idea of that happening sounds so overwhelming that I always think, 'How can someone get through that and sort of come through on the other side?' And that's what I wanted to look at in exploring Paul's journey through grief."
Parkhurst overcame the challenge of bringing the character of Lexy to life by assigning herself writing exercises from Lexy's point of view. She then slipped these passages into Paul's recollections of his wife.
"Lexy does have a very dark, troubled side. And to write about it convincingly I really had to put myself in her head," Parkhurst says. "And that was hard, because a lot of it is really painful."
On the lighter side, Parkhurst attempted intelligence tests on her own 10-year-old Shetland sheepdog, Chelsea, as she wrote about Paul's performing various linguistics and intelligence exercises with his dog.
"There's a real bond there between people and their pets and that's something that I wanted to look at," Parkhurst says. "People write about dogs in a kind of joking way a lot but I wanted to write about dogs seriously - what it's like to live with a dog and the kind of connection that's there between a dog and an owner."
In the novel, Parkhurst develops the relationship between Paul and Lorelei, who was Lexy's dog before he and Lexy were married.
"I didn't have the dog thing until a little bit later," Parkhurst says. "It just occurred to me that in his grief Paul might be so desperate that he might take on some kind of project that he would never take on under normal circumstances."
While Parkhurst was writing The Dogs of Babel, her own dog died of old age.
"It kind of redoubled my dedication to making Lorelei kind of a good believable character," she says. "Treating the character of Lorelei with respect [was] kind of a tribute to my own dog."
While dog lovers have written to Parkhurst and posted online reviews praising the book, she has also been criticized for writing into the plot a group that performs cruel surgery on dogs to restructure their jaws for speech. The Cerberus Society, as Parkhurst calls it, is the dark side of the book.
"A lot of people have asked me if anything like that really exists, and as far as I know it doesn't," Parkhurst says.
"It was kind of upsetting ... to write about that, because I love dogs, and the idea of anyone hurting a dog is very upsetting to me, but it seemed to me that there's a way in which Paul's single-mindedness gets to be a little bit dangerous," she explains. Paul "starts putting Lorelei's safety second. He's just so much on this quest for answers that he's not really thinking clearly and it seemed ... that there had to be consequences for that."
Parkhurst can see how someone would be upset by reading the passages about the Cerberus Society, but she is offended by those who conclude that because she writes of abuse, she is promoting it.
"I don't see how anyone can read this book and think I'm coming down on the side of, like pro-animal abuse," Parkhurst says. "So I've seen people say 'I love this book because I'm a dog lover' and 'I hate this book because I'm a dog lover.'"
Despite the criticism, there is no question that Parkhurst's novel has been well-received. For Parkhurst, who had never written more than 20 pages for publication before the book, the reception has been more than she had imagined.
Parkhurst learned in May that The Dogs of Babel had been picked for the Today show. "It was so exciting," Parkhurst recalls. "I was actually right here in this Starbucks when I got the phone call and I couldn't say anything because I was in this public place ... so I couldn't say, 'The Today Show!'"
"I found out a month before I was actually going to be on the air and I wasn't allowed to tell anyone," Parkhurst says. "It was so hard; they came to my house and filmed me and my son and everything and so I'm talking to my mom later and she's like, 'So, what did you do today?' and ... [I said] 'Uh, laundry.'"
Once the secret-keeping was over, the pace of her life picked up with the publicity. Parkhurst spent two weeks in June and one week in July on a book tour. This week, she is headed to England to promote the book with her U.K. publisher. "It's been fun," she says of the touring, though she's found it hard to be away from her 18-month-old son, Henry.
With The Dogs of Babel finished, Parkhurst has started working on another book. "It's fun to be working with a new set of characters," she says.
Although location - suburban Virginia - was not important for the setting of The Dogs of Babel, Parkhurst expects it to play a bigger role in the next novel. And she has lived in several places from which she can draw. A Massachusetts native, Parkhurst earned a master of fine arts degree in creative writing from American University in Washington. She then married and lived in San Francisco with her husband before they decided to move back to Washington to raise their son.
Although the details of the next book are not hammered out, Parkhurst doesn't think that a dog will be a character. "I don't want to get like pegged as 'that dog writer,'" she says. "But I'm certainly not going to say I'll never write about dogs again because I love dogs and there's a lot of interesting stuff there."
When she's not on the promotion tour, Parkhurst has a babysitter for five hours on weekday afternoons to free her to write. She usually chooses to work in this Starbucks or a bookstore coffee shop.
"I kind of like having some background noise, and if I'm at home then I get too distracted by things I'm supposed to do around the house like paying bills or doing the dishes," she says. "And plus my son is there, and he's at a kind of needy age where if I'm there then he wants me to play with him."
Parkhurst's son played a helpful role in moving The Dogs of Babel along. His birth was her self-imposed deadline for completing the book. He's also her reason for not bringing a new dog into her home just yet.
"I think we're kind of waiting for the right time because Henry is just a toddler and he would be pulling the dog's tail and stuff," Parkhurst says. "But I would like for him to grow up with a dog and I miss having a dog, so I think we'll get one before too long."