Laura Schenone, the author of The Dogs of Avalon: The Race to Save Animals in Peril, was at Book Passage in Corte Madera recently promoting her new book, which tells an incredible tale of greyhounds — the fastest dogs on earth — and an international network of women who fought to save them.
Inspired by the story of her own dog, a greyhound mix from Ireland, Schenone presents a shining narrative of passionate people dedicated to helping in the plight of suffering animals. Something SF Bay Area residents might not realize is that the birthplace of greyhound racing was in Emeryville in 1919, spreading worldwide from the East Bay. Schenone, the author of A Thousand Years Over a Hot Stove and The Lost Ravioli Recipes of Hoboken, writes for Saveur, New Jersey Monthly, and other magazines and lives in New Jersey.
You are a James Beard Award-winning writer who wrote about food for many years. What made you change directions and write about animals?
It started because my son wanted a dog. I met a woman in my town in New Jersey who was bringing greyhounds over from Ireland in need of homes. This sounded very bizarre to me. I didn’t have any interest. But then she sent around an email about a greyhound mix needing a home. There were pictures of how this dog had been found on the side of a road in Ireland — an absolute bloody mess, and then her slow recovery until she’d become the most beautiful dog I’d ever seen. I said yes, and we adopted Lily. I’m a sucker for a good salvation story.
What is this book about?
Most of all, it’s the true story of Marion Fitzgibbon of Limerick, one of the women responsible for Lily. Fitzgibbon spent decades of her life rescuing all kinds of animals. She also stood up to the greyhound racing industry. In Ireland, it’s big business backed by the government money and nearly impossible to fight. We watch as she rises to lead the ISPCA and we follow her life’s arc as someone who is obsessed with a cause and never gives up. The book also recounts my slow and very reluctant awakening to animals. So it is partly a conversion tale.
Why do you think this story matters?
I think we are at a crossroads in our world. The well-being of animals and the well-being of humans and the planet are interconnected and at risk. This book isn’t just about greyhounds. It’s about how we as humans treat all animals, those we use as pets, racing machines, entertainment, food — and those in the wild. There are some people like Marion who are visionaries, leading us in a new direction.
What surprised you the most about and Marion and her motley band of animal rescuers?
I was surprised at how brave they were. Marion and the women of Limerick Animal Welfare went into dangerous places to investigate reports of animal abuse. They found themselves in housing projects amid gunfire and other violence, and they went into camps of Irish itinerant people known as Travellers. Most “normal” people there wouldn’t do this. But Marion was not in any way “normal.”
We have this impression that animal welfare people care about animals and not people. Did you find a lot of that?
That can be very troubling. Marion was clear that animals were her priority because they are at the bottom of society. They were her preference. But she saw humans in need as her responsibility, too, and she demonstrated this in some very surprising ways. She went to great lengths to help not just animals but people who were living at the margins. That’s why I found her so interesting.
People have noticed that this book reads quite a lot like a novel. Was that your intention?
Yes, it was. The women in the book break a lot of rules to save animals and live the lives they want, and so there is some drama and danger and bad behavior, too. I wanted it to be a page-turner as we see how far Marion will go.
What was the hardest thing about writing this book?
The suffering of animals was very difficult for me. I had not been aware. But I believe that if we look away from abuse, we continue the cycle. So I coped by focusing on the compassion and bravery, and also some of the comic foibles and badass undercover missions that these women undertook.
What is a favorite Marion scene?
I love the scene when Marion was about 6 years old on a car ride with her family. She looks out of the window and sees a horse in the pouring rain carrying a very heavy load. He is clearly miserable, and she is overcome by a desire to help. At that moment, as such a young child, she realizes that she is different from everyone else.
What was anmportant experience you had researching and writing?
The Rhode Island Red hen I held at a farm sanctuary. She was very sweet. She purred in my arms. I had no idea how lovely it would be to hold a hen. I’d been afraid of them.
Your last book was a family memoir told through the search for a long lost ravioli recipe. Do you eat meat?
No. I don’t eat meat. Now I am trying to be vegan, but not 100 percent successful. I can’t seem to give up Parmigiano cheese. But I worry about the cows of Parma. I occasionally eat eggs that are responsibly raised. Ethical consumption is not fully possible in our society. But I am trying to leave the smallest footprint I can and do the least harm. It’s a work in progress.
Gretchen Koss is president and director of publicity for Tandem Literary whose client is author Laura Schenon. The Dogs of Avalon (W.W. Norton, 2017, $26.95, 336 pp.)
Main article photo by: Photo of Laura Schenone and Lily courtesy the author