Cat Warren is a professor of English at NC State. In 2004, she started training her young German shepherd, Solo, as a cadaver dog. The experience inspired What the Dog Knows, Warren’s New York Times bestseller about “scent, science and the amazing ways dogs perceive the world.” Warren recently published a young readers edition of the book, which shows how love and loyalty can bring out the best in a dog — and its human. We caught up with Warren to learn more about her love of dogs and busy life as a writer and professor.
Why this story? What motivated you to tell it?
The dog didn’t eat my homework. The dog became my homework, in the most wonderful way possible. As I kept training Solo as a cadaver dog, I became increasingly fascinated with the world he’d led me into. One night, after a long search, I looked at him, and thought: I don’t want to forget this. I want to capture and remember the wild new ride this dog had taken me on.
How did writing your first nonfiction book differ from the other books you’ve written?
I was a journalist before I was an academic. I had written long newspaper pieces and magazine pieces. I wrote academic articles, a lengthy dissertation and even edited two academic book collections. But the challenge of producing a book for a large, commercial book publisher fascinated me: how could I keep a narrative story compelling across 20 chapters? That question, which motivated me for the original adult version of What the Dog Knows, became even more critical in rethinking and rewriting it for 8- to 12-year-olds.
You juggle a lot. How does a professor make time to write?
I think I’m enormously lucky to be a professor. I have the gift of time. I make time to write in between eating, sleeping, teaching, running dogs and living. I spend less time on Facebook and more time with strong coffee and a writing program that blocks incoming email. I apologize to my wonderful husband, sincerely and often, as he makes dinner and sacrifices so I can write.
What’s your favorite childhood book?
One book? Brighty of the Grand Canyon by Marguerite Henry. But since I read seven books a week throughout my childhood (that’s how many I could check out each week at our town library), it’s so hard to name just one book. We didn’t have a television, and we didn’t travel. Our local library opened the world to me. I’ll admit that I flew through reading almost every animal book on the shelves before moving on to other literature.
What’s your favorite dog breed?
I cannot tell a lie. I love German shepherds. I also love tons of other breeds and lots of mixed breeds, but let’s face it: when I think of a canine companion, whether for work or just for good company, a shepherd’s face comes into view. Always with a glint of mischief and humor in his eyes.
What book might people be surprised to find on your shelves?
Philip Pullman’s The Golden Compass. I read “His Dark Materials” series as an adult and keep returning to his rich fantasy world. Which, as he points out, is more like “stark realism” with its themes of religious fanaticism, particle physics and justice.
You’re organizing a literary dinner party. Which three writers, dead or alive, do you invite?
Margaret Atwood, Rachel Carson and Charles Darwin. It’s time they all talked together.
What’s next for you? Another nonfiction book, a novel, or something else?
I’ve been mulling over an idea for a book on farming in the era of climate change. I’ve also been thinking about a fiction project. But it’s one of those ideas that will take a back seat for the next few months, as the young readers book will rightly demand some of my attention.