A Conversation with Brian McGrory, author of Buddy: How a Rooster Made Me a Family Man
Q) How did you come to write this book?
A) One day I woke up and the reality dawned on me that, good God, I’m living with a rooster; how did this happen to me? I knew how it happened. I fell for a woman unlike anyone I had ever met. She lived in the suburbs, while I had spent my adult life in the city. She had two daughters. The older of those daughters incubated eggs at an elementary school science fair, and from one of those eggs came a little chick they called Buddy. The chick grew up watching television in their laps and sleeping in a little cage in the living room. When it got bigger, the kids pleaded with Pam to keep it, so the chicken lived in the yard by day and slept on a perch in Pam’s garage at night. Even when the chicken proved to be a big, white, crowing rooster, it didn’t matter to any of them. He still came inside to watch TV. He pecked at the doors. He doted on the kids, and they on him. When Pam and I bought a house and we all moved in together, the rooster came with the whole package deal.
There was one essential problem with all this, quite apart from the weirdness of a rooster living in a suburban house: This rooster had utterly no use for me and wasn’t shy about demonstrating the sentiment. Amid all these transformations in my life—moving from the city to the proverbial leafy suburbs, from a life of total independence to one with two very outspoken young girls—there was a rooster that was serving as my personal drill sergeant. Maybe it was the tenth time he chased me across my new lawn, maybe it was the fiftieth, but at some point it dawned on me that there might be a book in all this.
Q) What does the book mean to you?
A) There would be days that I’d be sitting in my little study writing my column for the Boston Globe, the two kids bouncing in and out, one of the cats walking across my keyboard, and the rooster would position himself just underneath the open window and scream his twitching little head off because he heard me talking to people on the phone. Could have been the mayor or the governor or my editor or an everyday person I was writing about. It didn’t matter. My orderly little life had become total bedlam. But as time went on, I started drawing lessons on commitment, on family, on happiness in general, from this bird that was so completely committed to his flock. And sitting down and penning this book, the good and the bad that go with these significant transitions in life, helped me sort it all out. It’s a story about a rooster, yes, but it’s also a story about tremendous change and how we cope with it.
Q) What’s one of the funniest or most surprising lessons Buddy taught you?
A)Being there. Buddy showed me that, when it comes to kids, mates, people you love, being there is critical, whether it’s convenient or not. And not just being there in physical presence but investing yourself in the moment. Buddy was always there, watching his flock. He didn’t care about what happened outside of our yard, because everything he ever wanted in his life, everything that mattered, was right there. It was nice to see and important to understand.
Q)How have your relationships with Buddy and Harry differed?
A) Harry changed everything for me. He taught me how to really feel for someone or something, to open up and give of myself in a way that I never had before. Maybe I should be embarrassed that a dog could so completely change a man, but I’m not, because he was that important to me. He was wise, fun, lively, an ideal friend, and I wanted to be that in return; and what he taught me was that you often get back in life what you give, and even if you don’t get it in return, you still feel better about yourself when you put it on the line.
Buddy, well, that’s different. Where Harry softened me up in many respects, Buddy did the opposite, showing me that you have to be tough and committed and completely devoted to your flock. They were some tough lessons to learn, especially given his methods, but I’m glad I had him as my teacher—mostly.
Q) What do you hope readers will take away from the book?
A) That animals play a critical role in our lives, or at least they can. That they make us better people in surprising ways. That transitions are difficult, but so often for the better. That you’re never too old to learn a few new tricks. That thick skin is an asset. That the more you give, the more you’re likely to get in return.
Q) How has your career as a columnist for the Boston Globe influenced your writing?
A) It is nearly too broad and deep to get into here, but suffice it to say that it has opened me up to a large, complex, meaningful world filled with everyday people encountering, battling, and surmounting often extraordinary situations and circumstances. People invite me into their kitchens, their businesses, their families, and their lives to tell me their stories, some heartwarming, others agonizing. The job has taught me perspective and proportion.
In terms of writing, it has also infused me with economy. I need to tell often unwieldy stories in a short amount of space, which has made for what I think is a more direct writing style than, say, a magazine writer. I always feel the need to get to the point.