And A Dog Called Fig: Solitude, Connection, the Writing Life by Helen Humphreys

Grizzle was a good dog. (Virginia Woolf’s Jacob’s Room and Mrs. Dalloway were written under her supervision.) So was Carlo, Emily Dickinson’s “shaggy ally,” and Peter, the wirehaired terrier to whom Agatha Christie dedicated her 1937 novel Dumb Witness. Wessex was not a good dog (just ask Thomas Hardy’s postman), but he did inspire his owner’s poetry. Keeper was a bad dog but an ideal companion for Emily Brontë.

Writers are often thought of as solitary types. But, according to Helen Humphreys—a poet, a novelist, and an owner of a Hungarian vizsla—a dog can be a writer’s best friend. Woolf’s model for the writing life has yet to be bettered: she wrote all morning, then took a long, rambling walk with her dog in the afternoon.

In And a Dog Called Fig, Humphreys chronicles her first few weeks with the eponymous puppy. She brings Fig home after Charlotte, her beloved vizsla, passes away. Fig proves an exhausting reminder that puppies have endless physical needs. Humphreys is sure Charlotte was easier. “Working on a novel would be difficult with a young dog around,” she observes, “because it requires so much time and attention.” It’s not clear if she means the dog or the novel. Both would be equally true. But Fig’s arrival does offer the opportunity to ponder the question: What does a dog bring to the writing life?

Wessex was not a good dog (just ask Thomas Hardy’s postman), but he did inspire his owner’s poetry.

There are plenty of comparisons. Raising a puppy, like starting a new book, will be different every time. Puppies, like novels, need structure. Exercising puppies is similar to pacing a novel. The connections continue.

When you think about it, what’s true for the writer is true for anyone: “To survive,” Humphreys writes, we must “try and cultivate healthy habits. A dog helps make all of this easier.”

Other writers crop up with their pets, but rarely in enough detail to be illuminating. We are treated to Anton Chekhov’s observations about his two dachshunds, for instance—who bore the doctorly names Bromide and Quinine—but Humphreys’s only observation about Chekhov is that his story “The Lady with the Dog” in fact features a Pomeranian.

At its heart, the book is really a lament for Charlotte, Humphreys’s comfort during a period of losses, and a tribute to the complete understanding they enjoyed together.

And a Dog Called Fig is both a closely observed portrait of dogs and a meditation on the ways they can enrich humans’ lives. The simple, unbounded pleasure a dog takes in a bowl of food, or in ruffling through the woods, is a talent for “being notched fully into the present moment,” Humphreys writes, that anyone could benefit from—though it’s an attentiveness especially instructive for a writer.

Sarah Watling is a London-based writer and the author of Noble Savages: The Olivier Sisters