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Glenn Murray

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Glenn Murray’s dog days

New Brunswick author hopes to turn a book about a flatulent canine into a long-running series

Life’s a gas for Glenn Murray. Following the explosive success of his first children’s book, Walter the Farting Dog, the Fredericton, New Brunswick-based author has been caught up in a whirlwind of what he calls “Walter business.” That includes a well-publicized, and lucrative, deal with Penguin’s Dutton Children’s Books imprint in the U.S. for the next two Walter books. Numerous other offers for film and licensing rights have followed. Now, Murray and his co-author, William Kotzwinkle, face the challenges of turning a one-off picture book into a multi-volume series – and a merchandising empire.

Glenn MurrayThe Dutton deal alone reportedly netted the two authors a $500,000 (U.S.) advance. Murray won’t confirm the amount, but he admits that he has the BMW brochures – then laughs and points out that the luxury car company doesn’t even have a dealership in New Brunswick. And Walter is keeping Murray so busy that the author has not one, not two, but five agents to handle all the dog-related deals.

Murray, who with his salt-and-pepper beard and stocky build bears a slight resemblance to novelist Ernest Hemingway, says his newfound fame isn’t going to his head. “It’s easy to stay humble when you’re the front man for a farting dog,” Murray says over a plate of chicken fingers at The Snooty Fox, a Fredericton pub. “In fact, people say to me, ‘You’re the farting guy.’ I don’t think Brad Pitt has any worries or anything.”

That may be so, but Walter is the current hot kidlit property. The book has spent some 38 weeks on the New York Times bestseller list, and with more than 300,000 copies sold, is blowing away such competition as Finding Nemo, the picture book based on the movie. In Canada, the book was a huge seller last Christmas, more than two years after its release. Walter the Farting Dog is also available in about a dozen other countries, including Vietnam, Korea, Australia, England, France, and Spain.

That success has led to spinoff opportunities. Over lunch, Murray said he was pondering a live-action movie deal with New Line Cinema. The first Walter merchandise items, including a doll that makes rude sounds, will go on sale this spring; the American bookstore chain Borders has pre-ordered 10,000 of them. And then there’s the dirigible. Nothing is firm yet, but Murray has already had two meetings about the possibility of a Walter blimp in New York City’s annual Thanksgiving Day parade. While Murray and Kotzwinkle haven’t seen any income yet from the products, Murray admits that the merchandise revenues are a different game entirely from book profits. “The biggest shock to us is that agents in this realm typically take 40% instead of 15%.”

They stand to make some money off the books, as well. The second Walter title, Walter the Farting Dog: Trouble at the Yard Sale, will be published in April. Dutton is doing a first print run of 150,000, with 15,000 copies earmarked for Canada. The publisher is also putting a solid publicity push behind Walter: already, it has sent booksellers whoopee cushions and Walter toilet paper.

Not all the Walter business is pleasant. Murray had to fend off an unsuccessful lawsuit from the publisher of the first book, California-based North Atlantic Books. Displeased that Dutton wooed Walter away, North Atlantic briefly went after Murray, but dropped the suit. Not everyone appreciates Murray’s sense of humour, either. In Wisconsin, a former school board trustee is upset enough over the use of the word “fart” that he wants the book banned from the state’s school system.

Murray and Kotzwinkle will face long-term challenges as well. They’re currently planning five Walter books in total, leading to questions about the sustainability of the premise. But Murray argues that the dog has legs. “To me, it’s really a story of acceptance and turning liabilities into assets. Poor Walter. When I’m reading with kids, I always start off right from the dedication page, which reads: ‘For everyone who’s ever felt misjudged and misunderstood,’” says Murray. “Who doesn’t fit into this category?”

The look of the series will also likely undergo a makeover midstream. After the third book, illustrator Audrey Colman will no longer provide art; she and the authors have parted over creative differences (see below). Kotzwinkle and Murray are already looking for a new artist.

Getting Walter into print at all took 10 years. The project grew from the authors’ long-term friendship. Kotzwinkle, author of the novelization of E.T.: The Extra-Terrestrial, has also written a number of adult cult classic titles, such as The Fan Man, and numerous children’s books. When Murray, a fan of the reclusive author, learned that Kotzwinkle was then living in a cabin in New Brunswick, he showed up uninvited and managed to charm his way into Kotzwinkle’s home, beginning a friendship that’s lasted for 30 years. (Kotzwinkle, who still carefully guards his privacy, declined to be interviewed for this story.)

The authors began work on Walter the Farting Dog after a screenplay they’d written together failed to pan out. Kotzwinkle told Murray about a now infamous 150-pound bull mastiff in New Brunswick that drank beer and ate doughnuts and could clear a room with its noxious emissions. As soon as Kotzwinkle announced the dog’s name was Walter, Murray said, “Walter the Farting Dog, what a great title for a kid’s book!”

To produce the book, Murray sat at the keyboard and brainstormed with Kotzwinkle. He compares the process to a writing team doing a situation comedy, where the authors throw lines out for suggestion, with a “lot of editing, second-guessing, and all that.” Adds Murray: “When we’re working on something, I always say it’s like two halves of the same twisted brain.”

But the publishing world wasn’t ready for a bloated pet. Murray says reaction was negative right from the start, and it looked as if the book would languish in limbo. One night, though, Murray found himself at a dinner with the publisher of North Atlantic Books, and after dinner the host suggested that Murray read the Walter manuscript aloud. A deal was instantly struck. Even after that, there was resistance, though: Kotzwinkle’s usual illustrator wanted nothing to do with the book. Colman, a former Montrealer now living in California, was picked from a number of artists’ portfolios in the publisher’s filing cabinet, according to Murray.

Currently, Murray is on long-term leave from his job as an educational technology supervisor with the New Brunswick Department of Education. The fifth Walter book will have a sound card and scratch-and-sniff components, if the authors get their way. Even Kotzwinkle is thrilled with the project’s high profile, according to Murray. “Obviously, he’s very happy about it. He’s got his other things he’s doing, but Walter’s world is very much a part of what Bill is doing these days too.”

Murray used to visit school classes and tell students about Dr. Seuss – how his first manuscript was rejected by 28 publishers before the 29th finally published And to Think That I Saw It on Mulberry Street. “Those other 28 must have kicked their asses for years,” Murray laughs. “But now I’ve got Walter to talk about, because we had 10 years of that with Walter.”