I met Bronwen Dickey at The Regulator Bookshop in Durham, N.C., where she read from her first book, Pit Bull: The Battle over an American Icon. Dickey, a journalist and a contributing editor of Oxford American, spent seven years researching and writing her cultural history of the pit bull, a dog that occupies fraught territory in the American psyche.
A lot of fans were at the reading, and at least one non-fan, a guy who asked Dickey how many dog bite victims she had interviewed. “One,” she said, because only one would agree to talk to her. The guy then wanted to know how many she had asked for interviews. When she replied, “Ten or 15,” the guy scoffed. Dickey tried to move on, but the guy was a dog with a bone: he wouldn’t let go of the fact that she hadn’t spoken to more bite victims.
Finally, other audience members began shouting him down. One called his questions “stupid.” The guy shut up then, and we heard nothing more from him until after the event, when I sat down to interview Dickey. A Durham police officer had been called in to escort her from the store: the guy was waiting for her outside, “ranting and raving and waving fliers,” as the Raleigh News & Observer later reported.
The Millions: Was this the first heckling you’ve had in a reading?
Bronwen Dickey: Yeah. This is the ninth reading I’ve done and everyone has been amazing; they’ve been supportive and asked really good questions. There have definitely been people who are not sure how they felt about the dogs, which is completely fine, but that was the first time this has happened. [It would not be the last. A week after her Regulator reading, an anonymous Facebook group called Pit Bulls and Amputees posted a picture of her house with the caption “What famous author’s home do you think this might be? That’s right! It’s Bronwen Dickey’s residence.”]
TM: Were you just winging it up there or did you anticipate some kind of heckling at some point when you started doing readings?
BD: I anticipated some. There have been a lot of threats online, and a lot of the stores have been called and harassed. Their Facebook pages have been bombed with comments, so I expected that it would happen at some point. When it actually does happen, it throws you for a loop.
TM: One of your overall themes is that the pit bull is a uniquely American dog. Why this is the case?
BD: For one, the American Pit Bull Terrier did start here. Even though the stock was English and Irish, the official breed started here. But mainly because Americans across the board, whether they love or hate them, know about them; most people will have an opinion of them. And because you can trace so much of American history through the pit bull. They were here for the Battle of Gettysburg, the Battle of Normandy, with Helen Keller, with Teddy Roosevelt, all of these incredible moments. There is just this wild story all through it. I think they say a lot about us as a culture.
TM: When did you realize that the story of the pit bull could be a book?
BD: Probably 2012. That was when I was coming across so much of the science, so much of the history, and so many interesting characters that really one magazine piece couldn’t encapsulate it all. I wanted to have the scientific thread, the historical thread, and then the social thread. When I put it all together, there was just so much there.
TM: What other books or writers have you used as a model?
BD: Barry Lopez’s Of Wolves and Men, for sure. Seth Mnookin’s The Panic Virus, which is about the autism vaccine debacle. A book by Pat Shipman called The Animal Connection. Also Deborah Blum’s The Monkey Wars, which is so good. It really shows an equally sympathetic portrait from both sides — the ethical issues involved in using primates for research. And it doesn’t vilify anyone or make anyone into cartoons. It’s really, really well done.
TM: For humans, it seems, the fear of some animals like spiders and snakes is primal. Do you think that the fear of pit bulls taps into that same primal instinct as well?
BD: Yes, very much so. We’ve gotten so far away from an agricultural lifestyle. So few of us spend any real time in the wilderness anymore that we forget that dogs are capable predators, and they have big teeth and claws and they can do us some damage. We’ve gotten kind of accustomed to thinking of dogs as toys or living stuffed animals. I think that lizard part of our brains is very rattled when we get bitten or a dog growls at us. They’re supposed to be like our surrogate children in some ways and we feel so insulted by it. To them it’s just communication as usual.
TM: What did you find most surprising in your research?
BD: How thin the science was. When I was looking at these papers that had been used to justify the discriminatory laws, these peer-reviewed papers were citing things like Sports Illustrated or National Geographic channel or websites of personal injury lawyers and I just thought in my head, “How did this pass a peer-review board? That’s really frightening.” So that was probably the thing that surprised me the most.
TM: Let’s switch gears a little. In recent years, a number of children of famous writers have published memoirs about their famous writer parents [e.g., Alexandra Styron’s Reading My Father and Erica Heller’s Yossarian Slept Here]. Have you ever had any interest in writing about your father, James Dickey?
BD: I’ve thought about it, but I don’t think I have the necessary perspective on my father yet, and my growing up to be able to write the type of memoir I would want to write. If I do that, it’s going to be many years. I would want to develop a lot more as a writer and also have more of a perspective on my own parents before doing that.
TM: Growing up, did you ever feel like you were expected to be a writer?
BD: I did, especially because my brother Christopher is a journalist. I remember when I was at one of my dad’s readings and met someone who asked “Well, Bronnie” — that’s what everyone called me — “what’s your favorite subject in school?” And I said, “science” and everybody laughed at me, because I was supposed to say something like “reading” or “English.” Everyone thought that, and there was that pressure and I always kind of went a different way, so it’s a little bit ironic that I ended up here.
TM: What was it like writing a book as opposed to the travel pieces and essays you write as a journalist?
BD: Terrifying. It was terrifying. Every single day I thought I couldn’t do it. There was so much self-doubt. There was so much of putting together a book length story that I had no idea how to do. Putting together a 6,000-word piece is nothing compared to putting together a 65,000-word book and threading the narrative that people will follow the whole way. It was really terrifying, but I grew so much as a person, so much as a reporter just by, you know — I was too humiliated to give up, you know? I was too proud, too stubborn, and I wasn’t going to go down that easily.
TM: If your dad were still here, how involved do you think he would have been in the production of your first book?
BD: Oh, I’m sure he would have tried to be very involved. He would have tried to be, and in that small way I’m glad he’s not because I know he would have had a lot of opinions about everything and it probably would have been harder for me to find my own voice. He would have been very well intentioned, but I’m sure he would have been overbearing.
TM: Back to pit bulls for a final question. A lot of people will read your book and think, “Okay, some people are afraid of pit bulls. Some people don’t like them as pets. So what?” What’s your big “so what?” in your defense and exploration of pit bulls? Why bring it to our attention?
BD: Some people, like our friend here [the heckler], probably think I’m trying to push pit bulls on people or advocate for them, or that I think they’re better than other dogs. Really, I’m very much neutral. I certainly don’t think they’re any worse, but I don’t think they’re any better either. People can hate them, this is America, they can feel however they want. Where I think it becomes important is where we start making laws that are discriminating against people, because it’s the people who are suffering the most when they can’t find housing or insurance, or they’re kind of pushed to the margins of society in this way that isn’t fair. It isn’t based on science. There is no reason why anyone should live in a place where animal control officers can come to your house and seize your dog and euthanize your dog based on the way it looks when it hasn’t done anything wrong. That should be something that is frightening to all of us. We need to think critically about all of the stereotypes we’re confronted with; this is only one small case study in how to do that.