By Gary Lloyd
His name is Sean Dietrich. You may know him as Sean of the South. I know him, simply, as Sean.
And he was kind enough, when talking to me about a speaking engagement in Trussville, to talk about dogs. It’s not hard for either of us to talk about the animals that snore on our feet as we bang away at the keyboard.
I conducted the interview with a notebook on the hood of my car, under the carport. I’m still amazed the cellphone reception remained strong.
Anyway, here’s Chapter 14 of my last book, Sonny Days: Struggles, Scenery and Solace with the World’s Strangest Shelter Dog.
My earliest memories of just the two of us together took place not in the openness of a city park roaming the grass or in the back yard playing fetch with a fuzzy tennis ball, but at a computer desk facing a red wall. I worked from home most of the time, and Mondays were busy finalizing the week’s newspaper, posting stories on the outlet’s website and chasing new stories for the next week.
I remember holding that tiny dog in the crook of my left arm as I typed stories with only my right index finger. I assumed I would miss deadline.
We reported that spring on stories of little interest, such as a cart stolen from the local golf course, an award won by a county personnel board and the resurfacing of a road. Well, those stories at least helped fill the pages. We punched keys one at a time about more riveting stories, such as a health company’s former chief financial officer cooking the books and going to prison for it, a school system breaking ground on its two new elementary schools, the demolition of a sixty-five-year-old football stadium, and the theft of a pistol from a car parked at the Cracker Barrel.
Sonny was there for it all. I wrote dozens of stories with him there, warming my arm. I made keystrokes about the television game show “Family Feud” coming to Birmingham. I left him in his crate to attend a living history museum at a local middle school, where students acted as author Zora Neale Hurston, bandleader Dizzy Gillespie, track and field athlete Jesse Owens, and many more. I also wrote dozens of arrest stories with Sonny by my side, including the one about a student leading a classmate to a hall bathroom, where he then allegedly blindfolded and punched him repeatedly in the head. I wrote a thousand words on how an old city was going to celebrate its bicentennial and how it would make commercial progress in the future. I wrote, as one of my last front-page stories, about a fifteen-year-old musician whose dream was to sign a record deal and play country music for a living. He now lives in Nashville, and I often listen to his music through my headphones. Maybe Sonny’s need of being held or at least to be in the same room forced me to take my time with writing, to find the best storylines and really marinate on the words. I know that some of my better feature stories came while Sonny was there. Maybe that newfound patience is what helped me to write four books with that dog in the room. I published two novels in 2016, story ideas I had for years and finally typed out on the computer. For “Deep Green,” Sonny rested at my feet in my downstairs office, hoping that my occasional writer’s block would lead to a trip to the park to clear my mind. For “Heart of the Plate,” he flung Kong toys at my ankles and barked at the blinds. For “Valley Road: Uplifting Stories from Down South,” he nosed through old newspapers and magazines with my byline in them, and he tilted his head curiously when my tape recorder beeped. For “Ray of Hope,” Sonny snoozed through my dozens of interview transcriptions, recordings that I spent hours transferring from audio to text, again sprawled at my feet. That dog should have gotten his own acknowledgments chapters in those books.
But dogs are like that for writers, it seems. As boring as it must be to sit through the journey that is putting a newspaper, magazine or book together, they do it anyway. They inspire us. Kurt Vonnegut, the author of “Slaughterhouse-Five,” was often accompanied by his dog, Pumpkin. The same goes for Virginia Woolf, William Faulkner, Stephen King and John Steinbeck. Mark Twain and E.B. White, while not necessarily known for them, also wrote books about dogs. There are others, of course, too many to research. I spoke to one author at length about his close relationship with dogs, a man whose dog also sits at his feet when he types hundreds of words at a time.
Sean Dietrich, known to many as Sean of the South, is a columnist, podcast host, musician and author of nearly a dozen books about life in the American South. We spoke by phone a week before his trip to speak and perform at the Trussville Public Library in my hometown. We talked of Sean’s atypical childhood, odd jobs he’s worked, his daily writing life, Andy Griffith, his trips across the South and even a 1920s guitar that needed restringing. We spent a fair amount of our half-hour conversation talking about canines.
“Dogs have been everything to me,” says Sean, whose father killed himself when Sean was just twelve years old. “My best friends were dogs. They were the ones who didn’t ask questions. They were the ones who unconditionally gave you that kind of fix that you needed, that love. They were very important to me all throughout my life. Every year of my life can be measured in the dog that I had. If I talk about one dog, I have a specific feeling about where I was and all that. It’s amazing how much they have guided me into adulthood.”
Sean worked as a dishwasher and in construction, as well as other odd jobs for most of his life. He dropped out of school in the seventh grade after his father committed suicide. He worked hard to just get by. He fell into writing blogs on Facebook, because he always wanted to be a newspaper columnist like Lewis Grizzard, and that turned into a website, large social media following, podcast, speaking engagements and a dozen books. At the time we spoke, his novel, “Stars of Alabama,” was a couple months old. He was finalizing his memoir, “Will the Circle be Unbroken? A Memoir of Learning to Believe You’re Gonna be Okay,” a book that sits on my desk at home and is next on my to-read list. Sean never thought he would be here, in this place in life that includes books selling nationally, even in corner bookstores in New York City, and appearances all over the South. It has been a whirlwind for him. In the beginning, there was Ellie Mae.
When he first got the bloodhound, she traveled everywhere with him. They camped together in Pensacola, Florida, in a sixteen-foot camper.
“She followed me wherever I went,” Sean says. “She ate whatever I ate. When I ate tuna salad sandwiches, she ate tuna salad sandwiches. When I took a nap, she took a nap. When I went out to the beach, she went out to the beach, leash free, and dogs are not really allowed on the beach out there.”
At night, Sean played music at local establishments. Ellie Mae slept in the truck. After packing up his guitar when his shows ended, Sean would arrive outside to his truck encircled by waiters and bartenders, feeding Ellie Mae onion rings, fish and chips. This transpired four and five times per week.
“She was just our mascot, if you will,” Sean says.
Ellie Mae was there for Sean’s humble beginnings and rise to regional fame. She slept at his feet when he wrote.
“I truly believe that she helped me learn how to be a little braver than I would have normally been,” he says. “I learned from her. I learned from that dog. She kind of gave me a little bit of confidence. I believe there is something almost just supernatural about them. There’s something otherworldly, if you ask me.”
When Ellie Mae died, Thelma Lou, another bloodhound, came into Sean’s life to lick his wounds, to lift his spirits. He adopted Thelma Lou almost immediately after Ellie Mae died. A dog is a healer, a good medicine. As Sean and I spoke on the phone, Thelma Lou was sleeping at his feet in his camper, which he uses as his writing office in northwest Florida.
I tell Sean that Sonny is known around our town, that he earns compliments on his handsomeness at the Chick-fil-A and Milkbone treats at the Pizza Hut window. Sean says that is also the case for Thelma Lou.
“It’s amazing,” I say.
“It sure is,” Sean replies.
I tell Sean that I have scribbled and typed these thousands of words on this dog with him right at my feet. I tell him that this book will not have a sad ending like many canine stories do, that these pages will not end at the Rainbow Bridge. No, this dog has slept at my feet through too many interview transcriptions, too many keystrokes, to miss out on the publicity of his own book. He has an ego to maintain, and he deserves the notoriety after practicing so much patience with me as I spent time writing instead of taking him to the park, toting him to drive-thrus or walking him in circles around our neighborhood. He plans to attend an outdoor book signing and pose for pictures. Maybe that is just my plan.
“I love that,” Sean tells me. “I want to read that.”
I tell Sean that of course I would love for him to read this book. He is a fellow author inspired by his four-legged companion, just as I am. And, like me, Sean writes about dogs regularly. Not long after our phone discussion and his trip up to Trussville, I found one of his blogs about his dogs. The timing of finding those words jolted me. The last lines read, “They made me who I am. They made me a better man, and their love ensures that my life will never be the same.”