"Do you think it'll make a good movie?" asks Betsy James Wyeth, who is openly delighted -- and delightful -- about the publication of her first novel, "The Stray," a story of animal lore and allegorical asides that's rich in lovely words, even more lovely imagery, and characters that are proud, mysterious, highly sentient and wholly admirable -- animals.
At 58, the wife of the venerable Andrew Wyeth -- and mother of Jamie Wyeth -- finds the idea of having a book published most agreeable and satisfying. In fact, there's something sweetly skittish, unjaded, about her literary adventure. She has been involved with other books (on the artistic Wyeth clan) and she has handled a lot of her husbands business activities, but nothing seems to have matched the personal intensity she has brought to "The Stray."
More important, the book is a tangible sign of her relationship with her son: Jamie illustrated the book with striking pen-and-ink sketches, and their affection and concern for each other shine through.
"There was never any conscious decision on our part to sit down and colaborate," Betsy Wyeth contends. "It simply evolved. I grew up in a railroad town where there were always transients. So I was always aware of hobos and strays. But it all came together one day when I saw this beautiful dog on the highway. It haunted me -- for days. It became a recurring image. I'd see the remains of this dog every day, wasting away, disintegrating.
"I felt totally frustrated. So I sat down and began to write. Jamie became involved just as leisurely. I'd show him what I wrote, and he'd do a sketch. We never thought about publication. We worked on it for five years, and it wasn't until Jamie started mentioning it around to people -- usually at parties -- that it took on any potential or credibility for publication."
The book reflects a lot about Betsy Wyeth. When you read it, it's a easy to hear her talking to sense what she looks like. She's a slender but hearty woman, handsome, with auburn hair and a husky laugh. You sense a woman of principle, but perhaps one with a wicked sense of humor and a feisty edge.
Like its author, "The Stray" can be appreciated on any number of levels -- as an urbane children's book, as a celebration of the healthy life (particularly in Chadds Ford, where the story is set) or as an allegorical biography of Jamie.
"There's no denying that I wrote it from a 10-year-old's point of view or that animals were any vehicle. They have such grace. I'm not that learned about animals, but I love them. You might say I cradle them. It's such a privilege to share life with them.
"But the incidents and the characters in "The Stray" come from Jamie's childhood. Lynch, the title character, in fact was -- and still is -- his best friend."
With the character of Lynch, Betsy Wyeth also celebrates the mystic quality of the stray -- as an adventurer, a free-spirit, someone who dares, "Lynch is all of these things -- and more. In real life, he was very much like a stray whom no one took seriously. He used to love coming to our home, to hear me read to Jamie and Nicholas (Jamie's older brother). No one ever read to him. I remember once when we went to Maine for the summer. We were gone for four months. The day we came home, there was Lynch, sitting in one of our pine trees. I've never been able to shake that image."
All of the characters are based on friends and relatives of the Wyeths, but it never occurred to Betsy to make them human. "Jamie had a vivid imagination as a child and he used to draw these people as animals even back then. My characters had to be animals.
Despite the rich language and complex cast of characters in "The Stray," Betsy Wyeth contends that she never formally studied writing. "My father was a newspaper editor and I'd hear him discuss 'composition' all the time. It frightened the hell out of me. I tried going to college. I went to Colby in New Hampshire, only because I knew the skiing would be good. But I dropped out a year later to become Mrs. Andrew Wyeth. My formal education ended at age 18.'
Sipping apple cider and puffing one of many cigarettes, she goes on to claim that a lot of her intelligence, which is worldly at least, has come from her relationship with animals and her observation of nature. (Her favorite book is Melville's "Moby Dick.")
In the midst of a discussion, Jamie stops by with his two dogs, one an imposing Newfoundland, to say hello. Betsy Wyeth reports to him on the book's local sales and is particularly animated when describing children's reactions to it.
"I'm glad that children are really getting into this book. So many books underestimated them," she says. "I was worried about this. I didn't want "The Stray' to be too cute. No nonsense. But it couldn't be too brittle, either. There's volence in the book, for example, because I'm convinced that, at 10, children become award of violence as an outer force. It's about that time that children realize that some people don't get along in a big way.
"Yes, 'The Stray' is a children's book, but it's also for adults still clinging to that child inside them, people who don't want to grow up.
"I'm not really nuts about grownup people."