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Posted September 5, 2009 | comments Leave a comment

Truth in 'tails': Woodstock veterinarian pens book about his patients

By Sally Voth -- svoth@nvdaily.com

WOODSTOCK -- Dr. Bruce Coston's patients can't talk, but, boy, have they got tails -- make that tales -- to tell.

Their stories have resulted in the Woodstock veterinarian's first book, "Ask the Animals: A Vet's Eye View of Pets and the People They Love," released Tuesday.

Easy to read and witty, the novel offers vignettes -- some heartbreaking, some funny, others touching -- from Coston's years as a vet and a vet-in-training at the University of Minnesota. He weaves in stories from his home life with wife, Cynthia, sons, Jace and Tucker, and their pets.

The emotional bonds he observes between people and their pets account for the stories' poignancy, Coston, 49, said.

"These events occur every single day," he said, sitting behind his desk in his state-of-the-art practice, Seven Bends Veterinary Hospital.

Not a week goes by that a pet isn't lost by a family who loves it.

"That's a ground-shaking event in that family," Coston said.

But, there's much humor to be found, too, and it's clear the good doctor relishes the retelling.

"With writing, I can sit down and re-create that event so the readers experience the same emotions," he said. "That's quite powerful. That's a powerful tool to use."

Names of clients and their animals have been changed, and some stories were combined into one event to make the flow better.

"Hopefully, if I've done my job right, people will read a story and say, 'Do you think that was me?'" Coston said.

As a student, Coston enjoyed English class. But, it wasn't until he moved to Shenandoah County 17 years ago, and started writing a monthly column in the Bryce Mountain Courier, now the Mountain Courier, that the path to his novel-writing career was laid.

"I wrote boring stuff for several months about how to get rid of fleas, what to do with heartworm, parasites," he said. "Up against a deadline one month, I decided just to share a story of something that happened in the office."

The response from readers was "just monstrous."

That marked the end of Coston's tedious healthy-pet advice columns, and the beginning of several years of sharing anecdotes from his work with animals.

"Over the course of that time, I was constantly amazed at how people responded to those [stories]," Coston said.

He'd get comments from clients three or four times a day. Some would even come from out of the immediate area, saying they only wanted him to operate on their pets because they'd seen his columns.

"And, they didn't know if I could handle a knife or not," Coston said. "They just read stories."

Clients would tell the vet which stories they liked best.

"Many of them would say, 'Hey, why don't you put that together in a book form,'" he said.

After a couple of years spent doing just that, Coston's manuscript was finished in 2003 and he began a search for a publisher.

"And, that's a process everybody told me is just impossible, and come to find out that they were right," he said.

Several months in, Coston got an offer from a Colorado-based niche publisher, but the distribution network was limited to the Internet and the publisher's table at dog shows, so he passed.

"I spent the next three years submitting to just a long list of publishers, and got rejection after rejection after rejection," he said. "I have 28 rejections from different publishers. I had nobody else that I knew of that I could submit it to."

Without a literary agent, Coston couldn't get his work to some publishers.

"I have 23 rejections from literary agents," he said.

However, Coston had believers who told him his book was worthwhile and publishable.

"One of those was Art Linkletter," he said.

Coston met the "Kids Say the Darndest Things" author and TV host at a lecture about eight years ago, and asked him if he ever wrote forewords. It turned out he did about 10 a year.

Linkletter asked Coston to send him some of the book's chapters. He did, and Linkletter said he'd write the foreword as soon as Coston got a publisher.

Finally, a couple of years ago, he met his father-in-law's former doctoral professor, a published author.

He, in turn, passed on some of the chapters to his editor at Thomas Dunne Books, an imprint of St. Martin's Press, the publishing house Coston dreamed of signing with all along because it was the publisher of the English country vet-turned-novelist James Herriot's "All Creatures Great and Small" and subsequent books.

"I grew up reading those books and loved them," Coston said. "So, here I am, I get in the back door to St. Martin's Press, which was my first choice."

Thomas Dunne Books offered to buy the manuscript two years ago, and made some suggestions to improve it.

"He wanted me to add a little bit more of stories that tied the book together, some that kind of wove the things together," Coston said. "He wanted me to add a little bit more information about myself personally and my family so that the reader could identify with me."

Thomas Dunne was with St. Martin's Press when "All Creatures Great and Small" was published. He recently wrote in an e-mail to Joan Higgins, associate director of publicity at Thomas Dunne Books/St. Martin's Press: "Bruce's story is the first book Ihave encountered that I think can be compared to James Herriot, the gold standard. Moving, funny, full of people as well as critters ..."

Readers will learn how Coston's wife first set her sights on him while he was in college, and how he fell in love with her and nearly blew his chances, but convinced her to move to Minnesota while he was in veterinary school. They got married while he was still in school.

Coston's been told that if his first book sells 10,000 to 15,000 copies, St. Martin's Press will exercise an option on a second book. Having written 38 chapters for "Ask the Animals," but used only 22, he has "two-thirds of a second book ready to go."

He has rich material to draw from.

"[The stories] kind of tell themselves, and I'm just the scribe," Coston said.

He doesn't know what, if any, opportunities will present themselves as a result of the book.

"I love doing what I'm doing," Coston said. "I'm a veterinarian first, and I love the community of Woodstock. I've been here 17 years. I don't have any plans at this point. Never say never."

Coston will be signing his book from 1 to 3 p.m. on Oct. 18 at Books-A-Million in Harrisonburg. For more information, visit www.brucecoston.com.

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