Pacific City author and filmmaker Ben Moon has been named a finalist for Literary Arts’ 2021 Oregon Book Award in Creative Nonfiction for his memoir, Denali: A Man, a Dog, and the Friendship of a Lifetime. Some may already know Moon’s short film, Denali, less than 10 minutes long and garnering 8 million hits in its first week. His memoir, published by Penguin Books in January 2020, is also the subject of a film being produced by Max Winkler.
Moon adopted Denali from an animal shelter, and the two set out across the American West. When Moon was diagnosed with colorectal cancer at age 29, he faced a difficult battle with the disease, according to the book jacket blurb, and “Denali never once left his side until they were back out surfing and climbing crags.” Soon after, Denali was struck by the same disease, and “Ben had the chance to return the favor.” The book is described as the story of “this powerful friendship that shaped Ben and Denali’s lives, showing the strength and love that we give and receive when we have our friends by our side.”
We talked with Moon about his first book and making the Literary Arts short list.
How long have you been writing?
Moon: I am first and foremost a filmmaker. I was a photographer for about a decade before I got into film. For the past 10 years, I’ve been balancing time with photography and film and maybe even more toward filmmaking. Denali went completely haywire online. Oprah put it on “Super Soul Sunday.” Denali was with me through so many experiences through my mid-20 and late 30s. I wanted to commemorate him through the short film. When it went viral — that doesn’t seem to be the appropriate term in a pandemic — that brought the opportunity to write more about it. The short film was in my dog’s voice and a lot of publishers wanted to do that in a novel. But it didn’t feel appropriate. It’s been done so many times. I wanted to dive deeper and share my story in a deeper form.
How did you get to Pacific City?
I just moved out west to Portland from Michigan. I was a rock climber and I wanted to pursue that … bigger mountains, the ocean. I am just really interested in being outside.
What was it about Denali that made you think there was a film in his life — and yours?
I got Denali with my ex. She convinced me to go to the pound. He was a rescue. Best as I can guess, he was a husky and pit bull mix. He was 8 weeks old. He’d been adopted and dropped back off. It was one of those — there was something more to it. There was a nobility to him I can’t explain.
That was the fall of ’99. I had gone through a divorce…. I was kind of rebuilding my life. I lived in the back of my Subaru and was a climber for a few years. Then I got a camper van and did that for three years. Denali had some great years traveling with me in the West. I got diagnosed in June 2004, right when I moved out of my van. He took me through the most challenging experiences of my life. He was with me for 14.5 years — from just out of college to the brink of my 40s. The film is from a dog’s perspective, Denali talking about our time together. We filmed it during Denali’s final days.
What was his role in helping you through cancer?
When you are going through chemotherapy and radiation and all the treatments and surgeries and stuff, you really have nothing left. The treatments take so much out of you. Having your friends around is great, but there is not much left to give. A human being expects a little conversation, where a dog is just there and doesn’t expect you to give anything. They are just there for you.
Being primarily a photographer, was it difficult to shift gears and write a book?
Probably one of the hardest things about writing this book, it’s about Denali, but it’s personal. But I knew there was something relatable in the story. It’s an incredibly vulnerable story. Men don’t usually get that, their vulnerability. But it’s also about dealing with anxiety or depression or being sensitive. I wanted to be more open, as well, about cancer. That was the only way to make it worth reading — we’re all just bombarded by everyone’s perfect lives on social media.
How do you feel about making the Literary Arts short list?
I am incredibly grateful for everything that has happened. I grew up without things handed to me. Everything was a little bit of struggle from day one, so I appreciate what has happened. I am sitting at a home I am building at the beach and so grateful to have the ability to do that here, and to have a career and a community I can really enjoy and appreciate. Interestingly enough, writing was going back to a simpler form. The longest thing I’ve written before this book was a college paper. It is storytelling, stripped down to its essence.
What do you want readers to take from this?
I’ve received thousands of letters this year, and I feel everyone has taken away something different. I just hope they can see themselves in the story and it will help them in some way. When I set out to write it, my only hope was it would help one person: save the life of someone who was going through the experience or a challenging experience. Just the letters have made me feel that has happened. I’m glad the book will help more people.
Winners of the Oregon Book Awards will be announced at 7 p.m. May 2 on The Archive Project on OBP Radio.