Ostensibly Good Boy: My Life in Seven Dogs (Celadon, Apr.) is the fourth memoir from Jennifer Finney Boylan, a New York Times opinion columnist, the inaugural Anna Quindlen Writer in Residence at Barnard College, and author of 15 books including 2003’s She’s Not There: A Life in Two Genders, the first bestseller by a transgender American. In her newest book she chronicles her transition from young boy to middle-aged woman by way of the seven dogs that were by her side during each phase of her life. But, as Boylan says, “When you talk about dogs, you’re talking about love. People express love for their dogs that they don’t any other way.”

And in a culture in which it can be very difficult for boys and men to express love, dogs allow them to go all-out with public displays of affection and mushy love talk. “It is very rare for people to talk about how perfect their dogs are,” Boylan says. “Rather, they will tell you when Rover stole the birthday cake off the kitchen table. So, when we talk about dogs, we’re talking not so much about how much they love us, but about how much we love them. The love people have for these strange, badly behaved but loyal creatures, with all their flaws and imperfections, allows us to see what’s in people’s hearts that they can’t always share with human beings.”

Boylan says that her days have been numbered in dogs: “Dogs help us understand ourselves—who we are, where we’ve been. If you want to know what’s in somebody’s heart, you could do worse than to ask their dog.” What Ranger or Lucy or Alex might tell you about Boylan is that, of all the books she’s written, from novels like Long Black Veil to the Falcon Quinn YA series, She’s Not There is closest to her heart. “I hope when the history of the transgender [people] is written that someone will pay attention to it,” she says.

The book, and Boylan’s subsequent five appearances on Oprah, showed the world that a transgender person could lead a happy and successful life and was worthy of respect. People on the street—in New York City and in rural Maine, where she lives—thank her for She’s Not There, she reports. Some tell her that it saved their lives. “I know this sounds so immodest, and I hate to sound like I’m pumping myself up. But it’s a profound thing for an author to hear that, and I’m very grateful for the effect that the book had.”

The other tidbit one might glean from talking to one of Boylan’s dogs is that she considers it a great honor to do the keynote at Winter Institute. Boylan fondly recalls her first job out of college at Classics Books in Manhattan: “I loved my days working in the bookstore and the young people who I worked with. We were all young and most of us were writers. It was such a goofy job; we were paid nothing and the hours were long. But we all had a sense that being around books was better than working in the fanciest of New York’s restaurants. I’m very romantic about that job and I’m very sentimental about bookstores in general, so to be given the opportunity to speak at Winter Institute is beyond cool.”