“I believe cats to be spirits come to earth,” wrote Jules Verne. “A cat, I am sure, could walk on a cloud without coming through.” In her recently released memoir, Driving with Cats: Ours for a Short Time, author Catherine Holm offers a lovely and poignant collection of stories and lessons about journeying through life with feline companions. As any lover of cats might be inclined to agree, nine lives will never be quite enough to fully get acquainted.
Interviewer: Christina Hamlett
Q: For a sneak peek teaser, what is Driving with Cats: Ours for a Short Time all about?
A: Driving with Cats: Ours for a Short Time is a memoir of life, love, and the human/animal-companion bond. There are three things going on in this book. The overall book is framed by the story of my 21-year-old cat Jamie’s amazing last two months of life. Other chapters tell the story of milestones in my own life and the lives of the unique cats who have joined me on the journey. Also, interspersed through the book are short essays, both thoughtful, humorous, and informational. (Several of these essays were expanded and adapted at catster.com, where I blog.)
Driving with Cats is about the amazing things our companion animals teach us and bring to our lives. It is also a story about learning to move through the letting go process, and appreciating the gifts that this transition brings.
Q: What was your inspiration to write this book?
A: I wanted to write a memoir, but obviously, just focusing on “my life” seemed a bit huge, and not real compelling. I love cats and feel strongly about the human/animal-companion bond. When it occurred to me that I could write a memoir slanted through the bond I share with my cats, I got excited.
Q: Did you start with a formal outline or did you make things up as you went along? Why did your chosen process work well for you?
A: I tend not to outline. I wrote as I went, having no idea how it would turn out. Strangely, that seems to work best for me.
Q: As a long-time dog lover, I’m curious: what is your personal connection to cats?
A: I think this is a result, for me, of spending lots of time around cats. I love dogs too, but feel I understand cats better. I spend a lot of time observing my cats. We’ve always had more cats than dogs in my adult life, due to space and the layout of our household.
I did start out as a dog lover when I was a child. I knew all the breeds, devoured dog fiction, and visited every dog I could on the way home from school. I still love dogs, and there are a few references to and mention of dogs in Driving with Cats.
Q: Besides the obvious physical differences, what do you think differentiates cats from other animals insofar as being companions to humans?
A: That’s a good question. I’m not sure I have an answer, or if there is an answer. I’ll just say that I think cats’ personalities are uncovered differently than dogs’. A cat may reveal herself more slowly, and more subtly, than a dog. It’s just the difference between the two animals. I don’t know enough about all other animals to compare them to cats.
Q: What’s so special and significant about the death/dying/grieving process that you go through with your pets?
A: For me, death has often been a tender and profound process. (This goes for the people in my life that have passed on, as well.) I think that if there’s time to say goodbye (such as in a hospice situation, or an instance where you know an animal will be terminal, but you’re providing palliative care and trying to make them as comfortable as possible), that some really deep and tender bonds can grow and become stronger. The goodbye experience, in these cases, has been as wonderful as it has been sad. The animals, it seems, have really gone above and beyond to say goodbye in the best way possible.
Q: What can companion animals teach us about how to become better human beings?
A: I think any of us who share a household with a companion animal will have an answer for this! To me, they teach us how to be better people. They teach us to love unconditionally, and to receive unconditional love. They teach us to live in the moment, because their lives are usually shorter than ours. They teach us responsibility. Learning that I could love completely and unconditionally was a big realization for me.
Q: What do you believe is the strongest takeaway value from Driving with Cats: Ours for a Short Time?
A: We only have the present (not the past, not the future), so get good at truly appreciating the present moment. This applies to loving your companion animal, or loving anyone. Also, there’s opportunity for love, and loving behavior, everywhere.
Q: A former friend of mine once had no less than 22 cats in her household, many of whom were living long past their expiration dates. No matter their age or state of decline, she felt it would be too hard on her to ever have them put to sleep. Given that we are the stewards to domesticated animals, what is your response to a situation like this?
A: I try not to judge without knowing all the variables. Of course, there are many cases where animals may live too long because the person can’t let go. There are also many cases where an animal may be put down too soon — for many reasons. I know of a woman who has (I think) 19 cats, but she has the resources to care for them well. I don’t. I’m stretched at five or six at most.
Putting an animal to sleep can be a very difficult decision. On the other hand, it may be the better solution than a painful death. On the other hand, I have had animals die peacefully, on their own, at home. Every situation is going to be a little different. When I’ve had to take an animal in to be put down, the anticipation and dread has been worse than the actual experience. The actual experience, in my case, has been positive and peaceful.
Q: Describe your work space…and are cats involved?
A: Sometimes I work in the house, but I usually end up distracted by the cats, who love to lay over whatever I’m doing. I do have a separate small office building next to our house, that we put up ourselves. It provides distraction-free space. Sometimes I will bring a cat out, but haven’t done this for a while. Jamie (the 21-year-old who frames the story in Driving with Cats) absolutely loved being taken to the office and spending time with me there. It was one of his favorite pleasures.
Q: How do you shape your life to facilitate writing?
A: What works best for me is to write first thing in the morning. My mind seems more amenable to creative writing at this time. I try to not let other life factors press in until I do the writing (such as promotion, social media promotion, and the freelancing I do from home). I try to make my life as flexible as possible so that the writing gets done.
Q: Tell us about the decision process that went into finding a publisher.
A: It was really pretty simple and fairly fast. I approached my first publisher, but they were not interested in a cat-themed memoir. Then, I sent it to a bunch of agents, got rejections, and some encouragement. I sent it to a midsized press, who also rejected it with some encouragement. I sent it to a regional small press, who asked me to contribute funds to publish it (I didn’t want to go that route). Then, I sent it to North Star Press, another regional small press. They got back to me very quickly, saying that they wanted to publish Driving with Cats.
Q: What did you learn about publishing that you didn’t know when you first started?
A: This is my second book. I tend to really throw myself into things. My first book taught me what hard work promotion is. It is continuous. My second book, hopefully, is helping me refine the process more and make better decisions about which opportunities to go after, and which to not pursue. I’m learning that a published writer must work hard at promotion, but also not let the promotion consume the creation of new writing. It’s a tricky balance.
Q: You also write cat fantasy fiction under the name of Ann Catanzaro. What prompted you to go with a pseudonym and how did you go about choosing this particular one?
A: The cat fantasy fiction is self published and I wanted to distinguish between these self-published chapbooks and my traditionally published work. Both names are family names and names I like — of course, I also like the “Cat” in Catanzaro!
Q: What’s your best advice to someone who comes to you and says, “I want to become an author”?
A: Develop a sustained practice of writing and reading. Think long term. Getting better as a writer takes time. Be prepared for the difference between “writer” and “author,” though it may not really be possible to understand this until you step into the author role. (I blog about this here.) Read Stephen King’s On Writing — I found it really inspired and resonated with me.
Q: What would fans be most surprised to learn about you?
A: I’m not sure…I have done a lot of different things. I taught voice and piano, I teach yoga now. I love to travel, I love wilderness camping. I’m generally pretty calm, or I try to be. I’m pretty passionate, but that’s probably not a surprise. I think what may surprise people most about me is an inner strength that is not immediately apparent. I’m pretty quiet unless I need not to be.
Q: What’s next on your plate?
A: I’m in the middle of a novel about a mother/daughter relationship. I have also outlined and am ready to write another cat-themed memoir.
Q: Where can readers learn more about you?
A: My website is http://www.catherineholm.com and it also links to my facebook page and my LinkedIn page. I blog occasionally on my website (mostly announcements and that type of thing). I blog quite a bit at http://www.catster.com— one of my freelance jobs. Read any of my writing — I’m really pretty transparent!