The Duffy Chronicles

Barbara Hammond photo

For as much time as Lucy, my Chief Canine Officer, spends sitting in my lap while I’m writing, I’m pretty sure she not only knows all of my passwords but also has her own email account and orders merchandise off of Amazon. And when she finds out that this week’s feature interviewee, Barbara Hammond, helped her own rescue dog write a children’s book, Lucy will certainly start lobbying to become a published pooch as well.

Interviewer: Christina Hamlett

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Q: What an amazingly creative journey you’re enjoying! Inquiring minds want to know which came first for you: being an artist or being a writer?

A: Definitely being an artist. I was fortunate to have an English teacher in high school who told me I was a very good writer and I tucked that away for a long time. Drawing and painting came naturally and were nurtured by my high school art teacher. I married right after high school and started a family. I think writing intimidated me because I didn’t have a college education. I was into my 50’s before I started taking writing at all seriously.

Q: How do these two passions peacefully co-exist with one another – and how do you manage it when they simultaneously exact demands on your time?

A: It’s tricky, sometimes. I started blogging as I approached SIXTY, because I was having trouble wrapping my head around that number. A few months in, I discovered people I’d never met were reading my blog. I was so surprised! But, over time, it became important to publish regularly and continue to grow. Art has taken a back seat over the past few years, but I’m working on finding a better balance because it’s something I spiritually need to do.

Q: Who were/are some of the artists and authors that you’d say had the strongest influence in defining your own styles of expression?

A: I was blessed to meet Jim Penland in 2000. He’s a legend in NJ’s art world. He took me under his wing as soon as I told him, “I paint a little.” He looked at my work and would announce to everyone he introduced me to, “This is Barbara Hammond, a great artist.”  He recruited me to help establish the Ocean City Fine Arts League. It was an honor. He used to hang out on our porch and work with me. It was an amazing friendship. He taught me to look at the simplest things, like water meters along the curb, and see the beauty in them and how they were made. I had no formal training and this time with Jim was like a master class every time we worked together.

I don’t know if I can point to any one author and say they’ve influenced my writing. I was very moved by The Celestine Prophecy by James Redfield. It led me to Simple Abundance by Sarah Ban Breathnach, and Louise Hay and others. I was soul searching.

I tend to read more non-fiction and that’s primarily what I write. But, I have written a few fiction posts in series form that have gotten encouraging comments on my blog. I’m currently working on a book based on my grandmother’s life. It’s memoir and historical fiction.

Q: If you could sit down for lunch with one of these people, who would it be?

A: I think Sarah Ban Breathnach would be interesting to talk to. I know she fell on hard times after she wrote Simple Abundance and had her 15 minutes of fame with Oprah, etc. It shows we’re all vulnerable and we can bounce back. It’s always about the ‘getting back up’!

Q: Would you define yourself as a voracious reader? If so, what are some of the titles, authors and favorite genres we’d be likely to find at your house?

A: It seems like I read from the time I wake in the morning until I go to sleep at night, sometimes. Mostly I read newspapers and blogs. I love to read books, but if I get into a novel, I will stay up until it’s finished and that can be a problem sometimes. I’m grumpy when I don’t have enough sleep.

That said, you will find a lot of Ken Follett in my house, along with Lisa Scottoline, and Historical fiction.

Q: As a fellow dog lover, I have to confess that you instantly won me over with the disclosure you were the pet parent of a 20 lb. rescue dog with a 2 ton personality. (Dogs truly rule, don’t they?) Tell us how and why Duffy first came into your life and the moment you knew he had a story that needed to be shared.

A: Duffy came into our life because our older dog, Benson, had a breakdown when we moved from Boston to Philly. Our vet and dog sitter suggested we get him a buddy. People tend to get cats in pairs but not dogs, and dogs need social companionship. So we found this feisty little cockapoo at the local shelter. He turned it all around. Their story is all in the book.

Q: So did Duffy do his own typing or just dictate?

A: Oh, he dictated. He probably wouldn’t like me to disclose this but he had a little drinking problem, as many famous authors do. He loved beer. Not just any beer…Rolling Rock. If 4 people were sitting around with 4 different beers he would go straight to the green bottle. The evening of my 50th birthday party he got a bit carried away. We had a keg and there were pitchers of Rolling Rock, which sometimes were placed on low tables, and we heard, “Get the dog out of the beer!” a lot that night. The next morning we found him lying on a pillow with a bit of cheese dip on his chin. It’s been our little secret, until now.

Q: What would Duffy say is the book’s takeaway message for children and adults?

A: We all need friends and good friends respect and support each other. He would also say, you shouldn’t buy or adopt a pet if you don’t know how to care for them.

Q: For The Duffy Chronicles, you also donned the hat of illustrator. What inspired that decision?

A: I paint pet portraits and his was perfect for the cover. After experimenting with different styles and ideas for inside the book I decided to go with line drawings. I think it works pretty well.

Q: Is this book going to be a series?

A: I’ve intended that all along. It’s been a busy few years and I’m just now getting onto the 2nd book. The Duffy Chronicles, Adventures with Cosmo. Cosmo is quite a character.

Q: Tell us about your path to get The Duffy Chronicles published.

A: When it went from a fun little family story to a book with a message, I sent out numerous query letters, which turned into a pile of rejection letters. I gave up. Then 3 days after he passed, suddenly of renal failure, I found a publisher on Craig’s List who was looking for children’s books. It’s an indie company in Milwaukee, Mirror Publishing (www.pagesofwonder.com). They were wonderful to work with and we remain friends.

Q: Were there any surprises along the way regarding the publishing process?

A: I can’t say I was surprised. I expected rejection, because every writer gets their share. I was more surprised to finally find a publisher who worked so quickly with me and walked me through the process. I think Duffy was orchestrating from another level.

Q: How do you use social media to promote your various projects? Thus far, which venue seems to generate the most buzz?

A: Facebook is my primary social media platform. I use twitter, Instagram and Pinterest, too. You can’t be everywhere all the time, there are only so many hours in the day. I’ve found a great group on Facebook, Women of Midlife, who are super supportive and helpful. They’ve helped me break into Huffington Post and other sites to promote my work. I recently established a Facebook page for The Duffy Chronicles (https://www.facebook.com/theduffychronicles?fref=ts) and it’s taken off much faster than my Zero to 60 page did.

Q: Like many authors today, you’ve embraced blogging as a way to connect with kindred spirits and share personal experiences. How has this pursuit affected your writing?

A: Blogging has been pivotal in my writing. It began with strangers encouraging me and those strangers becoming friends. I’ve always been pretty good at networking, I was in sales most of my working life, but this takes networking to the next stratosphere.

Q: What would readers be the most surprised to learn about you?

A: I honestly don’t know. I feel I’m pretty open. I’ve always been opinionated, and I don’t shy from that, so there aren’t any real secrets I can think of.

Q: What’s next on your plate?

A: I really want to make time for art and it has to be a priority. There’s been a sudden influx of opportunities with writing, and I have the Women of Midlife group to thank for much of it, but I need to schedule projects better than I have been. I want to do it all.

Q: A few years ago you hit a milestone birthday, an event that generally prompts musings about how far one has come, how far one might go, and how advances in science and medicine have extended life spans far beyond what was traditionally considered “retirement.” What are your thoughts about that and where do you see yourself in the future?

A: I have a bigger milestone in July…65! Funny, it doesn’t bother me as much as 60 did, but I began blogging as a way to work through that issue and look how it’s turned out! A recent blog post about staying alive without really living took on a life of its own because we’re all hoping to exit with dignity. We are the sandwich generation and I know most don‘t want to saddle our kids with being our caregivers, so we have to figure out how to do that before we lose the mental capacity. It’s scary.

As for retirement, I don’t think you ever retire when you are doing what you love. It’s a great bonus in life.

Q: Anything else you’d like to share?

A: I want to thank you so much for this opportunity. And I can’t wait to find out some of the things we have in common!

Driving with Cats: Ours for a Short Time

Driving with Cats Cover_Driving with Cats

“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

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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!