Homer for the Holidays!
Interviews with Gwen Cooper and Alana Miller
It was sheer luck that I first heard about Homer’s Odyssey: A Fearless Feline Tale, or How I Learned About Love and Life with a Blind Wonder Cat by New York author Gwen Cooper. I normally listen on and off to WUNC 91.5 FM all day long at work, but I must confess that I don’t usually pay close attention to “The Diane Rehm Show.” Yet something about the 11 a.m. Tuesday, Aug. 25, 2009, broadcast — guest hosted by BBC reporter Katty Kay — had me surfing the Internet before the show was over.
By the time that Katty Kay’s interview with Gwen Cooper had concluded, my Amazon.com order for my first hardback copy of Homer’s Odyssey was already on its way to my north Raleigh apartment, where I serve as cat concierge for two feline companions. (I liked Homer’s Odyssey so much that I eventually ordered more than a dozen hardback copies as gifts for Christmas 2009; and when the book came out in paperback on Sept. 7, 2010, I ordered several more copies as gifts for Christmas 2010 — that’s Homer for the Holidays (twice)!)
Before August 2009, I had recently read Dewey: The Small-Town Library Cat Who Touched the World by Midwest librarian Vicki Myron and professional writer Bret Witter, and found that book endearing but unevenly written, with passages that were almost poetic, but far too much prosaic padding.
By contrast, Homer’s Odyssey is beautifully written throughout and appeals not just to cat lovers or animal lovers in general, but to everyone, as I wrote in my Dec. 27, 2009 review for the Raleigh, NC News & Observer: http://www.newsobserver.com/2009/12/27/254608/a-blind-cat-brings-insight.html.
Moreover, Gwen Cooper is donating 10 percent of her domestic royalties to animal-rescue groups, such as Blind Cat Rescue and Sanctuary, Inc. of St Pauls, NC, which help abandoned and abused animals, especially those that are blind or who have other disabilities.
Alana Miller of Blind Cat Rescue had been helpful to Cooper during her research while she wrote Homer’s Odyssey, but Cooper had never actually visited the no-cage, no-kill shelter, located near Fayetteville, until the weekend of Sept. 17-19, 2010.
On Sept. 18th, Gwen Cooper presented a $10,000 cashier’s check to Alana Miller, on behalf of Blind Cat Rescue, during a book signing at Quail Ridge Books & Music (http://www.quailridgebooks.com/) in Raleigh, NC.
The following in-depth Triangle Arts & Entertainment interviews with Gwen Cooper and Alana Miller resulted from that September visit. — R.W.M.
Gwen Cooper Interview
Triangle Arts & Entertainment: Cat lovers love to tell stories about their cats, but what made you think that your cat stories would appeal to a wider audience than just cat lovers?
Gwen Cooper: To tell you the truth, I’m not sure that I ever did think Homer’s story would appeal to a wider audience than just cat lovers — or, in a broader sense, animal lovers. But I felt that among animal lovers, there would always be an interest in an amazing, true-life story about the animal/human bond. Homer’s story had so many of the elements of those classic animal stories, and so many elements of classic adventure stories in general. To me, it just seemed like a “natural.” And I thought that a core audience of dedicated animal lovers would be more than enough to make the book successful. So, I was never trying to reach a non-animal-loving audience. I didn’t want to be greedy!
What gave you the idea to share your stories about Homer in your Salon.com blog. Was “Night of the Hunter” [published Oct. 1, 2008] the first time that you mentioned Homer in print?
Prior to “Night of the Hunter” [http://open.salon.com/blog/gwen_cooper/2008/10/01/night_of_the_hunter] I’d published one additional blog entry about Homer on Open Salon. Those were the first two stories about Homer released for public consumption. What happened was that my agent had sent around the proposal for Homer’s Odyssey, and what we kept hearing from publishers was there wasn’t anything “special” enough about this story to engage a commercial audience. I felt just the opposite, obviously, but it was beginning to descend into this no-win, hypothetical, “It will not/It will so too!” type of argument. Eventually, I came to the decision that the best way to get some sense of what the public reaction to Homer’s story might be was to put some of the story out there and see how people responded. “Night of the Hunter” went viral pretty quickly, and the rest is history.
Where did you get the idea to turn your memoirs of your life with a blind wonder cat into a book, and what convinced you that there was a book in these reminiscences?
I initially had the idea when I read about the sale of the Dewey memoir back in 2006. The idea of writing a memoir about my cat had literally never occurred to me, but once I heard that somebody else was writing a memoir about their cat, I thought, “Well my cat’s a pretty cool cat! I bet I could write a book about him!” (I should add here that I had written one book already [the novel Diary of a South Beach Party Girl in 2007], and was trying to formulate my next idea at the time.)
I sat on the idea for a while, though, because I wasn’t sure what the overarching, book-length narrative would be; and I didn’t want it just to be a series of anecdotes. It was when I started planning my wedding that I had my “aha!” moment. The book begins in the immediate aftermath of a major break-up, which was when I first adopted Homer; and it ends 12 years later with a wedding. And the story is about everything that happens, and all the ways in which Homer changes my life and my perceptions about life, in those 12 years in between. Having those narrative pillars to build the book around was what finally got me writing.
How hard was it to write that book and get it published, and was the viral response to your Salon.com column entitled “Night of the Hunter” the tipping point in your efforts to find a publisher?
It took me a couple of years to flesh out the outline, and I wrestled with it a lot, but once that was in place the writing itself wasn’t difficult at all.
There were two publishers who were interested in Homer’s Odyssey by the time “Night of the Hunter” was published, but its swift popularity definitely helped move the process along.
How has Homer reacted to all the attention? Has becoming a celebrity and an international “brand” given him an ego the size of Manhattan?
Well, all cats have ego issues, so I don’t know that Homer is any exception! But Homer has always been exceptionally well-loved, and that hasn’t really changed since the book came out. We don’t think of or treat him as a “brand.” He’s still our goofy little cat, and he’s as busy as he ever was just doing his regular “cat stuff,” so I don’t think he’s noticed much difference in his day-to-day life.
How has the publication of Homer’s Odyssey changed your life, and how has it helped you and your family, two-footed and four-footed, get through the difficult year that followed its publication?
It really has been a difficult year! My husband lost his job a few months after Homer’s Odyssey was published, and then our cat Vashti was diagnosed with chronic renal failure, which required a lot of very intensive — and very expensive — treatment.
So, in that sense, the money I’ve earned from the book has been a welcome relief. We’re not getting rich, exactly; but we’re staying afloat — which is a lot more than a lot of writers married to other writers (Laurence [Lerman] is a writer, too) are able to say these days. We know how lucky we’ve been, and we’re grateful.
Other than that, though, I don’t know that our everyday lives have changed very much. My husband and I continue to work from home, as we did before the book was published. I have the security of knowing that I’ll get to write another book after this one, which wasn’t something I knew for sure before Homer came out. But, of course, I can’t take it for granted that I’ll get to write another book after that. Eighteen months ago, I woke up every morning with the knowledge that I had to prove myself as a writer and fight to build my career every single day. And I still wake up with that knowledge — that’s something that hasn’t changed much at all.
Did the intensity of the reader response to Homer’s Odyssey surprise you? What has surprised you most about the attagirls from Homer Nation?
People keep trying to get me to tell “crazy cat lady” stories! And I always have to say, “I’m the wrong person to ask — I mean, I wrote an entire book about my cats! Who am I to judge what’s ‘crazy’?” So I’ll just say that, on the one hand, any reader response is always a bit of a surprise to a writer, insofar as your book has been just a Word document in your computer for so long — so to have it out there and have people responding is always a new and strange feeling. But, on the other hand, what you daydream about as you’re writing the book is people someday telling you how much your book has meant to them. So, in that sense, it feels less like a surprise and more like what you were imagining for yourself the whole time.
You made your first ever visit to Blind Cat Rescue and Sanctuary — a no cage, no kill animal shelter in St. Pauls, NC — on September 18th before coming to Raleigh for a book reading and signing session at Quail Ridge Books and Music. How did Blind Cat Rescue become a beneficiary of 10 percent of your royalties from Homer’s Odyssey?
Back in 2007, I took the proposal for Homer’s Odyssey to my then-agent. He read it and said, “But nobody’s going to want to read this.” I really believed in the potential of this book, but I also didn’t want to be the kind of writer who refuses all advice from industry experts and then feels incredibly persecuted when they aren’t successful. So my dilemma, in a nutshell, was: Do I get a new project or a new agent?
I Googled “blind cats,” looking for some kind of information or feedback that might help me decide, and one of the first hits that came up was Blind Cat Rescue. I picked up the phone and called Alana Miller, BCR’s director, and we had a long talk. Alana is very passionate about the plight of blind cats, obviously, and she convinced me that “success” for a book like this should be defined more in terms of persuading other people to take an interest in blind cats, rather than just in terms of copies sold. The next day, I started looking for a new agent.
So, Alana was really the one who talked me back into writing Homer. And I made myself a mental promise at the time that if the proposal did end up becoming a book, and if the book did end up becoming successful, I would remember Alana and Blind Cat Rescue. That was one promise to myself that it was an absolute thrill to be able to keep!
How was your trip to North Carolina?
It was a wonderful trip. It was so great to finally get to meet Alana and the blind kitties in person. So many of the cats at Blind Cat Rescue have such sad stories behind how they ended up blind and in a shelter, and it was just amazing to see how happy, playful, and affectionate the overwhelming majority of them were. It’s a huge testament to the work Alana and her volunteers do.
What, if anything, surprised you about your visit to Blind Cat Rescue in St. Pauls and subsequent book reading in Raleigh?
It was definitely an odd sensation to walk into Blind Cat Rescue and see so many cats who looked so much like Homer! Homer is very unusual looking because of his eyelessness, but suddenly I was in a room where he would have been practically run-of-the-mill.
The huge turnout at the reading at Quail Ridge Books was also a bit of a surprise. I hadn’t expected quite as much hoopla at a book reading!
Has the fervor that Homer’s Odyssey inspires in its readers been much more than you expected?
I didn’t really have any expectations one way or the other. I certainly hoped that the book would resonate with its audience, but I never counted on it. It’s been incredibly gratifying to see how much people have connected with Homer and his story.
Will there be a sequel to Homer’s Odyssey? How about a movie?
I can’t imagine a sequel at this point, insofar as it took 12 years to come up with the material for the first book! I’m not sure I’d have enough material for a second book — although the paperback contains a new Afterword, which catches readers up on the changes in our lives since Homer’s Odyssey first came out.
As for a movie adaptation, I’d love to see somebody like Dreamworks create an animated version. Mostly, after all these years, I’d just love to finally hear Homer talk!
How does it feel to be known primarily as Homer’s mom?
Well, it’s not like I was already so widely known for anything else! Honestly, though, the people I interact with on an everyday basis — from my husband and our friends to the cashier we see three times a week at our neighborhood grocery store — still think of me as the same old me they’ve always known. So, it’s not like everywhere I go, people are just besieging me with questions about Homer. It’s mostly when I give readings or interviews where suddenly I’m primarily known as “Homer’s mom” — but, in fairness, what else should readers of the book know me as?
SECOND OPINION: Sept. 17, 2010 Raleigh, NC News & Observer article by Brooke Cain: http://www.newsobserver.com/2010/09/17/683691/what-you-can-learn-from-a-cat.html and Dec. 27, 2009 review by Robert W. McDowell: http://www.newsobserver.com/2009/12/27/254608/a-blind-cat-brings-insight.html. Aug. 25, 2009 “The Diane Rehm Show” interview: http://thedianerehmshow.org/audio-player?nid=859.
The Book: http://www.gwencooper.com/ (Gwen Cooper’s website), http://www.randomhouse.com/catalog/display.pperl/display.pperl?isbn=9780385343855 (Random House hardback), and http://www.randomhouse.com/catalog/display.pperl?isbn=9780385343985 (Random House paperback). Excerpt (Chapter One): http://www.randomhouse.com/catalog/display.pperl/display.pperl?isbn=9780385343855&view=excerpt (Random House). “Mucho Gato” (a.k.a. “Night of the Hunter”: http://open.salon.com/blog/gwen_cooper/2008/10/01/night_of_the_hunter (Gwen Cooper’s Open Salon blog). Reader’s Guide: http://www.randomhouse.com/catalog/display.pperl/display.pperl?isbn=9780385343855&view=rg (Random House). The Author: http://www.gwencooper.com/ (official website), and http://gwencooper.com/blog.php (her website blog), and http://open.salon.com/blog/gwen_cooper (her Open Salon blog). Video of Gwen and Homer: http://www.randomhouse.com/catalog/display.pperl?isbn=9780385343985&view=vidembed (Random House).
Alana Miller Interview
The fortuitous telephone call from author Gwen Cooper to Blind Cat Rescue and Sanctuary, Inc. founder Alana Miller started a chain of events that that has helped gain national attention for the St. Pauls, NC-based no-cage, no-kill animal shelter. Not only has Cooper donated $10,000 from her domestic royalties from Homer’s Odyssey to Blind Cat Rescue, but the shelter recently won third place and a $2,000 grant in the Animal Rescue Site’s $100,000 Holiday Shelter+ Challenge, co-sponsored with Petfinder.com. A new $300,000 Shelter+ Challenge will begin on Jan. 11, 2011. Fans of Homer’s Odyssey and Blind Cat Rescue can click this link daily to vote for Blind Cat Rescue: http://www.theanimalrescuesite.com/clickToGive/shelterchallenge.faces?siteId=3. — R.W.M.
Triangle Arts & Entertainment: What inspired you to establish Blind Cat Rescue? Were you the owner of a blind cat?
Alana Miller: I was volunteering for a local no kill shelter and working at PetSmart® when a man brought a very sick kitten in trying to get the shelter to take him. The shelter would not take him, so the man threatened to drop this little six-week-old kitten off in the parking lot.
At that point, I said give me the cat. Louie (http://blindcatrescue.com/Louie.html) had a horrific eye infection that took his eyes. He taught me that blind cats have no idea that they are blind, they just know they are cats.
Fast forward a year later, the shelter calls me with another blind cat looking for a home, that would be Bennie (http://blindcatrescue.com/Bennie.html). One of my jobs for the shelter was to go out to the animal control centers to transfer animals that we thought we could find homes for, Dunn AC [Animal Contro;] had one there (http://blindcatrescue.com/Julie.html)
Fast forward a few years, my husband passed away, and I bought a farm in Robeson County. I discovered more blind cats needing homes; and thus Blind Cat Rescue was born.
How unusual is it to have a shelter that serves blind cats or other animals with handicaps?
I do not think there are lots of us, but they do exist.
Are there any similar shelters in North Carolina?
The Magoo Room [in Grimesland, near Greenville, NC, http://www.themagooroom.org/] is also a blind cat rescue. I am not aware of any more that specialize in blind cats. (They may be there, but I am not aware of them.) But I do know there are some that take handicapped animals.
Why have you made it so hard to find your street address on your website?
People drop animals off at the gates of animal shelters all the time. The shelter I volunteered for would find animals at the gate almost daily. I do not want that to happen here; we are in a very, very poor economic area.
When did Blind Cat Rescue open, and how many cats and how many volunteers did you have then?
We incorporated in 2005 and we only have a few volunteers; we need more very much!
How has the shelter grown over the years?
We built a large building and paid cash for it! I think that is amazing accomplishment in just a few years!
How important has the shelter’s association with Homer’s Odyssey author Gwen Cooper to raising its name recognition and fueling it’s growth?
We have received some donations that have indicated they found out about us in her book, and we have had new fans on Facebook that found us from her.
What changes and improvements will Cooper’s recent $10,000 donation fund?
It is in the bank, and we will use it towards our second building for cats that are FEL/FIV+ [i.e., test positive for Feline Leukemia Virus and Feline Immunodeficiency Virus].
What are Blind Cat Rescue’s biggest needs, going forward?
Volunteers, Volunteers, Volunteers.
Blind Cat Rescue and Sanctuary, Inc.: http://www.blindcatrescue.com/ (official website), http://blindcatrescue.com/Donate.html (donations page), and http://blindcatrescue.com/Wishlist.html (“wish list”).
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