If her books, Cleo and Bono were not enough for you, then indulge in an extra dose of Helen Brown in this interview, as she discusses her books, their unexpected success and how she hopes they can make an impact in her readers’ lives.
Why did you adopt Bono and did you expect him to impact your life in the way he did?
Like every cat in my life, Bono appeared unexpectedly. When my US publisher, Michaela, invited me to New York, she suggested I foster a cat while I was there. I blithely agreed, thinking she’d forget about it. But Michaela is cat crazy, and impossible to budge once her mind is set.
I planned to return Bono to the shelter as soon as decently possible. But it wasn’t long before I identified with this weird-looking feline. We were both feeling a bit rough around the edges and had no idea what the future held.
What prompted you to write Cleo and then after Cleo came Jonah and subsequently Bono?
One of the reasons I wrote Cleo was to repay a debt to the bereaved parents who contacted me after our son Sam was run over and killed at the age of nine. There was no grief counselling back in 1983.Their letters – along with Cleo herself – were the greatest comfort. Through writing Cleo, I hoped to give hope to others suffering loss in the way those wonderful people had helped me.
While writing Cleo, I came down with a touch of breast cancer. After the mastectomy, an insane Siamese called Jonah(after the famous rugby player) erupted into our lives and brought laughter back into the house. Jonah’s 10 years old now, and fine providing we remember to give him his anti-psychotic medication.
Bono’s story emerged from a different phase of life, when I was over the cancer and undergoing a two third’s life crisis. I learnt so much from Bono about resilience and living in the present. Besides, who doesn’t dream of running away to New York?
Did you start writing right away or did it take you a while to finally pick up your pen?
It took 25 years before I felt ready to tell the story of Sam’s death and the healing a small black cat brought to our family. I think I needed the distance of time. Jonah practically wrote his own story. As for Bono, I had no idea he’d end up in a book.
How long did it take you to write each book?
I’m a slow writer. They each took two years.
How was the process of pitching your book for publication? Seeing as it is a tale about a cat, how did you pitch your unique idea?
For Cleo I had enough rejection notes to wallpaper my study. I couldn’t even find an agent. One told me nobody would want to read a book in which a child dies. In the end, I went to a non-fiction writing course and found out about Allen and Un win’s Friday Pitch. You send them a book idea on a Friday, and they’ll let you know the following week if they think it has legs. I was astonished when they contacted me with good news.
The other two books were much easier to find homes for.
What did you want to achieve by putting your thoughts and experience out in this form? What did you hope the book would achieve?
In all three of my cat books, the cat is a metaphor. Cats are a short cut to people’s hearts. I like to remind readers that no matter how hard life gets, there’s always room for laughter and a cuddle or two.
Did you expect your books to receive the amount of recognition they have? Why do you think they have been so well received?
I’m still expecting someone to pinch me. The success has been surreal, particularly at this stage of life. I try to tell my stories simply and with as much honesty as possible, to remind people they’re not alone.
These are quite personal stories. Did you have reservations about letting yourself be so vulnerable by publishing your personal experiences to the world?
My life isn’t unusual. The going gets tough for everyone sooner or later. I don’t think there’s any harm admitting that to others.
The global success of my books has taught me that no matter where they live, or what culture they’re from, people are the same everywhere. We all love our pets, and we’d do anything for our kids. I have no idea why humans waste so much time concentrating on the differences.
What did you gain from the process of putting your thoughts into words?
Story telling is a way of making sense of life. I’m honoured if others find healing in my work.
Do you plan on publishing any more writing?
A much-needed children’s version of Cleo is underway.
What advice would you give to aspiring authors who are working toward getting their words published?
Be a cat. Approach each moment with curiosity.
Learn from rejection. Rejoice in the delete key.
Front up to the blank screen every morning.The first step toward becoming a writer is to write.