Waffles With Writers

Waffles with Writers: Cathy Ballou Mealey

Yummers!

Welcome to the latest installment of my sort-of-semi-regular bloggy interview show, Waffles with Writers, where I chat with a working writer over a waffle-based breakfast.

Today’s guest is the lovely and talented Cathy Ballou Mealey, whose debut picture book, When a Tree Grows just hit store shelves. Cathy is also a big fan of wee rodents—and, as most of you know, I am a big fan of big fans of wee rodents.

“Oh, hai! Gimmie peanut.” One of Cathy’s backyard buddies.

Cathy! Welcome! I just put breakfast on the table. How do you like your waffles?

Hi Mike! Thanks for inviting me. I like my waffles with real maple syrup, butter and a side of fresh raspberries please.

Since you live so close to the Marshmallow Fluff factory, I thought you’d prefer a Fluffernutter waffle sandwich. I have all the fixin’s if you change your mind…

I’d never say never, but eating that super-sticky Fluff would make the rest of this interview sound like “Mmwuff fuwmpf phampumf.” Maybe later.

So be it. First off, I love When A Tree Grows! It’s fun and funny and the plot moves forward in cheerfully unexpected directions. How did this story come about? What inspired it?

Thanks! I’m really happy that you found Moose and Squirrel’s antics funny!

A few years ago I was out in the woods, enjoying a nature hike with my family when we heard a distant, creaky Crash! Was it a falling tree? An animal? We froze, listened, and after a long silence, hiked on. I began to wonder: What if that crash had scared a bear or frightened a deer?

Building on that “OR” question, I framed a wacky story with two different possible outcomes, one rather expected and one funny, unexpected outcome. Readers will find that “OR” spotlighted on the bottom corner of each page with a clever curled paper art effect.

When A Tree Grows features a precocious squirrel. I know that you are a pro-rodent (prodent) writer. Were you always a fan of the little critters, or did your rodent fandom arrive later in life? 

Definitely a prodent fan for life. My first all-my-own pet was a guinea pig named Brownie. Yep, I came up with that super creative name all by my five-year-old self. He was a charmer. Brownie was followed by a second piggie, Eliza Jane, and a repetitive sequence of hamsters. These days I am befriending the wild squirrels in my yard with tempting peanut snacks so they will pose for my camera.

From left: Cathy, Brownie.

Your story also stars a moose. A moose and a squirrel, eh? Bullwinkle fan?

Of course! And Fractured Fairy Tales cartoons. I also like the visual/logical challenge of pairing two creatures with mismatched proportions. That naturally lends itself to picture book hilarity, much like the GINORMOUS guinea pig in Everybody’s Favorite Book.

Aw! Look at you, plugging my picture book! This is why we’re such good friends. But let’s get back to talking about you. I’m always interested in kid lit writers’ childhoods. What was the young Cathy like?

I am so glad that you are asking me and not my older brother. I was a perfect angel and my parents’ favorite child.

When did you first have the desire to write?

As a kid I loved to write and illustrate greeting cards, so my earliest efforts were short and to the point. I also wrote scripts for Muppet-like puppet shows, assigning the best roles to myself of course. When writing lost its luster as school assignments piled up, I stopped scribbling for pleasure.

As an adult, I drafted my first picture book manuscript for the Cheerios “Spoonfuls of Stories” contest. Even though “Ozzie the Oyster” was definitely not ready for publication, my prize was discovering a passion for the craft of picture book writing

You dedicated the book to your “astute forester” father and “elegant correspondent” mother. This intrigued me. Can you tell me a little bit about your folks?

They are enthusiastic supporters and paid for my first SCBWI membership, so it was a natural choice to dedicate the book to them. My dad, at age 89, still cuts, splits, and stacks the wood used to heat their house. Thus, Moose made a tree-crackingly excellent tribute to Dad’s arboreal skills. My mom attended secretarial school and has the most Palmer-method perfect, beautiful penmanship and shorthand. Like Squirrel, when she sets pen to paper her encouraging messages are irresistible and instantly recognizable.

Cathy’s father. He likes chopping wood apparently.

You have two not-so-little ones. What role do they play in your writing/critiquing process? 

My teens are too deeply into teendom to attend well to their mama’s picture book shenanigans. The youngest used to illustrate my stories when she was still at the crayon and marker stage. Alas, recent family contributions tend to be the type familiar to most of us: “You know what you should write your next book about? [Insert idea here.]” To which I always respond, “Great idea. YOU should write that book!”

Thanks so much for coming by, Cathy! One last question: If you could be reincarnated as a rodent, what kind of rodent would you be?

I live with a deep-seated insecurity that I would like to resolve by being reincarnated as a river otter. Doesn’t everyone love a river otter?

Well, sure, but…

OK, that’s not technically a rodent. But I am not always a rule-follower, and I am sure that otters and rodents of all sorts would be good friends. And would share their Fluffernutter waffles. “Mmwuff fuwmpf phampumf!”

 

On Writing

Final Curtain

This is an old post that I removed from my blog after selling it to an anthology.

Now that the anthology is out of print, it’s time to bring it back. The message is important, I think. Plus it’s fun!

***

About 20 years ago, long before I became a children’s book author, I wrote for the stage. I found a little success soon after graduating from college, getting a number of my short plays produced in New York. The theatres were all small (79- to 99-seaters) and not in the best part of town, but I was ecstatic. Almost every weekend I was somewhere on 10th or 11th Avenue attending a rehearsal or seeing a show. I felt important, or, if not exactly important, busy enough to convince myself that I was on the cusp of importance.

And I was right to think this; for one day I was contacted by an artistic director. I won’t say which company this artistic director worked for, but it was a good one, a prestigious one. The theatre space they performed in was small—but not the same kind of small I was used to. The theatres I wrote for had difficulty filling the house. Sometimes the number of cast and crew exceeded the number of people in the audience.

This theatre, on the other hand, was not acquainted with half-filled houses. This theatre was small because it was exclusive. Its shows sold out. It advertised its plays in actual newspapers. Its stage was beautiful. This was the real deal.

The artistic director invited me to submit a script. The request could not have come at a better time; I was just putting the finishing touches on a 40-minute one-act titled Exacta Men that I knew would be a good fit for that stage. I mailed it off and then began my negotiations with God.

“What sins can I jettison to make this deal happen?” I asked Him. “How about if I stop saying the F-word? Would that work?”

My bargaining worked. Mr. Artistic Director liked what he saw and soon set up a backers’ meeting. A backers’ meeting, for those who don’t know (and at that time I sure didn’t), is an event where actors read a promising script to an audience of Rich People. If the Rich People like what they hear, they hand over money to Make The Play Happen.

The meeting was arranged in a comfortable and well-appointed office space in Midtown Manhattan with windows that proffered views of the Chrysler Building.

I approved. I like Midtown office buildings. I like the Chrysler Building. I like being in rooms filled with Rich People. Oh, yes, all of this suited me just fine.

There were several plays up for consideration that evening and Exacta Men was the first one to be read. Mr. Artistic Director got the Rich People settled into their chairs. He found me sitting in the front row, made me stand up, and introduced me to the crowd as “Michael James Allegra The Author Of The First Play We Are About To See This Evening.”

Let me digress for a moment to say that I really dislike such pre-play introductions. I don’t know how to respond to them; the audience doesn’t either. The audience hasn’t yet heard the script, so it doesn’t know whether to applaud or throw tomatoes. So they usually just stare at you—and that’s what this one did.

Believe me, that stare is excruciating.

“Would you like to discuss your play, Michael?” The Artistic Director asked.

I would’ve replied “F*** no,” but I had recently negotiated the F-word out of my vocabulary. So I shook my head and sat back down.

The reading began. The Rich People took to Exacta Men instantly. They were engaged. They were laughing in all the right places. I was very pleased with myself.

But things were about to take a turn.

Exacta Men is about three 20-somethings who have a guys-night-out tradition of going to the racetrack to bet on the horses. One of the men, however, named Sean, has upset the natural order of things by inviting his new girlfriend, Marla, along. The other two guys, Jim and Carl, are none too pleased with this new development. So, as soon as Sean and Marla are out of earshot, Carl starts grumping.

 

CARL

Why would anybody take a girl to the track on a date?

 

JIM

It’s not much of a date.

 

CARL

Exactly.

(He stews over this a moment. Then:)

First he blows us off for, like, what? Two months?

 

JIM

Couldn’t be two months.

 

CARL

I’ll bet it’s two. I’ll bet it is. And then when he starts to hang out with us again, he brings this girl along.

 

And then Carl says this:

 

And she’s pretty uppity for a chick who isn’t all that good looking.

 

As a writer, I liked this line because it does some heavy lifting in establishing Carl’s character. It illustrated Carl’s views toward Marla in particular and women in general. In short, it showed that Carl was a pig. Everything Carl said up to this point suggested this, but that line drove the point home. It was also supposed to be a laugh line. A line where you could laugh at Carl.

When the line came out, however, the audience gasped. The gasp was so long, so loud, and so violent, it frightened me.

I leaned over to my friend, Bill, who had accompanied me on this particular jaunt, and whispered, “I just lost the whole room.”

“No,” he whispered back, but Bill was not a theatre person. He wasn’t attuned to these things.

From that gasp onward, the audience sat in stony, arm-folded silence.

The reality of my situation could not have been more crystal clear. We were three minutes into my 40-minute play—and everyone in that room had every intention of hating the remaining 37 minutes of it. Carl’s line gave them permission to hate it. And they hated me for writing it. And they knew what I looked like. And they knew where I was siting. I was in the front row. Oh, why did I have to sit in the front row?

Then an idea popped into my head that almost made me vomit: “What if,” I thought, “these Rich People think I agree with Carl’s views?”

My head pounded. My stomach churned. I could feel Rich-Person Hatred burrowing into the back of my sweaty neck. Rich-Person-Back-Of-The-Neck Hatred is sharp, jackhammer-y, and fire poker hot.

At one point I was nearly overcome with the urge to yell, “I’m not like Carl! I want you to laugh at him! Let us mock him together! HAHAHA! What a dweeb he is!”

At another point I came up with the slightly more pragmatic idea of popping out of my chair to announce, “And then entire cast got trampled to death by a racehorse! The END!”

But I did neither of those things. I just sat there and soaked up the blurbling bile.

After several lifetimes, my play ended. I made a beeline for Mr. Artistic Director (who looked like he just witnessed a murder, and, in a way, he had), thanked him for the opportunity, and strode with great purpose to the exit.

“They didn’t seem to like it much,” Bill observed after the elevator doors closed behind us.

I then reneged on my agreement with God and used variations of a certain F-word to commend Bill on his acute powers of observation.

That evening was the most awful experience of my writing life—but I did take something valuable from it. It proved to me once and for all that I was supposed to do this writing thing for a living.

Big Honking Failures, I think, separate the wannabes from the gonnabes.

Up until that reading, I had nothing but success in my writing life. My successes were very modest, but they were still successes. It was easy to keep plugging along. I was getting positive feedback from actors and audiences. I was getting produced and having fun.

That reading on the other hand, shook me to my core. After that night, I could’ve walked away from writing forever and I don’t think anyone would’ve blamed me for doing so.

But I didn’t.

Don’t get me wrong, I needed time to lick my wounds. And for years afterwards, whenever my mind flashed back to that night, my body turned on the flop sweat machine as if it was happening all over again. But I still wrote. Writing became a kind of therapy, I think. It was me saying, “My career is not going to end this way.”

Exacta Men eventually became a two-act play, titled Rebounders. Rebounders fared far better than its predecessor. Three years after my Exacta Men backers’ meeting, Rebounders won a fellowship from the New Jersey State Council on the Arts. It’s been performed in front audiences, too, and those audiences laugh at Carl rather than hate my guts. I prefer this.

Big Honking Failures happen. You can’t always avoid them, but you can keep them from destroying you. And when that Big Honking Failure does arrive, take my advice: Be sure to have a few F-bombs at your disposal. Trust me; you’re gonna need ’em.

Book News

April 4 – World Rat Day & Guest Post by Mike Allegra

 

Today is World Rat Day!

To celebrate, I’m guest posting over at Celebrate Picture Books. Head on over, read my post, and enter for a chance to win my new, prodent-est picture book: Scampers Thinks Like a Scientist!

About the Holiday

In 2002 Robyn Archer and James Kitlock thought people should take another look at rats and recognize them for their endearing traits. They established World Rat Day to celebrate these rodents and promote the adoption of Fancy Rats as pets. Clean, smart, and devoted, Fancy Rats are beloved by many. How can you celebrate today? Why not hold a Rat Day party, read a book or watch a movie starring a rat, or if you’re looking for a new pet, check out your local shelter for these furry friends. To learn more about World Rat Day, visit the official website!

The Reliable Rodent

Guest Post by Mike Allegra

Anyone who knows me, knows that I am pro-rodent (or, as I prefer, “prodent”).

In elementary school, I took care of two four-legged gerbils and one three-legged gerbil. (The three-legged one was much faster than the four-leggers, by…

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