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

A Natural Cure

I saw what you did to that cat and, well, I just wanted to thank you. I also want a peanut.

I love the idea of sitting in an Adirondack chair on a sunny day with a pad and a pen. There’s something so romantic, so wonderful about writing in nature.  So, once in a while, I give it a try.

And then the pollen goes up my nose. And the bugs bite. And the sun get too hot and my hands get sweaty, and, since I’m a lefty, I smear the ink with my sweaty hand – which is not such a big deal because I’m not writing anything worth keeping anyway, because every time a leaf crinkles, I look up in eager anticipation of finding that feral cat that I oh, so wanna hit with a rock because NO ONE menaces my squirrels without hearing from me, buddy!

Ahem.

So I guess what I’m saying is that, when I try to write in it, nature distracts and annoys me.

Otherwise nature and I have no real problems. It often delights me. When the weather is right, I could stand around in nature all day interacting with it in the most genial and stupid ways. For example, the other day I caught myself waving at a squirrel. He didn’t wave back – that would be asking too much, I suppose – but he did seem to take the gesture in the spirit in which it was given and that pleased me no end.

Better still, I have discoverd that actions such as these improve my writing.

I have the bad habit of chaining myself to my desk. Even when my brain refuses to work, I stay put. In general this could be defined as good self-discipline. You can’t just sit around and wait for the muse, after all. It never shows up when you want it to. Since the words aren’t going to write themselves, I muscle through.

But every writer reaches a point when good self-discipline evolves into something that looks a whole lot more like masochism. Nothing’s gonna come no matter how hard you try.

So I pry myself away and tell myself it’s not procrastination if I deliver myself back to the desk eventually. Then I take a walk and wave at squirrels. Doing so restores my overall sense of well-being. It provides the second wind I need to get back to my awful, awful writing and make something that at least resembles progress.

Better yet, such a walk allows me to pursue my new hobby: feral cat chasing. In the grand scheme of things, saving a squirrel is always more important than a well-written paragraph.