An Interview with Constance Wilson: Christmas Cats Encounter Bats !
1) Constance, can you tell us a bit about yourself and your background?
I am a retired teacher and professor of both writing and literature at 6 IA/IL colleges and was the founder and CEO of the 2nd Sylvan Learning Center in the state of Iowa, as well as of the Prometric Testing Center. I attended the University of Iowa, as well as Berkeley, WIU, NIU and the University of Chicago. I also taught junior high school students for close to 20 years and wrote a book on education for Performance Learning Systems, Inc. that was published in 1989. To date, I’ve written about 28 books, but the Christmas Cats series is the series I do for and with my twin granddaughters, who are five.
2) Now what prompted you to write this particular Christmas book ?
When my granddaughters were born in 2009, I dusted off a book in progress that pre-dated their arrival on the scene. The first book wasn’t published until 2011. Originally, the first book was the result of my discovery that the young man my daughter Stacey was then dating (Andrew Weinert) was a budding artist.
Andy had grown up in Silvis, Illinois, where I taught for close to 20 years. I happened to ask him what his mother’s maiden name was.
He said, “Rita.” There aren’t many young girls named Rita today, so I soon learned that his mother was one of the brightest students I had the pleasure to teach and I asked to see some of Andy’s drawings, which I found quite charming in a Grandma Moses manner. Plus, Andy was full of good, creative ideas and input.
I promised Andy that if he’d draw the pictures of cats in silly hats, I’d make sure the book saw the light of day.
Keep in mind: Andy was then only 16 years old.
My daughter had just adopted an abandoned kitty (Lucy) from our ravine, and the addition of the new kitten to a household that already had a cat-in-residence (Kitty Kelly) was causing all kinds of fights.
From that, the theme of trying to learn to cooperate with others was born for Book #1 (“The Christmas Cats in Silly Hats”) when I dusted off the project in 2010 to give the girls a book for a Christmas present in 2011. There was a problem getting it out at the time Andy did the original drawings, because Author House, who required that I send them all the original drawings, promptly lost them. [They also lost my name on the website they took out when the person making the arrangements quit. It took me 10 years to get it back, during which it had some interesting tennants on MY full name.]
I had scanned the sketches into my computer before sending them off to what appeared to be oblivion and now—some 5 or 6 years after the fact—I asked my layout person (then Donnie Light of Rockford, IL) if he could do anything with the scans in my computer. Donnie thought he could and he did, but NOW, in 2011, I wanted the theme to encourage my 3-year-old granddaughters to play nicely together (one had just bitten the other on the nose!).
Each book since then has had a similar good lesson for children, as the Christmas Cats in Silly Hats go about doing good deeds to help other animals, animals which the twins help me select.
So, the theme of “The Christmas Cats in Silly Hats” was resurrected, but a second artist—the girls’ nanny, Emily Marquez (now Vlcek) from Venezuela—offered to help me turn the children’s book into a book with a good moral for youngsters. So, the first book, the inspiration, you might say, was really a protracted, experience of me wanting to live up to my promise to Andy that THIS BOOK WILL SEE THE LIGHT OF DAY. I didn’t know how, as I wasn’t a publisher and I had never done anything but write. The first in the series is still a charming book, although, as you have noted, the illustrator is now the professional from Rhode Island, Gary McCluskey. [Andy went on to secure a graduate degree in graphic design from Northern Illinois University, but he was unavailable when I decided to continue the series, so I had to find someone else to continue the adventures of The Christmas Cats in Silly Hats and I couldn’t be happier with Gary McCluskey’s work]. But kudos to the high school boy who contributed such great ideas to the original book. I’ve always liked the page where Andy drew a cat in a chef’s hat with the message “KISS THE CHEF” on his apron crossed out to read “KISS THE CAT.”
3) What are some of the attitudes and values that you want to promote?
The first book addressed the need to cooperate with others. The second book stressed being tolerant and avoiding prejudice. (“It’s best to be open and trusting and kind, and always to keep an open mind.”) This year’s third book, “The Christmas Cats Encounter Bats” tries to emphasize the value that all life—even that of creatures that, on the surface, seem icky or scary— has value and meaning.
Bats actually do a lot of good in our ecological system, but are not given credit for this. Bats are often vilified and almost always viewed as scary and threatening. The Christmas Cats are always trying to help an endangered animal, which the girls and I select. And, through the sale of the books, last year they helped adopt-an-animal financially.
Next year, it will be deer that the cats will assist, because, in Scott County (Iowa), the county grants hunters the right to shoot deer within the city limits. I think we are one of just a handful of places that this occurs with permission from the city fathers. The Scott County Park has a golf course and the deer nibble the bark on the trees. Long story short, next Christmas the Christmas Cats in Silly Hats will try to help save the deer in Scott County Park, [which sounds a little bit like “Saving Bambi.”]
4) Why does Christmas always seem to bring out the best in people ?
Christmas is Christ’s birthday, so that may be one answer. It is also a time to take stock and treasure what we have and to get together with our family members and share that bond. There are a lot of good deeds done during the Christmas season. Some of the proceeds of my book went to the adopt-a-pet program run through a local pet store chain.
5) There is a theme of sorts running thru the book- can you tell us about it ?
The theme of “The Christmas Cats Encounter Bats” is that all life has value and should be treasured. Just because an animal is not a cute, cuddly puppy or kitty, that doesn’t mean we shouldn’t respect life in all its forms. All three books have had a “moral” or message for young readers aged 3-10. That’s considered “old-fashioned” in today’s book market, where we have books like Jay Leno’s book about a flying pot roast, but I consider it a good sign that at least 2 Catholic schools (and, hopefully, some others, in the future) have taken note of the books’ messages about being good citizens, behaving well and helping others. One local school (Lourdes in Davenport, Iowa) even went so far as to organize an entire art unit around the rats in Book Two, which was recently named one of the Best Books of 2014 published by a Chicago author. I heard that the children liked to pick a rat, name it, and follow it from page-to-page in the text. And, this year, with the Cats encountering bats, children can go to the website for the book (www.TheXmasCats.com) and download FREE coloring book pages run from all 3 books. There are also mazes and we are encouraging young readers to send us their artwork for the site, too.
6) I hear that you have done some recent book signings- How was that event?
Actually, I have not yet started to promote the book in signings, but my schedule is up on my blog at www.WeeklyWilson.com and it involves over 10 appearances in a very short window of time (sometimes 2 or 3 a day), with and without a costumed cat, and culminating with me flying to New Orleans to take part in a Writers’ Benefit for New Orleans (Dec. 19-21), which attempts to give back to the battered city of New Orleans after Hurricane Katrina.
The book is available on Amazon and also has a Kindle title there, which is only 99 cents. It’s a great book for kids for the holiday(s) and I hope that interested folks in the area will come see me (us, if the Cat is with me) at the various independent bookstores, parades, celebrations, and Christmas Walks in this Quad Cities’ area.
I’ll be with the cat at Freddy Fritters Dog Bakery in the Village of East Davenport, which is always a hoot; the line usually goes out the door to have a picture taken (for free) with the cat. The cat also appears with me at Razzleberries in LeClaire, Iowa, where the store owner, Mary Chambers, has a Store Cat in residence, and we will also be in the window of the Four Seasons in Geneseo during their Victorian Christmas Walk on Dec. 13th. Last year, I had a Cocoa and Carols with the Cats event, but I’ve run out of time, this year, because of the New Orleans trip.
7 ) Your poetry is simply grand. Have you written any other books using poetry?
Thank you for that compliment. I consider my poetry to be pretty average— doggerel, at best. One critic said I was no Dr. Seuss because I hadn’t made up any new words, so I’m considering using “pasghetti” for a book of the future, since my son created that word when he was about 2 (for spaghetti). I have one friend who said to me, “You’ll do anything for a rhyme, won’t you?” commenting on my use of the word “rent” to mean a torn spot in the ceiling in this book. I laughed because “rent” DOES mean “torn”, in some usages.
I did write a lot of poetry when I was the Editor-in-Chief of my high school newspaper. If it was a holiday, I’d be “on call” to provide an appropriately themed poem. I’ve written some poetry for my own enjoyment and I did put some more serious poems in my very first self-published book, “Both Sides Now,”—which also, oddly enough, has my lasagna recipe smack dab in the middle of the book. (Otherwise, my daughter will never be able to find it again).
I don’t consider myself much of a poet. I give full credit for the book’s quality to the wonderful illustrations from Gary McCluskey ,who has been great to work with, but I do have the equivalent of a PhD in English Literature and I did always enjoy, especially, Emily Dickinson, Edna St. Vincent Millay and t.s. eliot, as well as some of the poets from the Age of Dryden and Pope.
That last class was so boring that I would skip ahead to poems in the book like “To His Coy Mistress” (Andrew Marvell) to stay awake, since I had just taught 7th and 8th graders ALL DAY and now I was in class from 5 p.m. until 9 p.m at the Quad City Graduate Center to obtain graduate hours to finish my Master’s degree. I did that three nights a week (with a 2-year-old at home) and in summer school for about 3 years, as I had completed half of my Master’s while on campus at Iowa before getting married 47 years ago. I think I had more energy then than I do now. (ha!)
I also used to dig my wedding ring point into my hand, to make sure I didn’t nod off in class. Now, I mainly do that only at the dentist’s (“alternative pain to distract”). So, the poetry from some of the Old Masters—and we could include Robert Frost, Wadsworth, Browning, Yeats, Donne,,et. al—-may have made me slightly more appreciative of a rhyming sentiment than if I weren’t a retired English teacher with 150 teacher years in her immediate family.
I’m not likely to begin turning out poetry full-time, but I enjoy emulating Dr. Seuss with the Christmas Cats series for readers aged 3-10, and, as long as an artist as good as Gary McCluskey will work with me to make my words come alive, I’ll keep it up. After all, the girls are only 5 and I think the age range extends to about 10.
7) Where can parents, grandparents and friends get a copy of the book ? ( it might may a good Christmas gift! )
For most readers, you will need to look for the books on Amazon (“The Christmas Cats Encounter Bats”). They might enjoy all 3, as a set.
You will find that I have much more adult fare available, as well, as I write a novel series and a short story series that could best be described as Thriller. Comparisons are usually to Philip K. Dick, Stephen King or Dean Koontz, so they are nothing like the wholesome antics of the Christmas Cats and, therefore, I used my first legal name of Constance, rather than Connie, on the kids’ books.
If you are in the Quad Cities area, you can go to either Book Rack store or to Book World in Moline, Illinois, and I am happy that Book World in West Bend, Wisconsin will carry this year’s book, as well. Hopefully, a few more independent bookstores will come aboard as I get the word out about the book.
8) The book is wonderfully illustrated- who did the illustrations?
The second and third books were illustrated by Rhode Island artist Gary McCluskey. The very first book was Andrew Weinert, assisted by Emily Marquez Vlcek. The books are “The Christmas Cats in Silly Hats” (Book #1); “The Christmas Cats Chase Christmas Rats” (Book #2) and “The Christmas Cats Encounter Bats” (Book #3). Gary also does greeting cards. He is a truly talented individual with a good, whimsical sense of humor that helps when I make a suggestion. Some ideas are all Gary and some I describe to him to realize, but ALL the credit for darling drawings goes to Gary.
9 ) What have I neglected to ask?
Well, (although you would have no reason to ask this), I would add that the Amazon page for Connie Corcoran Wilson will show an award-winning YA Supernatural novel series entitled “The Color of Evil” (www.TheColorOfEvil.com) and a short story series entitled “Hellfire & Damnation” (www.HellfireAndDamnationTheBook.com) that is organized around Dante’s “Inferno” and the 9 Circles of Hell described in that classic.
Each short story illustrates one of the crimes or sins punished at each of those levels and I will be ready to release Book #3 in the short story series at the end of February. As for the novel series, it already has 3 entries, “The Color of Evil,” (www.TheColorOfEvil.com) “Red Is for Rage,” (www.RedIsforRage.com) and “Khaki-Killer.” (www.KhakiEqualsKiller.com).
Then, each year, I do a fourth book on a random topic. One year, it was a humor book (“Laughing through LIfe”). One year, it was about my years spent as a movie reviewer from 1970-1979, entitled “It Came from the 70s: From The Godfather to Apocalypse Now” (50 films, 76 photos, interactive trivia www.ItCamefromTheSeventies.com), and the next random topic will be about how a retired English teacher happened to pick up her camera and cover 3 presidential elections, starting with the Iowa caucuses in 2004, but focusing on the year that Yahoo named me its Content Producer of the Year for Politics (2008, 2 million hits) as I covered Obama’s successful first run for the White House. It’s quite a story, but, right now, The Christmas Cats are my main priority.
People can check out my far-ranging interests on www.ConnieCWilson.com and, also, @Connie_C_Wilson on Twitter, on my blog, www.WeeklyWilson.com and on Pinterest and Facebook as Connie Corcoran Wilson. Thank you for your interest. If you check out my boards on Pinterest, you’ll see some very famous people I’ve interviewed (often during the Chicago Film Festival), and my following of politics has yielded some interesting pictures, too, many of which I will feature in “Obama’s Odyssey: The 2008 Presidential Race.”