Hello, campers —
Before I introduce today’s installment in our guest blog series by hardworking authors about the ins and outs of moving smoothly from one book to the next, let me ask you: is this not one of the best, most mood-evocative book covers you have ever seen?
It is, for those of you reading this in some strange universe in which the Internet does not come with pictures, the cover art for the always-hilarious Bob Tarte‘s latest foray into memoir, Kitty Cornered. I’m going to have a lot to say in praise of Bob — for my money, one of the consistently funniest memoirists working in American English, and certainly one of the best documenters of the wackiness of life — but first, let’s talk about why this is such a tremendously good book cover.
Actually, scratch that, so to speak: before we slide into first, allow me to pause a moment to let you in on how I know for a fact that this is an unusually eye-catching book cover: my 13-year-old neighbor was absolutely riveted by it when he visited the other day. Not only did he instantly pounce upon the book and begin leafing through it — the moment he walked into my library, he made what can only be called a beeline for it.
Actually ran to get his I’m sorry to report grubby paws upon that book. As if it were — sorry, but it must be said — catnip.
Now that’s a cover that does its job, and then some. Kudos to the marketing and art departments at Algonquin Press for a magnificent achievement in a notoriously difficult medium.
Fair warning: if read this book in a public place, be prepared for total strangers to come running up to you and ask what on earth you’re reading. I’ve seen it with my own eyes. If I were planning into, say, a crowded writers’ conference anytime soon and wanted to make some friends fast, I would nonchalantly tote this book under my arm. (Again, well done, Algonquin.)
Why am I so impressed by this cover? Well, you try to come up with a photo that makes that winsome kitty appear intent upon beating Godzilla in a race to stomp on Tokyo. It provides a great twist on the expected. But that’s not the only reason I like it: it’s rare that a cover captures the spirit of the book within this well. That mad-eyed cat, combined with the offbeat lettering, tell the reader pretty plainly that this is going to be — and having read the book, I’m not too afraid of going out on an interpretive limb here — an uproarious memoir about living with a small battalion of marauding cats.
Which, as luck would have it, is precisely what the book is about. Check out the publisher’s blurb:
Bob Tarte had his first encounter with a cat when he was two and a half years old. He should have learned his lesson then, from Fluffy. But as he says,
I listened to my heart instead, and that always leads to trouble.” In this tell-all of how the Tarte household grew from one recalcitrant cat to six — including a hard-to-manage stray named Frannie–Tarte confesses to allowing these interlopers to shape his and his wife’s life, from their dining habits to their sleeping arrangements to the placement and furriness of their furniture.
But more than that, Bob begins seeing Frannie and the other cats as unlikely instructors in the art of achieving contentment, even in the face of illness and injury. Bewitched by the unknowable nature of domesticated cats, he realizes that sometimes wildness and mystery are exactly what he needs.
With the winning humor and uncanny ability to capture the soul of the animal world that made Enslaved by Ducks a success, Tarte shows us that life with animals gives us a way out of our narrow human perspective to glimpse something larger, more enduring, and more grounded in the simplicities of love–and catnip.
Just between us, Bob has a pretty great eye for image composition himself. I would highly encourage those of you interested in marvelous critter pics to check out his Facebook page and/or follow me on Twitter @BobTarte; he posts new bird and beast photos there with charming regularity.
Of course, authors seldom have any direct say over their cover art — you knew that, right? — but they do often provide their author photos. Bob always has superlative ones. Check out his latest:
Bob with Maynard and Frannie
Doesn’t leave you in much doubt about the subject matter of his memoir, does it? Nor does it leave his platform in question: the guy obviously knows cats.
Again, that’s good promotional strategy: what’s more boring than the standard-issue, flatteringly-lit jacket photo? I say hear, hear for author photos that actually make the author look like he might have some real-world experience with his subject matter. And isn’t it a perennial source of astonishment how few author photos actually do?
But all of that is secondary to the purpose of this series: to blandish hardworking, successful authors into sharing their thoughts on something we literary types virtually never talk about amongst ourselves, the difficult task of switching gears — and sometimes authorial voices — between books. That’s a rather strange topic to avoid, from my perspective, because if one is going to be a working author, one presumably will need to tinker with one’s original voice to fit the next story.
Oh. you thought the Voice Fairy stole with little cat feet into writing studios across this fine land of ours, whacking established authors on their august noggins, and twittering, “There, my dear — write away!”
Obviously, that’s not happening — but let’s face it, writers new to writing humor often believe something almost as implausible. They (and, if the author does her job right, her readership) often labor under the mistaken impression that a funny voice pops out of a gifted storyteller as spontaneously as breathing. Or — sacre bleu! — that all a person that’s good at telling amusing anecdotes has to do is provide a transcript of what she might sound like in a bar, and poof! Hilarity ensues.
Cue the Humor Fairy. You’ll find her in the dressing room she shares with the Pathos Pixie, the Dialogue Dervish, and the Opening Grabber Genie.
Mind if I inject a little reality into that fantasy? Yes, a great humorous memoir voice will come across on the page as effortless, but a truly fine, memorable, and in Bob’s case simultaneously side-splitting and deeply honest voice doesn’t happen all by itself. It takes work. And throughout this series, I’m going to be asking authors to be generous and brave enough to talk about that often-difficult process.
I’m particularly delighted to be able to bring you Bob’s thoughts on the process. Not only is he a well-recognized master of spinning a yarn, but he also had to mine his creativity to fine-tune his already quite successful voice to a new breed of story.
And no, I’m not going to cut out the cat puns anytime soon, but thanks for asking.
As tempted as I am to let the cat out of the bag (don’t say I didn’t warn you), far be it from me to stand between a gifted storyteller and his audience. I suspect, though, that what follows will be even more instructive — and even more fun — if I give you a swift guided tour of Bob’s earlier work, on the off chance that some of you have not yet had the opportunity to become familiar with Bob’s work (or perchance missed his earlier guest blogs on developing a unique authorial voice for memoir and dealing with reader expectations).
In that spirit, here’s the publisher’s blurb for his breakthrough memoir, Enslaved By Ducks: How One Man Went from Head of the Household to Bottom of the Pecking Order:
When Bob Tarte left the city of Grand Rapids, Michigan for the country, he was thinking peace and quiet. He’d write his music reviews in the solitude of his rural home on the outskirts of everything.
Then he married Linda. She wanted a rabbit. How much trouble, he thought, could a bunny be?
Well, after the bunny chewed his way through the electrical wires and then hid inside the wall, Bob realized that he had been outwitted. But that was just the beginning. There were parrots, more rabbits, then ducks and African geese. The orphaned turkeys stranded on a nearby road. The abandoned starlings. The sad duck for sale for 25 cents.
Bob suddenly found himself constructing pens, cages, barriers, buying feed, clearing duck waste, spoonfeeding at mealtime. One day he realized that he no longer had a life of quiet serenity, but that he’d become a servant to a relentlessly demanding family: Stanley Sue, a gender-switching African grey parrot; Hector, a cantankerous shoulder-sitting Muscovy duck; Howard, an amorous ring-neck dove; and a motley crew of others. Somehow, against every instinct in him, Bob had unwittingly become their slave.
He read all the classic animal books — The Parrot Who Owns Me, The Dog who Rescues Cats, Arnie the Darling Starling, That Quail Robert, The Cat Who Came for Christmas — about the joys of animals, the touching moments. But none revealed what it was really like to live with an unruly menagerie.
Bob Tarte’s witty account reveals the truth of animal ownership: who really owns who, the complicated logistics of accommodating many species under one roof, the intricate routines that evolve, and ultimately, the distinct and insistent personalities of every animal in the house – and on its perimeter. Writing as someone who’s been ambushed by the way in which animals — even cranky ones — can wend their way into one’s heart, Bob Tarte is James Herriot by way of Bill Bryson.
And here’s the blurb for his second memoir, Fowl Weather:
How Thirty-Nine Animals and a Sock Monkey Took Over My Life
Bob Tarte’s second book, Fowl Weather, returns us to the Michigan house where pandemonium is the governing principle, and where 39 animals rule the roost. But as things seem to spiral out of control, as his parents age and his mother’s grasp on reality loosens as she battles Alzheimer’s disease, Bob unexpectedly finds support from the gaggle of animals around him. They provide, in their irrational fashion, models for how to live.
It is their alien presences, their sense of humor, and their unpredictable behaviors that both drive Bob crazy and paradoxically return him to sanity. Whether it’s the knot-tying African grey parrot, the overweight cat who’s trained Bob to hold her water bowl just above the floor, or the duck who bests Bob in a shoving match, this is the menagerie, along with his endlessly optimistic wife Linda, that teaches him about the chaos that’s a necessary part of life.
No less demanding than the animals are the people who torment Bob and Linda. There’s the master gardener who steps on plants, the pet sitter applicant who never met an animal he didn’t want to butcher, and a woman Bob hasn’t seen since elementary school who suddenly butts into his life.
With the same biting humor and ability to capture the soul of the animal world that made Enslaved by Ducks such a rousing success, Bob Tarte shows us that life with animals gives us a way out of our small human perspectives to glimpse something larger, more enduring, and more wholly grounded in the simplicities of love — even across species lines.
With both of those intriguing premises firmly in mind, let’s see what words of wisdom on strategizing voice are wiggling on the end of the string that’s…I mean, let’s get on with stalking…wait — fireman, what’s that up in that nearby tree?
Oh, I give up. Please join me in welcoming back Bob Tarte!
I had big, fat, goose-size hopes for Enslaved by Ducks back in 2003. In my fantasies, the book would become such a huge honking success that I could spend the rest of my days humming cheerily as I effortlessly churned out sequels.
Unfortunately, I had overestimated the clout of readers who kept ducks as pets. The total population of duck owners in the US probably couldn’t fill a single theater in a shopping mall multiplex. In fact, they probably couldn’t fill a jumbo popcorn tub. So their enthusiasm only got me so far. Enslaved by Ducks sold steadily, but slowly. I wanted to do better.
For my second book, I decided that I would break out of the traditional pet book mold and vault into the ample lap of the general public. I didn’t take the ducks, geese, parrots, rabbits, cats, and other critters out of Fowl Weather. Instead I wrote about how they affected my life during a stressful period of time in which I lost my dad, my mom was diagnosed with Alzheimer’s disease, and ghost cats haunted our basement. The result was a book that some folks thought was the funniest thing that they had ever read and others decided was mega-depressing.
NPR’s Nancy Pearl occupied the former camp, and thanks to her enthusiastic January 22, 2008 “Under the Radar” review on Morning Edition, Fowl Weather was briefly the sixty-third best selling book on all of Amazon. But after that it sunk like a rock tied to an anvil, never making it out of hardcover — even as Enslaved by Ducks gradually waddled into its thirteenth paperback printing in 2012.
So what went wrong with my sequel? Lots of things. Pushing the animals even slightly into the background wasn’t the smartest approach, since critters were what my readers wanted. And the subject matter was dark compared to Enslaved by Ducks. Because there were so many narrative threads and no single string strong enough to hang a catchy subtitle on, Fowl Weather also proved to be tricky to market. Death and Alzheimer’s weren’t suitable subjects for a humorous back cover blurb. And the non-waterfowl-owning segment of the population that had enjoyed Enslaved by Ducks presumably spotted the duckling on the cover of Fowl Weather and decided that it was a rerun.
In other words, Fowl Weather was simultaneously too different and too similar to my first book. It took me years to figure out how to follow it up, even though the solution lay right under my nose. It was as close as the nearest litter box.
It took me twice as long to write Kitty Cornered as it had to write either of my first two books. It didn’t start out as a cat book. I kept trying to find new ways to write about our birds and other pets. While the cats kept clawing their way into the narrative, I never even considered making them the subjects of a book, because I couldn’t shake loose of the image of myself as the duck guy. I couldn’t shake loose of any good ideas, either. In an attempt to add some verve to a sagging repertoire of avian anecdotes, I concocted an increasingly unlikely series of devices, culminating in — I’m embarrassed to admit — a goose egg crystal ball that revealed incidents from my pre-pet past. This didn’t work out any better than it sounds here.
Fortunately a skittish white-and-black stray cat showed up to rescue me from author’s oblivion. As soon as I decided to write about this complicated little being that we named Frannie, I felt as if a huge goose-size burden had been lifted from my shoulders. I incorporated the strongest aspects of my first two books into Kitty Cornered, keeping the sunny-to-partly-cloudy tone of Enslaved by Ducks and the overlapping narratives of Fowl Weather, all the time returning the focus to Frannie as I wrote about all six cats.
My re-invention as a cat guy seems to have worked. Kitty Cornered was on the independent bookstore indie bestseller list during its first two weeks on the shelves, and when it was just short of a month old, it went into a second printing. Naturally, I’m hoping that it continues to gain momentum. It sure would be great to be able to knock out a couple of sequels, you know?
Bob Tarte and his wife Linda live on the edge of a shoe-sucking swamp near the West Michigan village of Lowell. When not fending off mosquitoes during temperate months and chipping ice out of plastic wading pools in the depths of winter, Bob writes books about his pets.
Emmy Award-winning actress Patricia Heaton has taken on an option on the dramatic rights to Enslaved by Ducks. Fowl Weather was selected as an “Under The Radar” book for 2008 by Nancy Pearl on NPR’s Morning Edition.
Bob wrote the Technobeat world music review column for The Beat magazine from 1989 to 2009. He has also written for The New York Times, The Boston Globe, and The Miami New Times newspapers.
Bob also hosts a podcast for PetLifeRadio.com called What Were You Thinking? that’s supposedly about “exotic pets” as a general topic, but the show just as often turns into a chronicle of life with his own troublesome critters.
Bob and Linda currently serve the whims of parrots, ducks, geese, parakeets, a rabbit, doves, cats, and hens. They also raise and release orphan songbirds (including woodpeckers) for the Wildlife Rehab Center, Ltd. in Grand Rapids and have the scars to prove it.