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O kitten my kitten

When I went to the Humane Society in Eugene eleven years ago to pick out my first cat, I had a definite idea of what I wanted. Specifically, I wanted a male adult cat. I had previously cat-sat for a truly awesome, enormous male tabby named Bubba who was completely blind, and now I wanted a Bubba clone. My only other exposure to cats had been the grouchy female family cat when I was a child, so I had the vague idea that a male cat would be friendlier. And I was certain an adult cat would be less wild than a kitten.

As with most things in life, my expectations were quickly altered by reality. I wandered through the cattery, considering various cats. All of them were sweet, but I didn’t feel that “zing,” that intuitive sense that, “This is my cat.”

Then I wandered into the kitten room. Just out of curiosity. Right. A darling calico kitten sat atop a cat tower. I reached up to pet her, and she scooted forward and started purring.

And that’s how my cat picked me.

When I got home, I sat on the kitchen floor with her and offered her food. She ate a little, then crawled into my lap and my heart.


Rory liked to perch in high places, like the counter.

Her name was Aurora at the shelter, but I shortened it to Rory. The sassier nickname fit her. She was sleek and soft and fast, crazy in the lovable way that kittens are. With the wave of a feather toy, she could be convinced to leap into the air, doing feline gymnastics and executing ninja kicks. One time she crawled sideways along the end of my mattress and box springs, an act that made me think of her as Spider Kitty. When she chased toys, her pupils would become enormous with excitement as she contemplated her killing blow. At my parents’ house, she would crawl up the small silk tree in the corner, apparently believing she’d made it into the wilds.

For such a large cat, Rory had a small voice. She would trill at me in a high pitched melodic voice when she was happy or when she wanted something. She would purr when she was scared but she also purred plenty when she was happy. She would tread her paws on soft blankets, nearly going into a trance as she furiously kneaded the fabric. She loved to nap on me, and my mother, and to sprawl out in front of the fireplace.

Rory’s fondest wish in life was to murder something in cold blood. She used to catch and eat spiders in my apartment; I started trapping them for her so my little feline exterminator could deal with them for me. Once, when I had her outside in my parents’ yard on her harness and leash, she crouched low in the grass and stalked silently toward a bird she’d spotted. I let her slink, since she was on her leash. To my surprise, she suddenly leaped toward the bird, who narrowly escaped her grasp. Rory would literally chirp at birds when she spotted them, and enjoyed stalking the elusive garter snake that frequented a pile of leaves in my parents’ yard.

I liked to think that my cat and I were similar. We both had delicate stomachs. We both had green eyes and reddish hair, although Rory’s coat was always more stylish than my highlights, with her orange-splotched face that looked paint-splattered, her white-tipped paws, and her striking white, black and orange mottled fur. We even both had a slight bump in the bridges of our noses. As a kitten, Rory often slept by my head, sharing my pillow. Once, I woke up to see her stretched out on her back like a person with her head on my pillow. Another time, we both heard a noise, sat up in bed, and looked at each other at the exact same time. When I was upset, Rory would leap up and snuggle with me. She was more than a cat; she was a friend.

Rory and I were similar in another way too: we hated to be confined. Rory detested being crated, and as soon as she spotted me hauling out her crate to take her to the vet, she would run and hide. I had to resort to trapping her in the bathroom where she couldn’t dart under a bed, then stuffing her in her crate, which doubtless made the experience all the more traumatic for her. She often wet herself out of sheer terror. Once she attempted to hide in the spare room at my parents’ house by wedging herself underneath a rolled up carpet that was sitting at an angle against a shelf. By then Rory was a big cat, large framed and long and approaching 17 pounds. She still tried to appear small by hunching over.

I was terrified of confinement too, but of a different sort. After some heartbreak at the end of college, I became scared of love, even as I desperately wanted to find it. One characteristic of most of my relationships, then, was that I fell in love with the wrong guys, but the second a nice normal guy came along, I would want to – and usually did – run screaming the other direction. Genuine interest, absent dysfunction, terrified me. It wasn’t that I didn’t want a relationship – far from it. What I feared was being trapped in a crate that might fall apart again. I didn’t want to get hurt by falling in love with someone who would love me back. The guys who were wrong for me were safe, familiar. I got Rory when I was 24, and she saw me through many ups and downs in my romantic life.

Rory 2

Rory’s favorite activity, sleeping.

When I brought home a tiny black bundle of fur named Mollie, Rory was unhappy with the addition to our little family, and let me know it by hiding under the bed for three days. Eventually, though, Rory and Mollie came to an understanding. The understanding was that if Mollie got too playful, Rory would pin her down and pummel her for a bit. I often had to break up wrestling matches with yells and claps, and periodically I’d find clumps of Mollie’s black fur on the floor. Sometimes when she leaped on Mollie, Rory would sit on her head. Mollie, not really the brightest bulb, always came back for more. She loved Rory and would groom her religiously, as well as constantly snuggle up against her on the couch.

Mollie wasn’t the only one. Everyone loved Rory. She was a sweet cat. The most she ever did was hiss at someone; she never scratched anyone on purpose. She liked people and, except for her terror of crates, was an easy cat to take care of.

When I started dating Brad three years ago, he fell in love with Rory too. Eight months into our relationship I moved in with him, bringing my two chubby kitties. Rory loved Brad’s condo and the enormous porch, but at first was shy around Brad. Eventually, though, she became very attached to him. I have pictures of Rory sleeping on Brad. In fact, sometimes she seemed to prefer his lap to mine. It’s little wonder she became enamored with his tender touch; like Rory, no one could meet Brad and not fall completely in love with him. He became a devoted kitty dad, helping with feedings and vet trips and, eventually, insulin injections when Rory became diabetic. My cats became our cats. As for me, my fear of confinement completely disappeared around Brad as I fell madly in love with him and he, for some fortunate reason, fell in love with me too.
Shortly after Brad and I got married, I went to give Rory her insulin injection one morning and discovered that she’d thrown up. This wasn’t entirely unusual for Rory, who used to hork up her breakfast on a semi regular basis, but when I offered her food, she wasn’t interested. Her diabetes had made her ravenous, so I knew something was wrong.

We took her to the emergency vet, and instead of getting better, over the next three days, she got worse. On day four, we visited her in the ICU and she had a feeding tube up her nose. She looked at me with miserable eyes, pupils dilated. It didn’t take long for Brad and me to decide to let her go. We rejected the option of taking home paw prints or fur clippings with us, choosing instead to cremate her and scatter her ashes in the woods behind my parents’ house – the woods she’d loved to explore. We didn’t want to remember her lifeless body, but rather remember her as she was – trilling, purring, galloping through the house at top speed like a horse.

I learned from talking to the emergency vets and from reading on the subject that cats are adept at hiding pain. Rory’s systems may have been compensating for awhile, suggested our vet, and they were just finally breaking down. It occurred to me, even though I know animals don’t actually align to our life plans, that she waited until after the wedding, until she knew I was happy and taken care of. Logically I know the timing was just coincidence, but it’s the kind of thing Rory would have done.

Losing this cat who had seen me through so many ups and downs, who’d moved to Corvallis and Seattle and Portland with me, was heartbreaking. She was absolutely a member of our little family, and I still can’t fully process her loss or what it will mean in the days to come.

I don’t know why Rory picked me 11 years ago instead of someone else. I do know that it was an honor to be her mom. I’m thankful her painful days were few, and her good days were many. I’m grateful she lived most of her life sleeping, eating, and dreaming of killing small animals. Most of all I’m grateful she saw me through the ups and downs of my twenties and early thirties. The truth is that Rory did far more for me than I could ever do for her. My home and heart are emptier without her. I don’t think I’ll ever stop missing her. But I’m so grateful we found each other.

The truth will set you free – that’s the saying. But I believe that it is love that sets you free. So now, Rory and I are both free. My husband’s love is freeing to me; and we set Rory free from her pain because we loved her too much to keep her tethered to it.


Rory in front of the fire

I don’t believe in kitty heaven, but Rory is still running free in my mind, doing ninja kicks and chirping at birds, stretched out in front of the fire and purring on my lap, a sleek miniature jungle cat with a lion’s heart.

Published: August 22, 2014 | Comments: 0

Why I can’t write Pride and Prejudice without Zombies

OSU Hello there. I got tired of the dark background of my blog (probably because it’s so dark outside right now), and turquoise green has become my new favorite color ever since Brad proposed with a turquoise ring. So I thought I’d switch up the look of the blog a bit.

Anyway, today I want to discuss literary fiction. More specifically, why I can’t write it.

To illustrate this problem, let’s start by looking at the photograph in this post. I snapped this photo a couple weekends ago, when Brad and I were at Oregon State for the game against Stanford (but let’s not talk about the outcome of that game). This is a view from the lawn of the Memorial Union Quad in the center of campus. Beautiful, isn’t it? Doesn’t it look like the setting for a literary novel? Perhaps the synopsis would go something like:

Cassie never intended to come home. After graduating from Oregon State University, she ran off to New York to pursue a career in theater and didn’t look back. But a humiliating failure brings her back to her alma mater as a theater instructor. Now she’s forced to confront the ghosts she thought she buried. Can you ever really go home?

(By the way, I vaguely lifted that synopsis from The Monsters of Templeton by Lauren Groff. Apologies.)

Ignoring the fact that this synopsis isn’t very good, I would never be able to write this story. You know why? Because it doesn’t contain any supernatural elements or mysteries. If I tried to write that story, the synopsis would end up going like this:

Cassie never intended to come home. After graduating from Oregon State University, she ran off to New York to pursue a career in theater and didn’t look back. But a terrifying series of events brings her back to her alma mater as a theater instructor. Now she’s forced to confront the ghosts she thought she buried – and the ones that won’t stay dead. Can she break the curse before time runs out?

You see my problem.

I took a couple of fiction writing classes in college, and I remember being vaguely disappointed when my instructors told us that we could only write contemporary, realistic fiction. I’m surprised I earned a decent grade, because I wrote some (in my opinion) pretty bad stories. I remember struggling mightily in my advanced fiction writing class in particular, trying to figure out what on earth could happen in my story. All I knew was that it was set in Canada. I think it involved someone spotting a bear. I mean, it was really bad.

I’ve since come to accept that I’m a commercial fiction writer, not a literary fiction writer. I’ll never write literary fiction. It’s one of the main reasons I decided not to pursue an MFA in creative writing; I knew I’d be restricted to contemporary realism for three years. Suffice it to say I am not University of Iowa material.

There are two reasons for this issue. First, I’ve always read to escape and be entertained, and commercial/genre fiction is usually designed for these purposes. Second, I’ve developed a theory that my characters should always be as close to death as possible. The stakes need to be high, life-threateningly high. Zombies, vampires, and evil government agencies naturally lend themselves to life-threatening situations. As soon as my ability to put my characters in danger is taken away, my mind goes blank.

I’m fully aware that it is possible to write about high-stakes situations in literary fiction. But frankly, the types of realistic dangers I could place my characters in are dangers I don’t care to explore. I don’t want to focus on abuse or assault or the struggles of a farming family in the 1930s. If I’m going to treat serious issues, I’d rather do them in the context of some other extraordinary situation rather than making those issues the entire focus of my story.

I realize I’m characterizing literary fiction in an extremely broad way. I have read and enjoyed some literary fiction, none of which focused on the topics I just mentioned. I’m not knocking literary fiction as a whole. I’m just saying that I’m terrible at writing it.

I’ve struggled a bit with my identity as a commercial fiction writer, because sometimes people dismiss commercial and genre fiction as being lower-quality or less worthy of being called art than literary fiction. It’s almost as if writing commercial fiction is shopping at Target and writing literary fiction is shopping at Saks. I think that distinction is largely wrong. Sure, some genre fiction is sloppy or full of cardboard characters. But some genre fiction, such as The Lord of the Rings, isn’t cliche at all. It’s literature.

And on the flip side, some literary fiction is just plain boring. It might be “important,” but it’s not exciting reading. In high school, I thought the Joads’ journey across America was never going to end. And I’m pretty sure William Faulkner was drunk when he wrote Absalom, Absalom. (Apologies to fans of either book.)

But even when literary fiction does catch my attention, I still don’t know how authors do it. The second I try to write something literary, a mystery or a supernatural element creeps across the landscape of my mind. Here are a couple more examples, taken from the synopses of best-selling literary books (synopses are quoted verbatim from an Amazon page: here’s the original page for citation purposes). We’ll start with the actual synopsis, and then you’ll see what would happen if I were to write the book… (hint: it would be ruined) Original synopsis in quotations, my additions in bold.

Things We Set on Fire, by Deborah Reed.

“A series of tragedies brings Vivvie’s young grandchildren into her custody, and her two estranged daughters back under one roof. Jackson, Vivvie’s husband, was shot and killed thirty years ago, and the ramifications have splintered the family into their own isolated remembrances and recriminations.” As Vivvie starts to have psychic flashbacks, she wonders if Jackson’s true killer is still out there. Because strange things have begun to happen… and someone may want to finish what they started.

Cloudsplitter, by Russell Banks.

“A triumph of the imagination and a masterpiece of modern storytelling, Cloudsplitter is narrated by the enigmatic Owen Brown, last surviving son of America’s most famous and still controversial political terrorist and martyr, John Brown. Deeply researched, brilliantly plotted, and peopled with a cast of unforgettable characters both historical and wholly invented, Cloudsplitter is dazzling” in its imaginative reinvention of historical events. As Owen searches desperately for the journal his father left behind – a journal that may hold clues to the true events surrounding his death – he finds that blood runs thicker than water. And so do decades-old grudges…

The Longest Ride, by Nicholas Sparks.

“Ira Levinson is in trouble. Ninety-one years old and stranded and injured after a car crash, he struggles to retain consciousness until a blurry image materializes beside him: his beloved wife Ruth, who passed away nine years ago. Urging him to hang on, she forces him to remain alert by recounting the stories of their lifetime together” – how they met on a dark sidewalk one night, their careers as private investigators, and the brilliant but insane investment banker who ended Ruth’s life. Now Ruth wants Ira to finish what they started – and bring justice to their small town at last.

Orphan Train, by Christina Baker Kline.

“Penobscot Indian Molly Ayer is close to “aging out” out of the foster care system. A community service position helping an elderly woman clean out her home is the only thing keeping Molly out of juvie and worse…” But “worse” is far more dire than Molly ever dreamed. The woman is a vampire hunter, the last of her line, and she wants to train Molly to take her place. Thrust into a dark world where no one is what they seem, Molly must confront her fears – and embrace her destiny.

Tomorrow There Will be Apricots, by Jessica Soffer.

“This is a story about accepting the people we love—the people we have to love and the people we choose to love, the families we’re given and the families we make. It’s the story of two women adrift in New York” during the apocalypse, “a widow and an almost-orphan, each searching for someone she’s lost” to the zombie plague. “It’s the story of how, even in moments of grief and darkness, there are joys waiting nearby.” And OMG zombies.

Let us all be thankful that I’m not polluting the market of literary fiction. I’ll stick to what I do best, which is endangering my characters’ lives. And whether you write literary, genre, or something in-between… keep writing.

That’s what it’s all about.



Published: November 5, 2013 | Comments: 0

All the Things

Wow, it’s been a long time since I posted anything. Granted, I have been a wee bit busy this last year! And now I am adding the very happy task of planning a wedding to my list of activities! Here’s my mishmash of updates:

Brad and Amy 4 I was lucky enough to get engaged to the love of my life, Brad, this summer! We’ll be tying the knot next summer, and I couldn’t be more thrilled! I can’t say enough about how sweet, kind, and generous my fiancé is. He is truly the best man I know and I feel very lucky that he picked me. (Plus, he’s totally hot.)


Published: August 30, 2013 | Comments: 3

Interview with my writing partners

I’ve been fortunate to join up with a small critique group in the last few months. I’m on the Oregon SCBWI listserv, and Michele sent out a request for readers to provide feedback on one of her manuscripts. I volunteered, and after I had sent my feedback, she kindly invited me to join her and her virtual writing partner, Ron, to become a critique trio. Now Michele, Ron and I send works in progress to each other via email, and it’s been fun to work with these two fun and talented writers!

Recently I asked them to answer a few questions about their writing process. I thought you’d enjoy “meeting” them and hearing about how they write, what they think about writers’ block, and projects they have in the works. (Note: questions and answers have been slightly edited for clarity and conversation. The original interviews were conducted via email, with each writer answering individually, and I have added my comments as well.)

First, let’s introduce these two writers properly so you can check out their work online! Both write young adult and middle grade fiction.


Published: September 25, 2012 | Comments: 2