Today’s guest on Who are the Cat Writers’ Association is writer and journalist T. J. Banks.
Tammy, tell us a bit about your writing.
For me, writing has always been a lot like play. I don’t mean that it always comes easily to me. But when I’m truly engaged with my subject, I lose all sense of time and place. Only the story itself exists.
I started out in journalism. I had a long-running arts column in a monthly paper called Hartford Woman, and I did feature stories for them as well. I loved every minute of it. You learn so much from working for a small paper because you get to do a lot of different types of writing. Shortly after Hartford Woman closed up shop, I got the chance to write for Just Cats!, another wonderful publication that Nancy and Bob Hungerford were just starting up. I wrote book reviews, features, and “Making a difference…,” an award-winning monthly column about people helping cats in many and often unusual ways. It was as exciting a gig as Hartford Woman, but there was one vital difference, no pun intended. I was being paid to write stories about cats, something that I’d been doing ever since I was a kid. Now, that was trippy.
I have written for many publications since then – some of them cat-oriented and some of them people-oriented. A lot of my work has been anthologized, and I’ve published seven books, both fiction and non-fiction. But here’s the thing about the books: no matter what the subject, what the genre, a cat is sure to appear somewhere in it. Someone once told me that if I wrote an algebra book, there’d be a cat in it…assuming, of course, that I could write an algebra book.
How do cats inspire your creativity?
When I first began freelancing full-time, my cats were – or so I thought – simply my kindred spirits in fur suits, providing me companionship and comic relief while I struggled with my first stories, which were historical fiction and had (mostly) all-people cats. The cats, however, soon began making inroads into my writing. The very first all-cat story was “Tikvah’s Kitten,” based on my beloved Tikvah, who had come to us as a stray.
Finally, I got big and brave and decided to write the kind of cat book I’d always enjoyed reading as a kid. The result was Houdini, which starred a Flamepoint Siamese hero: his story was, with some alterations, that of the abandoned kitten that my uncle’s friend had found for me when we were out in Oklahoma. Writing the book allowed me to travel back in time to what had been an especially magical spring and summer with an especially magical cat.
Since then, many of the other cats I’ve known and loved have found their way into my writing, including the novel I’m currently working on. Many of the odds and ends of my life go into my work: it is, in a sense, one big patchwork quilt of experiences and remembered emotions. My felines are a big part of my life, so it seems only natural that they go into the quilt, too.
What do you enjoy about belonging to CWA?
The CWA is very important for a number of reasons. Each one of us is celebrating the human-feline bond in his/her own way. We work hard at what we do, and being part of a highly professional group where our efforts are recognized is “a shot in the arm,” as my mom used to say.
Writing about cats is generally regarded as a niche writing. Well, the CWA has expanded that “niche” to include illustrations, videography, cartoons, and more. There’s mentoring, as recognized by the Shojai Mentor Award. The organization has essentially given us a place to call home, to connect, and to share our work. All these things are vital because regardless of the type of work we do, it’s mostly solitary in nature. The CWA gives us a way of feeling less alone.
To me, what really makes the CWA stand out is its determination “to improve the quality of cat information for the general public and to inspire, educate, and inform.” People know so much more about cats than they did back in the day when most cats lived outside, seldom if ever saw the vet, and lived much shorter lives. Thanks to the work of CWA members, cats are living healthier, longer lives. They’re better understood. The bottom line is, they’re no longer the second-class citizens of the pet world.
Now for some completely arbitrary questions.
- Did you grow up with cats?
Yes, my brothers and I always had cats. Mostly barn cats — our grandparents had a farm where cats and kittens were always being dumped, and many of them came home with us over the years. (My mother never should’ve told us that story about my dad bringing her a puppy tucked in his jacket when they were courting.)
Our cats lived outside in a good-sized tool shed that my dad had cut a cat door in. They could come into the house for visits, but they weren’t allowed to stay inside unless they were sick. Many of them got hit by cars or simply vanished. The first cat who got to live inside was Christy, my Siamese. Not because she was a purebred but because she had to have a front paw amputated after her own tangle with a car. She was also the reason why we began taking our cats to the vets’. Before that, my dad, who’d grown up on a farm, did any doctoring that was necessary. So Christy, bless her, was a trailblazer in more ways than one.
- What crosses your mind when someone tells you they don’t like cats?
You know, after all these years, I still don’t get that. But I just shrug it off and go about my business. It seems to me that some people out there still think it has to be a-cat-OR-a-dog thing, and it doesn’t. I like dogs just fine, and there have been a few that I’ve really loved — I just don’t happen to have one. Years ago, I had a side gig as a dog-walker, and it taught me how much more work dogs were.
I do sit up and take notice whenever a man tells me, “I don’t like cats because they’re too damn independent.” I don’t need my secret decoder ring to translate that one. Men who say that don’t like women who are independent either. And such men are to be avoided at all costs.
- What would your life be without cats?
There have only been two times in my life when I’ve been cat-less. Both these periods were short, but they made me realize how empty my world was without a few purring presences in it.
They have given me so much over the years – love, companionship, and inspiration. They’ve kept me going through some pretty major rough patches, especially my husband Tim’s death and my mother’s dementia. Cats are, as I wrote in my book Abys Among Us & Other Stories for the Feline-Inclined, “the heart-and soul-menders, our kindred spirits, poetry on four paws, and we humans would be lost without them.” I certainly would be.
MY CAST OF FELINE CHARACTERS:
— Phoebe – A long-haired gray cat. A former stray, she has been Chief Cat for the last 12 years. She is very intuitive and a feline Earth Mother, looking after many of the kittens who have shown up here over the years. She’s 16.
— Cheshire – A big burly dark-gray tabby cat. Very sweet and a little on the anxious side. He and his littermates were found under an older couple’s deck. He’ll be 14 in September.
— Magwitch – A Snowshoe Siamese from the Westfield Homeless Cat Project in MA. He is loving and clever, and he gets more Siamese-y with age. He used to steal small objects during his kittenhood. He’s 13.
— Freya – An all-black cat and Magwitch’s honey. She came here as a foster kitten and ended up staying. She’ll be 9 in September.
— Violet – A crazy calico who came here as a boarder. Two years into the arrangement, her owner decided that she didn’t want Violet anymore. It didn’t seem fair to uproot her again, so she stayed. She’s 10.
– Solstice II – A Ruddy Abyssinian and former breeding queen. Initially, she was very high-strung; but she has mellowed considerably since being spayed, and she’s very loving now. She’s 8.
— Tansy – Solstice’s daughter and also a Ruddy. She’s loving and lovable, and she has a jealous streak a mile wide. As far as we can tell, she has no short-term memory, so scolding her is useless. She’s 6.
— Emrys – A Ruddy Aby and former stud cat. He is highly intelligent and has a wonderful disposition. When I was breeding Abys, one man was so taken with him, he wanted to buy Emrys as well as one of his children. Well, that was a no go, so the man and his wife now have three of Emrys’s sons! Lord Em, as I sometimes call him, is 6.
— Lady – A Ruddy Aby and Emrys’s former mate. She has a friendly, affectionate personality and usually sleeps by my pillow… and on it when I’m not there. She’s 5.
— Juliet – A white cat with black splotches. She came here when her owner was diagnosed with dementia and went into a memory-care facility. Juliet was shy and rather reclusive at first but has really blossomed in the past year. She’s 7.
You can find T.J. Banks at her following links:
Amazon profile — https://author.amazon.com/profile
A Time for Shadows, my FB Author Page — https://www.facebook.com/A-Time-for-Shadows-302018420057 (This started out in 2009 as a page about my then-newly-released historical novel A Time for Shadows, but I later expanded it to include excerpts from and postings about my other books.)
My LinkedIn profile — https://www.linkedin.com/in/t-j-banks-87008913/