In this special post, award-winning author T.J. Banks talks about her new book, rescue cats, Halloween and COVID-19
Almost twenty years ago I had a chance to read and review Souleiado, a time-travel novel by T.J. Banks. I’m not into reading time-travel stories, but Souleiado is not your usual time-travel story, but rather a profound, incredible story that I couldn’t put down. Over the years I’ve become a fan of T.J. Banks’ books. I’ve discovered unforgettable WWI stories in A Time for Shadows, one of my all-time favorites; learned about everyday people in Sketch People; and I’ve had the chance (especially as a dog lover, myself) to better understand cats and their personalities while reading Banks’ latest book, Abys Among Us & Other Stories for the Feline-Inclined.
This year, with COVID-19 still upon us, many people have found comfort and companionship in their pets, as well as in rescuing and adopting pets. That has been a silver lining of this pandemic. On the other hand, tomorrow is Halloween, which means, the lives of many black pets, in particular black cats are at risk. And so, for this special (pre)-Halloween post, I’d like to share an interview with T.J. Banks in which she reminds us about the story behind black cats and Halloween, talks about the (rescue) cats in her life as well as about her latest book, Abys Among Us & Other Stories for the Feline-Inclined.
A: Thanks for taking the time to chat with me and congratulations on your new book, Abys Among Us & Other Stories for the Feline-Inclinded. I like the title! For those of us, like myself, who are not familiar with cat breeds, could you tell us more about Abys, in terms of physical appearance, personality, and so on?
TJB: Abyssinians are slender, lithe cats. They’re very active, and I think of them as the acrobats and contortionists of the cat world. They may or may not have been the cats worshipped in ancient Egypt; but they’re an extremely old breed, and they sure look like the statues of Bast, the cat-headed warrior and fertility goddess. And that gives them a sort of mystique, I think.
The Abys I’ve known have been both loving and inquisitive. Some of them – like Dawnie and Moonlight, who appear in the book – have been highly intuitive as well and have sensed when I’ve needed them before I myself was aware of it. It’s one of the things that make them such wonderful companions.
A: What makes Abys so special to have a whole book written about them?
TJB: Abys Among Us started out as being just about the many Abyssinians who have shared my life. I planned to interweave their stories with events in my own life, so it was supposed to have a more chronological structure than Catsong did. Books have a funny trick of taking on lives of their own and changing along the way, though, and this one was no exception. Not all of my cats are Abys or Somalis (long-haired Abys): many of them are rescues, and I came to realize that they needed to be in the book, too. I also decided to go back to the individual story format that I had used in Catsong – it gave me more room to play.
A: You grew up with books, and also with cats. Then, as a writer, as an award-winning author, you’ve covered stories about cats—there are stories capturing the human-cat interaction, as well as stories told from the cat’s perspective, like Houdini. So, what came first, your love of books or your love of cats? Please explain.
TJB: My love of books and my love of cats pretty much started up around the same time. I got my first cat – a barn kitten that I caught up at my grandparents’ farm — when I was seven; and I wrote my first cat story, complete with illustrations, soon after. By the time I hit third or fourth grade, I had made up my mind to be a writer. I also discovered that the little tan assignment booklets given to us in class were perfect for writing stories in, and I made off with a slew of them. (For what it’s worth, I never got caught.) Not just for myself but also for my friend Carol. She, too, was also going to be a writer. We spent hours writing stories and poems in them, and it is one of the best memories from my childhood.
A: In your book you do share a few captivating moments from your childhood, and also mention Cricket, a cat you call your “first animal teacher.” It seems that each of the cats featured in your book offers, teaches a significant lesson in life. What are some important, memorable lessons in life you’ve learned from your Abys, from your cats?
TJB: Cats have taught me many things, one of the most important being how very much like us they are. Scrabble, my disabled tortie, had abandonment issues, and it took me years to gain her trust. Magwitch, my Snowshoe Siamese-cross, had similar issues; but he was just a kitten when he came here, so the bonding between us took infinitely less time. Fostering and doing Reiki work with the various cats in this book (“Fosters & Foster Failures,” “Other People’s Cats”) helped me understand that they get PTSD, too.
Last, but certainly not least, I’ve also seen how strong the bonds between certain cats can be — how they often look after each other. There are glimpses of that in some of the stories in Abys Among Us.
A: Reading your book I recognized a few cat names—Solstice, Fey, and also their stories…. Some stories made me smile, while others, to tear up. There are stories that offer us that moment of peace and serenity we so desperately need nowadays, or make us ponder, help us become more understanding…of our own selves, of the world. Do you have a favorite cat and/or a favorite cat story? Please explain.
TJB: “Silver & Gold” is a favorite of mine. It deals with the loss of one beloved Aby and how another one helped me get through the worst of my grief…in time becoming just as close to me in her own way. “The Once and Future Emrys” is another: it’s the story of Emrys, my charming Aby boy, and his unexpected almost mystical connection with a beloved old friend, who had died years before. And “The Valentine’s Day Cat” reminds me how Phoebe, a beautiful long-haired stray, found me when I needed her – just as my mother, suffering from dementia, was nearing the end of her life.
What would you like readers to take away from your book?
TJB: I hope the book shows readers how much cats can enrich our lives. Dr. Louis J. Camuti (1893 -1981), New York City’s famous “Cat Doctor,” once wrote, “With dogs and people it’s love in big splashy colors. When you’re involved with a cat, you’re dealing in pastels. I like that about cats.” I’m not all that big on pastels, but I do think that with cats, the emotional shadings are subtle – understated, even – and that they are capable of much deeper love than many people realize.
Are you planning on any book events? Maybe virtual book events for the time being?
TJB: COVID-19 has, of course, made planning book events tricky, to say the least. At the end of November, however, I am planning to take part in a Small Business Saturday event at Unique Finds, a delightful out-of-the-ordinary shop not far from me. As far as other signings go, I’ll just have to play things by ear.
In the meantime, anyone interested in purchasing an inscribed copy of Abys Among Us, can contact me via A Time for Shadows, my author’s page on Facebook.
Also, two more questions:
[Cat Photography ©Alina Oswald]
A: Tomorrow is Halloween, a dangerous time for black cats, in particular. I believe many of us are aware of that, but could you remind us of the story behind black cats and Halloween?
TJB: Black cats have been getting a bad press for centuries. In the beginning, cats were associated with the moon and various goddesses. The Celtic goddess Ceridwen was attended by white cats, who carried out her bidding on earth. Freya, the Norse goddess of love, rode in a chariot driven by white cats.
With the rise of Christianity, however, there was a move to subsume or stamp out all vestiges of the pagan religions. So the goddesses became witches or sorceresses, and their cats were turned coal-black – just in case the newly converted needed help figuring out that these formerly revered animals were evil. Horrible things were done to felines in the name of religion.
As science took hold, however, people began to realize that cats kept down the rat population, which in turn kept down the cases of bubonic plague. Actually, the fleas on the rodent were the real culprits: the latter were, as writer Ben Guarino notes, simply “bacteria banks” for the nasty little six-leggers. The important thing is that cats got vindicated.
Some of the witchy mystique still lingers as far as black cats are concerned, though. It’s ridiculous, but there it is. We’ve had three black cats over the years – Bandit, Hawkeye, and Freya(!). Each one was/is an absolute love, and each one makes appearances in Abys Among Us.
A: And although I might repeat myself, COVID-19 has compelled many individuals to flee to their local animal shelters and adopt pets. That’s a good thing. Do you have any advice on adopting, fostering and caring for shelter cats?
TJB: Patience is key in dealing with shelter or rescue cats. Occasionally, there’s a cat who just strayed from home and couldn’t find his/her way back, like Houdini, my Flamepoint Siamese whose story was the basis for my book of the same name. But most of them have been abandoned or relinquished, and a lot of them have been abused as well. It takes time for those emotional wounds to heal and for them to be able to trust again. So my advice is to just go slowly and give them time to detox. Once they feel safe, these cats will love you with every fiber of their furry being. And that is an incredible gift.