Because I no longer write blurbs, but still very much want to help other authors, I've launched a blog series called Better Than Blurbs. The authors and I will have in-depth discussions about their books, which I hope will help readers identify whether they'd enjoy reading them. This is the sixth post of the series. The author is Michelle Theall and the book is Teaching the Cat to Sit, a memoir that fits in very well with my well-known position on LGBT issues and equality. (I'm for it. Equality.)
Me: Let's start in the usual way. Michelle, please tell us about the book in your own words.
Michelle: While the book covers a lot of ground, family, religion, parenting, bullying, sexual identity, gay adoption, social and cultural norms—at its heart, it’s a mother/daughter story. The importance of that first relationship that we have with our mothers tends to imprint (positively and negatively) on children like we’re goslings. It’s inescapable. But no one can live up to a parent’s expectations completely, which means we have to learn to navigate disappointment, loss, maybe even abandonment, in order to find our own way in the world. I was so desperate to hold onto my mother’s approval that I lied and acquiesced to get it. What’s funny is that as long as I was pretending to be someone else or compromising, I could never know she loved the “real” me—just some semblance of me. It was easier to be ostracized by the church, friends, the pope, and society than to risk losing my mom. You’d think it wouldn’t take over forty years, but maybe I’m a slow learner. In fits and starts of bravery, I had to let her truly see me in order to start living my life. Of course, then all hell broke loose.
Me: I know you are probably already “out.” When you’re raising a child with another woman, you can’t very well be in. But with the release of this book, you’re out in a whole different way. Any qualms? I think it’s a great thing to do (as anybody who knows me will know), but I think it’s important that people understand how it feels to do it.
Michelle: I’m terrified. Anyone who reads the book will know straight away what a chicken I am. I’m afraid of being judged, wounded all over again because I stuck it out there. I’m afraid of the crazies who are out there hating gays. I’m afraid for the book to do well because if it does the story (and I) will embarrass my mom, feed that shame that’s still smoldering. On the flip side, I’m afraid no one will read it or care—that I just spent years of my life on something completely irrelevant. Did I mention I’m terrified?
Me: I love both the cover image and the title. Will you please tell my readers how the title fits in with the overall story? (I know, but they probably don’t yet.) Did you get any argument from the publisher for using that title rather than something more sensational? And the cover image… did the cover designer simply find it for you, or is there a story behind it? It certainly is a perfect fit, and very appealing.
Michelle: Teaching the Cat to Sit is a real thing and also a metaphor. I was a lonely kid growing up and about the only friend I had was our cat, a long-haired Siamese/Himalayan mix, named Mittens. But, I wanted a dog. So I forced her to learn to sit and shake. She did all those things because she loved me, but she was never going to be a dog, and I should have accepted her for the awesome cat she was. Same thing with my mom wanting a certain kind of child, and getting me instead. On another layer, I’m the cat and I need to learn to sit still and accept who I am, instead of running from it. For the title, I got lucky. My agent and editor loved it and didn’t want to change it. The cover designer just found that photo. My agent and editor also loved it, but I needed some convincing. I thought it looked a bit too sad and maudlin. My book has some humor in it that the cover doesn’t convey. But in the end, I think they got it right. I think seeing that first cover shot they sent me just made it real and scary.
Me: I bookmarked page 98 while I was reading. Because someone once said to me, well-meaningly I suppose, that for me to be hurt by what she was saying suggested I was giving her too much power over me. We’ve all heard the theory that no one can hurt you without your permission. But there’s a level at which that’s bullshit. And I said so. I said, “Imagine if I were to say to you, ‘Screw you. I don’t care about you.’ And then, when you looked hurt, said, ‘Well, if you choose to be offended by what I said…’” If nine out of ten people would be hurt by it, it’s probably hurtful, and if a good number of people find it offensive, it probably is. But there’s also a level at which there is truth to it. If someone is judging me, I can give up caring about their opinion. But it’s not absolute, and it can’t be done all at once, like throwing a switch. Okay, too late to make a long story short. Are you any more able, as a result of the way you’ve been judged, to, as they say, “consider the source” and feel less damaged?
Michelle: Nope. Rejection hurts, and no one is all bad or all good, which means it’s tough to dismiss anyone out of hand. I really don’t think people can control what they feel…that’s why they’re called feelings. It’s like a pain response if someone were to physically strike you. We can control what we do about those feelings, but not whether or not they come up for us. That said, my mom is the queen of saying things she doesn’t mean the minute she feels it, out of anger or an attempt to manipulate (probably both), but she does still love me. I can put up better boundaries or decide to sever the relationship altogether. Right now, we’re at the boundaries stage. I’d like to tell everyone with bad or mean things to say the same thing I tell my eight year old when he loses his verbal impulse control, “Please keep your words inside your mouth.”
Me: I’ve now received a hardcover copy with the most astonishing list of praise I think I’ve ever seen with my own eyes. Other than the fact that it’s a good book (in my opinion), how were you able to get so many people to weigh in? Or is this something your editor was able to accomplish? I ask the question because this blog is followed by a lot of writers, and I thought they’d be interested.
Michelle: It was a mixture of my asking and my editor and agent asking. I think the key is not to be shy and to simply ask. I wanted Jeanette Walls and Augusten Burroughs to blurb me, and sent a personal note with an advance copy to each of them. But they didn’t bite. I love their work, so I would have been over the moon to know that they had even read a paragraph of something I put on paper. But it didn’t happen, and that’s okay too. Piper Kerman (Orange is the New Black), Kelley Corrigan (Glitter and Glue) and Sara Corbett (A House in the Sky) were so generous with their praise for my book, and it was really humbling. I guess all new writers should know that almost every published writer was once in the same place you’re in, with their hat in their hands asking for blurbs for their books. Even J.K. Rowling or Stephen King. Everyone has to start somewhere.
Me: A quick note. I got the same kind of cold request from Augusten Burroughs, back before the release of Running With Scissors. I liked the book, but I figured most of my fan base, which was highly Pay-It-Forward-related at the time, would not. So I ultimately had to turn him down. Which further cements my feelings about the death of the blurb. (As with equality, I'm for it. The death, not the blurb.)
Now. I looked at your website to see if this was a debut. It seemed both that it is, and that your career in publishing is extensive. Will you tell my readers a little bit about your background?
Michelle: I’m currently the editor-in-chief of Alaska magazine, coming off a year with Backpacker [Me: I subscribe!] and Climbing magazines. I’ve been in publishing for 20 years, mostly with niche adventure sports and travel titles. I started Women’s Adventure magazine in 2003 for the 74 million women who participate in outdoor adventures and travel. I sold it in 2008 and continued to run it for the new owners through 2010. I stepped away to focus on writing Teaching the Cat to Sit. I actually wrote two “little” health and fitness books in 2007, but this is my first “real” book. Oh, and when the spirit moves me, I run writing and photography conferences www.facebook.com/creativeconf.
Me: This is an unanswerable question. But, lucky you, I’m going to ask it anyway. What do we do about this mess? LGBT people want the same rights as everybody (myself included) and religious people want the religious freedom to reject those rights. And yet, as I’m fond of pointing out, freedom of religion also guarantees freedom from religion. Well, that’s easy for me to say, because I never tried to be accepted by a church. But back to the original question. How are we, as a society, ever going to box our way out of this paper bag? Are you confident about the future?
Michelle: You’re right that there is no answer, except maybe live and let live…agree to disagree. It’s weird to come back to what I tell my elementary school child, but here it is: You have the right to be angry, sad, indignant, or furious, but you don’t have the right to hurt me or others. We have the right to our feelings and beliefs, and we have many options if we don’t want others who are different from us to inhabit our space. If I don’t like the laws of this country, I can move to Canada. If the United States is too liberal, people can move to Uganda. I’m not asking to be married in the Catholic Church or for people who believe that being gay is wrong to change their minds. If you believe being gay is wrong and that it’s a choice, then don’t be gay. I can choose which tax-exempt church I belong to, one that accepts me and my family. But, I do pay my taxes and I am a US citizen, so because there is a separation of church and state, I expect to be afforded all the same rights as all US citizens. None of this is an answer. But I know for sure that hate and discrimination aren’t either.
I just read yesterday in the New York Times that conservatives have come out with a new study about how children raised by gay parents do in school and society. They are using this to fight against gay marriage in Michigan. The study seemed to focus less on gays and more on broken families of both kinds. I have to wonder what this means for the 400,000 kids languishing in foster care in the US, who have no parents or families at all. My partner and I are in the process of being recertified as foster parents seeking to adopt one or two more children for our family. Is being raised by us worse than having no family at all? Where’s the morality in that? And yes, I’m confident about the future. Progress is being made.
Me: Please ask your own question, and answer it.
Michelle: What happened to some of the people in your book? And, is your mother still speaking to you?
I’m working on my web site www.michelletheall.com in giving updates on all the people in the book who readers might wonder about: Father Kos, Holly, Ann, and others. You’ll have to stay tuned regarding my mom and her reaction to the book. She has told me that she won’t read it, and I’m relieved. But, I have to be realistic that the shit will hit the fan and it’s only a matter of time. I have learned that I have a choice in whether or not to have her in my life and expose my son to her bouts of rage and condemnation. But I will always hope it doesn’t come to that. I also don’t want her to completely abandon me—because as I say in the book—who is the child whose mother cannot love her? It’s complicated. It always is.
An update to this blog and interview: Teaching the Cat to Sit is now available in paperback.
I received this cover image in an email from Michelle, with the message: "I’m attaching a copy of the paperback cover of Teaching the Cat to Sit, in case you want to comment on how much courage it takes to use your own gawky, childhood photo on your memoir. The paperback edition is out. Thought the attached, at the very least, would make you smile."
It does. And my comment would be that it's brave, but it makes a very good cover. If you were waiting for a less expensive paper edition before giving the book a try, here's your opportunity. It's gotten terrific reviews.