Helen Brown is the author of Cleo: The Cat Who Mended a Family. She was born and brought up in New Zealand, where she first worked as a journalist, TV presenter and scriptwriter. Now living in Melbourne, Australia with her family, Helen continues to write columns for the New Zealand media, and she’s been voted Columnist of the Year several times. Cleo rose to the top of the bestseller lists in its first week in the UK, New Zealand, and Australia and has been translated into more than nine languages.
I’m delighted to welcome Helen Brown to The Conscious Cat today.
Cleo’s story, and by extension, your family’s story, begins more than twenty years ago. When did you first know you would write a book about Cleo?
Cleo always behaved as she expected a book to be written about her but I was slow to pick up on the signs. Whenever I wrote about her in my columns she was a big hit with readers. Then about five years ago a friend suggested Cleo would make a great book. I thought he was joking, but when I took the idea to a weekend workshop people seemed really interested in our story.
I’ve always believed that animals are amazing teachers and healers, and Cleo has certainly been all of that and more. Have you had other animals in your life since Cleo, and how have they affected your life?
A crazy Siamese (though some people swear he’s Tonkinese) called Jonah bounced into our lives two years ago. I was half way through writing Cleo when I found out I needed a mastectomy. About two weeks after I returned home from hospital my sister said she’d just seen an amazing kitten in the pet shop down the road. The rest is history. He’s vain and funny, and a healer in his own right.
I was captivated by your story and by Cleo almost from the very first page, but I was particularly moved by the sensitivity and openness with which you share your journey through grief after you lost your young son so tragically. What was it like to have to revisit that time in your life?
Some days I had to take a deep breath before sitting down at the computer. But remembered pain is different from the real thing (ask any woman who’s been through childbirth!). I hoped it was worth scratching a few scars if it was going to help other people.
What was the writing process like for you?
The days I manage to approach the computer screen with a sense of lightness and joy definitely work better.
What does a typical day of writing look like for you?
I stay in bed as long as possible so the rest of the family get themselves off to work and school without asking me to cook or wash anything (they’re pretty good these days). Once the house is quiet I sneak across the road for a sacred cup of café latte. Sometimes the coffee makers ask how my writing’s going, but I think they suspect I’m a middle aged housewife who merely fantasizes about writing books and travelling the world promoting them. Occasionally someone’s kind enough to remind me if I’ve put my coat on inside out.
Once the caffeine starts flowing, I head back to the house and sit at the computer, often with Jonah on my knee. There are heaps of diversions – solitaire, emails, laundry, mysterious cat smells. But I try to write a minimum of 500 words a day. I’m usually burnt out by two or three o’clock. Besides, it’s usually time to think about what to cook for dinner by then.
What do you love most about being a writer?
Readers! What amazing people. Readers have helped me through tough times and celebrated with me through the highs. When I became a grandmother recently, they sent gifts, cards and hand knitted garments. Immeasurable kindness from people I’ve never met.
What do you like least about being a writer?
Who or what inspires you?
It sounds a cliché, but family (including pets) and friends are my greatest inspiration. I find stories in everyday events like standing in a supermarket line, or cleaning out kitchen cupboards. My antennae are always out for human behavior at its best and worst. I love it when prejudices (specially my own) are shattered. On a bus soon after the Twin Towers tragedy, I was charmed when a young man stood up so I could take his seat. He then went to the back of the bus to stand beside his partner – who was wearing a burka. I’m inspired by writers who are better than I am: David Sedaris, Alan Bennett, Alice Munro to name a few.
What is one of the most memorable experiences you’ve had at a book signing or event?
About 30 years ago when I was hardly known (even in New Zealand) I was invited to a book store in a provincial town on a wintry Friday night. The book seller didn’t know what to do with me so she parked me at a table with a pile of books at the back of the shop. I waited…and waited. Nobody showed, of course. Eventually, a man in a raincoat made a stealthy approach from the front of the store. I tried not to make eye contact and scare him off. He eventually appeared at my side and asked me to sign a copy. I was so grateful. When I asked who I should sign it to, he said “Nobody. I just collect signed copies of books so that when the author dies they’re worth something.”
Will you be coming to the United States to promote Cleo?
I’m very much looking forward to visiting the States in the near future.
What are you reading at the moment?
Julie and Julia by Julie Powell, John Adams by David McCoullough, re-reading Cider with Rosie by Laurie Lee.
Are you working on another book?
I’ve been inundated with emails from people saying they didn’t want Cleo to end. My next book will probably be a sequel around the power struggle between mothers and daughters, spirituality and – of course – a cat.
Thank you so much for your time, Helen, and much continued success with Cleo!
Thank you, Ingrid, for this opportunity to share some time with you.
You can learn more about Helen and her book on her website.