Today I'm excited for all of you to meet Desmond LaVelle, author of "Thirteen Cats LaVelle." This is a humorous, witty memoir in which Desmond uses the tales of the demise of his family's 13 cats over the years to share the tales of his own family.
Desmond will be giving away a free printed copy of his book to one lucky person who leaves a comment!
1.) Tell us a little about your background and something interesting about yourself.
Growing up, I wasn’t that great of a student, particularly when it came to English classes. Writing and reading didn’t interest me at all. And then college happened and somehow I landed a job as a writer at an advertising agency right after graduation. Being an advertising writer doesn’t necessarily mean you’re a talented writer. Writer is the default title for people who come up with ideas for commercials, like me. And because commercials are very short stories, I became interested in storytelling in other forms: sketch comedy, screenplay, short stories and memoir.
2.) What is one of your favorite books and why?
I have two favorite books. The Great Gatsby and whatever I just finished reading. Right now, that would be Major Pettigrew’s Last Stand by Helen Simonson.
Without getting too deep, I like The Great Gatsby for two reasons. In high school, it was the first book of any significant length that I actually enjoyed reading. That alone makes it special. But now I have a different appreciation for the story. I can relate to Jay Gatsby and his desire to revisit the past. It’s a good cautionary tale for people who tend to be overly nostalgic.
3.) Why did you decide to write this book?
Nostalgia. Writing this book was a nostalgic exorcism of sorts. In recent years, my family and I started telling the stories of the many cats we had over the years and how they died. It became a weird tradition for us. Over holidays, usually after a few bottles of wine, we would challenge each other to remember the details about each cat and manner in which it passed away. I figured somebody had better capture these stories before they disappeared forever or were embellished to the point of becoming fiction. One day I just woke up and started writing. In doing so, I discovered that I wasn’t writing a story about cats at all. I was using the lives (and deaths) of the cats as a framework with which to tell the story of our family. That nostalgic twist is what motivated me to finish the project.
4.) What was your experience like with self-publishing?
I tried to go the traditional route and made a serious attempt at getting representation. In all, I must have sent out 60 or 70 query letters and only had about a dozen or so responses. The reaction was consistent – though interesting, my concept wasn’t marketable and they didn’t think they could sell it to a publisher. I get that. These agents’ livelihood is tied directly their ability to sell a book to a publisher and publisher’s ability to sell that book to readers. They use subjectivity to screen queries because that’s the only method they have. But stories have the right to be told to as many people who want to listen. That’s why I decided to self-publish. That, and I was anxious to move on to the next project.
I decided to go the Publish On Demand route with lulu.com. Their customer service is average, but the quality of their product is very good. Distribution is across the board with the exception of the iBookstore. There’s a weird relationship between Apple and Lulu. It was a long process but everything worked out in the end.
5.) How have you marketed your book?
Rarely will self-published authors have an advertising budget. So having a digital presence is key. First thing’s first – spend the $20 to buy the domain name for the title of your book. Then link it to a blog hosted by either tumblr or Wordpress. I used Wordpress because it behaves more like a website and less like a blog. Social networking is key. Start a facebook page (link it to a twitter account) and recommend that all your friends “like” it. If you don’t know how to do all this, have someone help you set it up. Once the ecosystem is in place it’s fairly easy to manage. If you don’t have many followers at first, don’t worry. Be consistent with your updates, but don’t be annoying, and write in the voice that you created for the book. And have a direct link to your book on amazon wherever possible. I’m always surprised at how many people ask me where they can find my book. Either they think I sell them out of the trunk of my car or I don’t have enough of a direct digital path to retail.
Something I’d really like to try (but haven’t yet) is Pay with a Tweet (paywithatweet.com). You can either give away a digital version of your book, or a digital preview of your book, to someone who tweets about it. Their tweet will unlock a screen to download the file. The goal is amplification – people share it with their followers and followers of followers and so on. This isn’t a profitable way to distribute your book, after all, people are just paying with a tweet, but certain people’s opinions are much more valuable than a $2.34 check from Amazon.
6.) What advice would you give to other authors interested in self-publishing?
Practice quality control. You are your own agent, publisher and, obviously, author. It’s worth it to pay to have your manuscript edited by freelance editor. If you feel like you should employ the services of a designer to help you with your cover, do it. And find some critics to share your story with. Your mother will love anything you write. Look outside your nuclear family for someone you trust to tell you the truth.
7.) Please provide a favorite excerpt from your book.
Let’s start from the beginning. Here’s an excerpt from “Thirteen Cats LaVelle: An Introduction”:
“There comes a time in the life of every cat when it must die. Our family cats were no different. They just happened to meet their inescapable fates with extreme frequency and in the most peculiar ways. Why? There are a number of theories.
The explanation could be as simple as our family’s being irresponsible pet owners. But we weren’t. Our cats never went unfed and almost always enjoyed clean litter boxes. Beyond that, we did everything we thought responsible people should do. And when one of us willfully took the life of one of our cats it was almost always out of mercy rather than anger.
Some people might offer up an explanation that’s more complex in nature. For example, it could be that our animals behaved in dangerous ways because of the grating, deep vibrations of my father’s voice. Or perhaps it was my mother’s anxiety that triggered a suicidal switch in these cats’ telepathic brains. Or maybe it was the general intolerability of my little sisters, which makes most rational creatures want to stop living.
I like to think the reason is more mystical, like the cursed idol that caused the Bradys to experience bad luck on their trip to Hawaii in season four of The Brady Bunch. Curses do happen. But was each of these cats the victim of a “LaVelle Curse,” a curse that caused car doors to close when they shouldn’t and dogs to attack when they normally wouldn’t? Was it a curse that caused our cats to be euthanized by my parents or frozen alive? Probably. It has been my belief for some time that most things happen because of magic.
Occam’s razor is a scientific principle that, in the most basic terms, can be summarized as “the simplest explanation for a phenomenon is most likely the correct explanation.” Of all the possible reasons for my family to use up cats at an average of one for every 2.3 years, the answer is undeniable. It wasn’t because of my father’s voice, my mother’s anxiety, or my sisters’ intolerability. And it most certainly wasn’t because we were irresponsible pet owners. The simplest explanation is magic. After all, who am I to argue with scientific principle?
Good or bad, magical things tend to happen to families who have interesting dynamics or who are basically screwed up. If your family only functions through dysfunction then you know exactly what I’m talking about. And chances are, you wouldn’t want to trade the experience of being in such a family for anything in the world. Besides, people like us make for better stories. Charlie Bucket’s inheriting the Chocolate Factory wouldn’t have been nearly as remarkable had he not been living in squalor with his parents and both sets of grandparents. E.T. could have found a family with a father, but then Elliott wouldn’t have had any pain that needed healing.”
8.) Where can readers find you and your book?
On Amazon. There are both paper and kindle versions available (the Kindle version is on sale for $.99). Otherwise, the easiest way to follow the goings on is to “like” Thirteen Cats LaVelle at facebook.com/thirteencatslavelle. If you’re on twitter, I invite you to give me a follow at @desmondlavelle. My tweets major in writing and advertising and minor in all things stupid.