Of cats, rats and kids’ books

Author, conservationist, world traveller and educator Martin Keeley is a man of many hats and he’s put another one on to launch a kids’ book.

His new short story collection, “Oscar and the Royal Avenue Cats”, will see the light of day for the first time at Books & Books in Camana Bay on Sunday, 10 November at 10.30am as part of the free Story & Craft Time series there.

Weekender managed to get five minutes with this busy and affable chap to talk about all things writing, cats and Royal Avenue.

How did inspiration come to you?

Some 30 years ago, when I was living in Alberta, Canada, I used to look after a friends’ children on Saturday afternoons. We would go for long walks along the Elbow River and one day we were talking about cats. “OK,” I said, “How would you like me to tell you some cat stories?”

Everyone agreed and that was how Oscar was born. I have always had cats no matter where I have lived in this world – one of my poems is named after my current favourite, Bert.

Calgary at the time was booming and the city was going through yet another a transition, with the old town inner city neighbourhoods – where I had always lived in that city – undergoing the usual social problems. The first stories in the book – which has eight of Oscar’s adventures – are about how the cats deal with these problems when they threaten their neighbourhood, Royal Avenue.

And when did the book come together?

After publishing my poetry book [Fragments, 2011] I was tidying up my office – an ongoing process since Paloma – when I can across photocopies of the original stories. Time to publish, I thought, but I didn’t have the original art. So, I called the artist, Donna Sharpe, perhaps my oldest Canadian friend who now lives in Sackville to see if she still had the art.

Well, happenstance happened again. Every year in the fall the artists in Sackville have an “open house” when for a week the public can tour their studios and see them at work. It so happened that year Donna had been cleaning up her studio and came across the original artwork. So, no problem there!

But the stories needed updating a little. My editor, Glennys Christie in Florida, gave them the once over and had some great suggestions. One of them, however, was that there were not enough stories to make a good kids’ book.

How did your journeys inspire the tales?

My travels affected the later stories of Oscar as he visits a couple of the places that I have spent time in. In addition, at least two of the major characters in the later stories are based on people who have become my friends in countries as far afield as Honduras and China.

As the situations in the stories are primarily based on social interactions (feline and human) any influence is from my observations of the natural world that I love and fight for, and the appreciation of it Oscar comes to have during his travels and discoveries.

How did you hook up with Donna Rawlins Sharpe, the illustrator?

We first met in the early 1970s when I moved to Vancouver, and have retained contact ever since. When I was producing theatre in Calgary, I sponsored as exhibition of Donna’s art at the University Of Calgary to coincide with one of my productions. She also introduced me to the designer, Sue Rose, who designed, Fragments and has done the same for Oscar.

What are your hopes with the new book?

Donna and I are both hoping that it will go down well. I think the stories work well in today’s setting and complex world. They are written with a view to helping children expand their English reading skills while enjoying the adventures of Oscar and his buddies – both feline and human. Frankly, anyone who loves cats should really enjoy them.

As self-publishers – this is a joint project between Donna and myself – we obviously are limited in our production numbers by the costs. If the book sells well, we plan to print more copies and see what happens next. I am hoping to market the book more internationally through my brother-in-law Andy’s small publishing house, Pisgah Press, and will see what happens then.

I also think that the stories and illustrations are good enough to create a new cartoon series and have been exploring that direction. Much will depend on what happens next with the first edition and how well the book is received.

Are there more planned?

Publishing a follow-up set of stories would not be a problem. I have already gotten several ideas sketched out – then it would be simply a matter of finding the time to write them!

And with that, Martin swapped hats again, setting sail for other adventures beyond the horizon. Luckily, he’ll be back on Saturday, 10 November at 10.30am at Books & Books.

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