Deb Barnes, of Zee and Zoey, is a hard lady to catch up with! As a busy cat mom with a full-time job, author and the president of the Cat Writers’ Association, she has a packed schedule.
Q: Deb, what got you started in the pet industry?
A: In 2008 two of my cats, Zee and Zoey, “got together.” I wasn’t educated enough about cats at that point to think they could be spayed or neutered before they were a year old and didn’t think about what that would mean when I had a male and a female cat in the house.
I was laid off [at the time] with no direction, and I started taking photos of my cats—making up stories about them and emailing them to friends and family. The new kittens stole my heart the way Zee and Zoey had. They kept me busy, and they kept my mind off the fact that my husband and I struggled to find jobs. We were worried about losing our house. It was a very dark time, but somehow the cats and the kittens got me through it.
I can’t quite explain it, but I remember sitting on the couch, crocheting an afghan and watching Ellen. The kittens were in the yarn and they were aggravating me until I realized this is what kittens do -- they were being themselves. Right then and there I decided to write a book about how they were inspiring me. I didn’t have a clue what I was doing, but I was driven to write this book. The book was, The Chronicles of Zee & Zoey: A Journey of the Extraordinarily Ordinary.
It was around that time I found out about the Cat Writers’ Association. I started a website and a blog as a vehicle for selling my book and starting my journey into the pet industry.
Q: Tell us about Zee and Zoey.
A: They are the mom and dad of the kittens who prompted me to write my first book. Zee, Maine Coon, was a gift to my husband; and Zoey is my Bengal. (Anyone who knows me knows I am “The Leopard Lady.”) I had always wanted a Bengal, and after my senior cat passed away, I found Zoey. Zee immediately fell in love with her. It’s their love story and their relationship that I write about in my first book. They showed me that even in the most ordinary of circumstances, or the darkest of days, you can find a ray of hope if you just look for the signs—most of which are right in front of you.
Q: Have cats always been your focus?
A: I have always had cats. My first cat was named GigiFluffySharon—all one word! The first and last names were after friends of mine, the middle name (Fluffy) was because she was, well fluffy!
I was very shy growing up. I was smaller than most kids my age, I wore thick glasses, and I was picked on—so, it was a rough childhood. Cats and books were my lifesavers. Cats never judged, and they didn’t ask questions. Cats just stayed by my side and let me enjoy my books.
Writing is the same for me: I am able to express myself without having to talk with people in real life. The connection with books, cats, and writing has been with me for my entire life.
Q: Tell us about your other books.
A: All my cats have been featured in my books. I had another cat, Jazz, a Ragdoll who passed away when he was fifteen. He was so special to me. I knew I would have to help him cross the Rainbow Bridge because he was a senior. I didn’t want him to, but knew I wanted to take advantage of any remaining time we had together. I spent time appreciating him and loving him as much as I could. The book, Purr Prints of the Heart: A Cat’s Tale of Life, Death, and Beyond was written so I could share what it was like, what I went through, because I know so many other people struggled with losing a beloved pet as well. The book is written through the pet’s perspective—in the voice of Jazz—to help people through the grieving process and let them know what I believe it was like.
This book was so hard to write. I was in denial for quite some time, and when I was writing the book, the floodgates opened. Then I felt a comforting presence around me; I felt like it was Jazz telling me he was always going to be in my heart. He was right and that’s what I want people to know—even when you say good-bye your pets are always in your heart.
Q: I understand you founded the annual Rainbow Bridge Remembrance Day (August 28).
A: I did. This now-national holiday is to honor pets who have passed. The day itself has received national status and is universally recognized by pet parents. I think people need “ceremony” or a way to process what they’re feeling and on Rainbow Bridge Remembrance Day, we can all come together and share our grief and our love.
The day is bittersweet for me. I don’t want to open old wounds and have people relive painful moments, but I receive so many personal emails and comments about how I help them remember and share information about pets who are no longer with them.
Q: What is the process of writing your books like?
A: Writing a book disrupts your life! You need a patient fiancé, too. I don’t have a traditional publisher so that means I write the book, design the cover, publish it, and market it. It’s a lot of work.
Q: That brings us to your other book, “Makin’ Biscuits: Weird Cat Habits and the Even Weirder Habits of the Humans Who Love Them.”
A: This all started when one of my cats, Mia, who was notoriously shy, settled in for a nap on a towel on top of my head. Yes, I had just gotten out of the shower, wrapped my hair in a towel and she jumped up onto the towel, “made biscuits” then laid down on the towel on my head. That was a major change in our relationship. Up until that point she was shy and had a “don’t touch me” or “don’t look at me” attitude. The next day, though, she was waiting on the hamper for me to get out of the shower and again she jumped onto my head and settled in.
Her actions, which were weird, prompted me to write, Makin’ Biscuits. For this book I also reached out to other people and asked for their stories of any weird habits their cats exhibited. What people don’t always know is that all cat habits start for a reason. I delved into the habits and try to explain them. The more people understand cats, the fewer cats will be left to languish in shelters. I want people to know cats are funny and quirky and do fun things. That book won me three awards! It was endorsed by Dr. Marty Becker, and bestselling author Gwen Cooper (Homer’s Odyssey) wrote the forward.
Q: You were recently voted president of the Cat Writers’ Association. Can you tell us about CWA?
A: Back when I started the process of learning how to write and publish I was so green. I had no clue what I was doing, but I knew how to Google! I found the CWA and reached out and started making friends in the pet space: Kate Benjamin (Hauspanther), Layla Morgan Wilde (Black Cats Tell All), and cat expert Ingrid King. I didn’t realize how huge these connections were.
Once I got involved in CWA I knew I wanted to get more involved in cat issues like TNR (trap, neuter, release). I also went to my first CWA conference in White Plains, NY. The more I found out about the organization the more I wanted to be involved. To truly make a difference, you need to volunteer; I volunteered for a million things with CWA. When CWA lost its president Dr. Lori Houston when she unexpectedly passed, I knew that someday I wanted to follow in her footsteps and be president of the CWA. The former president, Marci Kladnik, stepped down last year and I tossed my hat into the ring.
I want the CWA to become nationally known and known for the fundraising we do and the cat causes we support. In fact, at our 25th anniversary conference in May we hosted a book signing and fundraising event to benefit the Humane Society of Missouri. I want to see more people get involved in the organization, to volunteer and to help us grow.
Q: If someone wanted to get involved in the pet industry, what advice would you offer?
A: Do your homework: There are a lot of blogs and websites out there. The industry is very competitive. You need to know it’s a lot of work. You need to know what your goals are: do you want to entertain, educate, pay the bills, or get free cat food or toys? When I wrote my first book, I naively thought it would be the next Harry Potter. That’s not how it works, unfortunately.
Be realistic. Don’t give up your day job. Know that the pet industry, like every industry, is constantly evolving and you need to be able to adapt. Join organizations like the CWA to build your network and to learn. Don’t just join, though—get involved, volunteer and do all you can to get known and to help others.
Q: Is there anything else you’d like people to know about the CWA?
A: The name of our organization, the Cat Writers’ Association, is deceiving. We are a diverse, global organization with members from across the world. Our focus is not exclusively for writers. Our goal, ultimately, is to improve the well-being of cats by providing quality information to the public. The way we are sharing that message is through writing, photography, illustration, video, social media and more. The members support one another through the conference, our mentoring programs, the website and our social pages. The CWA is inclusive of those who are just beginning their career path to those who have already made their mark but who want to continue to learn.
Robbi Hess, award-winning author, is multi-petual: She shares her home with two Devon Rex kittens, three adult rescue cats, a mini poodle, a Goldendoodle, three lizards and two ferrets. When not caring for her pets, she is an editor, speaker, time management and productivity guru, content creator, social media manager and blogger. She writes at All Words Matter, My Divas Dish, and is the story editor and chief cat herder at Positively Woof.
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