In watching Sunny, her Cornish Rex, sleeping, his mouth slightly open to show his little cat fangs, one fond thought came to Melissa Haas’s mind: “Catula”.
And referring to his lithe and angular Oriental-influenced body with his pale fur suggesting the idea of a vampire, she said “And you just look at him and you see it.” From the name a story began to develop in Melissa’s creative mind.
We know the story of Count Dracula, now meet Catula, Dracula’s cat!
Catula is the story of only one adventure in the life of Dracula’s favorite pet along with his fellow housemates Batula and Ratula and Catula’s brother Maximus as Catula encounters the only thing in the world that frightens him—the vacuum cleaner. He ends up in the hands of a certain group of Transylvanian mice who’ve been plotting revenge against him for years, though because they are legendarily dim-witted their plan backfires and with one more encounter with the evil vacuum cleaner Catula ends up back with the Count to curl up together in their coffin just as dawn breaks.
Inspired by her beloved rescued Cornish Rex and against a number of odds, Melissa illustrated and published the story herself, though she had no background in illustration and in 2007 when she began self-publishing was still a nebulous idea. Already an aspiring writer and with one book published, “I wrote the first draft for a writers’ group as a break from ‘serious literary fiction’,” Melissa said of how the story came to be. She had always envisioned it as an illustrated story, even had the ideas for the characters and the illustrations.
After a number of rewrites she sent it out to publishers with illustration ideas, feeling it might not be published. None expressed an interest so she went ahead with the illustrations and copyrighted the Catula, Batula and Ratula characters, then began navigating the developing field of self-publishing.
Illustrating and self-publishing
The process from idea to book took three years. “I wrote the story in 2007 and sent it out, but when I decided to go ahead and self-publish I spent most of 2009 copyrighting Catula, Batula and Ratula and the story, then decided on Lulu for publishing because they were the only one big enough to do a children’s picture book that didn’t cost too much,” Melissa said.
Melissa had no prior experience in illustrating a story but she had strong ideas and a medium she was comfortable working with. The illustrations each began with a sketch in pencil and then, depending on their finished style, were either painted with acrylics or scanned and worked on a digital drawing tablet.
“I never thought I could illustrate the book well, but I wanted to do it myself because he was my cat,” she said. “I kept working until they were right.”
She did all the illustrations in “a brutal six weeks” as she describes, and the first edition of the book was coming out of her printer the night before her first reading, to be bound manually into a hard cover and used for the event.
Against some pretty long odds
Illustrating and self-publishing a book is a huge accomplishment for Melissa as it would be for anyone, but the biggest odd against which she was working wasn’t figuring out ISBN numbers and a medium for her illustrations.
As a child she was diagnosed with Cystic Fibrosis (CF) after first being misdiagnosed with asthma for several years. In her early 30s, the median life expectancy for a person with CF, her health is fragile, she has used supplemental oxygen for years and the long-term effects of the disease have incurred a number of other health issues along with the constant risk of infection and general physical weakness that comes with impaired lung function and inadequate absorption of nutrition from food.
She often unexpectedly ends up in the hospital with a life-threatening condition, and can only work on anything she decides to do for a few hours at a time before the need to rest again.
Quite the creative spirit, Melissa published a book of poetry while she was in high school, Pixies and Fairy Dust, and also had a debut as a concert pianist at the Kennedy Center. Her mother was a professional artist specializing in ecclesiastical art and had given her some instruction in art; later her mother went to nursing school to be able to care for her daughter and have health insurance to cover the costs of treatments.
Melissa’s chosen profession, however, was medicine, and after being home-schooled by her mother and her grandparents she attended a pre-med high school. Later at the University of Pittsburgh she studied Applied Math, intending to get as far as she could with her goal of studying and practicing medicine.
“But I always wanted to write as a supplement to my practice,” she said. “I wanted the arts to keep me in touch with my patients’ stories and their lives.”
Living with CF has definitely affected Melissa’s work habits just as it has affected her health and her life course, as she chooses carefully what she spends her time on and gets all she can out of doing it.
“I wouldn’t have the deep focus on things that enables me to get a book done,” she said. “Sometimes the stuff you ‘bond with’ or choose to do doesn’t measure up to your expectations, you’re disappointed at the outcome.
“I don’t have that luxury. I was hospitalized with four life-threatening conditions just this year. I consider things more closely, I really evaluate things I’d like to do. My life is built around the experiences I choose to do and I really want to see them through,” she finished.
Melissa and Sunny, therapy for each other
Several years ago as a few of Melissa’s good friends were getting married she also found her health failing and had increasing difficulty just in getting around she decided finding a pet to share her life was what she needed. Prior to that she’d only had “prize-winning goldfish”, pointing out the actual trophies on a windowsill, and obviously with her illness, asthma and allergies, constant oxygen, a wheelchair and frequent hospitalizations she needed to choose wisely and find just the right animal. She decided she’d like a cat, but the allergy issue narrowed her choice to the few breeds which don’t shed like the hairless and semi-hairless breeds, and of those she loved the look of the Cornish Rex.
“I saw one dressed up and that made me think it might work,” she said. If the cat put up with that it would likely be fine with the other oddities of living with a wheelchair and oxygen and strangers coming to care for Melissa.
She decided on a rescue for the reasons of rescue itself and also because, if having a pet didn’t work out for any of many possible reasons, she didn’t want to invest in an animal only to have to give it up. Plus, the nearest breeders were too far for her to travel so she couldn’t meet the cat before it came to join her home, and even more distant kittens would have to be flown to her and she didn’t like that idea at all.
So she looked for the perfect Cornish through rescue websites finding Sunny listed on one in Rochester, NY (Melissa lives in Brookline, a suburb of Pittsburgh, PA), and Sunny traveled through a network to meet her.
“Sunny is a pure-bred Cornish Rex, but he had several homes before he came here,” Melissa explained. “His first owner put him up for adoption [instead of returning him to his breeder], and after that he had two adoptive homes and two foster homes.” One of them said he was “mean” but Melissa isn’t sure what they meant by that, or why the feline love of her life wasn’t the center of any household he’d lived in.
The two are never apart, Sunny attending every book signing and reading, wearing his costumes proudly, calmly meeting the public, and supporting his person, and every area in the house has a spot for Sunny. Also, Sunny is deaf, but the two have their own means of communication through hand signals and activities
“We are bonded, we have to be together,” she said. “I have a prescription for him as a therapy pet and he comes to the hospital with me. I can’t be without him, and he can’t be without me.”
He apparently didn’t care for being a show cat though she thought he’d be a natural, but “he really loves our book signings, he loves children and people and being out in public,” she said. “We call it ‘going to cat work’. When we’d done a number of book signings and other events he was so accustomed to packing up to go that one day, even though we weren’t going anywhere, he got into his carrier and waited. He was so disappointed, I hated telling him we weren’t going anywhere!
“But my life now is just incredibly ‘Sunny-centric’,” Melissa said, laughing. Of all her other writing aspirations “now I just want to write books about Sunny,” she continued.
Melissa has ideas for other books in the “Catula” series, including a pop-up book The Ballad of Ratula and Batula, and Maximus the Witches’ Cat, both featuring characters begun in Catula.
And the other stories she’s been working on are part of a series called “New World Monsters”, one in which a gargoyle cat—also inspired by Sunny’s physique—falls in love with a stained glass window.
Catula will be featured in the December 2012/January 2013 issue of Shelf Unbound as one of the “notable 2012 self-published books”.
Some of the inspiring things on the walls in Melissa’s studio.
Where to find the book
You can find Catula in both paperback and Kindle on Amazon.com, and also visit www.catulathebook.com or Catula, the Misadventuers of Dracula’s Cat on Facebook for more information or to contact Melissa.
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