Welcome to the six hundred and ninetieth of my blog interviews with novelists, poets, short story authors, biographers, agents, publishers and more. Today’s is with humorous non-fiction author Amy L Peterson. I first chatted with Amy (click here for that interview) back in April 2012 where we talked generally about writing. Amy is back today, with an update, and to talk more specifically about writing non-fiction. A list of interviewees (blogged and scheduled) can be found here. If you like what you read, please do go and investigate further.
Amy: I’m an author, wife, stepmom, grant manager and caretaker of pets. Our pet count currently includes two puppies, one middle-aged cat, two mynah birds, seven hamsters, and three aquariums of fish (because the discus fish didn’t get along and needed to be separated).
I’m based in mid-Michigan near the home of the Michigan State University Spartans. It seems I’ve always written, but didn’t think much of it until I won second place in a Law Day essay contest in fifth or sixth grade. The prize was $50 and I realized then that I’d have to be really lucky to make a lot of money writing and that it’d be a good hobby.
Morgen: Which sounds like it then became a career (I use the term loosely, I think most of us who write full-time are still working on making it our careers!). You write non-fiction, how do you decide what to write about?
Amy: When I became a stepmom to four kids and hadn’t a clue what I was doing, I thought perhaps my experience might be entertaining and helpful to other stepmoms and potential stepmoms, so that became the basis of my first book, From Zero to Four Kids in Thirty Seconds. Shortly after I got married, my husband began bringing animals into the house and that material evolved into Something Furry Underfoot.
Morgen: A great husband. Many, I would have said, would have frowned on their wives or children doing that. What have you had published to-date? Do you write under a pseudonym?
Amy: From Zero to Four Kids in Thirty Seconds is about becoming a stepmom to four great kids, who were 3, 5, 13 and 15 at the time I met them. All of the kids are big now and survived being under the same roof with me at times, so I guess that worked out okay. Something Furry Underfoot is about taking care of, and trying to spoil, a whole bunch of different pets.
I’m reserving the use of a pseudonym for when I get into a whole bunch of trouble and want to write about it without anyone knowing it’s me. So far, no need.
Morgen: That’s what I thought but I’ve written some very (very) dark crime that I’ll probably use another name for… we shall see. Have you self-published? If so, what lead to you going your own way?
Amy: I self-published because I worked with a literary agent once upon a time and it didn’t have a happy ending. Self-publishing is a lot of work but it puts the writer in control of their own destiny.
Morgen: That’s a shame, but you’re not the first writer I’ve spoken to who has had that experience, but as you say, we have more control going our own way and really, we have to do most of the marketing ourselves these days anyway. Are your books available as eBooks? Do you read eBooks or is it paper all the way?
Amy: Yes, my books are available as eBooks. I read mostly paperbacks myself but that’s because my husband keeps buying paperbacks, and a paperback sitting around unread is quite sad, really.
Morgen: It is. I have many of those. I tend to read more eBooks but only because I’m in love with my Kindle Fire (and I get a list of <100 free ones each day from http://digitalbooktoday.com/free-kindle-books). Did you choose the titles / covers of your books?
Amy: Yes on both accounts. But while I came up with the titles and covers, coming up with a cover only means I came up with the idea. The real find for me has been my two graphic artists, because they can take my awful description of what I want and turn it into something eye-catching.
Morgen: They’re very striking. Colour definitely helps catch the eye, and the illustrations are fantastic. Which authors did you read when you were younger and did they shape you as a writer?
Amy: I was one of those Newberry award winner kids, reading everything that had that gold seal on it. I was also a Beverly Cleary fan.
Morgen: Not names I recognise. I guess we didn’t have them here in the UK, or not in my era (see earlier reference to Starsky & Hutch). What are you working on at the moment / next?
Amy: Something Furry Underfoot is my humorous yet touching memoir about a bunch of critters that came into my life, starting with frogs and iguanas that didn’t stay long, to lots of long-term critters, including African pygmy hedgehogs, ferrets, hamsters, gerbils, mice, guinea pigs, dogs, a stray cat, rescue rabbits, a domestic duck, and mynah birds. Oh, and those fish I mentioned. As with becoming a stepmother, I hadn’t a clue how to take care of any of these critters, but I soon became chief caretaker and master of spoiling. This book has tips like my first book, and in this case, they’re mostly tips about pets. For example consider Tip #28: It is important (although not easy) to know a boy gerbil from a girl gerbil. There are also some tips related to spouses, like Tip #4: The definition of `clean’ differs between the sexes.
Four of the critters I wrote about in Something Furry Underfoot are featured in kids’ photo books, which are easy-to-read rhyming books told from the animal’s perspective.
Dusty, the Angel Pup tells Dusty’s story of growing up in a house with lots of other pets and how he became the guard dog and pal to all.
Goodnight, Big Wuzzy, is a ferret’s story about rambunctious life in a home with three other ferret pals and a cat and two dogs.
Purrkins, the Cat is the story of a stray cat that makes it quite clear we, the owners, still haven’t figured out to make him perfectly happy.
And Bumpkin Gets Big is the story of a domestic duckling that we raised inside our house. Each of the four photo books ends with a message to parents to consider so they know what each critter needs and likes.
Morgen: I was told by the rescue centre that my dog was a girl because he came in with an ‘Agatha’ tag on. It soon became apparent (when we went for a walk) that he wasn’t. They phoned the number and was told it was a spare (so he’d not had his own in 18 months and the women never came to claim him). Needless to say, I changed his name. Do you manage to write every day, or ever suffer from writer’s block?
Amy: If writing includes responding to emails, marketing, writing articles, and generally plunking away at the keyboard, then I write every day. I seldom suffer from writer’s block because pets keep coming and going. For example, consider that on August 20, I found myself driving from Michigan to Pennsylvania to look at a puppy my husband fell for online . . . and we came back with two puppies.
Morgen: I’d be hopeless in that situation. I’d have a farm full (if I had a farm and staff!). Do you do a lot of editing or do you find that as time goes on your writing is more fully-formed?
Amy: I do a lot of editing, both before and after a real editor reads what I drafted and sends it back to me with a bunch of changes to make.
Morgen: Yes, we do have a habit of doing that. (I’m a freelance editor as well as a writer… blogger, tutor, writing group host, speaker etc. etc.). Do you have to do much research?
Amy: Every time a new critter arrived in my house, I did some research. My book covers 18 years of marriage, which goes back to a time when we couldn’t find information on the Internet. Of course, having said that, even with the Internet available now, some of what we learned can’t be found in books or online. For example, we learned that it’s possible to get 9 hamsters for the price of one—all you have to do is accidently buy a pregnant hamster. (And yes, we kept all of the babies.)
Morgen: Ouch. Do you have pieces of work that you think will never see light of day?
Amy: I wrote some short stories that are tucked away in an old filing cabinet and should probably be recycled. But who has time for that when two puppies wants to play?
Morgen: If you do, I welcome them on my Flash Fiction Fridays slot, but yes, I can quite understand… it’s the lure (in my case) of the big brown eyes. Have you had any rejections? If so, how do you deal with them?
Amy: The beauty of self-publishing is that you’re only rejected if people don’t buy your books. So let me think about this: if people don’t buy Something Furry Underfoot, I’ll probably deal with it by taking a vacation from writing . . . which might lead to having too much time on my hands, which might lead to me doing something bad, which might mean I’ll need a pseudonym. Well, let’s hope that doesn’t happen.
Morgen: I hope not. Do you do much marketing for your published works or indeed for yourself as a ‘brand’?
Amy: Unfortunately, my name is fairly common and my parents weren’t smart like your parents to spell it so I’m not confused with other Amy Petersons. I mean Am-me or Aimeeeee would have been better. So I’m not a household name yet which means I have to market. I do lots of marketing on my own (including interviews with anyone who wants one), plus I hired a marketing expert and paid to get my book in front of a bunch of librarians and bookstores.
Morgen: I still get called Morgan (a LOT) by people who email me (you’d think my email address, firstname.lastname@example.org would give a clue) but it certainly easier when Googling me. One emailer realised his error when he Googled ‘Morgan Bailey’ and found the transsexual porn star. What’s your favourite / least favourite aspect of your writing life? Has anything surprised you?
Amy: My favourite part of writing is when people write to me to tell me they read my book, and then go on to tell me their story—about being a stepmom or about the pet they rescued or raised. My least favourite part of writing is that there isn’t a “MARKET MY BOOK” button on my computer. One of those would allow me to start work on my next book. As far as surprises: my dear husband continues to surprise me. The poor fella thinks I’m listening to him while I’m writing when all I’m doing is nodding to make it look like I’m listening. I know that’s where some of these animals came from—my nodding while writing and inadvertently agreeing we needed a mynah bird. (You might think I would have paid attention when I heard “mynah bird” but I was obviously working on something important.)
Morgen: If I had a penny / cent for every interviewee who’s said marketing for their least favourite. I think we mostly resent the time it takes. What advice would you give aspiring writers?
Amy: Self-publishing has opened the door to allow writers to publish on their own. But that also means there’s a ton of stuff being published, making it such that the unknown writer has to spend a lot of time marketing to compete with everyone else’s self-published work. My advice: plan to spend as much time marketing as you did writing your book.
Morgen: It’ll likely turn out that way. Although the upside is that we get to ‘meet’ our (potential) readers directly. If you could invite three people from any era to dinner, who would you choose and what would you cook (or hide the takeaway containers)?
Amy: I would invite three people who could help me sell my book because my books are about animals and a percentage of the proceeds will support animal rescue organizations. So, I’d invite Ellen DeGeneres because she likes critters and will make us laugh, Melissa Etheridge because she’s really big on animals and her photos will make us cry, and Oprah Winfrey, because she’s got a few million connections and was included in one of Cesar Milan’s books about dogs so I know she at least likes dogs. Since I don’t cook anything that takes longer than about 10 minutes, I’d hire my husband to cook, which means I’ll probably have to “pay” by taking in another animal. Hm.
Now, my husband said I should invite St. Francis of Assisi because he’s the patron saint of animals, Erma Bombeck so I can chat with a favourite author, and Steve Irwin (a.k.a. The Crocodile Hunter) because he seemed to love all types of animals. So, it looks like we’ll need another leaf in our table to accommodate all these people.
Morgen: And / or two dinner parties. Do you plot your stories or do you just get an idea and run with it?
Amy: Me personally, I think my husband plotted Something Furry Underfoot, because he’s the one that kept bringing all the pets home. Well, until the kitten showed up under the deck. That was my discovery. Then I saw the domestic rabbits running free at the wildlife area. Hm. And then the student assistant at work brought me the domestic duckling. Okay, well, I suppose there wasn’t much plotting at all.
Morgen: <laughs> I guess not. You could make a third ‘Almighty’ (Bruce / Evan) film… Amy Almighty. Are you involved in anything else writing-related other than actual writing or marketing of your writing?
Amy: I write some amazingly bureaucratic stuff at my job with the state of Michigan that would bore you to tears in minutes.
Morgen: Mmm… perhaps, but I write fiction so I’m sure I’d find it interesting fiction fodder… What do you think the future holds for a writer?
Amy: I think the writer’s real challenge is going to be marketing so people are aware their book is even out there. Interviews are vital and very much appreciated.
Morgen: You’re very welcome. I know I’m biased but I do think appearing on other people’s blogs is really useful… and hopefully fun. Where can we find out about you and your writing?
Amy: At amylpeterson.com you can click on About Me and read some fairly truthful things about me. You will also see my annual Christmas missives, my books, and you can read about the furry critters I blog about. That should give you a pretty good sense of me and my writing.
Morgen: Thank you, Amy. Is there anything else you’d like to mention?
Amy: How long do you have? Seriously, I really appreciate this opportunity. I sold quite a few copies of From Zero Kids in Thirty Seconds as a result of the exposure from your site, so really appreciate the exposure for Something Furry Underfoot.
Morgen: Oh, excellent. I’m so pleased. I have had quite a few guests say it’s helped sell their books (some may not know, or may not think to tell me). Whilst this blog doesn’t seem to impact mine much (generally a slow trickle), it’s certainly getting my name out there, which is great. Is there anything you’d like to ask me?
Amy: How many critters do you have?
Morgen: Ah, just the one; a Jack Russell / Cairn cross who’ll be 13 on Boxing Day (or thereabouts, he’s a rescue that I got on June 26th 2002 and was told he was about 18 months old). I have had other animals as a child (two guinea pigs called Starsky & Hutch, various hamsters and stick insects, and two cats when I left home), but a dog keeps me certainly busy enough alongside writing, blogging etc. I’d love another cat but he chases them out the garden so wouldn’t be fair on either of them for him to do so in the house.
Thank you, Amy. It was great chatting with you again.
I then invited Amy to include an extract from her latest book, Something Furry Underfoot, and this scene occurs after the purchase of an African pygmy hedgehog named Sonic. Hedgehogs have limited eyesight which is explained in a prior section of the book. Aby is Amy’s sister.
Tip #7: Most pets like to have pals to hang out with. Be careful what kind of pals you get.
On Sonic’s second night in our home, Mark and I were sitting down for a fine dinner of cereal and milk, talking about how nice Sonic was, reflecting on the night we’d bought her, how she wasn’t very interactive when she was out running into things, and how she was now alone.
“You know,” I said before I could stop myself, “she had a buddy at the pet shop.”
Mark had been studying the details of something Captain Crunch was offering on the cereal box, so I went on, “At the pet shop the other night, all the animals were curled up and sleeping with a partner.”
“Mmmhmm,” he said, looking up. “What are you saying, my sweetie pie?”
“That maybe Sonic was taken away from her sister, and that, well, maybe she’d like some company.”
In retrospect, it was one of the dumbest statements I’d ever made. Before I could even finish my cereal, Mark was on the phone tracking down a breeder in St. Louis, because “we don’t want a male from the same litter as Mamma Hedgehog if we’re going to breed them.”
“Male? Breed them?” I sat dumbfounded. “Didn’t I say ‘sister’? And I know I hadn’t referred to Sonic as ‘Mamma Hedgehog.’”
Just how my desire to give Sonic a female buddy turned into a breeding opportunity for some stud from St. Louis neither of us can remember clearly. My only recollection is that Mark mentioned the possibility of making a small fortune in the hedgehog business: They were rising in popularity, and at two-hundred dollars each and the ability to reproduce every 32 days, “Well, just imagine,” he said.
Since Aby was planning a visit home for Thanksgiving, a week or so later, she found herself heading our way with her boyfriend, Jay, and Louie, a spiffy male hedgehog.
The day of the big arrival, I received a phone call that began with the crackle of a bad cell phone and the words, “I think he’s dead.”
“I think the hedgehog is dead. He’s not doing anything and hasn’t done anything since we picked him up.”
“In fact, they don’t ever do much of anything,” I started. Sensing her panic, I added, “Look, they’re nocturnal and he’s probably a bit stressed out right now. Are his sides moving up and down or in and out?”
“Just a sec.” A crackle later and, “Yes. But he hasn’t eaten anything or had any water since we left.”
“And that was, what, four hours ago? I think he’ll be okay.”
Four hours later, Aby appeared at the door and, without even a hello, held a box to my face and said, “Here.”
Mark took the box and opened it. Inside, curled up in a ball, was a brown, white-tipped hedgehog a few weeks younger than our salt-and-pepper Sonic. “He’s perfect for the job,” Mark said proudly.
As I took Aby’s coat, she told about having to drive through East St. Louis—a town best known for its drug dealers—to get to the hedgehog breeder’s house. How the breeder wasn’t home, but his multi-pierced girlfriend said to come in though she didn’t know a thing about hedgehogs. How Aby had to walk through this really creepy house, past a monkey and other exotic creatures, until she came to two aquariums with “these spiny, rolled up things.” She then had to choose between three spiny pincushions and had agonized for eight hours afterward as to whether she had chosen the right one.
I assured her she had done very, very well.
After Aby posed with the hedgehog for the first and only picture ever taken of the two of them together, we let Louie run into things in the house before placing him by himself in a 10-gallon aquarium. Inside the aquarium was a tiny shoebox with a hedgehog-sized hole in it and some aspen bedding. It was meant to be a temporary home until we had time to make a new one for him.
At 6:30 the next morning, I went to peek in on Louie. He wasn’t in the large part of the aquarium. I lifted up the tiny shoebox. He wasn’t there, either. I called to Mark and we ran around the house with flashlights, looking under furniture, behind the refrigerator, everywhere we could think of. Because of a fugitive hedgehog, I was late for work for the first time in my life.
That evening, we searched for Louie once again. Realizing that he might be nocturnal, we shut off the lights and began the first of several nights of quality time together sitting in the dark on the floor, waiting for Louie to show up. Mark sat in the living room, I sat in the family room, and we chatted across the rooms about animals, kids, politics, religion, and sex. The latter conversation led us down the road of wondering how spiny hedgehogs mated without hurting one another.
Two more nights went by in the same manner: a husband and wife in separate rooms, sitting on the floor and talking dirty.
On the fourth night, we talked about getting another hedgehog. I was still voting for a female. Mark continued to like the idea of breeding.
And that’s when I heard the pattering of little feet moving quickly across the floor. “That’s him,” I whispered. Straining in the dark to see our boy, I held still until the sound of the tiny feet seemed to be right in front of me. As I reached out blindly, I felt a cold nose on my leg. He’d run right into me. “Got him!”
Mark turned on the light and we checked out our little escapee. His eyes were brightly lit and he didn’t seem any worse for wear from his adventure. We tucked him back into his aquarium with plenty of food and water to go on. And because hedgehog hunting wasn’t part of what I wanted to do with my spare time, we put a small book on top of the aquarium lid.
The next morning, Louie was missing again.
Tip #8: Love always finds a way.
To find out how Louie found his way into Sonic’s cage and how many litters of baby hedgehogs resulted, read Chapter 2 of Something Furry Underfoot.
A humorous, heart-warming memoir about how Amy L Peterson’s husband, Mark, brought home one pet after the other, and how Amy cared for–and often fell for–each one. This is a fun, touching book that includes 50 tips about hedgehogs, ferrets, dogs, a cat, rabbits, lots of small rodents, guinea pigs, a domestic duck, mynah birds and tropical fish.
When Amy married Mark in 1994, she became a stepmother to four children ages three, five, 13 and 15. Unable to find uplifting self-help books about step-parenting, Amy documented her own humorous and stressful experience in From Zero to Four Kids in Thirty Seconds. Her book includes numerous tips for stepmoms and is a fun, entertaining read.
At the same time Amy was thrown head-first into the world of stepmotherhood, she was also unwittingly plunged into the world of pet ownership. Something Furry Underfoot documents Amy’s adventures in learning how to care for and spoil a variety pets, and how she ultimately fell for each one. Amy also created four rhyming photo books for kids, each of which tells the story of one of the characters in Something Furry Underfoot. A portion of the proceeds from each of Amy’s animal books will be donated to animal rescue organizations.
Amy works for the state of Michigan and lives with Mark and numerous critters. When not working or caring for animals, Amy tends to get in trouble while traveling, the details of which may be the makings of her next book.
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