Pens, Paws, and Claws would like to welcome Janis Susan May/Janis Patterson to the blog for Writer Wednesday!
Tell our readers a little about yourself and your writing.
I’m a seventh generation Texan and a third generation wordsmith. I sold my first novel to a NY publisher in 1979 and have since published around 35 novels – I really don’t remember exactly how many. I was one of the founders of Romance Writers of America and currently serve as the Texas representative on the Southwest Regional Board of Mystery Writers of America. Now I am mainly self-publishing under my Sefkhat-Awbi Books imprint. In addition, I’ve been Editor in Chief of two multi-magazine publishing groups, an actress/singer, Supervisor of Accessioning in a bio-genetic DNA testing lab, a travel writer, a jewelry designer, a talent agent, a document checker in a travel agency… plus more stuff. Yes, I bore very easily!
Tell us about your pets. Are any of them models for pets in your writing?
I’ve had pets most of my life. First there was Lady (a golden Cocker Spaniel) and her daughter T-Square. I had a parakeet. I had a white rat named Junder for whom I made a halter and leash out of pink grosgrain ribbon. We stopped traffic when we went for walks, especially in winter when I wore my full length fur. For a while I babysat a 6-7 foot long anaconda when my cousin (a world-class herpetologist) was ill. That was a fascinating experience, though I never could get service in that apartment again for all the years I lived there… When I moved out of my parents’ home, I had cats, as I worked long hours and they weren’t as labor intensive as dogs.
For years I had a recessive gene semi-feral Siamese named Sekhmet who was solid black with bright green eyes. She was also the most intelligent animal I’ve ever known, who could open any door in the house except the two outside doors, which I kept deadbolted, and used to turn the lights off and on just to amuse herself. Sekhmet hated people and would simply vaporize when anyone came over. There were those who – when I told them stories about Sekhmet – would swear that I didn’t have a cat, that I would go out and pluck tufts of cat hair from the bushes and rub them into the carpet just to pretend I had a cat. Yes, I have strange friends. Sekhmet also liked to answer the telephone, which drove the telemarketers wild. (Good girl!) She lived to be 21, and I miss her to this day.
After Sekhmet I got a ginger cat named Marmelade. She was very obviously mentally deficient, probably because she had been taken too early from her mother. She was grown when I got her, but didn’t know anything about being a cat. She would get into the litter box, vigorously dig a hole in the litter to the bottom, put her front feet into it and then poop over the side. I had to teach her how to use a litter box properly. It was no fun at all, and is not a fit topic for conversation. She never was very well and died less than a year after I got her.
I didn’t have any animals when I started dating the man who would become my husband, which was a lucky thing. He hated cats and told me years later that he would never have dated anyone who had a cat! It took some guile on my part, but I did get a cat after we had been married about two years – just in time to keep me company during his first overseas deployment. Shadow was a stray who crawled into our yard, too emaciated and weak to walk and tattered from attacks by other animals. An old cat, he had been declawed and could neither escape or protect himself. Of course I took him to the vet immediately and did everything I could to take care of him. We had him for several years. We got a little tuxedo cat to keep him company. When she came to us she had been declawed in all four feet – first time I ever saw that – and was very skittish. All our animals are rescue animals, by the way, and usually from horrific situations. Her name was Boots, but I used to know a woman named Boots, and I didn’t like the name. Usually we don’t change our animals’ names – they’ve been through enough trauma without adding another name change – but ‘Boots’ had to go. She had a tiny little voice so I started calling her Squeaky Boots, hoping to transition easily to Squeaky, but she had to have orthodontic surgery. Her teeth were so bad and so abscessed that her jaw bones were rotting, and so her official vet records were done as Squeaky Boots, so it was as Squeaky Boots she ended her days.
About this time I saw at our local pet orphanage a tiny little white poodle named Harriette. She was 14, had had surgery to remove a tumor from her leg (common in tiny poodles) so most of her backside was shaved, and the rest of her was unimaginably scruffy. It was love at first sight. As soon as The Husband came home from work I grabbed him even before giving him dinner and off we went to the pet orphanage. We came home with a dog. We had Harriette for nearly a year – it turned out she also had a rare cancer and despite two surgeries we just could not keep her alive. She died just before The Husband left for yet another Iraqi deployment. While he was gone I adopted another cat, a pathetic older cat named Chloe who had been seized from a home where she had been tortured for years. She’s the biggest cat I’ve ever seen, and very beautiful, but constantly terrified. It took her years to become easy with The Husband and me. It’s sad, because although her mental faculties are still sharp, she is losing control of her bowels and bladder. She is 17, after all. We’ve had to create her a room within in a room that is lined with plastic where she can roam. Her bed and litter box and feeding tray are in there. We clean her enclosure and change her bedding at least once a day, and take her into the den with us several times a day, but it hurts that we cannot give her the freedom of the house. Before you ask, we’ve had her looked at by the vet several times, tried a variety of medicines, but nothing helps. She will live as comfortably as we can make it until she dies.
When The Husband returned we decided to get another dog. He will only consider a little dog, so we went to the pet orphanage – only to find that the only little dog they had was promised to a woman from out of town who was coming to get her at the end of the week. The staff – many of whom are friends – knew that The Husband was just back from a year in a war zone, so when I asked if we could just play with her for a little while they were happy to let us. We were in an exam room and when Mindy came in we knew she was Our Dog. She’s a small dog, half terrier mix and (I swear) half diva. She was scruffy (she’s always scruffy – it’s the way her hair grows) and wearing the ugliest little dress I’ve ever seen. We lost our hearts.
After about half an hour the director of the orphanage – whom we didn’t know – came in to pick Mindy up. We told her we wanted the dog. She told us that was impossible, that they had been talking to this woman from out of town and she was coming to pick up the dog in a few days. I said, “When she calls to tell you she doesn’t want the dog, call us because we do.”
The woman said it was ridiculous, that they had been talking to this woman for over two weeks and she was coming to get the dog. We went through this dialogue with increasing intensity several times before she finally agreed to take my phone number, probably more to shut me up than anything else.
The pet orphanage is 4.4 miles from our house. We had not made it home before my phone rang and this tremulous little voice said, “Mrs. Patterson? We just heard from (the woman) and she doesn’t want the dog.” We picked Mindy up the next morning and she has brightened our home ever since. For as long as she worked there, though, the orphanage director was very obviously careful never to be alone with me. I do wish, however, that I knew what I had done! It could be a very useful skill.
Tell us about any pets you have in your books/stories. Are any of them recurring characters? What are they and their names?
This question gave me pause. As involved as I am with animals, it was a shock to me to find that I don’t put animals in any position of prominence in my stories. My stories are so intense, and so involved, and usually set in odd places, that animals just don’t fit. I’m going to see about changing that. One thing I’ll never do is have animals that talk or solve crimes on their own.
I did put a cat in a book called LURE OF THE MUMMY – sort of. It’s a story of a cursed cat mummy and was the very first pure horror novel ever published by Carina or its parent company Harlequin.
What are you reading now?
Currently I am re-reading my friend Salima Ikram’s DIVINE CREATURES (about sacred animal mummies in Ancient Egypt) as research for a possible novel idea. For fun I’m reading an omnibus of Mary Roberts Rinehart’s short stories.
What writing projects are you currently working on?
I am one of those people who are not happy unless they have several projects going at once. At this exact moment I am working on the third Flora Melkiot mystery MURDER AT FIVE TO ONE, which is set in Las Vegas; Flora is a wealthy widow of a certain age who has been described as the ‘dark side of Miss Marple.’ I love her and kind of wish I could grow up to be her! I’m also working on a straight medical romance called FEVER HEAT about a medical team sent to the Mexican coast to help after a devastating hurricane. I’m about halfway through a straight romance called INDIAN SUMMER about two grandparents each of whom want sole custody of their orphaned grandson, so of course they fall in love. I’ve just finished the first book in my new Dr. Rachel Petrie, contract archaeologist series called A KILLING AT TARA TWO. It’s getting cold so I can start my editing process with a clear head before it goes to the real editor. I have just had a contemporary gothic romance called THE MASTER OF MORECOMBE HALL (about an American bride in England), a straight romance called ROMANCE AT SPANISH ROCK (about an LA photographer who inherits a ranch in Texas’ Palo Duro canyon) and a murder mystery called MURDER AND MISS WRIGHT (about murder and antiquities smuggling at a scholarly Egyptological conference) edited and am just waiting until I have time to format and self-publish them.
Who is your favorite author and why?
Oh, this is easy. Barbara Michaels, aka Elizabeth Peters, aka Dr. Barbara Mertz. She had such a way with words, and such a gift for storytelling. I still am in awe of her talent. She is one of the reasons I decided that I really might make writing novels my own career instead of just a life-long hobby. It was truly a blessing was that we met and became dear if sporadic friends. What was truly funny was that although by the time we met I had almost a dozen novels published what brought us together was our work in and passion for Egyptology – not our shared career of writing!
Did you have childhood pets? If so, tell us about them.
My mother didn’t really care for pets, but when I was a small child we had a tribe of cats that lived outside and which we fed. Very rarely was I allowed to bring one inside as a special treat. I remember there being lots of them, but the names of only two – Lampshadey (hey – I was only three!) and Favorite. I do remember that a wild cat moved into our area and was killing our cats. My father borrowed a .22 rifle from a friend and chased the wild cat (which may even have been rabid – again, I was no more than four) into the garage where we had stored some furniture that wouldn’t fit into our tiny house. He finally killed the cat – after shooting the piano bench. I still have that bench, complete with the .22 slug in the seat.
Years later my father, who had had dogs all his young life, decreed that we get a dog. In the same year that Lady and the Tramp was released we got a cute little golden cocker spaniel named (no surprise) Lady. Her real name was Lady Ginger Banner Marinus Underfoot May – each name has a special meaning, but they’re too long to go into here. She had several litters of puppies, all of whom we found homes except for one which I refused to let go of. She was solid black, parentage unknown, but had a perfectly formed T on her chest and a perfect square on her left back foot, both in pure white. As my parents had an advertising agency and in the graphic arts a T-square is a basic tool, of course the dog became T-Square. We had both of them for years, until they were poisoned. We never knew who or why. There were no more animals in my life until I moved out on my own and got Sekhmet.
What’s your real-life funniest pet story?
Oh, this is going to get naughty. Years ago, many years before I even met The Husband, I had a date with a nice young man. After dinner and a movie he took me home and we ended up in a heavy petting session in my darkened living room. I hadn’t seen fit to tell him that I had a cat – first of all because at the moment I had other things on my mind besides the cat and second because I knew the cat wouldn’t come out if someone strange was in the house. Well, the room was dark except for the glow of a streetlamp coming through the single window and we were… well, you know, snuggling on the couch when all of a sudden this nice young man let out a shriek. I didn’t usually have that effect on men, so I looked around and saw two bright red eyes glowing in the dark. Immediately I knew it was the cat – remember, she was pure black – sitting on the arm of a chair, just in the right place where the light behind her could make her eyes glow without showing her silhouette. Before I could say a word the nice young man jumped up and dashed out of the apartment, screaming all the way. Later I tried to reach him, but he never would take my calls. I had his shirt, his jacket and his shoes for almost a year before giving them to charity.
When did you know you were a writer? And how did you know?
Two of my grandmothers were teachers. One grandfather was the publisher of a small town newspaper when that was a position of real power. My mother was a teacher, a producer of plays, a magazine columnist and an advertising agent. My father began as a printers’ devil when he was nine, edited and published newspapers all over Texas, taught journalism at Texas A&M (where he separated the journalism department from the English department and made it a separate discipline), then with my mother began the family advertising agency which for 16 or the 17 years of its existence was one of the top 300 in the country. So, you see I didn’t have a snowball’s chance of becoming anything but some kind of a wordsmith.
My parents never knew when I learned to read, but I did read them a short story from the newly arrived Saturday Evening Post (which neither of them had even seen) when I was three. By the time I entered the first grade I had read most of Boswell, some Pearl Buck, some Ellery Queen and most of Shakespeare. One of the biggest disappointments of my life was that once I got to school they started teaching us the alphabet and reading Dick and Jane aloud to us instead of discussing the motivations in Troilus and Cressida! I hated school from that moment of disillusion.
When I was four I wrote my first book. It was a tale of some children playing in the park who capture an escaped lion and make it home in time for supper. I printed and illustrated each page by hand, after having begged some paper and sewing thread from my parents. Daddy had told me about the different kinds of binding, saying that signature sewn was the best. I sewed twelve copies of my little book together. I think there are one or two still extant stored with my late mother’s papers. I’ve been writing ever since – sometimes for publication, sometimes not, but always writing no matter what else I did.
What’s the number one item on your bucket list and why?
This changes just about every day. Right now it’s vacillating between getting back to Egypt for a relaxing holiday, as we haven’t been there in 3 years, and taking a loooong European river cruise. We’ve never taken a cruise like that (they are expensive!) and I would absolutely love to. Or it could be to go spend a month in England, visiting friends and doing research. Or it could be to go visit my dear friend in Peru.
What do your pets do when you are writing?
Chloe the cat is either in her plastic lined room or sitting beside my desk in her carrier. With her incontinence problems we cannot let her run free around the house any longer, but at least in her carrier she can be wherever we are, feel as if she is still part of the family, and we do take her out and hold her in our arms often. Mindy the dog is either running around barking at leaves, postmen and marauding moths, begging for scraps from my lunch or sleeping stretched out on the back of the couch.
What’s in your “To Be Read” (TBR) pile right now? And how many TBR piles do you have?
Piles? Mountains are more like it. I live in a house with three libraries, and The Husband and I are contemplating a fourth. Plus, I have over 3,000 unread books on my Kindle – which I never use, as I prefer to read on my phone during the few short times I actually get to read for pleasure. The Husband and I prefer to buy our good reference books in hardcopy – he is an expert on war history and firearms, I research crime and the English Regency, and we are both avid amateur Egyptologists. (We met through our Egyptological studies, and he even proposed to me in a moonlit garden across the street from the Pyramids. Yes, those Pyramids!) If it weren’t for electronic reading our house would be so full of books we would have to sleep in a tent in the back yard!
Janis Susan May/Janis Patterson is a 7th-generation Texan and a 3rd-generation wordsmith who writes in mystery, romance, and horror. Once an actress and a singer Janis has also been editor-in-chief of two multi-magazine publishing groups as well as many other things, including an enthusiastic amateur Egyptologist. Janis’ husband even proposed in a moonlit garden near the Pyramids of Giza. Janis and her husband live in Texas with an assortment of rescued furbabies.