Cat Bauer grew up in New Jersey but now lives in Venice, Italy. Prior to beginning her writing career, Ms. Bauer was an actress. HARLEY, LIKE A PERSON is her first novel.
June 9, 2000
Like her character Harley, author Cat Bauer grew up in a New Jersey suburb very close
to New York City. Now a resident of Venice, Italy; Cat was happy to discuss her debut
novel, HARLEY LIKE A PERSON, with Teenreads via email. Find out what authors inspire Cat,
why she moved to Italy, how she captured such a realistic teen voice, and more in this
Teenreads: Is HARLEY LIKE A PERSON your first novel? What inspired you to write a Young
CB: Yes, HARLEY is my first novel. Prior to that, I
was an actress and had written a couple of plays that were produced locally in Los
Angeles. I'd always written for fun, and knew that after a certain point in my life I
would concentrate on writing. One day I went to the library and checked out a bunch of
magazines that bought fiction. I stumbled on Sassy, Jane Pratt's old magazine. I thought
it was deliciously wicked and hip, so I wrote a short story I thought would fit with that
readership, which included everyone from teens to women in their 30's to enlightened men.
Sassy bought the story, and after it was published, I received letters demanding to know
what happened to the character, so I decided to write a novel.
But I never set out to write a Young Adult book --- in fact, I'd never heard of the genre.
When someone told me that such books existed, I went to the bookstores to hunt for these
mysterious YAs. I made several trips and simply couldn't find them. I never dreamed of
looking in the kid's section. When I finally found them among the LEGOs, I was dismayed. I
knew no one who was going to read HARLEY would trip over plastic trains and building
blocks to find it. I always tell people it was like looking for laundry detergent stuck
inside a cereal box on the bottom shelf of the frozen food aisle.
I don't think it's appropriate that a nine-year-old has easier access to a book that
raises such hard-hitting issues as emotional and physical abuse, alcoholism, drugs, etc.,
than a teenager or an adult. I think HARLEY is not only for teens, but also for adults who
aren't afraid to remember. I'd love for HARLEY to be read by daughters and mothers and
fathers, and by single adults still reeling from their own teenage years.
Teenreads: Your character Harley is so very real, her angst with her best friend, first
boyfriend, and parents ring true in every way. How did you come up with her character?
CB: I spoke with teens all over the country, guys as
well as girls. I've got a rule that I never tell their parents what they tell me, so they
feel free to open up. I used the Internet and talked to kids of my friend and strangers on
the street. Then I just sat down in front of the computer and let Harley talk. I'm a big
fan of J.D. Salinger's CATCHER IN THE RYE, and even though the voice is very different,
that was the only book I could find that was even close to what I wanted to do, so I read
that a lot.
Teenreads: Harley is a gifted painter, and although her art teacher acknowledges this
and encourages her, Harley's parents do not. Without giving away too much of the story
line, why do you think adults sometimes discourage students in the fields of art? Is it
because those fields can be so competitive, or is it that adults feel they are not
CB: HARLEY, LIKE A PERSON is set in the suburbs. Many
people who live that kind of life have nothing within their realm of experience to make
them think it's possible to live creatively. I grew up in New Jersey, surrounded by malls
and tract homes. My friends' parents were electricians and secretaries and insurance
salesmen, just struggling to pay the mortgage. It's impossible for many people to imagine
being a doctor, let alone an artist. To live a creative life you must be willing to take
risks, and that's very hard to do when you have a family to support. At one point in the
book, Harley thinks: "Lenape Lakes is a sneaky little town. If you don't escape, it
wraps you in its claws and the next thing you know you're living on Lenape Road with a
husband, three kids and a dog."
When I lived in Los Angeles, I was surrounded by people who had creative jobs...directors,
writers, musicians. In fact, an art director on a television show gave me the idea for
Sean Shanahan's job as a set designer. These people's children are growing up in creative
households. Their kids want to be writers, actors, producers --- and they probably will
But living a creative life doesn't mean you have to be a painter or an actor. I believe
any job can be creative. For instance, if you love electricity (and I do) and you're an
electrician, well, you're doing the right thing. One summer I worked in a factory because
there simply were no other jobs. The people working there were incredibly creative, even
though they were only assembling bits of wire. The work was dull. Their creativity came
out in the form of birthday parties, get-well cards, company picnics, just being human
with each other. They'd bring special food for lunches...it was
Teenreads: The secrets in Harley's house are so prevalent the air is thick with
them. Her parents think they are protecting her, but in reality they are making things
worse. Why do you think parents sometimes hide the truth from their children --- and why
especially in Harley's case?
CB: Why does anyone hide the truth from anybody?
Usually because you're hiding it from yourself under a pile of justifications and hope
that it will go away. It rarely does. It's a wonderful thing about truth --- it always
seems to bubble up. In Harley's case, her parents hide the truth because they can't admit
it to themselves.
Teenreads: Harley is a very honest character, even when she is being dishonest with
herself. She knows even while hanging out and smoking with the rough crowd, it's not her.
How can she be so honest growing up in a household of dishonesty?
CB: Harley is not entirely honest. It's just that you
can hear her thoughts and her rationalizations because it's written in the first person.
For instance, she lies to her parents about going to the Spring Ball. The reader knows why
because they hear Harley think. If you could hear her mother think; perhaps then you would
understand why she, too, is not being honest. The difference is that Harley acknowledges
to herself when she is dishonest. She is listening to the voice inside, something we all
have, and something that many people try to silence. Roger, her father, tries to silence
his inner voice with alcohol. Peppy tries to silence her inner voice by avoiding reality.
I think the teenage years are a special time when you first start hearing this inner voice
--- that is, if the noises around you don't drown it out. There are a fortunate few that
actually follow this inner voice, but most of us don't.
Teenreads: Her father, Roger, is a drunk who is often verbally --- and at times
physically --- abusive. Harley's mother is either absent during his rages or silent. Why
does she passively allow him to rage at her children?
CB: Because it's a dance that's been going on forever.
Harley's mother probably used to try to do something about it, but has since given up. I
believe it usually takes a huge shock, like a death, an accident, or a new love to make
changes in one's life. Peppy and Roger, Harley's parents, have a great opportunity to make
a change when Peppy's mother dies. They let this opportunity pass them by. Thanks to
Harley, by the end of the book, they have another opportunity.
Teenreads: Harley has a moment where she becomes enraged herself and shakes her younger
sister Lily, who she usually showers with love and affection. When she realizes that she
is acting like Roger, she is sick at heart. What can teens do to combat this kind of
explosive anger, especially when they are so used to being the brunt of it themselves?
CB: It's very, very difficult not to fall into the
same pattern. I like to ask people to try to remember what they were like when they were
three or four years old, before they built up all their reflexes to defend themselves in
life. As far as what teens can do, I think it's important to channel that explosive energy
into something constructive, some personal interest. If you turn it against yourself or
become a druggie or start smashing things, then the bad guy wins. If you use that energy
to learn karate or study your butt off to become a scientist or a musician or something,
then you win. But some kids are in very serious and violent situations, and in those
instances, I would talk to a trusted adult. Easier said than done, I know.
Teenreads: This book is about relationships between mothers and daughters, as well as
fathers and daughters. What do you think is the turning point for Harley and her mother?
CB: I think when they both start looking at each other
as individuals with real emotions and opinions, not just as a "mother" and a
"daughter." It's difficult for a parent and a child to see each other with new
eyes. Both people must make the effort, and each person must recognize when the effort is
Teenreads: Having Harley paint the portraits for the play Anastasia is very fitting,
considering she --- like the title character --- feels her true identity is not known. Is
that what led you to choose this play?
CB: I chose Anastasia because I acted in the play in
high school (I played the Empress) and I knew it was a play that teens performed. It was
just a happy coincidence that it fit that way. Well, I sort of steered it in that
direction when I realized it fit so perfectly.
Teenreads: Harley and Carla start the novel as best friends but then grow apart. Do you
think their rift can ever be mended? Or are high school friends destined to drift away?
CB: I still have several friends from high school, so
I think some friends are lifers. Even though we don't see each other very often; when we
do, we have a rich history behind us, so we can pick right up and move forward. That kind
of trust comes from years of being together, like slipping into a pair of cozy
slippers. When it comes to Harley and Carla, well, I don't think they will be
best friends anymore. Losing a best friend can be just as painful as losing a
Teenreads: Mrs. Tuttle, the wealthy woman who Harley works for, is an interesting
character. Both inspire each other artistically and Mrs. Tuttle showers Harley with
warmth, generosity and trust, three things Harley does not get at home. Was she inspired
by a person who you know in real life? And, most importantly, does she attend the opening
CB: That's a really good question. She's a compilation
of several people, I think. When I decided to write a novel, I got a book, WRITING A NOVEL
by John Braine, which is sort of like my bible. I will borrow his words: "...no
character can be convincing who isn't based upon a real person. Based upon a real person:
The character you create won't have the same appearance, occupation, beliefs, way of
speaking, or even necessarily be of the same sex. You start from him because something
about him excites your imagination or because he is the centre of some event which excites
your imagination. What emerges is a new person."
To answer your other question, Mrs. Tuttle actually did attend the opening of Anastasia at
one point, but she got edited out. But yes, she's up there in the balcony.
Teenreads: At the end of the novel the family secrets all spill out. Does the truth set
this family free? Will we be hearing more from Harley in future books?
CB: As I said before, Harley's actions give the
Columba family a new opportunity for growth. If Harley wants another book, she'll get one,
but I can't force her.
Teenreads: Like Harley, you grew up in New Jersey. Is any of this book
CB: Writing is a very strange process. As a writer,
you sort of wander through life participating, yet watching. So, there are pieces of me in
Harley, but she's not me. There are pieces of me in Roger and Peppy and Carla, but they're
not me. Some things in the book are based on actual events; some things are total
fabrications. For example, my friends never threw me a Ball of the Misbegotten (though I
wish they had). There really is a place in the town where I grew up called the Pond Hole,
but there is no place where Mrs. Tuttle lives called Washington Hill. My father never hit
me across the face with a belt, but I've spoken to people who have had that happen. I'm
not the oldest of three children, I'm the oldest of five. It goes like
that. But the answer to the biggest question of all is, no, I am not adopted!
Teenreads: You moved from New Jersey to Venice, Italy. No one can argue the benefits of
living in Italy over Jersey --- and I'm from Jersey so I can say this --- but what
inspired this drastic relocation?
CB: Well, it wasn't as drastic as New Jersey to
Venice. It was more like New Jersey, New York City, Los Angeles, Venice. I actually
haven't lived in New Jersey since I was a teenager; I left when I was about nineteen or
twenty. I fell in love with Venice the first time I was here about ten years ago, and I'm
not the only one. It's haunting; it gets into your soul. It's like no place else on earth.
We have no cars, only boats. We're surrounded by precious art, incredible
architecture. We have fresh vegetables every day at the Rialto market; fish
every morning from the lagoon. You walk from one point to another, and you run into about
five people you know, go have a coffee, say ciao. It's like living in a small village,
only there are about 100,000 visitors every day.
Teenreads: HARLEY LIKE A PERSON is an impressive debut novel. How did you find your
publisher, Winslow Press?
CB: My agent, Gail Hochman at Brandt & Brandt,
knew Margery Cuyler, now the Vice President of Winslow Press, when she worked at another
publishing house. So when Margery moved over to Winslow, Gail sent her the manuscript.
Margery was in Italy for the Bologna Book Fair last year; so I took a train to meet her,
and listened to her ideas for the book which I thought were dramatic, but right
on. She really "got" the book, and I liked her immediately. Sometimes
you get lucky, and I feel very fortunate to be with Winslow. Margery's a writer herself
and really understands the process. And my editor, Francesca Crispino, knew exactly how to
work with me. She's got great instincts.
Teenreads: How long did it take you to write HARLEY?
CB: To actually write it took maybe about a year, but
it wasn't solid writing. I was still acting a bit at that point. It was rewriting it that
took the time, learning the craft, learning the business, stuff like that.
Teenreads: Have you always wanted to be a writer?
CB: I've been writing since I was about six years old,
so it wasn't something that I wanted to be, it was something that I was. I would write
books then sell them to my neighbors, so even at that age I looked at it as a job. Don't
ask me how I got that idea into my head, because there were no writers in my family. But
no, first I wanted to be an actor. In fact, I wanted to be an actor because I thought
writing was too easy and I wanted a challenge, if you can imagine. Ha! Little did I know.
It was a lot easier when I was six.
Teenreads: Who are your favorite YA writers?
CB: Honestly, I still don't know much about YA. I can
tell you my favorite writer, who is Elizabeth Berg. I can tell you my favorite
books: CATCHER IN THE RYE by J.D. Salinger, ALICE IN WONDERLAND by Lewis Carroll, THE
LITTLE PRINCE by Antoine de Saint-Exupery, THE PHANTOM TOLLBOOTH by Norton Juster, A
SEPARATE PEACE by John Knowles.
Teenreads: What are you reading now?
CB: I just finished SOLSTICE by Joyce Carol Oates that
I dug out of a bin at a secondhand bookstore. And since the supply of English language
books over here is somewhat limited, I've usually got some trashy bestseller going that
gets passed around the English-speaking community. I'm also reading Jan Morris's VENICE,
and this year I'm reading Carl G. Jung, MAN AND HIS SYMBOLS over and over, alternating
that with Joseph Campbell, THE POWER OF MYTH.
Teenreads: Your biography says you are now working on your second novel. Can you give
us a sneak preview?
CB: It can best be described as another "coming
of age" novel. I think we get a couple shots at it in life.
Teenreads: What advice would you give aspiring writers?
CB: Write, read, think, write. Believe in
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