Nine Minutes with Cat Bauer

Photo: Emma Qualls Wagner

Nine Minutes with Cat Bauer
by Emma Qualls

Emma Qualls Wagner was a seventeen-year-old senior at St. Charles North High School in Chicago, Illinois when she wrote this interview.

October 9th. Not a significant date in the minds of most people, but in the world of Harley Columba, the ninth of October is everything. And, if you ask me, Emma Qualls, about October 9th, I will give you the same response as Harley: It's John Lennon's birthday. It is also the date of Harley's latest adventure Harley's Ninth.

Harley was created by the voice of reality itself, Cat Bauer. Bauer, currently a resident of Venice, Italy, allowed me to create a one-on-one connection with her, something I've dreamed about since I was eleven-years-old.

I discovered Harley's first full-length adventure Harley, Like a Person in the year 2001 when I was a mere sixth grader with no idea what the future held, but a total understanding of what it felt like to be creative and alone. Opening with the haunting words, "I'm under the bed. They don't know it. They think I've run away again. And I have. Only this time I'm under the bed," Harley deals with regular teenage dramas, along with some that many will never experience firsthand. Because of this, Harley, a fourteen-year-old artist, is very understanding of life's trials and will let you crawl under the bed with her if you ever need to. I have figuratively crawled under the bed with her once a week by having read this book about three hundred times.

Harley, Like a Person was copyrighted in the year 2000, and Harley's second book, Harley's Ninth, was copyrighted in 2007. Two books, seven years difference. Have you noticed the number? Nine. Two book, plus seven years. nine.

Seven years, even if you're not a crazed fan such as myself, is quite a gap between books. Why the gap? Bauer explained to me that her first publisher filed for Chapter 11 bankruptcy and for years she couldn't get her publishing rights back. "Everyone said, 'Well, just write another book.' I said, 'You don't have another daughter if your first daughter is kidnapped, you do everything you can to get back your daughter.'" During this time, Bauer wrote for Italy Daily, the International Herald Tribune's Italian supplement. She also began the tedious process of reclaiming the rights to her first book by taking legal action against Winslow Press, her former publisher in New York. After lots of money and lots of time she finally won Harley back. Want another nine? It took Bauer nine months to write Harley's latest book.

When I asked Bauer the significance of the ninth, my intuition was correct (don't you just hate when that happens?). She responded with, "Because it's John Lennon's birthday." In her first book Harley, Like a Person Bauer establishes Harley's love of John Lennon by having Harley decorate the crawlspace in her home with posters, record covers and the song Imagine playing on Harley's personal CD player; the love continues in Harley's Ninth.

So, what is such a big deal with Lennon and Bauer? "I wanted other generations to know who John Lennon was," she explained. "I grew up listening to the Beatles. When I was a little kid, it was light and fun, dancing with my mother in the kitchen to "Love Me Do." Then everything changed. You have to understand how the world was back when I was 14, 15-years old. Richard Nixon had been elected President. The war in Vietnam was supposed to be winding down, but instead they decided to invade Cambodia. They started drafting my friends' older brothers, just regular guys, for the first time since World War II. Think how you would feel if they declared, "Oh, forget what we said about pulling out of Iraq. Now we are going to invade Iran. And guess who is going to do the killing?' You can imagine that a lot of people became very angry. Students and teachers were protesting on campus. Then National Guardsmen at Kent State killed the students. Everything just exploded. The world was chaos.

"John Lennon was very vocal, demanding the truth, demanding an end to the war. He tried to do it in amusing ways like with the Bed-In in Amsterdam. He said, 'We're selling it like soap -- peace or war -- that's the two products.' He risked everything. He didn't have to do it. I really respect that he lived most of his life in the spotlight so others could learn. He was under constant attack for upsetting the status quo. They called him an exhibitionist, but, to me, he was a great teacher, living a full life and recording it for the benefit of others. They say, 'Oh, he took drugs. He promoted sex. He had a temper.' Well, he was a rock star, not a priest. Human beings love to crucify their idols, then weep after they are destroyed."

John Lennon's most famous song is "Imagine," and as Bauer put it on page nine of Harley, Like a Person: "'Imagine' is a prayer, not a song." I was surprised when she told me, "I actually didn't write that line. My good friend, Andrea Castione, said that to me, and I loved it so much that I used it in the book. He is Venetian, so you can see how much of an impact John Lennon has had all over the world."

Bauer infuses much of the first book with Harley's desire to go to New York City, originally to see Strawberry Fields; the second book starts out in New York City. "I absolutely love New York," Bauer said. Like Bauer, Harley is from the suburbs, a curious connection between writer and character, fact and fiction. "A lot of things I write are based on reality, but just as much is totally made up. I used a fictionalized version of Pompton Lakes, a little town where I grew up in New Jersey, for Lenape Lakes in the books. When I was writing Harley's Ninth, I went back to Pompton Lakes and they were really having some kind of celebration -- I forget for what -- so I turned that into the Centennial. I research everything. I like to actually see things with my own eyes. For me, it's a perk of the job. Not all writers are like that though. Of course, a lot of what I write is total fantasy. Mrs. Tuttle, for instance. She is a total fantasy; her house is a total fantasy."

So, are all parts of Ms. Bauer parts of Harley? Of course not. "A lot of people read my books and think they are going to meet Harley Columba, and then when they meet Cat Bauer, I think it is a bit of a surprise. Pieces of Harley are in me, but I am not Harley. Let's say this: Harley Columba is based on the teenager I once was, but I haven't been that person for a very long time. I left Pompton Lakes thirty-four years ago, and have since lived in New York City, Hollywood and Venice. Those are some pretty diverse venues, and they have left an impression on the person I am today. Also, the things I write about are a lot easier to hear coming out of the mouth of a teenage girl. If I, as an adult woman, behaved the way Harley does, they would find it shocking. I love teenagers because they are looking at the world with new eyes and saying, 'What sense does THAT make?' Teenagers are not so stupid."

Indeed we are not. Cat Bauer treats her readers with the respect that a lot of adults forget to give us. She does not "dumb down" her vocabulary, and with her rich voice she provides the best friend that many of us need in the time of a crisis -- the friend that many of us desire. That is why I love and have loved Harley, Like a Person for the last six years of my life, and will for the next nine or ninety more years. Harley is like a person, and Cat Bauer is, too. Living in Venice, Bauer expects to take us on another trip with Harley, this time a world far away from our Strawberry Fields, our favorite bed and our favorite city. Harley Columba's next stop is Venice. I can't wait.

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