Saturday, July 20, 2013

Stray Hearts & Four-footed Matchmakers: Annie Kimberlin

              (From The Way-Back Files: Just Cats!, May/June 2000)

       The woman didn’t move until he [Alex] was almost to her….Without hesitation, she picked up the cat in arms that were no stranger to a cat’s shape. The cat instantly butted her chin with its head and shot a satisfied smirk at Alex. Then the woman glanced over at him. Her eyes were big and gray, windows to a serious and solemn soul. But her glance was a quick one, returning immediately to the cat in her arms….  
    Alex couldn’t get the cat out of his mind….

                                                   -- Annie Kimberlin, Romeo & Julia


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Not exactly the steamy bodice-ripping stuff you’d expect to find in a romance novel, is it? Then, again, Annie Kimberlin doesn’t write typical romance novels. The heroine and her against-all-odds love interest generally have to share top billing with a cat (as in Kimberlin’s latest novel, Romeo & Julia, Julia being the pregnant stray who sets everything in motion) or a dog (Lonely Hearts). And don’t look for them to meet in a glittering turn-of-the-century ballroom or on a windswept English moor either. No, her lovers find each other by pure happenstance in an animal shelter on Christmas Eve (Away in a Shelter) or out in a cold parking lot, rescuing a down-on-her-luck feline (Romeo & Julia).

“I write books about people who are obsessed with their cats and dogs,” confesses the Gahanna, Ohio writer, who currently shares her home with four dogs and a “very, very fat” black-and-white cat named Tiggero. Her work has been described as a cross between James Herriot’s All Creatures Great and Small books and Jan Karon’s Father Tim novels with their host of quirky, colorful characters. “And that sounds sort of eccentric, but for me, cats and dogs are a part of life. I have had cats and/or dogs since I was three. To not have a cat or dog in my life would be beyond comprehension – it would be like someone telling me to imagine a life without sunshine.”

So strong is this feeling for animals, it’s the most natural thing imaginable for the real-life cats and dogs she has known to come miaowing and woofing their way into her books. Julia -- who brings Liz, the divorced librarian, and Alex, the hunk-with-a-heart-of-gold bus driver, together– is based on a stray kitten who ambushed Kimberlin and “my sweetie, Mark,” on a raw, cold Easter Sunday. “She came running up, yelling and screaming her head off. She had a big gash on her head as if someone had kicked her.” The minute Kimberlin “picked her up, she turned on that innocent kitten charm.” They looked around for her owners, “but I will admit we didn’t knock on that many doors. We figured that whoever had had her had put that gash on her head and didn’t deserve to have her.” Akasha, the Easter Sunday waif, now lives with Kimberlin’s oldest son.

Then there’s Woody in Stray Hearts who’s modeled after her vet’s office cat. The real-life Woody, abandoned at a hospital in his kittenhood, is “a candy striper. And when other cats and dogs come in, he sits by their cages and purrs and keeps them company.” When one of Kimberlin’s dogs had to have its stomach pumped, Woody kept jumping up on the examination table, rubbing his head against the sick animal and purring. It was as though he “was patting my dog on the head,” she laughs, adding that her vet often jokes about Woody having been a nurse in a former life. “Here you have an incredibly nurturing cat who was found in at a hospital. When I was writing that scene in that book, he just sort of showed up. So I asked my vet, ‘Can I borrow Woody?’ And he said, ‘Sure.’”

So, in her own words and her own way, Kimberlin is managing to make others more aware of the plight of homeless cats and dogs. But she doesn’t stop there. A percentage of her royalties go to The Company of Animals Fund, an Ohio organization that gives grants to groups directly helping companion animals. For the writer, it’s just one more way to do something for the critters she loves with such passion. She puts it to me like this: “The hardest scene I ever had to write -- and why I support The Company of Animals -- is when the volunteer from Away in the Shelter looks down the runs, and there are fifty pairs of eyes staring at her, begging her to take them home….We domesticated cats and dogs, and we have a responsibility to them.”