By the time the protagonist of Mr. Puffball: Stunt Cat to the Stars made it into print, he had already gone through at least two of his nine lives. Author and illustrator Constance Lombardo, who will mark the book’s release with a launch party at Malaprop’s Wednesday, Sept. 30, tried two different means of telling Mr. Puffball’s story. The third (and final) version became a middle-grade novel.
Lombardo trained as an artist and started her career as an illustrator in New York City. After her daughter’s birth, she worked at writing (and occasionally illustrating) children’s picture books. Then, inspired by parodies of Goodnight Moon, Lombardo, who had also been working on young adult novels, decided to try her hand at novelty books. “I had this idea,” she says. “I’m going to draw cats. They’re going to have funny captions, and it’s going to be a book of cats for cat lovers, and it’s just going to be fun.”
The cartoons, though, started to take on a life of their own. “I was doing these single drawings of cats with captions,” says Lombardo. “I said, ‘OK, maybe I should make that a little more involved.’” A particular cat character (at first his name was simply Puffball) showed up repeatedly. Soon the cartoons focused on Mr. Puffball’s story.
Then a member of the Secret Gardeners (the writers’ group Lombardo formed after moving to Asheville) professed an interest in doing a graphic novel, and Lombardo seized on the idea for Mr. Puffball. She stuck with it even when her panels didn’t come out straight and her text was small and squished, as if her words needed more room.
“I don’t know why I thought this would work,” Lombardo says. But her draft attracted attention — first of an agent and then of Jill Davis, an editor at Katherine Tegen Books. It was Davis who looked at Lombardo’s manuscript and realized Mr. Puffball’s story needed to change form once again. “What she said to me was, ‘I love Mr. Puffball, but I don’t think it should be a graphic novel,’” Lombardo says. So she set out to write a middle-grade novel, telling the story of a young cat seeking fame and fortune in Hollywood. She supplemented the text with her own offbeat illustrations.
Lombardo happily admits that her success hasn’t been a solo endeavor. From her songwriter husband, her daughter, the members of her writing group and her colleagues at the West Asheville Library, where she worked as a page, “I got a lot of help along the way,” she says. She also praises Davis for her collaborative approach: “I just needed that guidance.”
Lombardo’s event at Malaprop’s will also be a collaboration. Instead of speaking about her book, the author will sit down for a public interview with fellow Secret Gardener (and YA novelist) Megan Shepherd. Cynthia Pierce, owner of Yuzu Patisserie, will supply cat-shaped cookies. And music will be provided by Lombardo’s husband (and member of the band Three Cool Cats ), Hank Bones.
Stunt Cat to the Stars doesn’t mark the end of Mr. Puffball’s many lives. Lombardo has a three-book contract, and the next installment sends the young protagonist on a trip from Hollywood to New York with his movie star hero, El Gato.
Eventually, Lombardo says, Mr. Puffball will have to adapt to life as a movie star in his own right. The author is just as amazed by her own transformative journey. “I’m still such a newbie,” she says. “I thought I was a picture-book writer.”
WHAT: Constance Lombardo’s launch event for Mr. Puffball, Stunt Cat to the Stars
WHERE: Malaprop’s, malaprops.com
WHEN: Wednesday, Sept. 30, 7 p.m.