Interview: Monica Holloway, author of Cowboy & Wills: A Love Story

Thursday, October 29th, 2009

By Sandy M. Fernández

“I just feel that secrets and shame need to be abolished—forever.”

When an author’s first book is a memoir about childhood abuse, a teenage stint driving a hearse, messy adult relationships and, ultimately, revelations of incest, here’s one thing you don’t expect from the cover of her second: a photo of an adorable Golden Retriever puppy pawing a fuzzy toy soccer ball.

But that image—along with an impossibly cuter one of her then-preschool son Wills in a goofy red hat—graces Monica Holloway’s latest memoir, Cowboy & Wills: A Love Story, the story of how the titular dog helped her son let go of some of the social isolation and fear that come along with autism.

The experiences that inspired this book were undoubtedly wrenching: Holloway’s husband was away working in another city for much of the time (partly because of the need to pay off the sky-high bills associated with Wills’s diagnosis and treatment), leaving her largely alone as she dealt with the gut-punch of the diagnosis and the daily work of living with Wills’s autism, not to mention her own grief, worry, and always-lurking obsessive compulsive disorder. Still, where Holloway’s first book garnered praise in words like brutal and harrowing, Cowboy & Wills was recently described in People magazine as a “sweet and heartbreaking tale of boy-dog love.” Which feels, well, like quite a different thing.

Holloway got together with SMITH writer Sandy M. Fernandez over IM to explain how she got from her son’s diagnosis to the release of her book about him, how Wills is doing today, and a certain contentious review.

Why did you decide to write Cowboy & Wills?
I was working on the sequel to my first book, Driving with Dead People, when I went to lunch with my fabulous editor, Trish. I’d told her about Cowboy and Wills together and how great they were. I also told her that the sequel wasn’t coming along as fluidly as I’d hoped. Right then, we looked at each other and knew that the sequel to Driving was not going to happen—we were switching to Cowboy & Wills. I was thrilled. To write about my son, my favorite subject in the world, and our darling dog would be a joy beyond belief.

What do you think was the roadblock to the Driving sequel?
I was temporarily done with the subject of my childhood—at least, the difficult parts. I wanted very much to help other people when I wrote DWDP. I felt that perhaps someone going through childhood abuse would find, not only comfort, but hope, in the fact that both my sister and I made it out with our futures intact.

In that same vein, I was hoping to give people hope through the story of Cowboy & Wills. There is a lot of work involved when you have an autistic child, but there’s a lot of silliness and fun to be had, as well. I wanted to show other parents that I bungled my way through; maybe they wouldn’t have to make the mistakes I made. I also very much wanted people to understand that no person—young or old—should be ashamed of having autism.

Cowboy & Wills seems, compared to DWDP, pretty sunny. But in other ways, it feels like certain themes were continued, no? You’re open about your own worries & neuroses in the book, and about having OCD.
I think the theme of hope in the face of adversity is there, but I think it’s there in all of our lives every single day. Here’s the thing: The more I know about other people’s experiences, the better I become. I think most of us are looking for answers in other people’s lives (as well as books, Internet, etc). I feel great relief in sharing my life. I don’t know if that’s good or bad. I just feel that secrets and shame need to be abolished—forever. So I think my real quest is to not feel shame about my life in any way, so maybe that’s why I carry a lot of things on my sleeve (or between a book cover). Put it on the table, let’s look at it.

How do you square that with the fact that you write under a pseudonym? You’ve gotten flack for that before.
Here’s the poop. Only two weeks before we were to go into galleys with DWDP, I got a call from Simon & Schuster. They’d suddenly decided that, for legal reasons, I had to change all names. The final blow was that I could “keep” my first name, but my last name had to go.

I spent the next two weeks changing 265 names (people and places, including the name of my childhood dog.) Absurd. Finally, I changed my last name to Holloway—after my great, great grandmother who, according to my grandmother, was a strong, single-minded woman. And DWDP was published under the new name. (This is all in an article I’m working on entitled, “The Year of Writing Dangerously” about wanting to tell your truth, but not wanting to be sued over it by the same people who abused you in the first place.)

Under normal circumstances, there would be no reason to change my name for Cowboy & Wills. But aside from confusing my readers, I was surprised to find that there was no longer a “Monica Buckley Price.” I used to insist that the one thing my abusive father couldn’t take from me was my name, but what I failed to realize was that every time I spoke, wrote, or answered to that name, I was associating myself with not only him, but my entire hellish childhood. “Monica Holloway” is my name now. I’ve decided to change it legally and actually feel, for the first time in my life, completely independent from my past.

Any memoir involves revealing not only yourself, but parts of other peoples’ lives. In your first, your family’s, for example. But your first book was mostly your tale—you were revealing your stuff. To me—and correct me if I’m wrong—C&W belonged to Wills. So did it feel different to you to be carrying his story out there for him?
Yes. My first book was about my journey, and C&W always goes back to Wills. Trish, my editor, was constantly reminding me to bring the story back to Wills. I made it sound like a snap decision [to write the book], and Trish and I deciding on it was. But after that, my husband and I worked with Wills and his therapist to make sure that this book was something that he could not only handle, but be proud of. His life. His autism. His struggles as a young boy. I don’t believe a parent can ask a twelve-year-old (Wills is 12 now), if it’s okay to write his life story. It’s not fair. He’s too young to know the consequences. That’s the parents’ job. But we did talk for hours and hours about the book and Wills, and I shared many stories about Cowboy and also about his struggle in those early years. I can’t say that down the line, Wills won’t look at me and wish I’d never written a word of this, but my biggest hope is that he’ll read the book (he’s reading it now), but when he’s older, and see how amazing he was and is. But it’s a good question—a fair one. He’s working on a book of his own right now, called Buddy & Wills. (Buddy is the second dog he gets at the end of the book.) He’s writing it as a children’s book. And he’s illustrating!

So cool. Was there anything that he told you when you were talking to him in prep for the book that surprised you?
I knew, obviously, that Cowboy’s death was devastating to Wills, but I had no idea that the wound was still so incredibly fresh. I had a book launch party last weekend and he’d seen the movie we were going to show of the two of them, but when it came on, he really cried hard. So it’s been positive in letting him finally get some of those old very sad feelings off his chest. Not that he’ll ever “get over” the loss of Cowboy—that’s impossible—but his grief needed to come out.

How old was he when she died?
Wills was 9.

I could see how that’s still fresh—no insult to Buddy.
No. I say in the book that Cowboy was Wills’ “first love and first love lost.” And that’s entirely true. And he has a completely different relationship with Buddy. He no longer needs a dog beside him to be present in the world—even though he prefers it. Those two are inseparable, but not because he’s traumatized. Cowboy held him up through (what I hope to be) the worst of times.

OK, stay with me because this is related but: Did you read the Washington Post review of your book? It seemed like there were parts of your book the reviewer was very concerned about, for example, that parents of autistic kids take away that all they have to do to “cure” their child was get a dog. And she took issue with what she called a lie when you didn’t immediately offer up that Wills had autism to a snoopy mom at school. (Full disclosure: I used to work at the Post.)
OH MY GOD! I’ve been dealing with phone calls ALL DAY LONG about that. I’m shocked and furious. That “we did not get services for Wills.” WHAT? MOST OF THE BOOK TALKS ABOUT THAT. That we dropped Wills in a pool of water “and hoped he’d make it” (something like that)? My husband just posted a comment I’m really proud of: We never owned a guinea pig, my husband’s not a screenwriter, Wills didn’t “get” jokes. (There’s a whole scene in the beginning, where I talk about getting monkeys instead of fish [for the aquarium] and explain that Wills DOES NOT GET JOKES.) Did she even read the book?

Now I’m going to get all intrusive: Of 100 percent outraged, how much of it is as a mother and how much as a writer?
Both! But 95 percent mom. To imply to any parent that they did not get services for their disabled child is infuriating! We practically went bankrupt doing it. Wills is our heart! And I would never, in a MILLION years, “lie” about his autism. If you read the scene she quotes, you would know that is not at all what happened. [It was me dealing] with an inappropriate, cruel mother [at his school]. So as a parent, I’m furious for being misconstrued in every way; as a writer, I’m furious that she didn’t write a fair and unbiased review. Calling me a liar at the end was the real shocker!

This is exactly why I partnered with Autism Speaks when this book came out. We don’t need the autism community split by deciding that I was a mother who didn’t care or do enough.

Not that you’ll be happy to hear this, but the review really stuck in my mind. She really stressed how alone you seemed, not only because your husband was away and you didn’t have a lot of family support, but because she read you as being somewhat in denial about Wills’s autism, and isolated by that.
Well, that’s a true statement for sure. I was in denial about Wills’s autism in the beginning and I was certainly isolated by that. I make that very clear in the book. Listen, if someone doesn’t like my writing and the book doesn’t hold up for them, fine. But get your facts straight.

OK, so going a little sideways: I found myself unexpectedly moved by the little YouTube video you guys put up about the book—in a way I normally am not at YouTube videos of other people’s kids! It was sort of amazing to actually see the moment he got Cowboy. How much input/influence did you have over putting together the ancillary products (marketing, book cover, that film) for the book?
I sent a box of pictures and a box of home movies and [the media production company] TurnHere put together the video for Simon & Schuster. Trish and I changed only two photos from what they originally picked. I did have say in what pics went in the book, but it was a group effort. I had no input on the cover pics—in fact, the pic they used of Wills was really surprising to me, not that I don’t love it, but because it was hanging on my fridge for years with all of this food and stuff on it, and when I was walking out the door to put the box in Federal Express (not easy to put original photos of your child in a FedEx box), I grabbed that one off the fridge and threw it in. I’m just glad you can’t see the food all over it.

I can only imagine the conversation in the art deptartment.
I’m not a fan of taking movies or pictures or thinking of a book as I’m living my life. When those pictures and movies were taken of Wills, I wasn’t even writing yet.

What about your piece in Leslie Morgan Steiner’s anthology, <em Mommy Wars, which featured Wills? Was that written before you knew you were going to be doing C&W? Or after?
I had to run and check the copyright date. Mommy Wars came out in 2006. At the time, anyone in my writing group would tell you, I was more obsessed—literally obsessed—about my first book being DWDP.

When Mommy Wars came out, did I consider a book out of the essay? I guess I probably did. Probably in the back of my mind I thought I’d write about Wills eventually.

Which will let me come around and end on one of my first questions: You said the sequel to DWDP wasn’t working out, so you moved on to C&W. I still think that C&W is more of a traditional sequel than one would think. In fact, it feels to me like DWDP is sort of submerged in C&W, coming through every once in a while in moments like when your OCD takes over and you spend all that time cleaning baseboards. But it also feels like a sequel in that, for as hard as that time with Wills clearly was for you, the book overall comes across as pretty optimistic—you’ve made it through. What do you think?
I’m smiling. You are definitely on to something. Maybe the “sequel” I thought I was writing to DWDP wasn’t working because C&W was knocking. Interesting.

Last question: what’s your six-word memoir?
Babies cannot fit through a vagina.


BUY Cowboy & Wills: A Love Story.

WATCH the Cowboy & Wills video on Monica Holloway’s web site.

HEAR and audio excerpt of the book on Simon & Schuster book site.

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2 responses

  1. Little Dog says:

    Thank for this, i love your blog

  2. Debbie Furry says:

    This comment is for Monica Holloway (I hope that maybe you will share this with her)

    I just finished reading Cowboy & Wills, what a beautifully written book.

    My heart went out to you each and every time you would guide and support Wills as Katherine suggested, especially when your heart as a Mom wanted to shield and protect Wills. What awesome strength you have, especially in the face of the total strangers who though they were the one-and-only expert and they voiced their opinion.

    While I’ve not met you, Michael, Wills or Cowboy, other than through your memoir, in my humble opinion you are all awesome. Wills is a great guy because of all of you.

    I’d like to say to you “Well done” you are trying your hardest to do what is right.

    Hugs and Support.

    Debbie Furry

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