A Conversation with Monica Holloway, Author of Cowoby & Wills
1. What a powerful, moving story. How is Wills doing now? Are he and his new dog Buddy as close as he and Cowboy were? How does Wills remember Cowboy?
Wills is twelve now, and he’s doing very well. Socially, he keeps making enormous strides. He would never need a puppy or a mommy to stand in front of him now. He handles social situations with aplomb. That isn’t to say that he still doesn’t work on his social skills, but it comes much more naturally now and remains, of course, completely “Wills.” He has his own, unique way of approaching people and things.
Wills and Buddy go everywhere together, too. Buddy is two-and-a-half years old now, and healthy as a horse. She weighs a whopping ninety-eight pounds and is so gorgeous. I look at her and realize how ill Cowboy must have been from the beginning, because Cowboy was so much smaller than Buddy.
Wills’s heart is still broken over the loss of Cowboy and I don’t think that’s something that will ever truly go away. As I wrote in the book, Cowboy was his “first love and his first love lost.” You never outgrow feelings for the “firsts” in your life. When Cowboy comes up, Wills still gets quite emotional.
Having said that, Wills is very excited about this book, and has found quite a lot of comfort in the stories he’s read from it—in recalling all the fun. (He was a good resource when I had questions about some of the events that took place.)
He and I sat down to go through our pictures of the two of them for the book and the video, and Wills cried at first, but then we found ourselves laughing really hard.
It seems that the book has brought about healing for Wills. He talks about the book quite openly and seems to be proud of all that he’s accomplished and his first dog. This was my most hopeful wish, of course, when I wrote the book.
2. Now that your family is more comfortable with Wills diagnosis and progress, and you have Buddy as a companion, do you still find yourself at the pet store after a bad day? Or is that stage of your life in the past?
I thought maybe I was past the “animal addiction” phase of my life, but apparently not. This summer, I was dealing with a fairly difficult personal loss and adopted two beautiful white rabbits from LA’s The Bunny Foundation. A boy bunny, whom Wills named Niege (French for snow), and a girl named “Liza Minelli in Rabbit Form” because of her gorgeous black eyes and long eyelashes. The bunnies are domesticated and very friendly. Liza will let Buddy lick her fur until she’s soaking wet but Niege prefers to bathe himself.
Three days ago, August 16, 2009, we bought another golden retriever puppy from Buddy’s breeder, Artistry Golden Retrievers in Simi Valley. Wills named him Leo Henry, and he’s only eight weeks old. We’re over the moon with him, and Wills is having a blast. Now he has two dogs sleeping in his bed.
Buddy is very gentle with Leo and the two of them have been happily playing in the sand under Wills’s fort. Wills strolls Leo around in an orange and grey puppy stroller while Buddy trots along beside them.
We also have one hamster, three hermit crabs and two fire-bellied frogs among others.
So no, I wouldn’t say that my animal addiction is under control. But we have a pretty happy, if not hairy, house.
3. Raising a child is always difficult, made only more complex in your case with an autism diagnosis. Looking back, is there anything you would have done differently?
I wish I could have relaxed more. Not knowing what the future holds for a child is difficult for any parent, but when there’s a diagnosis involved, it spins you off in all kinds of bad scenarios. Some days are better than others. But over all, if I’d known he’d improve this much, and lead such a happy life, I might have cleaned the house less obsessively and spent that time focused on the moment at hand —on the present.
Having said that, Wills is going into middle school in a few weeks, and I found myself scrubbing the bathtub with renewed intensity the other day while recalling how difficult junior high was for me—for most of us. So I still worry about him, but now Wills reminds me, “Mom, don’t be so overprotective!” And it makes me laugh. He can handle it himself.
4. How did your childhood, as described in your first book, influence how you see yourself as a parent? What sort of perspective did it offer you? Was there anything that you felt you were missing, or were unprepared for?
I, in no way, wanted to emulate my own parents, and so that left me with precious little to go on in terms of role models. I read tons of books and felt quite alone, actually. Ultimately, I think I was too overprotective of Wills because I did not want to be neglectful. I was unclear about the boundaries what was helpful and loving to Wills, and what might have been suffocating to him.
5. Cowboy teaches Wills so many things, and introduces him to a much wider world while giving him the confidence to venture out in that world. What did Cowboy teach you? What life lesson from your puppy do you hold most dear?
Cowboy never whimpered or showed her discomfort in any way. Given how sick she became, I could only admire her determination to keep up with Wills as he ran through the yard or seeing her wagging her scraggily tail while she stood by the garage door hoping to go for a ride with us. (Of course, we always took her.)
She was in pain, but being with us meant more to her than lying still or sleeping. She taught me to get up off my butt even when I didn’t want to.
Her loyalty and fierce love for all of us was an honor to behold. It was so pure and came so naturally for her. We were lucky.
6. In the book, one of the mothers you meet claims to have cured autism in her son by changing his diet. You note however that the boy developed autism after receiving a vaccine. How do you feel about the very public media debate over the causes of autism, and about the decision some mothers make not to vaccinate their children, out of fear of their developing autism?
I feel very strongly that there must be something to this. I have seen too many children who were developing “normally” until the vaccines were administered, and then they began to regress, to lose language, to “disappear” inside themselves. This was not Wills. He had early onset autism, as I discuss in the book, and I did not notice a change in him after his vaccinations.
I’m not a scientist, but from what I’ve read, it seems plausible to me that something (perhaps the large dose of metals in those vaccines) could possibly trigger autism if the gene is already there. I have no proof of this, I don’t even know if there is an autism gene, I’m just a mom. But there are too many cases out there for me to dismiss it. Research needs to continue and increase.
7. Wills and Cowboy were incredibly close, but you and Cowboy also developed an amazingly deep relationship. How do you cope with the fact that she, who changed you and your son’s life so dramatically, is no longer there? Has writing this book been a way for you to mourn and move on?
I wear a silver chain with a sterling silver cowboy hat hanging from it in memory of Cowboy. Just like Wills, I’ll never move on from Cowboy completely, but days go by when I don’t think of her and then there’s that moment, that dog at the beach who looks exactly like her (she was smaller than most goldens) when my stomach clutches and I feel that pang of emptiness.
8. This is your second memoir. How, in your incredibly full life, have you managed to have time to write? How do you juggle being a mother and a writer, along with everything else?
One thing I do that cracks up my other writer friends is, I write in my Jeep. I sit at a park or beside a lake and I type away. That way, I’m really close to Wills’s school so I can take him in the morning and pick him up at 3:00 PM. (Wills is at a new school forty minutes from our house. He’s in middle school now.) Most days, Buddy is with me and we run through the park or sit on a quilt where she chews on bones or naps while I type.
Buddy goes on hikes three days a week with my friend, Michael Blaser (also known as “The Dog Runner”) which gives me even more time to write while Wills is in school and it gives Buddy social time with the other dogs Michael walks.
That’s why we waited for a new puppy until I was in between books. Now, I have to be on top of Leo Henry all day.
We just built a little office for me at home, so let’s see if I can work there. I think part of me feels less pressure when I’m writing “out in the world” and not sitting at my desk. Too much pressure. We’ll see.
9. Writing a memoir is such an intimate form of communication. What motivated you to tell your story? Do you ever feel that you are revealing too much of yourself, or exposing your family, through your writing?
I heard Joan Didion speak two years ago, and she said (and I’m paraphrasing) that when you write nonfiction, you always “sell someone out.” And when I heard that, I thought it was such a negative way to look at writing memoir, but since hearing that, I’ve come to realize that she was probably right. I can tell my story, but someone will inevitably be caught in the crosshairs—intentional or not. I can change a name or move something to a new setting, but someone will still feel the prick. On the other hand, Anne Lamott says in Bird by Bird that if someone wanted a better story, they “should have treated you better.” This was much more true for my first book.
Cowboy & Wills book was such a relief and a joy to write because Wills is the absolute love of my life and to tell the world how brave he is and how important it is to recognize the power of healing through animals was an incredible honor.
10. What is next for you as a writer? Do you think that you will ever move away from essays and memoir and write fiction?
I’m working on a book of essays right now that are also nonfiction. I can’t see myself moving into fiction, but I wouldn’t say never. Life speeds along and there’s always something to wonder about, so I imagine I’ll end up writing nonfiction for a while longer.