First off, Cynthia Port is more than just a cyber-buddy. She’s a sister born of another mother and in another state. She’s hilarious, she’s smart, she’s conscientious about taking care of the planet, and she’s got a heart for taking care of other people. Her Kibble Talk series changed the way I look at dogs, and she is a trusted beta reader. She’s a world-traveler, and she can find a GIF forr any occasion. Best of all, she’s my right arm in Clean Indie Reads; when I have to “leave the bridge” (Star Trek reference), I leave her (Number One) in command, and I can trust her completely to handle things as I would. (Usually better.)
LIA: How did you decide to write a series about a girl who can talk to dogs?
CYNTHIA: As a kid I talked to animals all the time, from the backyard chipmunk I bribed with almonds to our two white, American Spitz dogs, to our irritable parrot. They heard all my dreams and wishes, more often than not delivered with a shower of tears onto their fur (the dogs, that is, not the chipmunk or the parrot with a taste for fingers). And the dogs actually listened. Even speaking as a cat person, a dog cares. You can see it in their eyes and ear twitches and head tilts.
As to the premise for Kibble Talk, I remember exactly where I was when it occurred to me (driving my kids to school), but I can’t remember the conversation that sparked it. Probably it was some quirky question from my youngest, because her mind doesn’t work like the rest of us.
LIA: Which of your own pets has had the most interesting personality? What did s/he do that showed this?
CYNTHIA: That’s a tough one—they’re all interesting! I’m going to go with a mysterious one. As a young teen, my older sister brought home a stray kitten that immediately developed a serious illness. He reached a fever over 105 and nearly died, but we nursed him back to health and he lived the rest of his eight lives in comfort. He ended up a boney thing, with long ginger fur and a ready purr, but his brain had been, to put it bluntly, blanched. Wherever you put him down, he’d stay there. He was like a pile of rags, and so we called him Rags. He often fell asleep with his face in his food bowl, or worse yet on windowsills, from which he would topple off and then climb back up again, only to careen off again, over and over until someone noticed and placed him on a bed or chair. The mysterious part is that, after he died, I developed a recurrent dream in which I am enjoying a deep, intellectual conversation with Rags. In my dreams, which I still have to this day, he is philosophical, self-composed, speaks multiple languages, and is more worldly than I will ever be. Either Rags was the Forrest Gump of Catdom, or some part of my soul recognized the genius poor Rags could have been if not for that fever.
LIA: How have your own children reacted to your stories about Dinky?
CYNTHIA: My kids (and their friends) all love Dinky. My two daughters are my first beta readers, and they are the perfect team. My oldest is a pleaser – she massages my ego by loving every word I write. My youngest likes only what she likes, so she is my real critic, coming to me days and weeks later with suggestions or reasons why something didn’t quite make sense or how it could be improved. One of my proudest author moments was her telling me how lucky she was, and when I asked her why, she said: because you write stories.
LIA: You’ve done many classroom visits to share Kibble Talk. What do you enjoy most about those presentations?
CYNTHIA: For most of my classroom visits, the class has already heard the book as a read-aloud, so we’re swapping stories about what parts we liked best, what parts were the funniest, and what should happen to each character in the next book. It’s like sharing a really big inside joke. Whether they’ve read the book or not, my favorite questions are about my writing process. What time of day do you write? How do you develop your characters? How long does it take you to write a whole book? I love these questions because I can see tomorrow’s writers behind each one. They’re excited, confident and eager.
LIA: What’s the funniest thing you’ve ever been asked by a fan of Dinky?
CYNTHIA: After I’ve spoken to a group of kids who’ve read the book and I’m packing up my things (I bring along a stuffed, life-size Dinky and accessories!), a child (usually a boy) will invariably approach me and ask whether Dinky is a boy or a girl. In the book, Dinky is quite clearly a male dog, but he has a penchant for things we in the human world associate with being female: pink and sparkly things. In my reply, I never elaborate on their question with my own answers. I simply smile and say, Dinky is a boy, which of course they already knew. It’s not the funniest thing I’m ever asked, but it’s interesting to see young minds discovering their own cultural expectations and puzzling over them.
LIA: In addition to writing, you have other creative endeavors. How has music been a part of your family’s life?
CYNTHIA: Music is important in our house, but isn’t so much a family affair because we each connect to it so differently. I have always loved to sing, and do it constantly – driving, showering, puttering, gardening—but I do not listen to others’ music that much. When I turn on the radio, it’s to hear the news or interview shows. My husband and our youngest, though, live their lives to music. They require a constant soundtrack during work or play. They hear and understand music in ways that I never will. My youngest can tell me where she was when she first heard just about any song. She can even name the movie in which she heard some random snippet half a decade earlier. Her musical memory never ceases to amaze me. My oldest is in love with show choir, so for her music is a vehicle for dance and performance and her friendships. She and her friends make digital “mixed tapes” for each other that mostly contain songs from my high school and college years!
LIA: Although your books tease health nuts (lovingly, of course), you are quite health-conscious. What would be the single biggest piece of advice you’d give us about what we should or shouldn’t eat?
CYNTHIA: I wish I could claim the health-conscious moniker. Let’s say I aspire to it. I do eat better than most in that I eat all plant foods and cook just about everything from scratch. My advice is simple: what you should eat is plants, plants, plants. Plants, as a group, have everything the human body needs for health. Eat a variety of plants and you will get all the protein, fat, carbohydrates, vitamins, minerals, fiber, anti-oxidants, and other really good stuff your body requires without needing to think about it. There is only one exception, and that is b12, but don’t think that’s a reason to eat meat and dairy. The animals people eat were fed b12 supplements too, so you’re just getting it second hand that way. Any time you’re not eating plants, your body is missing out. And yes, chocolate and coffee and wine are all plant-based!
LIA: Who are your favorite funny people (famous or otherwise), and what makes them entertaining to you?
CYNTHIA: I love humor because of the insight it offers into the human condition. In the children’s writing world, my favorite would be Barbara Parks of the Junie B. Jones series. Junie B., kindergartener, makes us laugh because, with every blatantly selfish or ridiculous thing she does, she exonerates us of every selfish or ridiculous thing we have done or contemplated doing. But she is also every good and honest impulse we have, especially the ones we are not brave enough to follow through on when she is. She exonerates us of those shortfalls too. For adult humor, I am drawn to the nerdy writings of Douglas Adams (Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy series), and the satire of Joseph Heller (Catch 22). They make me laugh, but only after they make me think. Tucked between the laughs in the Kibble Talk series are lessons too, about friendship and acceptance and not taking our loved ones for granted. In real life, these can be hard, confusing lessons, but a spoonful of laughter makes the medicine go down.