By Jules Lavallee
Los Angeles, CA (The Hollywood Times) 11/25/19 – Author Justin Donner’s new book is “Ninja Cat: Whiskers of Choice.” It is about a cast-away cat with no parents who lives on the mean city streets with his animal friends fights for financial freedom when a notorious loan shark bullies them into a wild heist situation!
Share your upbringing.
Justin Donner: Fatherless. My Stepdad tried, but we didn’t have much in common. He worked in Seattle, but we lived in a bay town an hour and a half north so he wasn’t around much but he did introduce me to computers and coding programs on MS-DOS at a young age. I appreciated that influence. Tech, nature, and literature fueled my days. The community generally encouraged creativity, education and generally had pretty high expectations for what people could do with their lives. Mom took care of my brother and sister, 8 and 10 years younger, so I was pretty much on my own from 10 on, which gave me time to learn to love writing. Time alone became a cherished part of my upbringing, being so free to live according to my schedule. It was suggested I skip a grade in school, but (foreshadow) as a kid I easily vented frustration via violence, so emotionally I wasn’t ready. That lead to countless hours writing and drawing, spending time in the dreary woods of northwest Washington and meandering the beaches near my school, truly blessed to be in a paradise of mindfulness.
What lessons would you like to share?
Justin Donner: Time is finite. Being respectful goes a long way. It’s not important that you are right, or make the choice, or decision, but that the best answer is found and implemented. Too much time is wasted worrying about the irrelevant details in life, and the journey becomes obsessive toward the destination. Which, unfortunately, is an American Dream I’m not sure is real anyway.
You studied under a master chef in Sacramento where you learned about operating a successful award-winning restaurant. How did this experience change your life?
Justin Donner: It saved my life. Beyond learning the nuts and bolts, the culinary techniques, nomenclature, and processes involved in kitchen operations, Chef took me under his wing in a father-figure role, more like a mentor and life-coach. Only extremely blunt, profane, demanding and frustrating. I’ve had plates of food flung into the garbage because the standard wasn’t met for service. Humbling stuff. Around 6 months into my apprenticeship I broke up with my girlfriend and left our apartment, choosing homelessness (and drunkenness) over volatile love. I was lurking near the restaurant in the uptown district, in bars and clubs all night, crashing on friend’s couches, trying to hook up, whatever to get by. One night I got into a street fight with a Pimp, wound up with a broken nose at 3 AM, wandered the streets until the restaurant opened at 5 AM and greeted Chef with a face-full of blood, clearly at a new rock bottom. He shook his head and brought me in, cooked me breakfast (for the first and only time) and shared his life story with me. He explained his orphan childhood in Germany, culinary education throughout Europe and migration to New York as a teen, fast rise to success, restaurant ventures in Philadelphia and Chicago, where he was executive chef for the Playboy Club, then to Los Angeles where he starred in a cooking program (in the 80s, before that was the thing we know now) until a car crash nearly killed him and left him with perspective that brought him to Sacramento to teach his craft and live easy. His drug and alcohol abuse nearly derailed his life, too, showing up to work in bloody, busted-up conditions like me at one point, strung out, drunk, facing not only career failure but death. His story inspired me to do better, to live for a reason again. Chef also got me off the streets, spoke with a regular to the restaurant who was into the house-flipping game and let me crash at one of his in-progress homes for cheap while I got my act together. The economics and skills required to run a restaurant were learned easily enough, responsibility and managing money, food preparation and culinary prowess, but the relationship I had with Chef changed my life more than anything related to food or business. He taught me how to overcome adversity and take responsibility for my own life, to never accept failure and to hold myself to a standard that makes me proud to be me.
When did you know that you found your freedom in writing?
Justin Donner: When I was in college as a pre-med honors college student. Trying to balance a frat-boy lifestyle with the rigors of organic chemistry and emergency department volunteering while carrying a hectic romantic workload would’ve led to implosion if not for the freedom found in writing. This outlet allowed me to not only make sense of my life, struggles, fears and ambitions but through writing, I was able to process my energy productively. Research began to take on new meaning, focus, and purpose that I could tackle tough topics and create words to make sense of it all. Thanks to writing, those lessons learned can be read by anyone, anywhere, anytime, and there’s great freedom in knowing your work has meaning.
Your best-selling recovery memoir “I Just Woke Up Dead” was written while working on a Master’s Degree in Criminology, Law, and Society from the University of California, Irvine. What did that time look like?
Justin Donner: That time was crazy. I was 1 year sober, having turned the corner permanently from the spiritual progress found during the journey of “I Just Woke Up Dead.” That isn’t the end of my story, there were a few more years of relapse before ultimately getting clean. So a year into sobriety my editor encourages me to finish the memoir during the summer before beginning graduate school. I was just getting off probation, getting my undergrad degree, going to lots of Alcoholics Anonymous and Sex Addicts Anonymous and Narcotics Anonymous meetings and all kinds of recovery events, just headfirst into getting well. The faith and belief that life can and would get better through sobriety was beginning to prove itself more than and idea. Tangible changes were being made in my life that improved my situation in so many ways, from publishing the book to going to UCI to renewing my relationship with my son (about 4 years old at the time). I felt a lot of peace working on “IJWD” because of the cathartic nature of reflection and the comfort knowing that if I could live through that, I can easily handle the rigors facing me today. And in the future. It was the beginning of what’s been a wild ride in recovery.
Tell us about “Ninja Cat.” What inspired you to write this? What would you like readers to understand the most?
Justin Donner: I was inspired by parenting. By trying to teach my son abstract concepts that are fundamentally important. Like self-respect. Treating others with respect. Managing emotions. Finance. Cliques. Accountability. Courage under stress. I found that by creating cartoon characters that embodied either the emotion or archetype I wanted him to learn about, I could reference those characters later, in real life. So when he’d be about to throw a tantrum when he couldn’t get his shoes tied quickly, I’d reference Molinari and how silly the drawings are of him freaking out about his… shoelace tying! That would lighten the frustration and helped him get over that shoelace thing. Other things, like finance, latch-key kid environments, consequences and the process of making good decisions, these are things kids ought to hear about frequently. I would like readers to understand the most important thing is to talk to kids and give them credit, because nowadays they will be exposed to all subject matter and content, so it’s better to stay ahead of the curve and talk about things like urban/rural tension and economic inequality now so they aren’t caught of guard when life hits them as young adults and they’ve still never heard of interest rates.
Are you the “Ninja Cat?”
Justin Donner: Yes, as an ideal, anyway! Ninja Cat is me if I would’ve known what I know now, then. He’s not perfect, but his heart in the right place. I guess in a way I’m Ninja Cat. I think Ninja Cat represents the good in us all, regardless of our situations. We are all the Ninja Cat.
What is a recurring theme in the book?
Justin Donner: Life is tough. Stress is real. Sometimes the best choice isn’t easy or obvious. Making decisions based (mostly) on emotion is not a great idea. Seeking help is okay. Talking about your fears and worries and life is healthy. Mental health matters. The things we say and do matter. How we treat each other matters. Judge less, and communicate more.
How important were the illustrations to your story?
Justin Donner: A picture is worth 1,000 words. I believe that. Supplement that with actual words and now you’ve got a digestible kid story about real topics. Corrigan and I drew the entire final draft without words. I had them on a separate word doc, but I was able to flip through the entire book in one sitting with a 10-year old kid and verbally tell him the gist of the story using the pics to get the job done. This allowed the text to take on a whole new meaning to elaborate on a tale that was already rich enough to exist as pics only. Now the book has layers and opportunities to inquire further, for kids to ask their parents about a subject or teachers can bring up a discussion about standing up to bullying or how accepting gifts can leave you owing someone favors you may not be prepared to honor. The characters express emotion through illustration and that takes the story to a whole new level when the words are concise and precise to make the story pop.
Who would enjoy “Ninja Cat” the most?
Justin Donner: Parents. It’s a story full of content kids need to hear about but contains a litany of jokes and references only parents will recognize. There’s humor, action, math, social and emotional lessons and plenty to think about. Kid books don’t leave a lot to discuss, Captain Underpants leaves a lot out when it comes to in-game analysis, Not many books give me a page-by-page opportunity to elaborate on why something matters or why it’s important to treat each other with respect. But Ninja Cat gives a parent lots of opportunities to drive home good values on a basic human level. As told by animals.
If you had to do it all over again, what would you do differently?
Justin Donner: Nothing. Too many forks in the road would’ve led to such different realities I can’t imagine what different would look like. I could’ve been a surgeon, or a restauranteur or lawyer or criminologist, I could have been an overdose casualty or homicide victim. I think different, for better or worse, would’ve been really, really different, so I think I’ll stay content with the way it worked out. I’m curious, of course, what surgeon Justin would be like or Michelin Star chef Justin would be like, but I’m good with author/finance Justin.
What is next for you?
Justin Donner: Ninja Cat, part 2. Just like the first book had learning intent, I’ve been told by professionals that trauma stories in kid books are lacking. This is a really important subject to me, I’ve worked with a lot of people who experienced trauma has a child and never dealt with it or talked about it with anybody. Ever. That doesn’t work out very well. Given we all experience trauma uniquely, rather than try to focus on a type of trauma, Skinny City Turkey will provide the character to introduce generic trauma that focuses more on talking about it than what specifically happened. That conversation will be for the kid and parent or teacher or counselor, but providing a story with the characters of Ninja Cat can hopefully find its way into a kid’s hands who can feel like maybe it’s time to talk about whatever it is that’s bothering them, because we all go through stuff and it’s ok to feel weird about it. Ninja Cat is going to grow up with my son, so we’re moving away from finance and peer pressure. But the story will still be kid edited and approved, chock-full of the same action, humor and fast page-turning flow that made Ninja Cat: Whiskers of Choice so fun.