Not every author gets their first book published at the age of 65, but neither do they receive inspiration from a remarkable orphaned cat named after their husband's grandmother! Unlikely as it sounds, that is what happened to Rebecca Kool, though there were a number of other steps along the journey.
Perhaps the most important was Rebecca's decision to move to Japan, a life-altering choice at the age of 50 that saw her land at the airport in Nagoya in October 1994 unable to read, write or speak Japanese. "My kids wondered if I had gone off the deep end!" she says.
Prior to leaving everything behind and moving to a new country, Rebecca was working in Victoria for a seniors’ retirement complex as the on-site manager. She started before the facility even opened, helped show suites and worked on marketing and promotion.
"It was an interesting job and I loved it,” she says. “I was in my heels, tottering across planks over the mud to get into the display suite. Once we had a full building, my job became the day-to-day management of the hotel. I oversaw food services, maintenance, staffing and all other aspects. I worked 12-hour days, seven days a week. I had an apartment, but only slept there."
After six years on the job, Rebecca’s wanderlust surfaced. Fate, in the form of some chance encounters, pointed her in a new direction. First, she became good friends with a scientist and his wife who did contract work in Japan for six months each year. Then, an official from the Japanese equivalent of the Ministry of Health dropped by to look at the facility as part of a study on how seniors are cared for in Canada. Finally, Rebecca's colleague mentioned a friend who had lived in Tokyo for a year in a home-stay situation.
"My friends assured me I would have no trouble finding work in Japan,” says Rebecca. “I wanted to travel. I took a deep breath, sold my house, packed a couple of suitcases and left."
Rebecca recalls clearly when the move hit home. "I woke up to the captain of the plane telling us were landing in Nagoya. I lifted my window shade and looked down to see Japanese kanji characters written on the rooftops and thought, 'I am really here.' I was excited beyond words."
Rebecca settled in and started to meet other non-Japanese people, mostly Canadians and Americans. These contacts led to various part-time jobs teaching English. For three years, she taught English at an all-girls junior and senior high school.
"I was told not to speak Japanese to the girls,” she says. “I had to devise all sorts of ways to communicate with them as I could not speak the language. I was a popular teacher because I let them let their hair down a bit. My classes were quite raucous and we moved all the desks around and things like that."
Rebecca also taught a Sunday evening class for Japanese teachers who taught English.
"I was a resource for them. We discussed current events or interesting topics then went to drink beer," she says with a laugh.
It was while teaching this class that Rebecca met Takeshi, a Math teacher who had received special permission to take the class in order to maintain his English skills. Shortly after, the couple started dating and, in March 2000, they were married in Japan. A month later, they married again, this time in Portland, Oregon.
Needing a place to live, American-born “Air-Force Brat” Rebecca, who had lived most of her adult life in British Columbia, and her new Japanese husband settled in Mexico.
“We lived in Ajijic for four years. It’s a little village on a lake, full of Canadians and Americans,” says Rebecca. “I had studied Spanish in high school for four years, so I thought I could do better with the language than I had in Japan.” An active opera group in the community caught Takeshi's interest since he enjoys singing opera, so the couple jumped right in. “We were privileged to see Jose Carras perform live in the opera house in Guadalajara.”
Rebecca also got back into writing during this time, managing to get her first published works included in the local paper. Back in 1996, while visiting family and friends, Rebecca signed up for a four-day writers workshop on Cortez Island with noted Saskatchewan author Sharon Butala. All of the participants were asked in advance to submit a short piece of their own writing, so Rebecca submitted one related to Japan and food.
“We were to get our piece back during a one-on-one exit interview with Sharon,” she recalls. “During my interview, we talked briefly about my stay in Japan. She told me she liked the piece I had done and dashed out ‘intriguing’ and ‘a fresh voice' at the bottom of the page. I was stunned. Here was Sharon Butala telling me I had a ‘fresh voice.’ It doesn’t get any better than that! I credit her with unlocking the door for me to continue pursuing writing.”
And then her muse came without warning.
“We adopted three cats in Mexico,” says Rebecca. “The first was a long, lean golden tabby that leaped in the air to catch things that flew. We named him Tama: he was usually successful catching hummingbirds and butterflies. The day we saw him catch a fly, I went straight to my computer and wrote this story. The boy in it is my husband, and the cat is Tama, of course. You see, my husband could catch flies with his hands. He had been taught by his mother as she had been taught by her mother, whom the cat was named after.”
Before publishing success would come her way, illness forced Rebecca and Takeshi to abandon Mexico. She was worried she had Multiple Sclerosis but, after travelling to Portland for a diagnosis, she was informed she was suffering from environmental bad water and bad food in the country resulting in high levels of metals in her blood. She also suffered typhoid while in Mexico, as well as four stings from scorpions. “We had to leave and decided it was time to come to Canada,” says Rebecca. “We packed this little trailer with boxes, sold everything else and drove all the way. Neither one of us had ever driven a trailer before. Because our left signal didn’t work we only made right turns. We never mastered backing up so it took us 17 days to make it to Canada. I will never forget pulling up to Peace Arch, crossing with all our papers. The border guard said, ‘welcome home,’ and I burst into tears. It was so sweet. Canada really is home, and though I have affinity for my birthplace, I have a great love for this country too.”
After settling back in the Lower Mainland, Rebecca set out to find a publisher for her manuscript. She managed to get her story in the top five finalists by one publisher in 2006, but did not make the final cut.
The following year, Rebecca’s perseverance finally paid off.
“I met the publisher of Gumboot Books at the Surrey Writers Conference,” she says. “I talked with her and showed her the manuscript for Fly Catcher Boy. She asked to read it, and we made the deal a couple of days later.”
The publisher accepted the manuscript as Rebecca had written it, and then found an illustrator for the book in Toronto, a young man named David Namisato.
“The illustrations are so lovely that even if you don’t read it, you will love it,” says Rebecca. “There is colour and action, but you know it takes place in Japan. It is important for kids to have a global perspective. The more we can get them reading and understanding other cultures, the better.”
In addition to writing, Rebecca is an avid photographer and loves to cook.
“I’m an excellent cook,” she says. “My son, who became a chef, is so much better than I am, but if you ask him what his favourite dishes are, he’ll tell you Mom’s chicken wings and Christmas fudge with marshmallows. Not only a good cook but a creative one: who else puts marshmallows in fudge?”
While getting word out about Fly Catcher Boy, Rebecca is already planning a second children’s book, and is working on memoirs of her time in Japan. She has even started a website and a blog to expand her audience. She says of Fly Catcher Boy, “This one has been so well received by educators. I want to keep writing and publishing as long as I can. It was always my heart’s desire to write and be published. I am proof that it’s never too late. Hold on to whatever passion you have. Be patient. If you don’t give up it’s sure to happen. I’m living proof!”
To purchase Fly Catcher Boy, visit Senior Living's online bookstore at http://www.seniorlivingmag.com/bookstore
SENIOR LIVING MAGAZINE VANCOUVER AND LOWER MAINLAND
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