Monday, April 28, 2014

Interview with Katherine Perreth, author of Making Lemonade with Ben: The Audacity to Cope

Making Lemonade with Ben
With deftly wielded humor and heart-wrenching candor, Katherine Perreth vividly recounts the myriad physical, mental, emotional and spiritual repercussions stemming from her son’s massive brain hemorrhage. Seven-year-old Ben suffers numerous disabilities and, later, mental health challenges. Yet, love wins. Making Lemonade With Ben is a compelling Cinderella story tracing sixteen years of Ben’s life. It begins with the night a University of Wisconsin Hospital neurosurgeon saved Ben, and follows Ben through young adulthood. Although he encounters years of substantial obstacles, in 2011 his never-say-die cheery attitude and uber-outgoing ways ultimately carry him to Washington D.C. There he represents the Madison Children’s Museum, his employer, at a national award ceremony. Wearing his ankle-foot-orthosis with a smiley face on the back, Ben juggles one-handed everywhere he goes, accomplishing his life goal: “Make humanity smile.” Universal themes of perseverance and compassion encourage readers to contemplate contemporary issues: mental illness treatment, recovery and stigma, the role of intentional employers in the lives of those with disabilities, and the success that can occur when a community values all of her citizens.

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What are you most proud of accomplishing so far in your life?
I’m 53, and I didn’t think I was going to make it out of my forties. The glorious day I hit 50, I felt I’d really done something – stayed alive long enough to gleefully exit that fifth decade.
Then, at age 51, I reinvented myself by writing Making Lemonade With Ben: The Audacity to Cope (MLWB). New experiences thrill me, and the book has led to a number of oddities: having an Olympic-like medal placed around my neck for “Nonfiction: Inspirational” from an international book award contest I entered, and receiving a standing ovation from over 100 people. The latter occurred after Ben and I delivered the 2014 keynote speech for our local National Alliance on Mental Illness annual banquet.
My uber-outgoing, cheerfully charming 25-year-old son, robbed of various abilities at age seven, and for a time, his speech, also juggled lemons one-handed on stage. (This had a great deal to do with that standing O I’m thinkin’.) You simply cannot stop Ben from communicating with humanity, pursuing his goal to make everyone smile.

I’m passionate about removing stigma from mental illness. The sooner we all understand that mental illness is just like physical illness, the better for everyone. Mental illness is nothing new, nothing to be ashamed about, is a global concern, and can be a killer – just like physical illness. Even if we can’t be “fixed,” the choices we make can either alleviate or exacerbate our illnesses – physical and mental. There is a measure of empowerment in that.
And powerful good can happen when a community values all of her citizens through intentional employers and proper mental illness treatment and support. Ben’s life bears witness to that.
I believe the Clubhouse Model of mental illness treatment, support and recovery is critical. For more information, visit
I’ve also been able to use the book as a fundraiser for Yahara House, our local Clubhouse Model of mental illness treatment, support and recovery, Walbridge, a school that caters to kids with different learning abilities, and Reach A Child, an organization that gets books into the hands of kids in traumatic situations.

How has your upbringing influenced your writing?
My parents always thought I’d be a writer. We were great campers, hikers and backpackers, so they envisioned me writing for National Geographic.
When we weren’t being outdoorsy, they allowed my love of reading to bloom. My parents would express astonishment over my ability to stay put for hours on a recliner, as well as my varied reading positions: legs flipped over the top, head upside down, legs flipped over the side, head off the other side. It didn’t matter, as long as I held the book right side up.
When and why did you begin writing?
To help process emotions and the facts associated with them, allowing my mind and body to release some of them. About eight months after Ben’s emergency craniotomy and coma, the details were still playing pinball in my head. Writing as much minutiae as possible really helped. Then I branched out, thinking and analyzing the nature of grief, suffering, pain, all that good dark stuff. I call this collection of essays my Creative Cathartic Vignettes.
Do you recall how your interest in writing originated?
As a child, I expressed my emotions, which were many, via writing poetry. While in fourth grade, I wrote a poem about my mother’s current state of pregnancy. During quiet desk time, our teacher screeched my name, causing me to launch out of my seat. I thought I was in trouble, but then I heard her laughing. It was just her shocked reaction to my writing.
When did you first know you could be a writer? 
Pretty much when Johnny Depp hugged me at 4:00 in the morning. I knew I had a story then, and I submitted it to my hometown newspaper. Fans of Johnny, all is revealed in MLWB. (You’re welcome.)
The Depp article started my feature story niche. I love tooting the horns of my hometown folks. Although, I should have known I was a journalist earlier.
As a freshman at UW-Madison decades ago, I took one semester of Ag Journalism, to test the writing waters. (I don’t remember the particulars regarding why it wasn’t straight up Journalism.) For our final project, I didn’t want to write about cows or soybeans, so I did a piece on the newly emerging Punk Rock scene. We had to research what publications might be interested in our stories and submit them. The Capital Times, a Madison, Wisconsin daily, put it on their front page P.M. section, and paid me. Who gets paid at age 19, for her first submission? It took me three more decades to figure out what my parents had always known.
What inspires you to write and why?
As a journalist, I love a story. But I really love a backstory – the how and why of the thing. Recently, I’ve been speechwriting. My standard speech details the bewildering, slightly OCD, creation of Making Lemonade With Ben.
When I write, whether my book, speeches, or feature articles, I must be entertained. I’ve learned if I’m entertained, others are. There has got to be honesty, as well. I’m going to tell it like it is and hopefully, you’ll die laughing.
Or crying. Obviously, there’s much sorrow and pain in life, no laughing matter. Ben’s life underscores that. But if I can inject black humor into my dismal situation, that also aids in expressing troublesome emotions. At least I’ve found that to be true. I say I’m an equal opportunity employer when it comes to humor: white, gray and black, I’ll use ’em all to survive.
What genre are you most comfortable writing?
Humorous pathos, slices of life. I usually can find a bit of quirky humor in every-day-life.
What inspired you to write your first book?

Ben. And women asked for his story, and mine. Many people followed Ben’s recovery for years after his initial emergency craniotomy. When I would email updates, women invariably responded, “I hope you’re going to put this in your book!”
I thought they were crazy. For well over a decade, I dwelled simply in familial and personal survival – albeit, sometimes it was non-functional survival.
Who or what influenced your writing once you began?
Probably the billion words I’ve read in a wide range of genres over my lifetime. And my own brand of humor. And my family.
I gave my kids the three censorship options: Trust me, I’m your mother, read the entire manuscript, or read only the sections in which you feature. Ben read it all and offered insights, commentary, and clarifications, making MLWB so much richer. In fact, three of his essays are included, and I gave him the last word. My other two kids chose to read only their appearances, and approved them all – I threatened to stop cooking nightly dinners if they didn’t.
My husband read every draft, adding his voice while encouraging me to keep mine. Whenever I wanted to yank this section or that, because I felt too vulnerable, he talked me out of it every time. I took his advice except for the chapter entitled “A Woman Is A Woman.” He asked if I could at least blow up some shoes. Ain’t gonna happen.
What do you consider the most challenging about writing a novel, or about writing in general?
My perfectionism. And the writing is never going to be perfect. Never. There’s always something to tweak. At some point, I just have to declare “good enough.” Gotta push “send” sometime, and for me that’s when it’s clear, sincere, has a degree of humor, and I’m happy with it. Despite knowing that in a few days I’d be happier with it if I just
That’s why I let it percolate a bit after writing, and then adjust. Repeating as necessary, as long as deadline and sanity allow. (Remaining sane is crucial.)
Did writing this book teach you anything and what was it?
What was it? Just one thing? Sheesh.
The unexpected consequence of having my heart put back together, something I didn’t think was possible. People often muse that writing the book must have been cathartic. Actually, all the writing I did for years before beginning MLWB was cathartic. Telling the story, organizing the writing, weaving in humor and my Creative Cathartic Vignettes, putting all that together into one hefty rectangle, was more than cathartic. It was healing. I often say MLWB is my heart and soul in 3D – it may be a broken heart, but it has been soldered. And if you’d like to know why I chose to offer it to the general public, it’s because I have a social work degree from the UW-Madison, but more importantly, I have a social work heart. (There’s part of the backstory, for you – for free!)
Do you intend to make writing a career?
I’ve patched together a variety of writing gigs that make me very happy.
Have you developed a specific writing style?
Yes. Hopefully you’ve figured that out by reading these answers. If you haven’t, I beg your pardon.
What is your greatest strength as a writer? 
My ability to write in such a way that the reader is there, wherever I put them, the reader is there. This is what people tell me, anyway.
What is your favorite quality about yourself?
My willingness to be vulnerable.
What is your least favorite quality about yourself?
My willingness to be vulnerable.
This is a good example of the double-edged swords I talk about in MLWB.
What is your favorite quote, by whom, and why?
Again, I’m allowed only one? Tough audience.
This has been my mantra recently, “Life is a great big canvas, and you should throw all the paint you can on it.” Danny Kaye
So has, “Character consists of what you do on the third and fourth tries.” James Michener
Still, I’ve got to go with Ben’s critique of the book that bears his name, “Flawless sprinkled with awesomeness.”
I think you’re smart enough to understand why.
Thank you for taking the time to read this and for your support!

Discuss all these books in our PUYB Virtual Book Club at Goodreads by clicking HERE

Katherine PerrethKatherine holds UW-Madison Social Work and Sociology degrees, is a reporter for her hometown newspaper, the Middleton Times Tribune, and conducts a class on reminiscence writing. In addition, in her role as administrative staff with WESLI (an ESL school on Madison’s capitol square), she deals in chalk. And paper. Oodles of paper. She recently took an EmptyNester Victory Tour with her husband of 28 years, but hasn’t yet changed the locks on their home. Their three kids can still get in. Her latest books is Making Lemonade with Ben: The Audacity to Cope Drop by to pay her visit at:

Facebook * Goodreads


Katherine is giving away a Kindle Paperwhite!

Terms & Conditions:
  • By entering the giveaway, you are confirming you are at least 18 years old.
  • This giveaway begins April 21  and ends on June 27, 2014.
  • Winners will be contacted via email by July 2, 2014.
  • Winner has 72 hours to reply.
Good luck everyone!


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