“On my tenth birthday, six months before she sleepwalked into the river, Mom burned the rabbit cake.” —first line of Rabbit Cake by Annie Hartnett
Like many authors, Annie Hartnett didn’t set out to become a writer — at least not at first. Instead, Annie wanted to be a cartoonist for Disney, but her cartooning talent was not up to par.
“I was like a mediocre basketball player who wanted to play in the NBA,” Annie told Cracking the Cover.
It wasn’t until the final semester of Annie’s senior year of college that she realized she wanted to write. “I took Christopher Kennedy’s class and he taught me how much fun writing could be, and how great contemporary fiction was,” she said. “Before that class, I was only reading books I thought were serious literature, and I think I was trying to bore myself to death with writers who were all already dead themselves.”
Annie didn’t have to give up her drawing goals completely, though. In a move that made two dreams come true at once, the author got to draw cartoons to help promote her debut novel, Rabbit Cake, which came out March 7.
Rabbit Cake is an exploration of grief, family and the strength of humor following loss. At the center of the story is Elvis Babbitt a 12-year-old girl who investigates the strange circumstances of her mother’s death and finds comfort, if not answers, in the people (and animals) of Freedom, Ala. The book has received starred reviews from Kirkus and Publishers Weekly.
Annie started writing Rabbit Cake shortly after the death of one of her closest friend’s mother. “I didn’t know her mom all that well, but I met her enough times to be struck by how incredible and vibrant she was,” Annie said. “When she died, I was so disturbed that my friend, and the rest of the world, had to go on without a person like her. The mother in the book, Eva Babbitt, is partially based on what I knew of her mom, and a lot of the book came from thinking and worrying about my friend.”
Rabbit Cake grew out of a story about two sisters — one who sleepwalks and the other who doesn’t. Elvis, herself, is partly based on who Annie was as a child “(the animal obsession, the constant what if questions), but she soon developed her own voice and then her own personality quirks followed.”Annie hopes readers walk away from Rabbit Cake with a love for Elvis. She also hopes they find the book both funny and sad. “I hope they think it’s an ultimately uplifting book about coping after enormous loss,” she said.
When Annie is not working on my second book — a book about a sex crime in a small town — she’s also writing essays and short stories or teaching at an independent writing center. Each experience has helped shape who she is as a writer.
Stories and essays are more focused, Annie says, particularly when it comes to flash fiction. “I loved thinking about just one moment in time that revealed something about a character,” she said. “Essays are harder for me to write than stories are — it’s difficult to share your own stories, to show your soft underbelly to the world. I’ve written a bunch of essays about my dog who died, a dog that was the most special dog on the planet, and writing those just about killed me.”
“I teach classes called ‘the novel in progress,’ so those classes help me to think all the time about what makes a novel work, and what a novel promises the reader,” Annie said. “My classes also help me feel less alone in my process, help me feel part of the writing community. My students range in age from 18-85, and I learn a lot from their experiences and their anecdotes. They are people I really enjoy being around.”