I’m delighted to be hosting Joanne Rocklin, author of The Five Lives of Our Cat Zook, for an interview today. You can read my review of the book here. Joanne is also the author of another middle grade novel that is sure to knock your socks off, One Day and One Amazing Morning on Orange Street (loved it!). Joanne is here to chat about writing, cats, and telling whoppers. There’s a giveaway on offer as well. Read to the end of the interview to find out the details. Welcome Joanne!
1) If you had to choose 5 things (ideas / books / objects / topics / people) that have most inspired your writing, what would you choose?
My mother times 5. She died thirteen years ago, surrounded by all of us, as well as the big pile of picture books she was donating to her beloved class of Kindergarteners. She read to me very, very early, introduced me to the library, Louisa May Alcott, Anne of Green Gables, Little House in the Big Woods, Beverly Cleary, and hundreds of other authors and stories. She gave me the freedom to read and scribble diary entries and my own poems and stories whenever I wanted, which meant turning a blind eye to the easy-to-spot flashlight under the covers. She marched to my school in a huff when a third grade teacher criticized my poems for “poor handwriting”. She saved every scrap of paper with anything on it written by me. With fierce support like that, what else could I grow up to be, but a children’s author!
And when I was an adult, an unpublished author, she was the one who told me about the wonderful Society of Children’s Book Writers and Illustrators.
I tried to recreate the joy of those bookish moments with my own two sons, I continue doing so with my grandchildren, and every day of my life I speak to that long-ago reading child, deep inside of me. And it’s all because of her.
Joanne’s mother reading to Joanne’s sons. (ca. 1978)
2) What part of this novel are you most proud of?
I could say Oona’s voice, which made me laugh and feel strongly as I was “channeling” it, or her silly stories, which express so much for my character and make the book a bit different. But these elements came easily to me, in this particular novel. I think what I’m most proud of is the structure, or plot (or whatever-you-want-to-call-it, when everything comes together to form a cohesive whole). For me, that’s the hardest part of writing a novel. Oona accepts life’s changes, as well as death as a part of life, and Zook helps her do all that. I wasn’t sure, when I began, how Zook would help her, but I knew he would.
Now that I ponder your question, “proud” isn’t the right word. “Grateful” is a better word. Frankly, I don’t know how that “coming together” happened. And it only happened after many, many drafts. So I guess I’m most proud of keeping my bottom in my chair, until it did.
3) What is something you learned through writing this novel (about writing, about the world, about cats…)?
It’s the details that make writing come alive, and I hang on to them for dear life, because it’s the details that also eventually give me insight into my characters, plot and theme, yes, just like puzzle pieces fitting together. I don’t know why that happens, but I guess the writing brain struggles to make sense of everything, to make everything connect. See my answer to #8 for how this is evident in THE FIVE LIVES OF OUR CAT ZOOK.
About cats, kids, and love
The love that people have for their pets is not a “lesser” love. Most of us only discover this when we become pet owners. Pets become members of a family. I knew this on some level, of course, but writing the novel made me know it consciously. Oona finally realizes this, too, as she ponders the meaning of “true” love. I’ve always felt that when a child and a pet grow up together, that child is helped to be more empathic, responsible, emotionally responsive, and imaginative, as she projects her feelings and words onto a loved and loving pet, who needs her. Middle graders understand that a pet’s physical health can fail, indeed, that a pet will die. I’m not sure, but it seems to me that we worry more about the reaction by children in primary grades. Are more picture books than novels published on this topic? I began to wonder whether middle graders grieve harder, because of their true understanding of life’s vicissitudes, and death’s finality. Continue reading