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And when I was an adult, an unpublished author, she was the one who told me about the wonderful Society of Children’s Book Writers and Illustrators.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.
4) If you had to choose a motto to guide you in your writing journey, what would it be and why?
I have a zillion mottos. That’s why my own blog is called 180 Ways to Conquer Writer’s Block! But if I chose a few faves out of the 180, they would be:
A/DON’T THINK (about reviews, finishing, whether you chose the “right” story . . . ad nauseum. Literally, sometimes. The wrong kind of “thinking” will dry you up).
B/JUST BEGIN. (A corollary of A, above.)
C/IT’S A LEAP OF FAITH. (A corollary of B, above. And a cliché, but true, because I usually don’t know my ending right away. . . .)
D/ For me, IT’S THE JOURNEY ITSELF (as you suggest with your question) and A, B, and C are all part of D. I don’t work from an outline, and discover things about the characters, plot, and themes as I forge ahead.
5) How do you think storytelling helps Oona and Fred in their situation?
The “whopper” about cats having nine lives begins as a way to assuage Fred’s anxiety about Zook’s illness, offering him hope. The storytelling times themselves create a comfort zone for both of them, and represent the strength and importance of their relationship, especially during a crisis. As the novel progresses, it’s clear that Oona, on some primitive level, believes her nine-lives whopper, too. She hasn’t quite accepted the finality of the loss of her dad. The stories are riffs on the ones he used to tell her. They are actually wishes, her way of holding onto him, and her way, finally, of saying good-bye and moving on.
The “nine-lives” metaphor also helps Oona ponder the fact that everyone’s life is made up of different lives, as we grow and change.
And—the stories are also fun to tell and receive! Oona loves language and cliff-hangers and surprises for her audience. She loves getting back at the people who anger her in “real” life, by turning them into ridiculous fictional characters. There is triumph and joyous tension-release in doing so. And wonderful power in creating any kind of ending she likes, as the creator.
But there are also the stories you are afraid to tell aloud, but you can’t stop thinking about them. Oona has one of those stories inside of her. It’s a story she finally tells someone, as she gains understanding and trust.
6) At the end of the book, Oona shares some of her ideas about making stories, including how details in drafts of a story are like puzzle pieces that eventually fit together to make a whole. I liked Oona’s last thought most: “Your story will make the whopper-getter feel good, especially if your puzzle pieces are pieces of that person’s puzzle too.” Could you tell us more about why you decided to end the book with this thought?
I guess this thought sums up what I believe is most important about stories. Good stories enable the reader (or listener) to relate to fictional characters in a visceral way. The facts of the story may not fit the facts of the reader’s life, but if the fictional character’s emotions and solutions are recognized and understood by the reader, especially a child, he or she may feel less alone, and hopeful. In this book Oona speaks to those whose life is in flux, or have suffered a great loss.
7) I’m a cat person (not a cat lady, a cat person). I can think of a million reasons why cats are awesome. What are some things you admire about cats?
Yes, there are millions of reasons just as there are MILLIONS OF CATS! (I love that book. . . .) But I will tell you how cats have helped me with my writing:
They are totally in the moment, (the Magic Now, as I call it in my novel ONE DAY AND ONE AMAZING MORNING ON ORANGE STREET), appreciating everything to the utmost with their exquisitely fine-tuned senses. I have learned to stay “present,” by their example. Their curiosity makes me laugh, especially when I look at the world through their eyes. I love how they stretch their bodies, and, watching them, I am occasionally moved to get up from my writing chair to do leg stretches. (Occasionally. . . .) They are silent, yet admiring listeners whenever I read my work out loud. They have extraordinary concentration when it comes to obtaining goals (e.g., mice, flies or dust particles) and inspire me to concentrate on my own goals. They make comfy foot-warmers at night, helping me fall asleep, so that I’m alert at my desk the next morning.
8) I can only imagine that you’ve known at least one great cat in your life. Tell us about a cat you’ve known and loved.
It’s so hard for me to talk about one special cat! They’ve all been special in their own way. In fact it’s always amazed me how each had its own distinct and eccentric personality. Like humans!
In my story, Zook is a lost cat who is adopted into a loving family. Our present cat Mitzie was also a starving street cat, with a BB gun pellet, like Zook’s, lodged under her skin. We found her sniffing around some garbage pails outside a restaurant, and brought her home. She’s under my desk, happy and fat, as I type. Zook is also based on cats I knew many years ago, especially the ones associated with my children when they were young. My sons formed the Ashby Avenue Cat Club, in which cats had to pass an entry exam in order to qualify. I’ll have to ask them to refresh my memory about those requirements. . . .) One of our cats, Treat, did get her head stuck in a soup can, as Zook did. This was the same cat we thought was a male for a long time, teaching us some valuable lessons on gender profiling.
It’s also apparent to me that cats are as attached to their humans as their humans are to them. Aloof cats? Not mine. . . .
9) One of my favourite recent picture books is Amy Krouse Rosenthal’s this plus that: life’s little equations. In that book, Amy includes an equation that really reminds me of your book: good days + bad days = real life. I admire how in this book you are not shy about writing about how life can be really hard and sad, but that along with this, life has a lot of good in it. Why did you choose to write a story for kids that addresses this difficult reality head on?
Thank you. One of the central themes of my story—accepting life’s ambiguities. And I unconsciously use many details in ZOOK that reflect that ambiguity: tears of joy, a sad/happy jazz tune, “sad smiles,” story endings that are both happy and sad, and more.
But I don’t think I choose to write about this—the theme arises naturally from my understanding of tweens. At this age kids are first noticing, and struggling to tolerate all of life’s ambiguities. People are flawed, themselves included. Schools, neighborhoods, families keep changing. Death is so very final and happens to everything and everybody—but the world and its people seem to carry on. These are HUGE concepts!
I knew from the start I was going to write about an ailing cat, the loss of a father, and a fervent wish to believe a whopper about living nine lives. Given that sadness, I knew Oona would have to discover that “lives live on in many ways.”
Probably every story I write for this age will touch on the concept of ambiguity and change. It’s the adjustment to change, and the acceptance of life’s bittersweetness, that I find interesting as a storyteller.
Thank you for being here Joanne, and for writing stories that help readers to think about big ideas.
I’m happy to announce that I am able to offer a giveaway of a copy of The Five Lives of Our Cat Zook to a lucky reader. Drop a comment below about a cat you’ve known or a whopper you’ve told, and I will pick a winner at random. U.S. and Canadian addresses only. Thank you to the ladies of Blue Slip Media for arranging Joanne’s visit and the giveaway!