Rocklin, Joanne. The Five Lives of Our Cat Zook. Amulet Books, April 2012. 240p. $16.95. 978-1-4197-0192-4.
Check out my review of The Five Lives of Our Cat Zook.
Joanne Rocklin talks about change as loss, being a tween, how her pets help her find things, storytelling vs novel writing, and why seeing and noticing can change your life as well as those around you!
How do you write about loss for young readers?
It is interesting that you ask that question first. I did indeed want to explore the illness and potential death of a pet from the eyes of a middle grader, or “tween.” I remember being struck reading a story about a father who was deeply mourning the death of his dog. He described how the memory of that family pet seemed to be fading very quickly for his three-year-old daughter. I may be wrong, but it seemed to me that there are more stories on this topic written for the picture book age, yet it is the tween who truly understands the loss, intellectually and emotionally.
You ask how I write about loss. Let me say first that I am always writing about loss in some way, because change itself implies a loss. I write about kids going to a new school, or experiencing a family crisis, or a new family dynamic. In THE FIVE LIVES OF OUR CAT ZOOK, yes, I am writing about illness and death, the ultimate loss. Oona and Fred’s father has died, and now their cat is ill.
But as a writer (and even as a parent, or friend or teacher) I know that adjustment to any loss is an important process, and that’s how I tell my story. At first, Oona wears her father’s Raiders sweatshirt all the time. And she retells her father’s stories, to keep him alive in her mind. She tells her brother Fred a big “whopper”—that cats have nine lives, and Zook has only lived five of them, hoping to assuage Fred’s anxiety. Yet deep down she herself also wishes the whopper were true. Eventually, by telling her stories her own way, and taking care of her brother, and opening up her heart to new people in her life, she’s able to say her good-byes. And that means letting go of any fantasies, removing her dad’s sweatshirt, yet understanding that her father will always be part of her, as will every single living thing she has loved. Five-year-old Fred holds onto to his own fantasy about Zook, and Oona knows she must allow him to go through his own process of understanding.
How do you capture the mind of the tween in your work?
I love tweens! That is the part of my own childhood I remember best, when I fell in love with books and libraries and writing stories, poems and journal entries. I wrote long, long detailed letters to my best friend when we were both at different summer camps. We exchanged letters, so I still have mine in the garage! I love that tweens are struggling to understand Big Things, but often miss the mark a little bit, which can be humorous. Oona wonders about true love, magic and God in my story, and finds her own answers eventually. I love their forthrightness as they show off their newfound knowledge. But I also love their ambivalence—they love conflict and independence, but are fine without it, too, from time to time. In other words, there is much to write about, and remember. “Capturing the mind of the tween” is a matter of remembering my own tweenhood, as well as cherishing the tweens I meet in my life.
Do you think pets keep you sane? What about your pets?
|with Mitzi and Zoe|
requirement for the job. . . .) I just can’t help myself. Frankly, when I do that, I feel crazy. But if my cat or dog are in the room, I address my comments to them. That makes me feel less crazy, especially when they answer me. The other day my cat Mitzie pointed out, “Your glasses are on the dining room table, where you left them.” And she was right!
I do love having pets. They raise my self-esteem. Mitzie makes me feel like a movie star when I enter a room. (“Oh, wow! It’s her! She’s back!”) My dog Zoe is more laid back, but I do feel calm and virtuous, massaging her arthritic hip. They say pets are good for one’s blood pressure.
How do you transfer the art of storytelling to print?
It was fun and challenging to have Oona tell the stories she’d heard from her father. These stories are variants of very old tales from several cultures. The structure of her stories remain the same, but she adds bits and pieces of her own life to make them hers, as she grows to understand her world. She has learned from her dad to use sparkling, descriptive language, to surprise her audience with loud sounds and odd plot twists, to pull her ear to signal the onset of a tale. I tried to show how being in command of her story gave her a sense of personal power.
I am a writer, not a professional storyteller (as I understand the term). But I do have a sense of what it feels like to relay polished, rhythmic, fully formed stories to an audience, when I speak to kids at schools about my writing. There are certain stories I tell that capture exactly what I want to say about creativity, and it’s enjoyable to repeat them over and over to different audiences. The more I repeat, the more I’m able to perfect them. But the stories are essentially the same. It’s like singing a song I know very well.
Yet the telling of the story has to seem fresh and alive, and the tale fully formed, as if the teller is discovering the tale along with the audience. How different from my own lonely, rough drafts as I rework a novel! Writing a novel is a messy, circular process. I bounce back and forth, revising. The finished linear tale that results is so very different from the drafts. Do storytellers have their “rough drafts?” I’ve always imagined the gifted storyteller inhabited by a muse. The muse whispers a story in her ear, leaving just enough space between the words for the storyteller to add her own. That’s how I imagined Oona, telling her father’s stories.
Your book points out differences and similarities between observing and seeing. How does this inform the story you've written?
Oona fancies herself a terrific observer, a “noticer,” she tells us. Based on her observations about life, she’s come up with quite a few theories: her Rainbow Whopper Theory, her Cats Have Nine Lives Theory, her Name Theory, her Wishing Theory, her Hope of the World Theory. Most of her theories sound terrific “in theory,” and will improve as she gains experience and maturity. She has even been known to admit when a theory is flawed.
She is also struggling to develop a theory about true love, what it means, and how you know you’ve found it. Galileo, she learns from her respected teacher, wasn’t afraid to base his celestial theories on what he himself actually saw, rather than mere assumption. And as Oona puts it, sometimes you can “notice the obvious but wrong things.” When it comes to relationships, especially new ones, Oona begins to realize that her theories are based on what she hopes or wishes to be true, rather than what she truly sees with her eyes, and is beginning to feel in her heart.
About the Author
|Photo by Gerry Nelson|
I was born in Montreal, Quebec, Canada, the land of four distinct seasons. The winters are so long! Wintry days and nights inspired me to read many, many books, the most important thing a writer can do. Of course other seasons inspired me, too! And as soon as I learned to hold a pencil I began writing poems, stories, and diaries. I loved reading my own stories. As an adult I moved to L.A., where my two sons were brought up, and my first books written. Now I live in Northern California, in Oakland, with my husband Gerry, near my sons and their families. I spend my days writing, reading, gardening, cooking up a storm, singing in our synagogue choir, babysitting for my grandchildren, and playing with our golden retriever, Zoe, and cat, Mitzie.s well as library books to my two younger sisters. I have always owned cats (or they have owned me, a cliché, but true!) Coincidentally, all our cats have been authors, and I’ve compiled their writing secrets in the essay “Why Cats Write.” We found our current cat, Mitzie, hungry and flea-bitten, outside our favorite Thai restaurant. Following in my other pets’ paw prints, she is presently revising her heartrending memoir Please Take Me Home With You (It Will Be Worth It, I Promise).
Check out Joanne Rocklin's blog for some fun with Zook, including a sample chapter!
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