|2013 Golden Kite Award Winner for Fiction Joanne Rocklin|
I connected with Joanne to find out more...
Lee: Can you tell us about finding out you'd won the 2013 Golden Kite Award for fiction for "The Five Lives Of Our Cat Zook?"
Joanne: I have taken to calling SCBWI “my beloved SCBWI” - corny and maudlin, I know - but that’s how happy I am to be honored by an organization of my peers. I will be everlastingly grateful to the award committee for appreciating a book I so loved writing. Lin Oliver’s name came up on my caller ID and I had no idea why she was calling. She came right to the happy point. I began blubbering something about how great it must feel to be her, making those terrific phone calls, how long I’d been writing and how I’d sure paid my dues. She agreed on all counts.
Lee: Oona has such a strong, unique, wonderful voice. Can you share with us how the character evolved onto the page?
Joanne: When I sent my previous novel, ONE DAY AND ONE AMAZING MORNING ON ORANGE STREET to my terrific agent Erin Murphy, she asked if I had another one she could look at. “Oh, of course,” I said. Actually, all I had was one phrase: “cats have nine lives.” Not exactly a novel. But I certainly didn’t want to be accused of telling whoppers, so I just plunged in desperately. There is something to be said for desperation! I knew that the book would involve stories told by my main character about a cat’s previous lives. And since these stories would be told in third person, then the main character would have to tell her own story in first person. Having made that initial important decision, Oona’s voice came to me very quickly and naturally. She was a storyteller, an observer, and dealing with the crisis of a sick cat, a turning point in her young life. I once watched a segment on the Ellen Degeneres Show in which kids presented their hilarious, original inventions. I thought it would be fun for Oona to do that, too. She invented the incredibly useful Family Straw.Then she moved on from inventions and began to share “theories”: her Rainbow Whopper Theory, her Hope of the World Theory, and many more. I quickly knew I was about to spend some time with an interesting girl, a girl with her own ideas, lots of flaws, and a heart filled with sadness and love. You are so right: Oona “evolved”. I’d never met her before. She is her own person, although she does remind me of many middle graders I’ve known, including myself. But I was never as bravely outspoken.
Lee: The story balances issues of loss with lots of humor - were you conscious of playing those elements against (or maybe I should say 'with') each other? Can you go deeper into sadness and loss if the book is funnier?
Joanne: No, I can’t say I made a conscious decision to balance humor and loss. That is just the way I write, combining life’s funny moments and realizations with serious issues and themes. I myself do like to go deeper into sadness by using humor. Otherwise the writing day can be difficult. (My next book, FLEABRAIN LOVES FRANNY, takes place during our past heartrending polio epidemics. One of my main characters is a talking flea.) But all in all, I do find human beings funny, especially kids, and especially the middle grader. I love the quirky combination of naive misunderstandings, honesty, and fresh observation. It’s so poignant, and yes, naturally funny! Like Oona, I once thought “You Ain’t Nothin’ But a Hound Dog” was a song about Elvis’s sad dog.
Lee: Oona tells a lot of 'whoppers' (that are even rainbow-color ranked according to the type of whopper they are!) You've written a work of fiction - dedicated to your own father - that in ways feels like it is more true than non fiction might have been. What's your view of truth and fiction, and maybe truth through fiction?
Joanne: I’m often asked if my stories are “true”. None of them are, in the sense that nothing I have ever written has ever happened, plot-wise. Every time I begin to write something that has actually occurred in my life, the event is transformed by the writing process. That’s ok with me. I write fiction, after all. But I’m happy to know that my stories are considered “real”, in that readers connect viscerally with the characters, setting, feelings and themes. I try very hard to make that happen by using rich details, and by deeply understanding my own characters. In ZOOK, I’d often write an entire scene and then delete it. “Uh-uh. Oona wouldn’t do that,” I reminded myself. I also believe that the questions of my book are very real, especially to middle graders: What is true love? Is it ever ok to lie? How do you carry on after a loss? But I do have to backtrack and admit that one aspect of the book is true. We did rescue our own cat, Mitzie, from the streets of Oakland. She was dirty, starving and with a bb gun pellet in her flank, just like Zook. And from my own experience, and the experience of my own kids, the illness or loss of an older pet, one with whom you’ve been living 24/7, is not a “lesser” crisis, but the real, true thing. True love. I wanted to write about that. I dedicated the book to my father who died this year at 93, a little while after ZOOK was published. He was not the model for the dad in the book, but he was a voracious reader and excellent writer.
Lee: There's so much growth to Oona's arc, but there's also a lot of plot elements that had to come together just so. How did you organize the story as you were writing it? Did you outline it all first?
Joanne: I enjoy thinking about the writing process, as a (former) psychologist, and of course as a writer in the thick of it. It’s an amazing, almost-magical process, and everyone’s is different. I never outline at first. That’s because the story grows organically while I am writing it, as I get to know my characters and understand how one event led to another. I usually begin with “a good idea”: “cats have nine lives”, for example, or “an eccentric man runs a chocolate factory.”(OK, that last one isn’t mine!) The “cats’ lives” idea for ZOOK led naturally to one cat’s and one family’s story, involving a sick cat and children dealing with the loss of their dad. The concept also directed me to Oona’s desire to tell her little brother some stories about their cat’s other lives, in order to give him hope. This, in turn, inspired me to include one important story that she has been trying to forget. And I’ve often wondered where my own rescued cats came from in terms of the other humans in their lives. As soon as I got the idea for the character whom Oona calls “The Villain”, the story and Oona’s development took off. In other words, the rough draft is a series of discoveries and false starts and decisions - a slow, freewheeling, intuitive process. Perhaps one can compare it to “sketching”. I don’t stop to make it perfect but just forge ahead, writing notes to myself in the margins for the next draft. But even in the rough draft, I try to make the details rich: not just a flower, but lavender and catmint; not just a cat’s markings, but markings in the shape of Oakland and California! Eventually these details begin to connect and echo one another, helping to shape the plot and illuminate themes.. It is usually towards the end of the first draft or the beginning of the second draft that I am able to jot down a rough outline, but that’s because I know my characters and their dilemmas and have fallen in love with them. But I wouldn’t have this outline if I hadn’t courageously written an awful first draft. Writing, for me, involves a lot of writer’s ‘faith’ that the plot will eventually fall into place after several drafts, based on a deeply ingrained sense of story from a life of constant reading.
Lee: What a fascinating way of thinking about it, getting out that first draft in a mindset of discovery and only then having an outline take shape! The story of the book concludes, and then you have one more chapter, which might have been an author's note, but it's still in Oona's voice - it's almost like the character doing an author visit. Can you share about that?
Joanne: The last section is not really a chapter, but another one of Oona’s theories, perhaps the most important one: THE THEORY OF STORY-MAKING FROM OONA AND THE GREAT REBUS-MAKER AND WHOPPER-TELLER. It is what it says - a theory about making stories. The Great R-M and W-T refers to Oona’s late father, who has told her his versions of most of the stories. He has also taught her how stories can grow and change with the teller, and vice versa. And she and her brother learn how stories have the power to cement relationships, bring hope and healing, and offer tremendous comfort through humor. Each of the eight points of the theory was used by Oona throughout the novel, and by me, every time I write one.
Lee: When did you first join SCBWI, and can you tell us how that's helped you in your journey as an author?
Joanne: I first joined My Beloved SCBWI when it was merely SCBW, back in the late 70’s. I remember going to my very first conference; Eve Bunting was one of the speakers. Later I took UCLA Extension classes with Eve, and Sue Alexander, and Myra Cohn Livingston, all active members of SCBWI. I was the editor of Kite Tales for several years (the newsletter of SCBWI/LA) and even won the Sue Alexander Service Award. I don’t believe I would be published today without the confidence, encouragement and information SCBWI gave me. I realize I’m talking about SCBWI as if it were the Wizard of Oz! It’s actually an entity made up of the most wonderful, generous, interesting people in the world. Writing is solitary, writers are often introverts, and you need good people like that in your life. And one of my proudest creative accomplishments is that I gave The Schmooze its name.
Lee: We have you to thank for our Schmoozes being Schmoozes and not 'gab-fests'? Brava! What advice can you share with other writers who are working on novels for MG readers?
Joanne: Middle grade readers are unique, as are their counterparts who are reading picture books, beginning readers and YA. I think that story characters need to reflect the needs of their readers. Children’s authors must be very clear about the age they are writing for and about. So - read scads of middle grade novels, get to know kids of that age, and most importantly, tap into your memories of your own middle grade self. I myself don’t have to dig too deeply--she is very accessible because that was an intense reading, writing and pondering time for me. I still have my old letters, returned to me by my best friend when we were ten years old. My workshop at the conference will look at the ways in which each genre in children’s literature reflects particular developmental needs and characteristics.
Lee: Any ideas yet for what you are going to wear to the SCBWI Summer Conference's Saturday night's BLACK AND WHITE BALL? It should be great fun, and a treat - like getting to see you awarded your Golden Kite! Congratulations again!
Joanne: That will be easy. Half of my wardrobe is black. The other half is flannel and wildly patterned (think pajamas). Thank you, Lee, and SCBWI, for giving me the opportunity to answer these thoughtful questions. Can’t wait for the conference--every bit of it!
Thank you, Joanne!
To find out more about Joanne and her books, visit her website.
If you'd like to see Joanne receive her Golden Kite Award and attend her workshop, "Genre and the Child Reader's Development Needs," join us at the 2013 SCBWI Summer Conference. You can find out all the conference information and register here.
Illustrate and Write On,