Have you ever looked at your cat as they push the remote off the coffee table for the hundredth time and wondered just how their minds work? John Spray's new picture book text, based on the illustrations by Mies Van Hout,What Cats Think (Pajama Press) is a witty, cat-loving free verse ode to the strange little creatures we live with.
Van Hout's gorgeous and eye-catching artwork makes the book an object of beauty as Spray's words take readers on a journey as delightful as a brand new, empty box to play in.
We're pleased to welcome John to Open Book today as part of our children's literature-centric series, the Kids Club interview. He tells us about watching movie trailers with his cat, notes the enterprising feline character he most relates to in the book, and shares some excellent (and pretty darn funny) advice about social media for writers.
Tell us about your new book and how it came to be.
My last book, Next Round, was a biography of a young, Canadian, Olympic boxer written for mostly middle-grade boys. It got a lot of boffo reviews and the Pajama Press folk thought I’d be the guy to put the captions to the great cat art of Mies van Hout, an artist/illustrator of some renown. Forty plus years ago, before I discovered you could make big bucks hiding behind trees with a camera as a P.I., I wrote comedy shtick for television and felt well-armed to pursue this task.
I’d certainly had a plethora of felines in my life and looking at van Hout’s art gave me plenty of inspiration. What Cats Think is a really well-intentioned conceit, as anyone who has ever known a cat knows fully well that cats are devious plotters, tend to their own knitting and to anthropomorphize kitty is a fool’s game. My effort, like Elliot's, has no real merit among the cat brethren and when I showed Sasha, my current cat, the trailer for the upcoming movie Cats, she looked at me, yawned, and gave me the 'you got to be kidding' stare. Cats of course are an enigmatic group and are both aloof and judgmental. Dogs react, while cats ponder. So, why did little Fluffy the Schnoodle end up pancaked by the 18-wheeler in the middle of the road? He was chasing that damn chicken. A cat would know better.
Is there a character in your book that you relate to? If so, in what ways are you similar to your character and in what ways are you different?
There’s one cat in the book I kind of relate to and that’s the clever alley-cat who hangs around the backyards of the generous grannies, feeding off pork-chop scraps while avoiding junk-yard dogs. Every red-blooded male has the repressed urge to split the scene, ride the metaphorical rails, and run away for the proverbial pack of 'Luckies'. How am I different? Well, first off, I’m not a cat.
What do you need in order to write – in terms of space, food, rituals, writing instruments?
Writing instruments? Is this the 17th century? I gave up my quill pen decades ago. My muse, like Fitzgerald’s or others of his ilk, is a fine quality Bourbon and some good music appropriate to the task at hand. For this book I chose to listen to a lot of Frank Zappa. The idea that one could actually channel the inner workings of the kitty cypher is likened to eavesdropping on the conversations of mushrooms. Therein lies the roadmap to madness and strong drink and absurd music are the only palliatives.
What defines a great book for young readers, in your opinion? Tell us about one or two books you consider to be truly great kids books, whether you read them as a child or an adult.
My earliest memory of reading came in the guise of the great N.C. Wyeth’s impeccably illustrated Treasure Island. This was, and still remains, a classic read for any young sprout to titillate the imagination. For it’s all about the wonder outside of the joint you’re stuck in for any kid, and books are the tool that opens that crack in the wall. Another guy I read a lot was Henry Gregor Felsen. He basically wrote the same book again and again, which amounted to some juvenile delinquent thug rehabbing his sorry self by rebuilding a scrapheap car into a 'hot-rod'. Growing up in Indiana, where cars and basketball are deities, this dream of rebuilding cars was a religious vision and I became a motor-head of the first stripe. The cool deal about books for kids, is in that vicarious induced moment when the young reader sees themselves in the story and hits the pillow thinking... "Hey, that’s me."
How, if at all, does social media feature in your writing process?
If Herodotus has infamously been characterized as 'the father of all lies', then the internet is his slimy stepson. This strange toy, along with its wretched enabler, the cell phone, is Kryptonite for anyone who deigns to bring those Fitzgerald, 3 a.m. ghosts to fruition. Writing fiction is all about conjuring up those Jungian bottom-feeders in one’s psyche and the blathering of the 0/1 choir is a distraction that leads to the banal. In other words... drink more, text less, and leave Twitter to that Washington goof.
John Spray grew up in the midwest and spent years as a successful amateur boxer, gym rat and boxing fanatic. He has been a private investigator in Toronto for forty years and is the owner and founder of Mantis Investigation. John also sponsors the annual John Spray Mystery Award for excellence in mystery writing for children.