Patrick Jennings Talks with Roger

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patrick jenningsAfter chronicling the adventures of Guinea Dog in three volumes, Patrick Jennings now turns to a cat who most definitely knows what he likes. Our amiable conversation about Hissy Fitz was sadly shadowed by some bad news received by Patrick earlier the same day, so let's just get that out of the way at the top.

Roger Sutton: So here we are, having this conversation the day after your publishing company, Egmont USA, has decided it's going out of business. What's that like?

Patrick Jennings: Well, I haven't had a lot of time to process it. Certainly one of my least favorite days as a published author, in my twenty years of doing this. I didn't like hearing that my relationship with all these wonderful people is coming to an end.

RS: We do know that Hissy Fitz is still being published.*

PJ: Egmont has been so great. It's a small house, but full of talent. I've been so happy about how much they've supported my stuff. This is the eighth book I've written for them. They stepped things up quite a bit with Hissy, doing a lot more publicity and blog tours and things. Hissy Fitz even has his own Twitter feed, which is the first time I've really tweeted. I'm writing in his voice. And I'm having fun with it.

RS: He does seem to have a voice made for that. Twitter is pretty snarky, as is Mr. Hissy Fitz.

PJ: You're not supposed to do that, be an internet troll. But because he's a mean insomniac cat, he can.

RS: Do you remember the Kliban cats?

PJ: Oh, so well. I used to love those little Kliban cartoons, because it showed the darker side of what cats were like.

RS: One thing that interests me about Hissy Fitz is that although he has this unique voice, his grumpiness and his observations are very tied to what a cat would think. You put a cat on Twitter, or you look at the Kliban cats, a lot of that is using the animal voice to make a very human point. I thought you were really consistent in keeping Hissy Fitz attentive to what would matter to a cat.

jennings_hissy fitzPJ: Thank you. I've written about quite a few animals over the years. Most writers tend to make animals more human — things like Garfield holding a coffee cup — so they become more of a voice for people to vent their own ideas. I wanted animals to stay animals. I've had cats for twenty years and I've always watched the ways that they interact with people. I have a group of young writers who come here to write and they have to interact with my cats. There are certain things that you just don't do to a cat. I've thought, "God, that must be so irritating to the cat." I really felt for them.

RS: Jean Craighead George did those picture books in the '80s about the differences between dogs and cats [How to Talk to Your Cat and How to Talk to Your Dog], and how their respective relationships to humans are fundamentally different. The dog is much more dependent upon you, the human. That's how it has evolved to be. Whereas with the cat — it's more like two independent creatures sharing a space.

PJ: It's interesting. I did a book on wolves and learned a lot about canines. They're pack animals. Their families are very tribal, and they look out for their own. They're very territorial. Dogs were cross-bred runts, for the most part. We did everything we could to keep the canine from growing into a full-grown wolf and attacking us. We wanted to keep it docile. So we kind of bred adult puppies. That's what dogs really are, adult puppies. Dogs look to us like we're the pack leader. The cat, being a cat and not a pack animal, is this independent creature who wants to lord it over us. I think that's one of the reasons why they love having places around the home where they can climb up high.

RS: Right, and look down on us.

PJ: Exactly.

RS: With dogs it's the opposite. They get below us and they look up. Is this okay? Am I doing the right thing? Give me a cookie.

PJ: They're on us before we even get in the door. I read a story about how dogs can detect when their owners are within about half a mile from home. They start salivating and whimpering.

RS: Not mine. I have to beg him.

PJ: Oh, really?

RS: I come in the door and he looks away like, "Where have you been?" I have to talk to him and pat his head, and then maybe… He's got issues.

PJ: That's the other thing I've realized. Each animal is an individual. We can generalize about a whole species as much as we like, but they are all very different. My book Guinea Dog was based on a cat I had that acted rather doglike. It would run to the door when someone knocked, and it tended to play and frolic like a puppy would, rather than a cat. It was really big and kind of oafish.

RS: When I was a kid, we had a Siamese who would play fetch.

PJ: That's where the idea for Guinea Dog came from: a boy who wants a dog but gets a cat instead. Right before it was published I changed it to a guinea pig, because I thought that was even funnier. But it was technically my first cat book. My only one, until Hissy Fitz.

RS: Have you written a book from the point of view of the animal before?

PJ: Several times. We Can't All Be Rattlesnakes was written from a gopher snake's point of view. My first book, Faith and the Electric Dog, was about a Mexican street dog. It had that Henry Fielding voice, you know: "Dear Reader."

RS: Are there rules for writing animal fantasy from the animal's point of view? Do you have to think, "Oh, well, actually, would a cat think this?"

PJ: I stay within the cat.

RS: Right. Be the cat, Patrick.

PJ: I have rules for myself. A lot of it has to do with not projecting what I think a cat might do. Everything has to be based on something I've observed, not something I wish I had seen. Except, of course, for the final scene, where the cats play soccer.

RS: Right.

PJ: I've always wondered about that secret part of cats' lives that we don't see. I love Esther Averill's Cat Club books. I read those books to my daughter when she was little, and she really loved them too, the whole idea that cats would get together at night and have a little club and go on adventures. That was the idea for the soccer part in Hissy Fitz. So I kind of broke my own rule there by injecting fantasy into a story that's very much about a cat's real-life, day-to-day existence. I'm a little squeamish about that. I hope it works.

Hissy's insomnia is kind of a leap, too. I don't know any insomniac cats. The idea came from a writing workshop I was doing with some kids. They thought it would be funny to tell a story about a cat who couldn't sleep. When I asked them, "What's the cat going to do to get to sleep?" a fourth grader raised his hand and said, "He should see a life coach." I actually thought about that idea, and even pitched it. Instead of soccer, what if he goes to a life coach?

RS: Did you ever read One-Eyed Cat by Paula Fox?

PJ: Sure, a long time ago.

RS: It's not from the point of view of a cat, but it ends in a similar way. It's this very serious, literary kind of book, but it ends with this sort of magical-realism moment of cats dancing in the moonlight. I thought it was okay in Hissy Fitz because it was almost like a punch line to the book. I thought that worked.

PJ: The thing about writing fiction, for me, is I can be as realistic as I want, but at the end of the day, it's still me inhabiting a cat or a snake or a dog. I always put in an element of the impossible, like a guinea pig that can catch a Frisbee. I think kids like that. It's told from an animal's point of view, but they don't necessarily want the story to just follow the rules of nature, strictly down the line.

RS: So many of the children's book cats we see today are these kind of wise, sweet, gentle, wrapping-around-your-leg-while-you-drink-hot-tea sort of mysterious creatures. That's one thing I love about Hissy Fitz. He's like, "Rawr!"

PJ: That is my experience with cats. I have a lot of ideas about pets and people and their relationships. I don't just write a story about a boy who gets a dog and loves the dog and the dog loves him, and they have this great relationship, and then they separate, or the dog dies. By giving animals voices, I allow them to tell us what they think of this weird relationship between two species cohabiting when one really is setting the limits and rules.

I've always been in this for the kids. I really like kids, and I love telling them stories. I love their reactions, and I love hearing from them. I've always tried to write directly to them. And animals to them are like cousins. I often tell kids that I write animal stories because kids are animals. I think we kind of train the animal out of them over the years.

RS: You say that like it's a bad thing.

[*A note from the publisher: Egmont Publishing is releasing their spring 2015 list. Hissy Fitz and Patrick's backlist titles will remain available for ordering from Penguin Random House.]

More on Patrick Jennings from The Horn Book

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Roger Sutton
Roger Sutton
Roger Sutton has been the editor in chief of The Horn Book, Inc, since 1996. He was previously editor of The Bulletin of the Center for Children's Books and a children's and young adult librarian. He received his M.A. in library science from the University of Chicago in 1982 and a B.A. from Pitzer College in 1978. Follow him on Twitter: @RogerReads.

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