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This was published in U.S. 1 Newspaper on November 11, 1998.
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A Cat from the Lap of Joyce Carol Oates
It’s the cat Christabel who helps Joyce Carol Oates
write these days. "At the moment I don’t have a cat in my lap,
but usually I do," says the prolific and much honored author,
speaking from her woodland home near Pennington. "Christabel is
the one, she sits in my lap and helps me write. She’s very spoiled,
sort of like the cat in the story. She’s aloof."
The story Oates refers to is a new one, the first she has written
for children, titled "Come Meet Muffin!" The oversize
is illustrated by Mark Graham and just published by Hopewell’s Ecco
Press ($18). On the cover of the book, the aloof Christabel shares
the limelight with a tiny kitten who will grow up to be the hero of
the story — the brave and loyal Muffin.
In character and appearance, Muffin is modeled on Oates’ own, much
loved and now deceased cat of the same name. Muffin, too, in his day,
helped Oates write.
"Muffin is a special kitty who came to live with the Smith
is the opening sentence in the new storybook. And this family name
is not insignificant. Oates has been married to Raymond Smith since
1961, the year she completed her master’s degree at the University
of Wisconsin. In the story, Muffin, a mostly white cat with tabby
ears and tail, manages to make a place for himself in the two-cat
Last weekend Oates visited Princeton Day School’s book fair to
"Come Meet Muffin!" This week she will be at Barnes & Noble
in MarketFair on Friday, November 13, at 7 p.m. and at Crackerjacks
in Montgomery Center oon Route 206 on Saturday, November 14, from
1 to 3 p.m.
"We always have cats. At the most we’ve had four cats," says
Oates, who clearly enjoys talking about her family pets. "Now
we have two nice cats. And we’re thinking about a kitten in the
The bond between people and animals has always been with us."
Twice nominated for the Nobel Prize in literature, Oates is one of
America’s most versatile writers. Over the past 25 years she has
27 novels and numerous collections of plays, essays, stories, and
poems. She won the National Book Award for the novel, "Them."
With yet another new novel to be published next summer, she has a
new collection of gothic short stories, "The Collector of Hearts,
New Tales of the Grotesque" (320 pages; $25.95), just published
Oates and Smith moved to Princeton in 1978. Oates teaches in
creative writing program where she is the Roger S. Berlind
Professor of Humanities. Together, the couple also operates a small
press and literary journal, "The Ontario Review."
"I’ve tried to create a magical tale with exciting adventures
that illuminate both cat- and child-lives," says Oates, "and
above all I’ve tried to honor the mysterious and all-but-indefinable
love that can arise between animals and children."
In "Come Meet Muffin!", the little girl who becomes Muffin’s
devoted friend also has a real-life model. She’s Lily, the daughter
of Ecco’s editor-in-chief Daniel Halpern and attorney Jeanne Wilmot
Carter. Lily was four when she modeled for illustrator Mark Graham.
Now she has turned five and is a junior kindergarten student at
"She’s sort of amazed. She looks at these pictures and sees
— although it’s not herself now. She’s so young, but I guess she’s
old enough to realize what fiction is," says Oates.
"Muffin was a cat that my husband and I found abandoned on a road,
sort of like the story. And we brought him and a brother of his home.
They were very tiny, and I think they had not yet been weaned. We
had them very soon after we moved to Princeton, so they were kind
of symbolic of coming to Princeton. Both of them have died now, and
that’s like the end of an era," she says.
"All my friends knew Muffin because he was very sociable in a
kind of awkward, shy way. He wasn’t a graceful cat, but he was very
friendly, and he purred very hard. The Halperns knew him, too."
When the Smiths do not rescue their cats from rural roads, the couple
customarily adopts them from an animal shelter. There are no pedigrees
The one aspect of Muffin’s fictional story that may surprise
readers is the moment when he arrives as a lost kitten and is warmly
greeted by the Smith’s two resident cats.
"Christabel would not do that," Oates confesses, with a laugh.
"But Muffin was so young didn’t know what the situation was. And
I think it’s the case that adult cats will let kittens eat before
they eat. It’s part of their genetic heritage. They’re supposed to
let kittens eat before them. I’ve seen it happen. They may even hiss,
but they’ll draw back while the younger cat eats hungrily. It’s not
that they like it, it’s just that their genes are kicking in."
"Muffin was very friendly. He wasn’t, I think, really a cat. I
think he was actually a puppy in disguise. He had the qualities of
loyalty and affection that we associate with dogs," she says.
Earlier this year Greg Johnson published the first
biography of Oates, "Invisible Writer: A Biography of Joyce Carol
Oates" (Dutton; $34.95). In it he describes a family snapshot,
taken in 1941 when Oates was not yet three years old, in which she
is sitting on the grass with her mother, her attention taken by a
kitten her mother holds in her arms. It suggests, writes Johnson,
"an early beginning to her lifelong love of cats."
The idea of home is another powerful force in Oates’ children’s story.
From Muffin’s arrival at his adopted home, to the sheltering security
it provides the child Lily, it is an overarching presence. (Lily’s
parents, by contrast, are hardly to be seen.) Home is sometimes
as a colorful place where Lily and her friend Margaret get out their
colored crayons to draw pictures of the new kitten, and where the
full-grown Muffin feasts on his own big slice of red watermelon. But
by story’s end, home appears in muted colors, a tiny lighted beacon
in a snowy landscape that beckons the brave, lost cat. It will surely
please children and grownups to know that Muffin can go home again.
"I think much of adult writing is a way of dealing with
says Oates, who returns again and again in her fiction to her rural
childhood home in upstate New York. "You have to leave home. And
also, as we get older, the home that we knew is gone. And then the
writing is a way of recapturing and memorializing it. Some of my
are good writers, but they don’t yet have subjects that mean as much
"Come Meet Muffin!" is Ecco’s first children’s picture book.
The press has two previous books for children: "Tales from the
Rainforest" and "A Child’s Anthology of Poetry."
and family friend Daniel Halpern invited Oates to inaugurate a picture
"Daniel Halpern asked me if I’d like to write the first book and
he said I could write about Muffin," says Oates. "At first
I didn’t think this could work. But then I got very interested in
it. So I was drawn into it through real life rather than conventional
"When I write books for adults there are certain boundaries that
I must follow, and this is sometimes very frustrating," she adds.
Adult readers may remember a cat named Muffin from Oates’ vivid family
saga, "We Were the Mulvaneys," in which the 17-year-old
Mulvaney is banished from the family home after she is assaulted at
a high school prom and sent to live with a distant relative.
beloved cat Muffin accompanies her and plays an important part in
her eventual recovery. "Children’s literature has different rules.
For a long time I’ve wanted to re-enter a place where animals talk
and `satisfying’ happy endings are altogether natural."
Knowing children’s literature as a unique and challenging genre, she
says she takes this book "very seriously."
"I haven’t really been thinking of children’s books since my own
childhood," she says. Born in 1938, Oates was raised on a family
farm near Lockport in upstate New York and attended a one-room
through the elementary grades. She doesn’t hesitate to name her own
favorite childhood stories, "Alice in Wonderland" and
the Looking Glass."
"My grandmother gave me a beautiful, large book with
which I still have," she says. "I love it. I read it so many
times I virtually memorized it — probably I did memorize it, in
my subconscious." She still thinks of these as ideal books for
"I think of Alice as the quintessential girl, a girl hero. She’s
impetuous, she’s funny, she’s got a sense of humor, she doesn’t put
up with nonsense," says Oates. "There are qualities in Alice
that are not conventionally feminine. So I think of it as a wonderful
book for young girls."
Significantly, Oates grew from a girl who wanted to
be like Alice to a girl who wanted to write stories like Lewis
By the time she was eight and had read the Alice books, she says she
had "tried to compose Alice-like novels of my own, with drawings
to accompany them."
Illustrator Mark Graham provides the naturalistic oil of paintings
for "Come Meet Muffin!" There is a cozy family home, set
a snowy rural landscape inhabited by deer, owls, rabbits, and
He worked from sketches he made during visits to the Halpern and Oates
homes, and from snapshots of Muffin the cat.
"Some artists for children’s books are more like cartoonists,
there’s a comic side to what they do," says Oates, "and some
are very intricate and fantastic and dreamlike. But we wanted
that was realistic, yet soft and beautiful.
Cuddling up with a child and a favorite storybook is surely one of
the most rewarding and uncomplicated pleasures of parenthood. Although
Oates, now 60, and Smith did not have children, the author with the
capacity to delve so deeply in the human psyche recognizes the beauty
of the bedtime story experience.
"It’s so wonderful to read children’s stories to children,"
she says. "The story is told in the voice of the parent or
and basically the subtext is, `We love you and you’re safe. And we’re
always going to take care of you. And it you get lost like the kitty
in the storybook, you’ll be found and you will come home. And we’ll
"That’s the happiness of the children’s literature. It’s cyclical,
and there isn’t really a sense of time. There isn’t any politics or
society. There isn’t much outside the family and perhaps nature.
remember, too. They always will remember that. Reading a story to
a child is like music," says Oates.
— Nicole Plett
Free. Friday, November 13, 7 p.m.
Route 206, 609-683-4646. A children’s book signing includes Gennady
Spirin, Charles Santore, Herman Parish, S.D. Schindler, Daniel Kirk,
and Don Brown. Free. Saturday, November 14, 1 to 3 p.m.
Corrections or additions?
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