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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

picture-book

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

family,"

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

Smith family.

Last weekend Oates visited Princeton Day School’s book fair to

introduce

"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

spring.

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

published

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

by Dutton.

Oates and Smith moved to Princeton in 1978. Oates teaches in

Princeton’s

creative writing program where she is the Roger S. Berlind

Distinguished

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

Princeton

Day School.

"She’s sort of amazed. She looks at these pictures and sees

herself

— 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

here.

The one aspect of Muffin’s fictional story that may surprise

cat-attached

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

authorized

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

depicted

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

homesickness,"

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

students

are good writers, but they don’t yet have subjects that mean as much

to them."

"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."

Editor-in-chief

and family friend Daniel Halpern invited Oates to inaugurate a picture

book series.

"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

imagination.

"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

Marianne

Mulvaney is banished from the family home after she is assaulted at

a high school prom and sent to live with a distant relative.

Marianne’s

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

schoolhouse

through the elementary grades. She doesn’t hesitate to name her own

favorite childhood stories, "Alice in Wonderland" and

"Through

the Looking Glass."

"My grandmother gave me a beautiful, large book with

illustrations,

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

girls.

"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

Carroll.

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

amidst

a snowy rural landscape inhabited by deer, owls, rabbits, and

chickadees.

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

something

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

grandparent

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

be waiting.’

"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.

Children

remember, too. They always will remember that. Reading a story to

a child is like music," says Oates.

— Nicole Plett

Joyce Carol Oates, Barnes & Noble, MarketFair,

609-716-1570.

Free. Friday, November 13, 7 p.m.

Joyce Carol Oates, Crackerjacks, Montgomery Center,

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.


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