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Crossing Over: Inside the Mind of Shirley Rousseau Murphy

Posted by inkpopbecki on December 5, 2010

We have a special post from Shirley Rousseau Murphy, author of Cat Coming Home. Check out her new book here.

What inspired you to make a cat the protagonist in your story?

Since childhood I’ve been fascinated with speaking animals, in myth and folklore and particularly tales of a woman who can change to cat and back again. Years later, when I’d published some twenty children’s and YA fantasies, a little calico stray moved in with us, a green-eyed charmer who liked to hang out on my desk, her face inches from mine; in her clear gaze I began to imagine a mysterious young woman looking back at me. Soon other mystical beasts rose around her from a green-lit netherworld that lay somewhere beneath San Francisco, and thus Melissa came to life in a fantasy that was a forerunner to the Joe Grey mysteries.

It was some years later that Joe emerged, his character based on a throwaway cat whose family didn’t want him. He was such an intelligent jokester, full of defiance and tricks—how could I not see another speaking cat demanding attention? But Joe is very different from Melissa in The Catswold Portal, he’s a macho, down-to-earth fellow who would scoff at that fantasy world. Joe Grey is all about the here and now, about cops, killers, thieves, about justice and locking up the no-goods. Yet despite the tomcat’s disdain of fantasy, an occasional mythical element does creep into his stories, a fragment of ancient lore, a hint of the cats’ mysterious ancestry that delights Joe’s tabby lady Dulcie and their pal, tortoiseshell Kit, while leaving Joe himself scowling, his ears back with disgust.


What does an author have to take into account when personifying an animal?

To write about an animal, in fantasy or in a realistic portrait, one must feel and understand how the animal himself reacts to the world around him, not how we react, to see how his needs and senses are different from our own—his sense of smell so much keener than ours, like a million signposts leading the way and warning him of danger; his hearing, even his sense of touch communicating things to him that a human would never notice; his informed intuition far superior to our own, every movement around him, every shifting shadow, every vibration of floor or of earth a signal that could affect his very survival. Yet many others of his emotions are so like ours: a mother’s love and fierce protection; loyal friendship, often between different species; an animal’s teasing humor; and his amazing love and heroism. The writer must understand both the animal’s differences from humans and his likenesses to us and must see how they blend together; only then can we know that particular individual, who is not quite like any other of his kind. Some of our knowledge comes from research, from a few good books on the physiology and nature of the cat; but then a livelier familiarity grows from knowing and watching and loving that individual cat, seeing him clearly, not in a sentimental way but as he is, seeing his own unique quirks and subtleties.

For a sense of how an animal is like humans while remaining in his animal persona, books I would recommend are: Watership Down by Richard Adams, to see how those speaking animals are made sentient but never lose their true rabbitness; The Book of the Cat by Michael Wright, for a clinical view of a cat’s senses; and Scent of the Missing by Susannah Charleson, a remarkably clear experience of how a search-and-rescue dog thinks and feels, the intelligent and subtle power with which he uses all his keen senses in the context of serious work.


How does an adult author create a novel that can cross over into the young adult market?

Maybe writing a crossover novel is a matter of attitude, maybe it’s a case of the author never having quite grown up, all the emotions still keen and wild—life hasn’t beaten one down but only added, hopefully, to one’s judgment and commonsense. In writing fiction, the characters who appear, and what happens, is often beyond the author’s direction. Surprises happen. The story takes over and leads, and the writer follows. If a young person pushes into one of my tales and becomes important to the story, it’s because I identify with him, care what happens to him. If the adult characters have a young spirit, it’s because that’s the way they are, the way they present themselves to me, and again, I can only follow.


How does an author reach two audiences—adult and YA—that are so diverse?

Diverse audiences come together when both take pleasure in the same thing, when diverse readers find a mutual fascination. Regardless of our age, we all respond to the universal conflicts: cruelty to a child or to an animal; the thrill of triumph after many defeats; pain and indignity inflicted by the brute upon the weak among us; the warmth and interplay of a well-rounded family. And maybe, too, the age-old question of: Who am I? Why am I here, what is life about? Subjects that touch us at any age, in a story that is clearly told, those tales bring us together. How sad that a very young reader is not encouraged to stretch into older books that would have meaning for him, or that an adult reader is too “grown up and mature” to read a moving story written for teens or children. Are we all to crawl into our little categories of age and position, and never look out into a wider world?


What is your inspiration for writing Cat Coming Home?

I’m not sure what inspiration is. A hint of scene imagined? A new character appearing suddenly from nowhere? An unknown cat padding across strange rooftops, looking down at me? The pictures come first, all unconnected. I play with them, to find out how they might be linked together, find out what is happening. For Cat Coming Home, I saw first a nighttime shooting: gunfire into a car hitting the driver, as the grandmother and children cower in the backseat. The grandmother and little Benny immediately became important. As other visions arose, I began to weave a story around them and to ask myself questions, letting the bits and pieces of the puzzle fit together drawn by curiosity—it is stubborn curiosity and caring that build story and give it life.

Who is your favorite cat in the series and why?

How can I have a favorite when the cats are all, each one, a part of my family? Joe Grey, the hard-headed realist who lives not by dreaming but by action, who is the patriarch, solid and protective. Dulcie, with a paw in each world, quick action and retaliation on the one side, but on the other her own giddy dreams of becoming a real human lady and wearing satin and pearls. And Kit—well, maybe Kit is a bit like me, with her wild imaginings and her wilder solutions to the problems of the moment. But each cat is a real and endearing personality, and each new cat who arrives is a new puzzle and surprise; so it’s very hard to say I have a favorite.


What is next for the Joe Grey series?

In Cat Shout for Joy, Joe Grey will witness death by fire. He worries over the abandoned, hungry cats suddenly roaming the village; he’ll prowl through a cave to uncover a secret; and he and Dulcie will go online to find an old tomcat’s son, a traveling cat with his own tales to tell and his own clues to the fire and murder—and with a surprise for our impetuous Kit.


Do you base some of your characters on your furry friends at home?

Joe Grey was a neighborhood cat we rescued when his tail was broken and his owner didn’t want to spend the money to help him. Dulcie is a combination of several cats who’ve graced our family. The model for Kit was a wild-natured, determined tortoiseshell who would chase full-grown Canada geese, twice her size, into the lake, coming back wet and muddy to her belly and very proud of herself; who played in the pouring rain and teased the neighbors’ dogs; who always slept, stubbornly, on whatever manuscript I was editing; whose penetrating look saw right down into my soul and fiercely challenged what she found there.


Out of all your installments, which one is your favorite to date?

My favorite book is always the one yet to be written, the tentative spark that has just begun to grow, to attract characters and offer conflicts, the new adventure that is slowly beginning to form, the new moment in my fictional world in which I will soon wander slowly finding my way and making discoveries.

One Response to “Crossing Over: Inside the Mind of Shirley Rousseau Murphy”

  1. Lithiawood said

    Great interview! I’d never thought of how different it must be to write from the mind of view of something not human – not really my cup of tea, but for those whom this applies to, I’m sure the help is much appreciated! In fact, it’s even appreciated from me – it’s great to be able to read interviews on subjects that actually apply to the people reading it, in this case young authors. =)

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