My new middle grade novel, The Five Lives of Our Cat Zook, is a book about telling stories, their wonderful healing power, and how we use details from our own lives to create and recreate them. So it seems only natural (and obligatory) to tell my own story behind the book. Of course, my book is also about cats, because I unashamedly love them so. I’ve always owned cats (or they’ve always owned me.) They’ve been my muses, they’ve made me laugh, and they’ve provided an extra warm layer of comfort at night. I read my work out loud to them, and they listen impassively and uncritically. They are so real to me as writing partners that I don’t need a human writer’s group. I’ve written an essay called “Why Cats Write,” which you can find on my website. And when one of my cats passes on to that Great Cat Bed in the Sky, my husband and I are heartbroken. We bury the ashes in a peaceful, outdoor place. We remember, and we mourn. And then we look for another cat. When Mini died, we figured we’d go to a pet store on one of those Weekend Adopt-a-Pet Days, a sad task because one cat chosen always means twenty cats rejected. But, lo, as we emerged from our favorite Thai restaurant one evening, there was our cat. She was skinny, mangy, and most of her fur was missing. She had no collar or tags. When I held out my hand, she sniffed it in a friendly, hopeful way.
“Look! No fur!” someone said. “That cat has a disease!”
So of course we picked her up and drove home with her. She didn’t have a disease; she’d just been grooming off all the fleas. What she did have was a BB gun pellet buried under her skin, which the vet said he saw often with street cats. We fed her well, flea-medicated her, loved her, and she turned into one of the most beautiful, smartest, loving, loyal cats we’ve ever had. And because we plucked her off the streets and I was able to witness part of her story, I think I’ve loved her more than any other cat. We call her Mitzie, for Mitzvah, which in Hebrew means doing a good deed.
I couldn’t stop thinking about Mitzie’s BB gun pellet, though. How strong she was, to have survived that cruelty! And how lucky to have found a “new life” with us. One morning I woke up with the phrase “cats have nine lives” ringing in my ears, and I knew that Mitzie had given me a gift in return for our kindness. An idea for a novel!
In The Five Lives of Our Cat Zook, ten-year-old Oona and five-year-old Fred are dealing with the illness of their beloved cat. To make Fred feel better, Oona tells him that Zook has four more lives to go, and relays the stories of Zook’s other lives throughout the novel. The stories help the children accept the death, two years earlier, of their own father. They realize, as I hope my readers do, that life is a series of beginnings and good-byes, of second chances, and new homes. And like a good story, life gets better when lovingly shared.