Sharp and spirited as the master storyteller who inspired them, the first collaboration between seasoned children’s authors Carmen Agra Deedy and Randall Wright takes young readers back to 1859 London for a delightful new twist on the age-old conflict among cats, mice and men.
Here, Ye Olde Cheshire Cheese, the venerated Fleet Street public house renowned for counting literati like Dickens among its patrons, houses this microcosm of the Victorian world where Skilley, a vegetarian alley cat and the eponymous Cheshire Cheese Cat, teams up with Pip, a literate mouse, to outwit nefarious forces threatening the balance of power in the inn and beyond.
Deedy, who lives in Atlanta, and Wright, a Utah resident, taught at a Brigham Young writers’ workshop in 2005, where their partnership was conceived. For four years they met two to three times a year for a few days at a time before the novel was completed. Both were thrilled when Barry Moser signed on, providing his trademark nuanced drawings, and they were ready to mix it up again when we got them on the phone.
Find more great books about the arts among our 2011 Best Books for Children.
Must admit I was a little frightened when you warned me what happens when you two start talking...
Carmen Agra Deedy: You should be. We’re on our best behavior now, but it’s like a 3-year-old: You can only take one to a Chinese restaurant for so long before the chopsticks go up the nose.
Randall Wright: And it would be Carmen doing the up-the-nose thing.
CAD: Oh yeah. We’re a good pair actually. We loved working together.
So whose idea was this?
RW: It was Carmen’s.
CAD: Yes, but…OK, truncated 30-second version: The idea for the book was inspired by a visit to Ye Olde Cheshire Cheese with my daughters in 2002. It was a wonderful, eerie night that works on suggestible people, and we were walking along the Thames when we found this lovely place. It was incredible on the inside, and there was a picture at least a couple centuries old of cats sitting around a table at the inn.
In talking with the girls about what the cats would be doing there, they said the cats had come for the mice, who had come for the cheese. And then I thought about one of the cats having a hidden life he kept from the other cats: that he was a secret cheese eater. And of course, this is where my girls started to groan.
Randall knows, and certainly my family knows, that living with a writer can be exhausting. On the plane home, I wrote the arc of the story. I knew I wanted Dickens to be there and some other details. So what I came up with was the arc of the story, but what we created together was a full-fledged novel.
What is it with famous leading rodents? Frederick was my childhood hero, and now there’s Ratatouille. Here Pip is not only literate but talented enough to feed Dickens the opening lines to A Tale of Two Cities.
CAD: Tell me, what do you not love about a mouse?
RW: They’re so innocent…
CAD: …And oppressed. That’s the thing with being a mouse—you’re just too small to defend yourself or those you love, and I think children love that. Children love disenfranchised, oppressed characters—that’s their life. They spend their lives in the gulag. They’re told when to eat, when to sleep, what to wear, to be quiet, where to sit—I’m not saying they necessarily obey all these instructions, but…
When we tell children stories, when I have a very small character who is beleaguered or in any way repressed, that’s their hero. Children love those little characters, whether it’s a mouse or a cockroach, or if the voice is small in an oral story, it’s the same with a small character in a written story. The smallness does have to be there. I do think children connect with all things little.
RW: Pip’s such a kindhearted character. He’s so small but capable and erudite. We just fell in love with his character, and I think it developed more quickly than any other perhaps because we felt a connection to that type of character. I think many writers do. The solitary work of a writer is especially true of children’s writers, who I think are somewhat stunted in their growth. Characters get frozen for me at about 12 years old. Whenever I write, my novels are usually about 12-year-old characters. For whatever reason, a children’s writer tends to get stuck at a certain level of development, but it’s not emotional.
CAD: I’m 10. If you ask me, I’m totally 10 years old. And if it’s disgusting, if it’s vile and mentions bodily functions, I think it’s hysterical. As an adult person, I think I would call my own children or grandchild to task, but my inward 10-year-old snort would still be there. That’s interesting to hear Randall say that. I agree.
Can you describe more of your writing process?
CAD: Because we’re both editors, we found it was easier to clean up as we went back and forth.
RW: It’s more work that way because often you have to go back and rip out some of the plumbing and define and narrate. But by doing it that way, I feel we were able to set the consistent voice that we wanted. Every word we would argue over…
CAD: We would have knock-down-drag-outs over a word—it was awesome.
RW: A lot of this stemmed from Carmen being a picture-book writer, where every word matters, so working with Carmen that way was a change for me. As a novelist, I look at the big picture, and I’m concerned with the scene sequence. Combined with Carmen’s attention to word detail, we were able to develop a voice that was consistent throughout.
CAD: It’s the most fun we—I—’ve ever had writing.
RW: I would agree with that.