Amy Ludwig VanDerwater’s work has appeared in multiple anthologies and she is a frequent and popular workshop presenter and literacy consultant. She is a former fifth grade teacher and her current blogs, Poem Farm and Sharing our Notebooks are both highly regarded resources on the writing and teaching of poetry. Her first full-length book for children was the lovely walk-through-the-woods, Forest Has a Song and her next book, Every Day Birds, will be out in the spring, 2016.
Lee Wardlaw grew up in Santa Barbara, CA, and wrote her first book in second grade. She continued to write poems, stories and plays all through elementary school. She worked as a teacher for five years before deciding to write full-time and the award-winning author of close to 30 books for young readers, including Won Ton: A Cat Tale in Haiku; Red, White and Boom; 101 Ways to Bug Your Friends and Enemies, among others. She is also a frequent presenter of workshops and programs for children, teachers, and parents.
Here, Amy asks Lee all about her passion for cats and her creation of her new book, Won Ton and Chopstick, and Lee reciprocates with many images of her process along with her fascinating responses.
Amy: As a person who lives with many animals, both canine and feline, I admire the way you reveal Won Ton's purrsonality through poems. We playfully speak in the voices of our own cats and dogs here at home, but you take things to a new level writing two books in Won Ton's voice. Are Won Ton and Chopstick modeled after real animals you have known? And if not, how did you do this? Do you study your friends' pets and practice speaking as they might speak? Do you do this out loud?
Wait – I take that back. Writing in a cat-ly voice didn’t come easily at first, not until I switched from prose to haiku. That’s when Won Ton’s purrsonality really pounced off the page. I think that’s because cats and haiku have so much in common (as you can see from my analysis, below). I firmly believe that if cats were to speak human, they would do so in haiku.
Yes, Won Ton is modeled after several of my previous cats (with a bit of my own persnickety-ness thrown in). Won Ton – A Cat Tale Told in Haiku is actually based on the sweet, affectionate relationship that my son and his cat, Papaya, developed over the last decade.
|Papaya and my son, Patterson, at age 8 and at age 18.|
True Confession #1: I’ve never owned a dog. So Chopstick is not modeled after any pup I’ve know personally. For him, I actually had to do research!
I interviewed my author-friend Bruce Hale, who has a dog, Riley. Bruce filled me in on many canine characteristics, such as: they love to dig, they love to chew, and they love to dig and chew.
I also interview Amy Shojai a fellow member of the Cat Writers’ Association. Amy is a certified animal behavior consultant (CABC). She supplied me with amazingly helpful info about the common emotional, physical and social dynamics between a resident cat and a new puppy that invades his turf.
Illustration from Won Ton and Chopstick, illustrated by Eugene Yelchin
My long-time writer-buddy Dian Curtis Regan passed along a great anecdote about her elderly kitty, Gracie, and her new puppy, Nellie, which inspired this poem:
Proper cats prefer
playthings with feathers or fur.
So whose toys are these?
For your readers who don’t know, haiku (HI-koo) and senryu (SEN-ree-yoo) are similar. Both traditionally feature three unrhymed lines containing a grand total of 17 syllables (5-7-5, respectively) – and are written in the present tense. Each also captures the essence of a moment. In haiku, the moment is of nature; in senryu, the foibles of human nature (or, in my case, feline nature) are the focus, expressed by a narrator in a humorous, playful or ironic way. That’s Won Ton!
Lee: My process is the same as drafting a novel or a picture book – at least in the beginning.
First, I brainstorm ideas for the characters, which includes various aspects of their personalities: their needs, fears, wants, likes, loves, hates and – of course – their names.
|‘Name-storming’ for the puppy in Won Ton and Chopstick|
I even made extensive notes on the types of sounds cats make, which is more than just meowing, growling or purring. (There’s also trilling, chattering, and chirruping, to name just a few.) I have notebooks scattered all over the house, in my purse, in my car. If I don’t have a notebook handy (rare, but it happens), I brainstorm on the back of grocery store receipts, bank deposit forms, napkins and restaurant placemats.
Random notes I made in the middle of dinner out with my family.
(Yeah, they’re used to me ignoring them when the muse strikes.)
It’s crucial for me to understand not only who or what my characters are, but also why. In other words, I have to understand my characters’ motivations: the values, beliefs, emotions, fears, etc., that drive them to action. Without these motivations, I can’t create conflict or plot. And without conflict and plot, well, there’s no story.
Once I’ve created my characters, then I outline the plot. It’s a rough outline, because when I’m doing the actual writing, I like to allow myself to play, experiment, and explore; to scamper off, or sniff out intriguing tangents. But I always, ALWAYS know exactly how my story ends – even if the journey there changes somewhat along the way.
Then, finally, FINALLY, I start writing the poems. I think I ended up with 80 poems for Won Ton and Chopstick, which was 40 too many. So I printed each one out separately, and spread them across the floor of my family room, arranging and rearranging them into plot sections, such as “The Routine”, The Sneaking Suspicion”, “The Surprise”, “The Altercation”, “The Vindication”, etc. (This took a while, because whenever Papaya spies any piece of paper on the floor, he must immediately come lie down upon it.)
Next, things got rough. That’s because I was now forced to “kill my darlings” (to quote William Faulkner). Meaning, I had to banish a lot of poems I adored because they either slowed the story pace, or didn’t increase the conflict, or failed to portray a necessary emotion, or sounded “author-y”. And, of course, each haiku had to be honed many, many times, because every single one is almost like a little story all on its own. (The final version of Won Ton and Chopstick has 37 poems; Won Ton has 33.)
Won Ton? How can I
be soup? Some day, I’ll tell you
my real name. Maybe.
By the end of the story, the reader knows that Won Ton has grown to trust and love his human:
“Good night, Won Ton,” you
whisper. Boy, it’s time you knew:
My name is Haiku.
In the second book, Won Ton is clear about his dislike for the new puppy:
Don’t bother barking
your real name. I’ve already
guessed. It must be…Pest!
But that dislike eventually erodes, transforming into trust and affection. I mirror that growth and depth of feeling in the last poem, when Won Ton says to Chopstick:
Your secret revealed.
What kind of name is Bashō?
I shall call you…Friend.
Although each book can stand alone, this last poem contains a surprise that connects it to the original story. In this way, I honor the fans of Won Ton – and also pay homage to Matsuo Munefusa (1644-1694), the Japanese haiku master whose pseudonym was Bashō.
Sylvia: Wasn't this wonderful? I love Amy's questions about cat, form, and process and Lee's answers are so personal and honest-- complete with fantastic images that help us visualize her thinking. What a treat to share with young aspiring writers, too.
Meanwhile, head on over to Jama’s Alphabet Soup for our blueberry-themed Poetry Friday party! See you there!
Image credits: LeeWardlaw, Amy Ludwig VanDerwater, Smithsonianapa.org