I love a story that hits you in all the feels. That’s what today’s picture book did for me.
Troy Wilson has visited my blog before. He lives in Victoria, BC, Canada. His debut picture book, Perfect Man, was published nearly 17 years ago, and received praise from none other than Stan “The Man” Lee. You can learn more about him at his website or follow him on Twitter.
His latest picture book, HAT CAT, is different from his previous books. Troy’s previous books were full of humor, however HAT CAT is a quiet book of the heart. It is a sweet story of an old man who lives alone and loves squirrels. One day he meets a little kitten and the story switches perspectives. The cat tells the rest of the story! This switch in point of view is unexpected, yet frankly genius. Cat is the child-like protagonist telling the story from that point forward. This helps to punch up the “aww!” ending with even more feeling. There are some expected twists in a story with an older character, but the turns still manage to be surprising as well. Rest assured this is a happy story with a really satisfying ending that you won’t want to miss (which is good since there’s a giveaway of it at the end of this interview!).
Welcome back Troy!
Me: This story of an old man and a cat is so adorable. What gave you the idea? Is it based on anyone you know?
Troy: There were three main sources of inspiration for this book: a dearly departed grandfather (I called him Pop), a classic Canadian picture book (WAITING FOR THE WHALES), and a picture book that needs no introduction (THE CAT IN THE HAT). Not sure which one started the ball rolling. Who knows, maybe it was all three simultaneously.
Like the man in my story, Pop fed squirrels from his hat on the back deck. He also left nuts and peanut butter in a little wire enclosure out there, so squirrels could access it anytime and the birds could not. To keep the book tight and focused, I did not include any such enclosure. Also like the man in the story, Pop was a gentle, good-natured, welcoming soul. Unlike the fictional man, Pop was not a fan of cats. He and his wife never owned any in my lifetime. My mom does recall that they had a few cats in her youth, but more as mousers for the barn and less as beloved indoor pets.
WAITING FOR THE WHALES is a gentle, timeless, and award-winning picture book from 1991. As to how it inspired me, I think this summary will make that clearer: “A nameless old man lives alone by the sea. Only when the whales return each year is his loneliness eased. One day, his daughter and her baby return home to live with him. As his granddaughter grows, the old man passes on a wealth of knowledge and wisdom, as well as his passion for the whales. And each year they wait for the whales to appear. The old man dies, and his daughter comforts the child with this: ‘Don’t be sad, sweet girl. Your grandfather’s—” Sorry, I’m stopping the summary there. You really need to check it out yourself. And as with HAT CAT, this old man’s hat lays empty in his absence. Side note: WHALES author Sheryl McFarlane lives in the same city as me, and we’ve met several times. I’ve also met the fellow who served as the visual model for this book’s old man.
With THE CAT IN THE HAT, I only took inspiration from the title. The high-energy comedic romp itself is the polar opposite of HAT CAT.
Me: Wow, that’s quite an amalgam of things! The text of this story is both incredibly simple and beautifully lyrical which makes for a wonderful read aloud. How many revisions did it take to get into such tight shape?
Troy: Countless revisions. As in I didn’t keep count and as in A LOT.
Editor Kate Fletcher is the unsung hero here. She and I went through a few rounds of feedback and revisions before she made the actual offer to acquire the book. And after the contract, we kept whittling down the text right up until the eleventh hour. I can’t thank her enough for helping me arrive at the fewest and best words.
Me: HAT CAT has been called gentle and charming. I have to agree! It’s a wonderful book. Yet there has been some debate about the marketability of “quiet” picture books. Can you tell us how long it took you to get a contract for this story? Were there any difficulties in marketing it?
Troy: It took my amazing agent, Hilary McMahon, about a year to land the contract after she started submitting it widely. No shortage of rejections, but, as far as I know, none of them expressed concerns about HAT CAT being too quiet.
And if Hilary herself had any such concerns, I don’t recall her expressing them to me. She has, however, expressed concerns about some of the quiet manuscripts that I’ve written since HAT CAT, because she hasn’t always felt they have the special mix of substance and magic that quiet manuscripts need in order to make it.
Me: Ahh! That makes sense. This story captures the heart right away and yet it breaks some of the rules new picture book writers are told repeatedly. For instance, the main character that introduces the story isn’t a child. The child-like cat doesn’t come in until later. How did your critique groups handle that? Did you receive any push back or criticism for this?
Troy: This one bypassed critique groups altogether. I sent it straight to Hilary to see if she was on board. And thankfully she was all-in right from the get-go. She felt we had something special on our hands, and she never suggested that I add a kid to it.
Though actually, I did start out trying to feature a girl in the first half of the story. Partly to avoid the rule-breaking. And partly because WAITING FOR THE WHALES prominently featured a girl. But I found balancing the old man, the cat, the squirrels, AND a girl to be unwieldy. Too little flow, too many words. So the initial version I sent Hilary was totally girl-less and child-less
Candlewick did want one of the helper people to be a kid, and I was happy to oblige. Neither my text nor my visual notes indicated the exact make-up of the helpers, but I always had it in the back of my head that one could be a kid, if need be. And in fact, I think the story is better for it. Quite apart from rules and marketability and a figure for kids to identify with, the girl facilitates the presence of three generations (old man, mom, and kid). And she brings a lively spark to the proceedings.
Me: She also facilitates a vital plot point (I won’t spoil!). The illustrations by Eve Coy are pitch perfect. Soft and delightful! Plus I loved all the little details she added to the old man’s home. Were there any illustration surprises for you? What was your favorite illustration?
Troy: I wholeheartedly agree that Eve’s art is pitch perfect. I’m very lucky, and so are the readers.
The old man wearing a tie surprised me. A bit more formal than I was expecting, but I quite like the choice.
I can’t possibly choose one favorite illustration. I can’t even choose several. But if I could actually decide, I might just pick Eve’s initial black-and-white character studies prior to any actual pages. Not because they are the very, very best (though they are, of course, great), but because they were the very, very first.
Me: And those first sketches always thrill, don’t they? What is one thing that surprised you in writing this story?
Troy: The pages where the cat first gets out. This is the sequence that changed the most. An early (and never illustrated) version had the cat wearing the hat to attract squirrels, but ultimately being unable to harm them. Another had the cat outside overnight. But thankfully, a better, simpler approach prevailed. The words and visuals for that sequence are so concise now. I love how much we all improved it!
Me: Are you a fan of cats? Did you have any pets growing up? Do you have any pets now?
Troy: I am indeed a fan of cats. We had cats and dogs growing up. My brother also had some fish and a turtle. I don’t have any pets now. I prefer to be a pet uncle, rather than a pet parent.
LOL! I completely understand. Thank you for stopping by my blog again Troy.
Dear readers, if you haven’t had a chance yet to read this book (it was just released this week), I highly recommend it. This is a picture book that manages to break the rules in the most glorious ways that succeed brilliantly. I could read it over and over again just trying to study that! Yet it’s also a loving story of an old man who loves squirrels and his cat, who also loves him. It will definitely pull at your heartstrings.
AND for one of you lucky readers (in the US and Canada only), there’s a giveaway of a copy of HAT CAT. You can enter the rafflecopter here! =)