Tuesday, December 16, 2014

A View from Maryann Macdonald's Window - The Christmas Cat

Maryann Macdonald is the author of 25 books for children.  She has created a delightful Christmas book based upon Leonardo da Vinci's La Madonna Del Gatto, or the Madonna of the Cat.

Da Vinci made many drawings of her in 1480 and 1481. In the drawings, the chubby child Jesus is depicted holding, stroking and playing with a cat.

A medieval legend tells about a litter of kittens born in the stable at Bethlehem the same night Jesus was born. If this were true, one of these kittens could have become a pet for Jesus. Born on the same night in the same place, what would their relationship have been like?

Maryann's love of books and reading began when she was growing up in a family of ten outside Detroit. She lived in Europe for many years.  Maryann now lives in New York City, a great place for stumbling upon the unexpected.

Where was the inspiration for the Christmas Cat born?  Was the idea birthed from Leonardo De Vinci’s drawings?
On a visit to the Metropolitan Museum in New York, I saw the da Vinci drawing and began to wonder:  What would it have been like if the child Jesus had a pet cat?  How might they have met?  What would their relationship have been like?  These questions set my mind to composing a story that became The Christmas Cat.
The idea of a cat soothing a baby is more than plausible! Why did you feel like you could present it as a believable scenario?  What research did you do? Or is this totally from your imagination?
I had a cat once who liked to cuddle with my daughter Alison and purr…maybe Spats liked her warmth and the coziness of being with a soft baby.  Or maybe it was the smell of milk!   
But I did do research.  I learned that cats were scarce in religious art before the plague.  They were thought to be Satanic.  But when cats went after rodents (the principal carriers of the Bubonic plague), people began to see their "good" side and they began appearing in religious art. 
I also reread the Gospel accounts of Jesus' childhood to see how I could fit a cat into what we know about his early life.  Then my sister told me how her cat, not wanting her to go away,  hid in her suitcase when she was packing for a trip.  How sweet, I thought.  And I adapted this story to accompany the one about the flight into Egypt.
How was the illustrator chosen for this book?
The publisher always chooses the illustrator, and my editor at Dial looked for a long time before finding Amy Bates.  But I think the wait was well worth it, since Ms. Bates did such a great job.  Her illustrations seem to me to mimic Leonardo's free hand, but in a child-friendly way. 
Why do you think this picture book idea will appeal to parents of small children?  Is it your hope that the book will open a door for parents to introduce their children to the truth of Christ’s birth?
I've been told by many parents that The Christmas Cat has been a hit with small children.  It sold out in just a few weeks last Christmas.  Maybe that's because children love babies.  And animals.  One of the top-selling Fischer-Price toys is the nativity set.  Kids love to arrange and rearrange the figures of people and animals, and tell the nativity story in their own way.  I've tried adding a cat to the existing creche, and it's a natural.  After all, who's to say there wasn't a cat in the stable at Bethlehem? 
What sets The Christmas Cat apart from other Christmas picture books? 
 Sadly, more and more Christmas picture books are secular:  Frosty the Snowman, Rudolf the Red-nosed Reindeer, and endless commercial tie-ins.  It would be nice to see more children's books about the origin of the holiday.  Last year, when The Christmas Cat was selected for the Barnes and Noble Christmas table nationwide, it was one of two or three "religious" titles for the picture book age group.  This year, I haven't seen any on that display.
Do you have memories of a pet – cat or otherwise – that you could draw from as you created this picture book? 
My husband and I lived in England for many years, where we were foster parents for the Royal Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals.  We fostered many cats, and ended up adopting a few ourselves, so I've had lots of experience with cats and kittens, as well as other pets.  What I find so great about pets is that they keep a household lively and make people laugh.
What drew you to writing for children?  When did you realize that you were gifted in this particular genre? 
I've spent most of my life around children, since I grew up in a family of ten, had kids myself, and now have grandchildren.  As a consequence, I think I've come to know a little about children and how they think, what they enjoy.  I started writing at a very early age, about 10, and published my first story in a teenage literary magazine when I was 16.  But it wasn't until my own oldest daughter was a toddler that I decided to try my hand and writing and publishing a book for children.  I got lucky and sold one that first year.
Where do you look for ideas for you books? Or has the world become your well of endless ideas? 
Yes, I look for ideas everywhere, ideas that intrigue me.  Enduring enthusiasm is the key, since you have to believe in your book for a long time before it becomes a reality, sometimes years.  My first book was rejected 15 times, then stayed in print for 15 years!
Can you briefly describe the publication process of a picture book and how that differs from a chapter book – other than the subject matter and word length of course! 
A picture book typically takes longer to produce than a chapter book because of the illustration angle.  My experience is that from the time it takes between selling a picture book manuscript and when the book actually comes out is usually about two years, or longer. 
Do you have another writing project in the works already?
Can you share a sneak peek behind the scenes?  I am always working on a new book, but until the first draft is finished, I don't like to talk about it much.  It seems to take some of the energy out of the storytelling impulse to talk about it before it becomes a reality.  But I will say it takes place in New York City, where I live.  My recent middle-grade novel, Odette's Secrets, takes place in Paris and was written while I was living there with my husband a few years ago.  I find it helps to be surrounded with my setting.  If anyone is interested, they can read about my other books on www.maryannmacdonald.com
What closing words of encouragement would you like to share with your readers? 

If you feel you have a story within you that wants to come out, spend a little time writing about it as often as you can.  Every day for fifteen minutes is better than a full day every two weeks.  Your imagination will go to work on it during your non-writing time, and will help to fill in the blanks.  If you're interested in writing for children, join the Society of Children's Writers and Illustrators.  They hold meetings nationwide and give encouragement and practical help to newbies.  And read a lot in your genre.  Happy Reading!  Happy Writing!

No comments: