Joyce Carol Oates’s third children’s book, Naughty Chérie, goes on sale today. Illustrated by Mark Graham, all three books involve kitten characters based on real cats who have owned JCO. The cat from the first book in the series, Come Meet Muffin!, has also appeared in JCO’s adult fiction: interviewed about We Were the Mulvaneys, JCO notes that “everyone in the novel is enormously close to me, including Marianne’s cat, Muffin, who was in fact my own cat. One writes to memorialize and to bring to life again that which has been lost.”
Other works in JCO’s catalog include the short story “The White Cat” (opposed to Poe’s “The Black Cat”) reprinted in Haunted: Tales of the Grotesque, the poem “To an Aged Cat, Dying in My Arms,” reprinted in Tenderness, and the magical cat Mahalaleel who opens the novel Bellefleur. Greg Johnson notes in Invisible Writer: A Biography of Joyce Carol Oates, that an incident in which JCO and her husband found and adopted two kittens abandoned by the side of the road (one of which was Muffin) is recreated in the story “The Seasons,” reprinted in Raven’s Wing. JCO has also co-edited with Daniel Halpern an anthology of cat-writings, The Sophisticated Cat. Halpern, a founder of the literary magazine Antaeus, and of Ecco Press (now an imprint of HarperCollins and JCO’s primary publisher), is also the father of “Lily,” the little girl who appears in both Come Meet Muffin! and the second book of the series, Where is Little Reynard?
JCO continues in the Mulvaneys interview, “I’ve never before written about the emotional interdependence of human beings and animals, though it has been so much a part of my life (and the lives of many of my friends). I hoped to show, in the novel, the intensely connected parallel lives of people and animals. For Marianne, obviously, Muffin is far more than merely a cat; he’s her deepest connection with her family and her girlhood, almost an aspect of her soul. In families with animals, there is always tragedy: animals age more quickly than we do, and their lives run out before our eyes. How difficult it is to speak of the secret meaning of animals without sounding sentimental … Yet it was a risk I was willing to take in order to tell the story of the Mulvaneys.”
But JCO’s cat writing can be traced much earlier. Greg Johnson in Invisible Writer relates the following anecdote. “On one occasion, Joyce wrote a story to be read aloud in school, but her parents suggested she change the title. ‘Joyce was headstrong as a child,’ [her father] remembered. ‘She didn’t want to change it.’ Finally, he had to explain to his daughter why ‘The Cat House’ was not an appropriate title for a story about cats.”