Interview with Jules Kirkus

Q 1) Tell us about City Cat.

In 1988 I married an Italian and moved to Rome where my two sons were born–and the idea for City Cat. Rome is teeming with stray cats and I couldn’t help but admire how they masterfully maneuvered through the city streets scavenging for food and comfort. When my boys were young we traveled often by car, visiting all of the sites in CITY CAT. And as the years passed my own borders expanded, first to France where we moved in 1996, then to England where my boys went to school. These days I am often in Munich and London for work. So in a way the book reflects my own personal story. But it also touches on themes that are dear to me—travel, discovery, connection, and homecomings. I was especially drawn to the idea of the family and cat undertaking parallel journeys, meeting at landmarks which are common gathering grounds for travelers—in a way sacred spaces where we connect with others. I also loved the invitation to explore new territory, inviting readers to observe and notice. Lastly, Europeans know their geography and apparently Americans don’t—according to them. So CITY CAT gave me a chance to present some geography in a fun and meaningful context. I hope the story awakens in readers an awareness not only of the bigger world outside of their boundaries but of their own inner worlds. And I hope it inspires them to embark on their own travels one day.

Q 2) How did your illustrator, Lauren Castillo, get involved?

Frances Foster sent me samples of Lauren’s artwork when we looking for an illustrator for THAT’S PAPA’S WAY. I immediately fell in love with her exuberant, open-faced characters and her full but graceful detail. We were looking for an artist who could convey the tender relationship between father and daughter without sacrificing sense of place. I was delighted with Lauren’s art and was eager to do another project with her. CITY CAT came to mind when I saw her cityscapes which literally vibrate with energy and a sense of place–accomplished without being overwhelming. There is always something new to see when you go back for a second look. When I had the pleasure of meeting Lauren I could see her personality reflected in her work and that was a treat. To me her illustrations for CITY CAT are inviting and immediate allowing readers to step into her city scenes as artfully as those stray cats step into the streets of Rome.

Q 3)What strikes you about the way picture books are being produced right now?

What strikes me the most about picture books today is how they are made. Back in the eighties when I began publishing the making of books was an artisan endeavor with craftsmen contributing their bit along the way. Authors and writers met with their editors and phone calls were still the order of the day. There was an enviable intimacy about the process and, I think, more freedom in choice of stories, art, and their interpretation. Today the picture book has become a commodity subject to the dictates of a market economy. Technology had made piecework redundant. Undoubtedly, there is greater efficiency but the process has lost that personal touch.

That said, there are still many wonderful picture books being produced and perhaps they are better as editors must be more selective, and bookmaking is more refined. But I am wary when I hear agents and editors asking for “character driven books” or books with spare texts because it sounds to me like they’re looking for the recipe for a perfect picture book, which I don’t believe exists. To me, the perfect picture book is a spontaneous creation—inspired by an invisible and mysterious muse not to be found in the marketplace.

Another thing that has changed is the mindset of readers whose brains are literally being rewired by technology and the media. In my work as a therapist I am well aware of the neuroscience behind this. A short time ago an editor commented that a manuscript I’d submitted was too quiet for today’s market. This remark concerned me because children need quiet, reflective books as well as fast paced, action packed stories to grow into balanced teenagers and adults with healthy neuropathways and good coping skills. And I believe writers, educators, and publishers have not only a golden opportunity, but a responsibility to influence childrens’ development in positive ways—something that is increasingly more difficult in a market based industry where the bottom line overrides all.

Q 4) What are you working on now?

I am always working on several projects at once, usually a couple of picture books and a YA. Currently I am busy with another project for illustrator, George Hallensleben. And I am completing revisions for a middle grade manuscript which blends science and fiction—a sort of hybrid–based on British biologist Rupert Sheldrake’s experiments with animals. Lastly, I am finishing a YA story that emerged during a regression session with one of my patients.

This interview was given in November 2013.