When I was a kid, our neighborhood had a cat lady. Emma Klass lived with at least 50 cats. (Maybe more; we’d stopped counting.) Emma was “different.” The neighbors rarely saw her unless she left her tiny house to run an errand or came out after dark to get fresh air. Our parents warned us. “Stay away from Mrs. Klass because . . . well . . . she prefers to be alone.”
But Emma wasn’t alone. She had all those cats, and Emma talked to them and they talked back.
What!? Yes. Emma’s cats talked to her. I know because I and all the other neighborhood kids spied on Emma through her open windows (never-mind the stench).
One of her cats was Manuel, only Emma called him Man-Yule. He was Hispanic.
“Would you like a treat, Man-Yule?”
“Oh, Senorita! Man-Yule wooooood like one, pleeeeeze.”
Man-Yule thought that Emma was the most beautiful woman on earth.
Emma had a daughter cat named Sophia, a sassy and rude little girl.
“Sophia, you lazy little girl! All you do all day is lounge around on the sofa.”
“Leave me alone, Mother. I’m getting my beauty sleep.”
Ralphie, the sensible cat, tried to bring Emma back to reality.
“Mom, you need to clean things up around here.”
To which Emma always replied, “Shhhhh.”
Emma talked to her cats. They talked back. And I listened. Of course, I didn’t know it then, but I was writer in training learning an important lesson about observation:
We live among our characters.
Wherever we go and whatever we do,
book characters surround us, often in human form
and sometimes anthropomorphically.
Yes, Emma Klass was “different.” She saw beyond the fur bodies of her “babies” and tapped into their souls. The personalities she found there became real to Emma, and that created dialogue.
Maybe Emma is the reason that I look at strangers (and, yes, animals if I’m working on a children’s book) and imagine what’s inside. When I’m in a creative mood, I picture them as characters. I think of them speaking to each other, or to me, and about how their voices sound and what they might say.
In one way, Emma Klass and I are alike. We are the kind of “different” that allows us to unchain our imaginations to linger for a while in our reality—
that’s what makes writers different . . .
And we’re a good kind of different.
Don’t you agree?
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