Spotlight on Faye Rapoport DesPres
Updated: Mar 12
We had the great pleasure of interviewing the writer Faye Rapoport DesPres in June 2019. Back then she had just published her first children’s book, Little White, the story of a stray cat based on her own beloved former stray. One thing led to another, and now Faye has completed a stray-cat trilogy. We couldn’t resist interviewing her again for our special holiday Spotlight feature.
Your nonfiction essays have been published in a vast array of literary magazines, and your book of essays, Message from a Blue Jay, was very well received. What made you decide to turn to children’s books, and did you know you would wind up writing three?
Thank you for the kind words about my creative nonfiction and personal essay collection, Message from a Blue Jay. After writing nonfiction for almost ten years, I needed a change. Nonfiction can be intense, especially when you’re exploring difficult aspects of your life or concepts about life in general. My collection covered some challenging territory, though I wanted it to ultimately be uplifting and help others feel less alone if they were going through similar experiences. The book was also an exercise in descriptive writing and writing about the natural world.
After mining my own experiences, I wanted to try something new. I had rescued a feral cat, Little White, who was living with us. I thought her story of triumph over challenges and finding a home and family would resonate with children. I didn’t actually leave creative nonfiction behind, because my children’s books about cats are all based on true stories. Still, it required a new skill set to turn stories into language that flows with illustrations and entertains children. I was ready for the challenge and the change. I decided to donate a portion of the proceeds to animal rescue organizations, and that gave the project an additional purpose.
As for knowing from the start that I’d write three children’s books, initially I only focused on writing one. I soon realized, however, that a series made more sense; I’d rescued a number of cats, and each had their own story that could teach a different type of lesson. Plus my publisher stressed the advantage of having a series in terms of sales and the longevity of each title. So I decided to write a trilogy.
As your Facebook and Instagram pages evince, you fall in love with not only stray cats but also birds, squirrels, and virtually every other small (and sometimes not so small) creature you come across in your yard or in your travels. Since you are a busy freelance writer, teacher, essayist, poet, and children’s book author, how do you find time to coax these critters to pose for pictures? How do your interactions with them shape your day?
I have been an animal lover all my life, and I enjoy spending time with both domestic and wild animals. It’s true; I’m that neighbor who feeds the birds in her yard and then adds extra treats for the squirrels or any other critter that wanders through. Groundhogs, raccoons, skunks, opossums—I love them all. They bring me such joy, just watching them and interacting, of course at a respectful distance or in a way that doesn’t endanger the animals.
Wildlife photography is one of my hobbies. I am a novice photographer with much to learn; I’d never pretend to be anything but an amateur. But sometimes in the early mornings I step outside with my camera and snap photos of the animals in the yard. I also bring my camera on walks or hikes in case I spot a hawk or deer or another animal I can capture on film. The time I spend outside, whether in our yard or in the mountains or woods, calms me and gives me a break from the pressures of the rest of my life.
Please tell us something about each of your three children’s books and the cats they are based on.
Little White: The Feral Cat Who Found a Home tells the story of a white cat who came to a feeding station for feral cats in the backyard of our last home. I had to bring her indoors because of a coyote in the neighborhood. The book tells the story of how I got her inside where she could be safe and loved. Her story helps children understand what it means to find a home.
Tribbs: The Very Handsome Cat is based on the story of a black and white cat who lived with me for almost twenty years. I adopted him from a rescue organization during a pet adoption day at a pet store. He and his mother had been abandoned on the streets. In the book, Tribbs is worried that he isn’t handsome enough to be adopted, but his story shows that it’s not how you look that matters; it’s who you are in your heart.
Frazier: The Very Special Cat is about a big orange tom cat I brought inside when I saw he was injured. He had to have an eye removed, and I was worried no one would want a one-eyed cat. The book helps children count how many ears and noses and eyes and legs and tails the cats in the story have, and it also shows that it’s perfectly OK to be different.
Frazier, the star of the third book in the series, might have come to an unhappy ending if you didn’t intervene. Can you talk about this?
Stray and feral cats (and even cats who have homes) face many dangers outdoors, from hunger and thirst to cars, dogs, coyotes, poisons, and diseases. Frazier wasn’t doing well trying to survive, but I wasn’t able to humanely trap him and get him indoors for some time. He wouldn’t have survived without veterinary intervention, so I was relieved when I finally was able to capture him and get him the help he needed. I feel a lot of joy knowing that now he’s living a wonderful life in a safe home with a human mom who adores him. I visited Frazier just before the book came out, and it was so wonderful to see him happy, healthy, and enjoying his life.
I should add that a volunteer from a non-profit trap/rescue/neuter organization helped me every step of the way with each cat. These are wonderful organizations found in many communities.
What kind of feedback do you get from the parents of kids who purchase your kids’ books for their children?
Mostly I get photos and videos of children smiling widely as they hold or read the books, but I also hear that the books inspire compassion about stray animals. One of my favorite stories came from a fellow writer. Her grandchild insisted that they help a cat they saw because the child remembered reading about Little White. Mic drop.
The artist you work with is fabulous. Please tell us something about her.
I have known Laurel McKinstry Petersen since high school. We lived in the same rural town in upstate New York and became fast friends. She’s a wonderful artist who has illustrated her own graphic novels as well as several other books for writers like me.
I was thrilled when Laurel agreed to work with me on these books. I have always loved her charming and warm-hearted illustrations. You can read more about Laurel at her website. I highly recommend her for illustration work.
The stray cats have become celebrities because you feature them regularly in real-life situations on your social media pages. Your fans already know that Little White is very ill. If Little White could talk, what would she want your readers to know?
Yes, Little White has more than 3,000 fans on Facebook, and I recently had to let them know that she has been diagnosed with cancer. She has lived with us for nine years, and we don’t know how old she is (we think somewhere between eleven and fourteen). Although she seems fine right now, we don’t know how long she has left. The news was devastating, but after some tears and coming to terms with what we had to face, I tried to turn my thinking around. I try now to focus on the fact that Little White has had nine wonderful years in a safe and loving home, and that she likely wouldn’t even be alive if I’d left her outside. She has had every comfort, every ounce of love a cat could experience. Her online friends and fans are helping me through this time, insisting they want to continue following her story as we go through this final chapter of her journey. It’s painful, but I’m trying to focus on the love and happiness Little White has brought to so many people—both children and adults.
If she could speak to the readers, I think she’d thank them for all the love and support. She’d tell them that when she lived outside, she never could have dreamed she’d have a warm home, a soft place to sleep every night, toys, and all the food and water she needed. She didn’t know about love, and now she has not only experienced the love of her family but the love of children and adults around the world. She would tell them how grateful she is, and how happy she will be until her last day. I think she would say: “Don’t be sad. Be happy about all of the love we’ve shared.”
What do you plan to write next?
I have been dabbling in different genres. I recently had a poem accepted for publication as well as a 100-word flash fiction piece. I’m going to keep working in different genres until the next big project comes to me.
To end, I want to thank Five Directions Press for your interest in my books and in my work. I hope your readers have a safe, healthy, and happy holiday season.
Faye Rapoport DesPres is the author of the memoir-in-essays Message from a Blue Jay (Buddhapuss Ink, 2014) and the Stray Cat Stories Children’s Books Series (Writer’s Coffee Bar Press). She earned her MFA at the Solstice Creative Writing Program and has published creative nonfiction, fiction, and poetry in a variety of literary journals. A life-long advocate for animals, wildlife, and the environment, Faye donates a portion of the proceeds from her children’s books to nonprofit animal rescue organizations. She lives in Cambridge, Massachusetts, with her husband, Jean-Paul Des Pres, their cats, and an array of backyard wildlife.