Set in Ye Old Cheshire Cheese, an actual, centuries-old London inn, The Cheshire Cheese Cat: A Dickens of a Tale transports readers back to Victorian times, when Charles Dickens frequented the pub as he struggled with his writing. Penned by Carmen Agra Deedy and Randall Wright and illustrated by Barry Moser, this novel from Peachtree centers on the tavern cat, who strikes a bargain with the inn’s mice residents, pledging that he won’t harm them if they provide him with a steady supply of the tavern’s renowned cheese. A literate mouse, a displaced raven from the Tower of London, and Queen Victoria all have roles in the novel, a first-time joint writing effort for both picture-book author Deedy and novelist Wright.
Ye Old Cheshire Cheese comes to life in the novel almost as a character itself. Was it the real-life inn itself that inspired the story?
Carmen Agra Deedy: Absolutely. I was visiting London in 2002 with my three daughters, walking along Fleet Street as the mist rolled off the Thames, long after we should have been in bed. We came across the inn, and its sign said, with little attempt at modesty, “Rebuilt in 1667.” But then, if you had survived the Great London Fire of 1666 and outlived 14 monarchs, you might be forgiven a bit of braggadocio. Once inside, we knew we had entered a singularly remarkable place—a true English public house that had in many ways remained unchanged for centuries. There were twisting stairways, hidden alcoves, and countless rooms. It was almost magical.
Did you know right away that this was a locale that you wanted to write about?
CAD: I did when we saw hanging on the wall a very old, very compelling etching of cats, feasting at the tavern. ‘Whatever would cats be doing in the inn?” asked one of my girls. And then the youngest said, “Well, it’s the Cheshire cheese, isn’t it? Mice are notorious cheese thieves, so they are there for the cheese. And the cats are here for the mice.” The story continued to unspool throughout the rest of the trip, and with the help of my daughter, Erin, I managed to write the arc of the novel in a spiral notebook on the flight home. Some days later, I filed the story away with other stories, long-suffering souls one and all, languishing in literary purgatory in my old metal filing cabinet.
So how was it that you then came to write the book with Randall Wright?
CAD: Some years later, I believe it was 2005, I met the marvelously gifted Randall Wright while we were both teaching at a summer writing conference at Brigham Young University.
Randall Wright: Carmen and I got to know each other well that summer, but it wasn’t until the summer of 2007, when we both returned to the conference on faculty, that the subject of the novel came up. The final night of the conference, we went out to dinner. Carmen told me about this idea she had for a novel set in the inn. It sparked my interest, and we went back and forth about how the story might go. With us at the table were three editors, an agent, and a bunch of other writers, and everyone began throwing ideas out fast and furiously. We began disrupting the whole restaurant. And as we were leaving, Carmen pulled me aside and said, “I really want to write this novel with you.”
CAD: But I remember him saying, “I could write this with you.” That’s definitely how I remember it! The upshot of it was that a week or so later, I think I called Randall—or did you call me? At any rate, we were both excited about the book, but one problem was that neither of us had ever co-written anything.
RW: I saw another problem—that I live in Utah and she lives in Atlanta. But then I figured that, since this is the technology age, we can do this.
CAD: But that didn’t really work, since we are both old school.
So how did you overcome the distance problem?
RW: Carmen’s fiancé at the time, who is now her spouse, was John McCutcheon, a musician I kind of idolize. Carmen told me I could stay with John if I came to Atlanta. And so I was on the plane! And since my writing process entails just sitting down and writing, on the plane ride I wrote the first chapter.
CAD: But you weren’t supposed to write anything without me! Not one syllable. He got off the plane and was very sheepish.
RW: I just couldn’t help it. And it was only the first chapter.
After that first hiccup, did you figure out a method for collaboration?
CAD: Yes, we worked out a process that, miraculously, worked for us. We each wrote a chapter, and then the other one rewrote it. Each chapter was passed back and forth between us, like a tennis ball—dozens of times—until we found the right voice.
Did you manage to write the entire novel while in each other’s presence?
CAD: Yes. We got about three or so chapters down on that first trip. We’d get together every few months, mostly in Atlanta, for a number of logistical reasons, and all writing would pretty much stop until the next trip. We usually had three to five days together and we worked like fiends. It took four years and there were many 12-hour days. If we weren’t writing, we were researching. And we loved every minute of it.
What exactly did your research entail?
CAD: We both loved this part. I worked on a timeline establishing the authors living and writing in London at the time, and researched information on the inn and its history. Randall gathered information on all things Dickens, Queen Victoria, stamps and coinage. I delved into the world of Tower Ravens and made a second trip to London in 2010 to visit the inn and the Tower and to take photos for the illustrator. Sadly, I discovered that the etching of the inn’s cats that had first inspired the story had been stolen.
At the end of the novel, you include a glossary of words that appear in the story that are either period jargon or vocabulary that might be tricky for middle-grade readers. What led you to do that?
RW: Carmen and I both love language, and we decided up front that, as fans of Dickens, we wanted to give the book a Dickensian flavor and not worry about the reading level. We wrote the way we wanted the novel to sound, and that allowed us to capture its voice. Then we went back through and considered which words readers might struggle with, and which would stretch them. We replaced or removed several hundred words, or contextually defined them. And we kept about 70 of the words in, which we defined in the glossary.
Like the novel’s language, Barry Moser’s illustrations also have a Victorian flavor. Do they echo your own visions of Ye Olde Cheshire Inn and its residents?
RW: Yes. I just love his artwork. It is absolutely perfect for this novel. We knew from the start he was the one who had to do the book. We were willing to give up royalties if we could get him to do it.
CAD: We actually offered to do that! I have loved Barry Moser’s work since before I was a published author. I remember being amazed by the fact that you could find such exquisite art in a children’s book, and thinking how wonderful it is that children who will never have the opportunity to visit a museum can find this quality of art in books. Children definitely deserve to see art this beautiful.
The Cheshire Cheese Cat: A Dickens of a Tale by Carmen Agra Deedy and Randall Wright, illus. by Barry Moser. Peachtree, $16.95 Oct. ISBN 978-1-56145-595-9