In Kat Hats, readers are welcomed into the dizzyingly silly world of Max Katz, who trains and rents out cats of “unusual furriness and warmth” to become highly specialized hats for adventurers “and people living in Chicago.” The star cat, Thermal Herman 6 7/8ths, proves both his valor and warming power when a witch friend of the Katz family is stranded in the mountain with possible brain freeze from eating “an extra-large jumbo frozen fruitsicle.” This being the third collaboration for Daniel Pinkwater and Aaron Renier—a fourth, Crazy in Poughkeepsie, is due out in April—PW decided it was high time to find out what makes their partnership tick. From their respective homes in upstate New York and Green Bay, Wis., they revealed that a partial answer is MAD magazine and the famed Wisconsin Kringle.
You’ve done four books with Aaron Renier. How did the partnership get started?
I’d never heard of him. Someone no longer with Abrams sent me two samples of art for Vampires of Blinsh  and asked me, “Which one do you like?” and I said, “That one.”
I supposed I could have said, “Neither,” but I felt that this [Renier’s work] was a good bet. I’m able to look at a single line that someone has drawn on a piece of paper and tell if that line is alive or not.
Is there a collaborative process?
My experience with illustrators has been pretty good. Because I began as an illustrator, and my wife [Jill Pinkwater, a frequent collaborator] is an illustrator, I know where to leave room for the artists. When I collaborate with somebody, I don’t get up their nose—and if they need that kind of guidance, I don’t want to work with them.
It’s always been my policy when I worked with an illustrator to say, “Have fun, do what you like.” In all these World War II movies about bombing Berlin there’s a point where the pilot says to the bombardier, “It’s your flight now.” If you want me to change something that’s really important, bring it up—but don’t.
I only gave Aaron one piece of advice. Here’s the story behind it. It was the golden age of comics, and at the beginning of this story, I couldn’t even read yet. There was a lot of trafficking in comics in the neighborhood. In the apartment house where we lived, there were only two Catholic kids, a brother and sister, and they had special comics that had been “approved.” So they read our Tales from the Crypt and we read their Jingle Jangle Comics, which were created by George Carlson, one of the most important comics illustrators. What impressed me at the age of five so that I never forgot it was “The Pie-Face Prince of Old Pretzleburg.” It was like nothing else at the time: it was surrealist, absurdist, the drawings were full of visual puns, eyeball kicks, crazy things like a taxi cabbage, and trees that had faces. He wasn’t committed to a horizon line—there were things at odd angles, a Kandinsky thing going on.
Seventy-five years later, I’m writing a story that tries to be as absurdist and surreal and exciting as The Pie-Faced Prince. [Kats Hats is also set in “the old city of Pretzleburg.”] How loopy can I get?
So, I did mention in the email to Aaron, see if you can find “The Pie-Faced Prince of Old Pretzleburg” by George Carlson. I guess he found it. When I look at Kat Hats and see, for example, the bunnies having a picnic in the snow [an elaborate visual aside], that’s something that has nothing to do with the main story.
But he didn’t just do a Carlson thing. He made it his own. There is other underlying stuff: the family is interracial, and he makes it authentic. In addition, it isn’t just that he explored the surrealist stuff and the absurdist stuff—he made it cinematic, like a movie we’re watching. It’s extremely eccentric but we believe in the family. And because he loves these characters, you love them too. You laugh at them, they’re sweet, they’re crazy. They train cats for a living. They have a shop and business and it’s a believable place. Basically, in a different kind of universe, he would be a movie director.
I had some doubts about it being a little complex, but I was undervaluing my audience of kids, who are highly literate—and of course they’ve been home a lot reading, so they’re able to keep up with it.
The book’s editor [Russ Busse] was a good team captain and he kept us all moving in the same direction. He was supportive and trustworthy.
You and Aaron share at least one big influence, which is MAD magazine. What’s your MAD origin story?
It’s 1952; my family has moved to Los Angeles where they are miserable, because Jews from Chicago in Los Angeles, unless they’re in the movie industry, don’t like it. On Cahuenga Boulevard off Hollywood Boulevard there was a giant newsstand. I’m with my mother and I’m empowered to spend one dime on one comic book and then we’re going to the Pig and Whistle for lunch and then we’re going home.
I bought MAD #1. I remember the cover and I remember every word and I remember thinking this was created just for me. I never was the same. That and The Goon Show, which I listened to on a shortwave that my father bought, was where my style came from.
Kat Hats is filled with your signature narrative tangents. How do you keep a sense of narrative discipline?
It’s how I think. I think in little modules—you can see in the course of this interview how they connect and go to other modules. Writing a novel is easy for me because I think novels are narratives that connect and go places. It’s just the way my brain works.
You haven’t met or even had a phone call with Aaron—is that something you’d like to do in the future?
I told him, let’s not be friends, let’s be professional. I don’t want to influence you, I don’t need to be influenced by you, I don’t want to take a chance on changing our relationship if you knew what I was really like. What I know about him is what passes between us as artists.
He did send me a Wisconsin Kringle [a large doughnut-shaped Danish-style pastry that’s a Wisconsin culinary icon]. I used a Kringle in Crazy in Poughkeepsie, but I didn’t know what one was—I needed something they ate in Wisconsin and found it by googling “Wisconsin specialties.”
I ate it. It was good.
How did the partnership with Daniel Pinkwater get started? What’s the collaboration been like?
My agent Steven Malk said, “I got asked if you’d like to do illustrate Vampires of Blinsh by Daniel Pinkwater,” and I was already a Pinkwater fan. I didn’t have to read the PDF—I just jumped at it.
I had mostly read his picture books as a kid, but I was also aware of The Hoboken Chicken Emergency, and his comic strip Norb [which ran in syndication 1989–1990] was happening at the same time that I was making comics for my college paper. He’s just always been on my radar.
I’ve worked on picture books before and I’ve never been in contact with the author ever. But because this was Daniel, I wanted to be in contact with him because I respect him and his words, and I wanted to tell him that I’m a fan. So, I wrote him and said, here are some drawings for Vampires of Blinsh, what do you think? And he basically told me that the book was mine now. He’s a very generous collaborator—in that he basically says, “My part of the collaboration is done, and now it’s yours.” For Kat Hats, it was much the same thing. But it’s still Daniel’s crazy roller coaster of text that I ride on top of.
How would you describe your process?
Daniel’s manuscripts give me all these really nice nuggets: there’s something visual about the way he writes—it’s like seeing a show in my head. When a character called Old Thirdbeard keeps two of his beards in his dresser drawer I imagined him being some kind of green goblin character, and then I start seeing more green goblins. For the character of Glamorella, the name itself made me think of a superhero whose superpower is glamour—it would be funny to have a character who never wore the same outfit.
And then I thought about who Max Katz and Glamorella’s children are. They [the characters Pocketmouse and Lambkin] were never described other than that they exist. I thought if I was in that situation, I wouldn’t want to run away to the circus; I would have loved being at home in this place that was full of weird energy—the circus was at home. I gave the kids these delicate aspirations—learning magic, riding a unicycle. I wanted them to have some magic of their own.
How did this book depart from the visual look of Vampires of Blinsh?
I approached it in an entirely different way. I never painted a book before. For Vampires of Blinsh, I worked in pen and ink and then painted in the colors instead of using a computer. After that, I was sort of on a painting roll, and I’m a big fan of Gustaf Tenggren and the Golden Books sort of vibe, so I decided to approach Kat Hats as gouache paintings instead.
I penciled it very fast—in a week. And when I started painting it, it was all hanging up in my studio on strings, so that if I made a decision on one page that affected another page, I could go back and forth. I was literally working on page 30 on the same day as page 1.
It’s a diverse cast in many ways. How did that develop?
When I was in college, I was always trying to figure out how, as a white person, to depict race and how do it in a way that wasn’t about race. My answer then was to go the route of anthropomorphic characters, so I drew elephants and bunnies and giraffes and whales, and in my head I was thinking I made the world diverse with animals.
When I illustrated An Anaconda Ate My Homework [2009, with Alice Schertle], I knew right away I didn’t want to make it about a white kid. I wanted it to be a good read for a wide range of kids. In Kat Hats, I thought, I’m going to put one of the characters in a wheelchair and not make it a plot point—it’s just a fact.
Were any real cats an inspiration?
One of the cats in the book is based on my cat, Sylvia—she’s the gray and white cat you see on three pages. Thermal Herman 6-7/8ths [the cat protagonist] and the rest of them are imagined. I kept cat pictures around just as inspiration.
Daniel Pinkwater is famous for a lot of tangents and asides and auxiliary characters. Has that been a challenge to work on visually?
I’m also a person who tends to go on tangents. If I’ve got an entire page and the only thing described is that something goes to the door, then I have to imagine what’s happening on the rest of the page—what’s happening on the periphery?
One of the few notes that Daniel Pinkwater gave you had to do with George Carlson and his “Pie-Face Prince of Old Pretzleburg.” Were you familiar with Carlson?
I hadn’t seen that comic strip in particular, but I did have some of George Carlson’s how-to-draw books. It was pretty nice that Daniel gave me that visual feedback, because in that comic strip there’s lots of frantic energy and visual asides. I didn’t borrow visually from it very much—although you do see the Pie-Face Prince on a pogo stick on one of the pages—but I borrowed from it energy-wise.
You share with Daniel the influence of MAD magazine?
When I was a kid I was into comics, but I wasn’t into superhero comics. MAD and Cracked magazines were available at the grocery store, and I could wait in line with my mother at the grocery store and I’d pick up MAD magazine. It was like this lens to see the world through, all these parodies and just insanity on paper. For me, art came into my house in very lowly ways: though the newspaper, through the grocery store. It’s like art for the people. And it’s pretty wild.
Do you think that working with Daniel Pinkwater will influence your own storytelling style?
I think there’s going to be a long-lasting effect. I’m not currently working on a book project, but I am working on some art projects, and I am writing things; I learned many things from our relationship. He’s not a person who can be copied—no one can be as inventive as he is. But I do think he has influenced me for the rest of my life. I don’t know exactly how yet, but it’s there.
You’ve published four books together since 2020. Did you have any notion that’s where you were headed when you said yes to working on Vampires of Blinsh?
No, of course not. It’s many hours sitting down [laughs]. The middle grade books are pretty easy, just black and white. I really can draw them pretty fast. I love those books, but there’s less of me in them. When it’s all full color and a sentence on a page, and dishes are going everywhere, it feels like that’s more of me.
I really love him, and he’s a very good emailer. I’ll email him question and concerns about almost anything. We’ve gotten to this point where we email about things that aren’t even in the books, like peripheral publishing things. He’s been open to my questions. I respect him for respecting me because he didn’t know who I was. I feel very lucky.
And you sent him a Kringle?
At one point in Crazy in Poughkeepsie, a guru buys a Kringle from Wisconsin, and they eat it and talk about it. I’m from the land of Kringle, so after I read that in the manuscript, I sent him one for his birthday. The word “Kringle” feels very Pinkwater to me.
He wrote back, “So that’s what a Kringle is.”
Kat Hats by Daniel Pinkwater, illus. by Aaron Renier. Abrams, $17.99 Feb. 1 ISBN 978-1-4197-5194-3