Interview: Robyn Prokop talks about Dozer the Fire Cat
In 2019, Robyn Prokop, a former teacher & principal, finally traded her passion for education for her passion to write full time. With her husband Keith and her three daughters, she has lived in Brisbane, Singapore and Melbourne, but her heart is
in New Zealand and the lifestyle block in Nelson that has been home for the past 15 years.
Her inspiration comes from the stunning New Zealand environment, and characters she has met, both in her life and in the world of stories. She talks to NZ Booklovers about Dozer the Fire Cat.
Tell us a little about Dozer the Fire Cat.
Dozer brings two stories of the Nelson fires together: all the hurried panic of our own evacuation from our lifestyle block, combined with the charming and hilarious tale of Dozer the cat and his eventual reunion with his family.
What inspired you to write this book?
The Nelson fires really made me think about the things we take for granted, what it is that people treasure most, and especially the resilience of communities and how people look out for one another. I wanted to capture the hope and caring that came out the fires, as well as the drama.
What research was involved?
The book was based very much on our family’s own experiences of watching the firefront approaching. We spent a couple of weeks packing chickens in and out of boxes, hoisting uncooperative sheep onto trailers, herding dogs and cats, worrying about our neighbours and wondering whether our own property would survive. When I found out about Dozer, and followed his adventures on social media, I realised he would be a great way of exploring some of those experiences. When Dozer finally made it home safely, I knew he was the perfect star for the story. I also researched the animal evacuation centre at the Richmond Showgrounds since it had to be in the story too - it was such a brilliant local response by so many people. I loved Leon’s fantastic picture of the helicopter, and the Scholastic team made it possible for his painting to be featured.
How did you collaborate with the illustrator, Jenny Cooper?
I spent a few days with several A3 pieces of paper, sketching out images and words, playing with structure and a vision of the whole story. I wanted to juxtapose scenes of Dozer happily mucking about and the growing tension of the family preparing to flee the approaching fire. When I was happy, I sent the manuscript, together with suggestions for visuals, off to the wonderful team at Scholastic. They brought Jenny Cooper on board and worked with her to match the illustrations to my story. When the proofs came back I was delighted at how Jenny had managed to bring the story to life. Then there were a few edits, some additional background material, and a quick rewrite of the ending.
If a soundtrack was made to accompany this book, name a song or two you would include.
It’s hard to think of a song that captures the seriousness of the event, but sends the message that everything will be all right. I would probably have to ask my daughter to write me an original!
What did you enjoy the most about writing this book?
I really enjoyed the chance to collaborate with a visual artist for the first time, and was thrilled to work with the Scholastic team and an illustrator as talented as Jenny.
What did you do to celebrate finishing this book?
I’m looking forward to the launch at Wakefield School, and am planning to give a copy to my neighbour’s son. Like all the volunteer firefighters, this young man put himself in danger working long days and nights to put out the fire. Our fieries are just wonderful people.
What is the favourite book you have read so far this year and why?
I really enjoyed The Husband’s Secret by Liane Moriarty. It was one of those surprising finds, discovered on a book swap shelf while on holiday - it’s a really intriguing read and cleverly written.
What’s next on the agenda for you?
My first fantasy novel, Taelstone, debuted last year and readers are demanding the next in the series, so finishing Heartstone is my first priority in 2020. I also have lots of ideas for more picture books, as well as a children’s adventure, based on events in New Zealand history.
As we come up to our anniversary of the Nelson Fires, my thoughts keep straying to Australia. Our own fires were terrifying, but nothing on the scale they’ve had to endure. Having lived there for many years, and with two of my daughters now in Melbourne, a big chunk of my heart will always be in Australia. It has been just awful seeing such devastation.
Would the illustrator, Jenny Cooper, like to say a few words on Dozer the Fire Cat?
I loved the book because it was about a cat, and a fluffy cat, even better. Dozer looks very much like my own cat The Moosch, so I used photos of her. So Dozer was easy and fun. But initially I struggled with the rest of the book . . . all the stuff, the car, the trailer, fire engines, boxes and houses . . . it all got too detailed and ‘tight’ and realistic. Big ups to the team at Scholastic, especially Vida Kelly the designer, who suggested I did a really loose and ‘washy’ look, which worked really well with the smoke and flames. Then it became fun, lots of texture and spatter and dry brush strokes.
There is always a difficult balance between showing the sad reality of the effects of fire on a community, and not wanting to scare the young readers of the book. I think Robyn got the perfect balance between the two, and I also tried to keep things hopeful, despite the losses. It all takes on a more serious tone in the light of the fires in Australia this year. I happened to be in Sydney at one of the worst times, the sky was unbelievably dark red. So scary, also so worrying on the larger subject of climate change! Anyway, at least Dozer is home safe.
Published by Scholastic NZ