Varjak Paw by SF Said, illustrated by Dave McKean: manuscript drafts and printed book

Description

Varjak Paw is a story about a wonderful cat – a Mesopotamian Blue (a breed the author SF Said invented!). These handwritten and typed drafts – alongside an extract from the published book – provide an insight into SF Said's writing process.

What is Varjak Paw about?

Varjak’s brothers and cousin are always pointing out that he is different because his eyes aren’t green. But it is Varjak who has the courage to leave home and go out into the city, risking everything, to search for a dog to save his family from the chilling Gentleman. Amid his adventures, some frightening, some funny, he learns about making friends and sticking by them, standing up to bullies and welcoming strangers.

Who is SF Said?

SF Said was born in Lebanon but has lived in London for most of his life. He has written three books for children including a sequel to this one, The Outlaw Varjak Paw (2005).

Who created the illustrations for Varjak Paw?

The striking, slightly unsettling illustrations in Varjak Paw are by Dave McKean, who is probably best known as a comic-book artist.

In the hardback version of the book, the colour of the illustrations is important. Later in the story, when Varjak dreams of Mesopotamia and learns much more about the Seven Skills of the Way of Jalal, the pages are bathed in an amber wash. In the final dream we find out the colour of Varjak’s eyes and who he shares that with. Can you guess?

SF Said describes his writing process and provides a guide to the drafts of Varjak Paw

I started writing Varjak Paw in January 1997, inspired by watching my own cat's adventures as he went out into the world for the first time. Every time I begin a new book, I make a deal with myself: no-one else will ever see my first draft. That way, I can be completely unselfconscious, safe in the knowledge that however bad it is, only I will ever know! This is a vital part of my working process, so the earliest document I can share is the 2nd draft of Varjak Paw. You can see this, and other drafts, in the image viewer here; scroll down the text to see my commentary beside each image.

Image 1 – 2nd draft

This is the first page of the 2nd draft, written in February 1997. I always write by hand on early drafts, as I find it flows better that way. At this stage, I imagined an opening in which Varjak climbs a curtain at home. The only thing that remains from this scene in the published book is a reference on page 35: ‘even Varjak, who could sometimes make it half way up a curtain before Mother or Father shouted him down.’ But some of the description found its way into the scene of Varjak climbing the wall in Chapter Five, which is the pivotal scene of the book. So although this opening was deleted, the work wasn't wasted; it was all part of the process.

Image 2 – 8th draft

As other parts of the book developed, the opening remained focused on curtain-climbing until the 8th draft, which was the first one I sent to publishers and agents. This is the first page of that draft, which dates from late 1997. By this stage, I was writing the book on my computer as a Word document, which I would then read through and edit on printouts.

Image 3 – 9th draft

Varjak Paw was rejected by every publisher and agent I sent it to. However, an agent gave me some very useful feedback on the 8th draft, as a result of which I rethought it, and went back to hand-writing the 9th draft as if it was the first draft all over again, to free myself to reconceive it. This is the first page of that draft, written in March 1998. It's a total mess, but this is the first version where you can glimpse the outlines of the opening as it ended up in the published book, so it was a crucial draft.

Image 4 – 11th draft

After three drafts of rebuilding the book from the ground up, I felt confident enough to send it out again. This is the first page of the 11th draft, which dates from autumn 1998. It was another crucial one, because this was the draft that was read by my agent, Celia Catchpole, who took it on and showed it to my publisher and editor, David Fickling. It was on the basis of this draft that he offered to publish Varjak Paw, while making it clear that he thought it could be improved. Of course, he was right!

Image 5 – 15th draft

This is the opening of the 15th draft, written in July 2001. David Fickling believes that you should keep working on a book for as long as it takes to make it as good as you possibly can. So we had worked very hard on it, and it was getting closer to its final shape, now opening with Varjak's desire to go Outside. But big things were still changing; it's interesting to see my note to myself to change 'Mum' and 'Dad' to 'Mother' and 'Father', establishing the tone of Varjak's life at home.

Image 6 – 16th draft

Finally, in October 2001, I wrote a draft that opened with the Elder Paw telling a Jalal tale, as the published book does. It had been a long, hard process of trial and error, and many things would still change on the 17th draft – but when I wrote the words ‘The Elder Paw was telling a story,’ I think I knew it would be hard for me to find a better opening for my book.

Images 7 and 8 – the published book

I continued to work on Varjak Paw until October 2002, bringing the total time I spent on it to almost five years. The 17th draft was the last official draft, but it continued to change even after that, as it went through galleys and proofs, and as Dave McKean worked his magic on the text, transforming my Word document into the beautifully-illustrated book that was finally published in January 2003. Everything had changed, yet the spark at the heart of the book remained the same: the adventures of a cat going out into the world for the first time.

Transcript

PART ONE: THE CONTESSA’S HOUSE

 

ONE : PLAY

 

Varjak Paw eyed the curtain.

“Don’t even think about it, sonny –

said Mum.

          He thought about it.  It looked possible. 

Very possible.

          “I mean it, Varjak; ^ she said.  He squinted up

thought fully twelve feet ^ at the rail.  Made a few quick calculations.  For

          “Get away from those curtains right

now.”  There was  The view from the top must ^ It must be worth doing 

had to be worth seeing ^ spectacular, but ^ he thought ^Vajak Pav, if

they all say no.

          “Varjak!”

          It was too late.

          Patterns rushed past as Varjak

swarmed up, hind legs thrusting, up, front

paws scrabbling, up – until he made the

rail, breathing hard, but home and dry.

          “Varjak Paw!  Come down this instant!”

          He looked down.  It was a long way

to fall.  The view wobbled dangerously.

          Varjak’s claws held on.  He breathed -,

sharply, . and The view settled stabilized.  And

what a view!

          The world was upside down.  Everything

seemed to be suspended from the ceiling. 

Mum looked ^ like a short, and squat ^ bundle of silver-blue fur; ridiculous,

in fact.  He grinned.

          “Varjak!  This is no way for a

cat ^ kitten to behave!  Let alone a Mesopotamian

Blue.  Now get down before someone sees

you!”  Varjak sighed.  So what if


CHAPTER ONE

Don’t even think about it

 

          Varjak Paw eyed the curtain.

          “Don’t even think about it, sweetheart,” said Mum.

          He thought about it.  It looked possible.  Very possible.

          “I mean it, Varjak.  Get away from those curtains right now.”  He

squinted up at the rail.  Made a few quick calculations.

          “Varjak!”

          Too late.

          Faded velvet flew past his eyes as Varjak swarmed up, hind legs

thrusting, up, front paws scrabbling, up, and up, and up – till he made the curtain

rail, breathing hard, but home and dry.

          A cloud of grey dust rose around him.  Varjak sneezed.  Clearly, no-one

had been here for years.

          “Varjak Paw!  Come down this instant!”

          He looked at the ground.  It was a long way to fall.  The view wobbled

dangerously.

          Varjak held on to the rail.  He counted to ten.  The view stopped

wobbling, and settled down.

          And what a view!

          The world stood on its head.  Nothing was where it should be.  Musty

chairs hung suspended.  Dusty candlesticks clung to an upside-down table.

          And Mum looked like a short, squat bundle of silver-blue fur: ridiculous,

in fact.  He grinned.

          “Varjak!  This is no way for a kitten to behave, let alone a pedigree

Mesopotamian Blue kitten.  Now get down before someone sees you!”

1


          “You’ll come when you’re good and ready”

[s]aid Mum.  “You ONE can sit there as long as

you like, you’ll have to eat = the end.  But

 

          “It’s supper time, Varjak,” called Dad.

“Come and be fed like the rest of us.”

          Varjak Paw crouched defiantly at the

foot of the stairs. ^ He didn’t want to eat and this time, they weren’t

going to beat ^ make This time was going

to be different.

          “I don’t want cat food from a cold

red ^ grey can,” he said.  “I want to hunt.  The

tales say Jalal used to ^ was a hunter before he

lived in the Contessa’s house.”

          “The tales are only tales sweetheart”,

said Mum.  “ ^ Stories, they’re not true. ^ who knows if we ever really had an ancestor called Jalywan?”  Imagine living

Outside the house! – She smiled.  “Now

come and be fed like a proper Mesopotamian

Blue cat.”

transfer to kitten scene?

          Vajak was tempted but hung on.

“I’m not hungry,” he said.  Z “His big brother

Julius laughed “ Who cares what that little insect

“eats any way? ^ “at xx . us fall before we could answer her.   I’ll have Varjak’s ^ cat food.  I love

tin stuff ^ red grey can variety.  Julius puffed up his fur.

          “That’s my son,” said Dad

proudly.  “You hear that, Varjak?  Julius

is going to grow to a proper Mesopotamian

Blue”  Varjak shivered ^ shuddered inside but shook his

head – “I’m not coming.”  “fine” said Mum.  “You xx  you sit here and

starve.

          They left him on his own at

the foot of the stairs / ZZ.  Varjak grinned ^ tried to enjoy

to himself. He’d won his first victory for now. ^ his victory.  It wouldn’t

last ^ longbut at least ^ for now at least it was something

new.  Nothing new every happened in

the Contessa’s house.  No-one ever came

in, no-one ever went out; and every day

was just like the next ^ exactly the same.  It was the most boring

life a cat could have.

                                                                        [ S/Scenery – a telling [?] detail –

                                                                                    dust/ cold stone / candle?]

CREAK.         creeeaak

At Just make sure you don’t go up the stairs!  You know it’s

forbidden.” for us to do anything forbidden ^ stupid like.


CHAPTER ONE

 

          ‘It’s suppertime, Varjak,’ said Dad.  ‘Come and be fed like the rest of us.’

          Varjak Paw crouched rebelliously by the front door.  He was determined

not to give in.

          ‘Come on, sweetheart,’ coaxed Mum.  ‘Let’s not go through all this again.’

She straightened Varjak’s collar and smoothed his fur.

          ‘But I don’t like cat food,’ he said.  ‘Why can’t we hunt?  The tales say

Jalal used to hunt.’

          ‘Tales!’ snorted Dad.

          ‘Who knows if we really had an ancestor called Jalal?’ said Mum.  ‘And

just imagine going Outside!’  She smiled.  ‘Now come and be fed, like a proper

Mesopotamian Blue.  It’s that delicious red can variety tonight.’

          ‘Yuk,’ said Varjak.  Red can cat food was the worst food in the entire

world.

          ‘I just don’t understand him,’ grunted Dad.  He turned his back and headed

down the corridor to the kitchen.  Mum followed him.

          ‘Now be good while we’re eating, Varjak,’ she said.

          ‘And don’t even think about climbing the stairs,’ ordered Dad.  ‘You know

it’s forbidden.’

          Alone at last, Varjak peered up the stairs.  They were made of dull, grey

stone, and they were covered in dust.  The Contessa’s room was at the top of

those stairs.  The cats weren’t allowed up there, and she never came down.  Her

door was always closed.  The whole house was like that.  Nothing new or

exciting every happened.  No-one came in; no-one went out.  Every day was

exactly the same.  It was the most boring life a cat could have.

          creeaak

          The front door swung open.  A freezing blast of wind swirled in,

sweeping all the dust into the air.  Varjak’s fur stood on end.  A man he’d never


4/7/01                                        15D                           (Mother/

                                                                              Father)

 

CHAPTER ONE

                                                                                    (Insert

                                                                                    Rider 1)

 

          When he thought no-one was looking, Varjak Paw padded up to the

cat door.  He could see the garden on the other side.  He could almost feel

the fresh air, brushing through his whiskers.  He nudged it open -    L

          ‘Varjak Paw!’  It was Dad.  ‘Where do you think you’re going?’

          Varjak spun around.  They’d seen him.  But this time, he wouldn’t give

in.

          ‘Aren’t we allowed in the garden, now?’ he said.

          ‘Sweetheart,’ said Mum, straightening his collar, ‘the garden is a nasty,

dirty place.  You’re a pedigree cat.  A pure-bred Mesopotamian Blue.  What

do you want out there?’

          Varjak looked around: at the dusty old carpets; the stuffy furniture;

[ the fading sunlight that trickled through the thick green windows of the

Contessa’s house, and ] the curtains he wasn’t allowed to climb.  He’d never

been anywhere else, but this had to be the most boring place on earth.

          ‘Hunting,’ he said.  ‘Aren’t we supposed to hunt?  The tales talk about

Jalal hunting –’

          ‘Tales!’ snorted his big brother Julius, green eyes glinting.  It was said

that [ their ancestor ] Jalal had green eyes.  Everyone in the family had them –

everyone but Varjak Paw.  ‘Tales are for kittens,’ scoffed Julius.  Their

cousin Jasmine giggled; Varjak bristled.

1


[ Epigraph:  There’s no place

          like home

                                                                        /Import changes

                                                                       from 16d/

          CHAPTER ONE

 

          The Elder Paw was telling a story.

          It was a Jalal tale, one of the best.  Varjak loved to hear his grandfather’s tales of

their famous ancestor: how Jalal fought the fiercest warrior cats, how he was the mightiest

hunter, how he came out of Mesopotamia and travelled to the ends of the earth, further than

any cat had been before.

          But today, the Elder Paw’s tale just made Varjak restless.  So what if Jalal had such

exciting adventures?  Varjak never would.  Jalal had ended his days in the Contessa’s house.

His family of Mesopotamian Blues had stayed here ever since.

          The old place must have been full of light and life in Jalal’s time, generations ago –

but now it was full of dust and musty smells.  The windows were always closed, the doors

locked.  There was a garden, but it was surrounded by a high stone wall.  Jalal was the last to

cross it.  In all the years since then, no-one had ever left the Contessa’s house.

          Now, no-one except Varjak was even listening to the tale of his adventure.  Father,

Mother and Aunt Juni were dozing in the late afternoon light that trickled through the thick

green windows.  His big brother Julius was flexing his muscles; his cousin Jasmine was

fiddling with her collar ^ grooming herself.  His litter brothers Jay, Jethro and Jerome were playing one of those

kittenish games that Varjak could never see the point of, and wasn’t allowed to join in

anyway.

          No-one was looking at him.  This was his chance.

^ He’d been in the g[ar]d[e]n before, but the family didn’t like it out there, and never let _ stay out. {enough}  a few trees Horse [?]  Stealthy as Jalal himself, Varjak rose up and padded to the cat door.  He could see   Now there it was

the garden on the other side.  He could almost feel the fresh air, brushing through his

whiskers.  He nudged it open –

          ‘Varjak Paw!’  It was Father.  ‘Where do you think you’re going?’

          Varjak spun around.  The tale was over; they’d woken up and seen him.  But this

time, he wouldn’t give in.

          ‘Aren’t we allowed in the garden, now?’ he said.

          ‘Sweetheart’, said Mother, straightening his collar, ‘the garden is a nasty, dirty

place.  You’re a pedigree cat.  A pure-bred Mesopotamian Blue.  What do you want out

there?’

          Varjak looked around: at the stuffy furniture, the locked-up cupboards, the curtains

he wasn’t allowed to climb.  He’d never been anywhere else, but this had to be the most

boring place on earth.

1


Chapter One

The Elder Paw was telling a story.

          It was a Jalal tale, one of the best.  Varjak loved to

hear his grandfather’s tales of their famous ancestor:

how Jalal fought the fiercest warrior cats, how he was

the mightiest hunter, how he came out of

Mesopotamia and travelled to the ends of the earth,

further than any cat had been before.

          But today, the Elder Paw’s tale just made Varjak

restless.  So what if Jalal had such exciting

adventures?  Varjak never would. Jalal had ended his

days in the Contessa’s house.  His family of

Mesopotamian Blues had stayed here ever since.

7


had ever left the Contessa’s house.

          Now, no one except Varjak was even listening to

the tale of Jalal’s adventures.  Father, Mother and

Aunt Juni were dozing in the late afternoon light

that trickled through the thick green windows.  His

big brother Julius was flexing his muscles; his cousin

Jasmine was fiddling with her collar.  His litter broth-

ers Jay, Jethro and Jerome were playing one of those

kittenish games that Varjak could never see the point

of, and wasn’t allowed to join in anyway.

          No one was looking at him.  This was his chance.

He’d been in the garden before, but the family didn’t

like it out there, and never let him stay very long.

8

- - -

          ‘Varjak Paw!’  It was Father.

‘Where do you think you’re going?’

          Varjak spun around.  The tale was

over; they’d woken up and seen him.

But this time, he wouldn’t give in.

          ‘Aren’t we allowed in the garden,

now?’ he said.

          ‘Sweetheart,’ said Mother, com-

ing over and straightening his collar,

‘the garden is a nasty, dirty place.

You’re a pedigree cat.  A pure-bred

Mesopotamian blue.  What do you

want out there?’

9


Full title:
Manuscript drafts of Varjak Paw. Printed copy of Varjak Paw.
Published:
2003, Oxford
Publisher:  
David Fickling
Format:
Manuscript / Draft / Printed book / Illustration / Image
Language:
English
Creator:
SF Said, Dave McKean
Usage terms
Text © SF Said. Illustrations © Dave McKean. You may not use the material for commercial purposes. Please credit the copyright holder when reusing this work.
Held by
Private Collection
Shelfmark:
Private Collection; British Library Nov.2003/1912

Full catalogue details

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