A Cat Came Back — a subversive love story that examines the relationship that exists between one’s external image and their sense of identity — hits virtual shelves tomorrow. Before we sit down with its author, let’s take a quick look at its blurb:
A smart, but unassuming college student embarks on an extraordinary journey of self-discovery after a near-death experience traps her inside the body of a cat. Eliza adapts to her new reality, sustained in her struggle to hold onto her humanity by the love of the one man who knows she’s still herself. But Eliza mutely witnesses the life they lived together fade away. When her lover brings other women into their bed, Eliza confronts the truth about what her love is costing her and what losing hers is costing him. A Cat Came Back is a moving parable about what it means to be a human being and how sometimes letting go can be the price of holding on to who you are.
1. Tell us a little bit about yourself.
I was born and bred in Oakland and Berkeley, California. The East Bay, as it’s called, was a little wild in the late sixties and early seventies, with the free speech movement and the campus unrest at UC Berkeley, and the Black Panthers, of course. My father tells me we were tear gassed on the way to my nursery school. That was Governor Reagan, before he became President. There was a lot of social ferment. Communes were popular. You could say the conventional ways of living were suspect. All that was bound to have an effect on any child’s imagination.
2. When did you start writing?
I was an only child with a big backyard, so early on I developed a fondness for flowers and trees, worms and mud. Playing imaginary games outside, with friends or alone, was my first form of storytelling. Writing them down was the natural next step. My first two books—a memoir, The Expectant Gardener (Creative Arts Book Company) and a story collection, Exile’s Garden (Edwin E. Smith Publishing)—both show the influence of that backyard on my imagination. That continues in my new book, a novel called A Cat Came Back. In this book, a garden becomes an escape and a refuge for Eliza, the main character, after a freak accident traps her in the body of a cat. I think my somewhat solitary childhood also influenced my writing. I’ve noticed many of my characters tend to be solitary. That’s certainly the case in A Cat Came Back. Eliza spends a fair amount contemplating her situation and observing other people and even telling a story about her experience in her mind. In a way, storytelling is what keeps Eliza human.
3. Do you recall the moment you first conceived the idea for your novel?
I was sitting on the sofa reading and when I looked up my I noticed my cat, Ruby, really staring at me. I mean staring! Cats spend so much time watching us. I wondered what that cat was thinking. This book is my sometimes playful, sometimes serious answer to that question. I decided that only Eliza’s lover knows she still exists inside the cat’s body. And as the novel goes on his attentions become increasingly unreliable. So she is really on her own in this situation. The question interested me: How do you hold on to who you are when no one sees you as human? Eliza’s experience challenges her sense of self, her person-ness in a very fundamental way. Coming to terms with who we are is the most fundamental challenge we all face, as human beings, and I hope this is a story many readers can relate to and enjoy. (For the record, I think Ruby was probably not thinking much of anything.)
4. On a related note, how different is the final product (the book) from your original vision?
I relied on traditional storytelling at first. But then I realized this isn’t a traditional story. So instead of dividing the novel into chapters and four sections—the seasons—I show Eliza losing track of time. Knowing it’s Christmastime when holiday cards arrive, for example. The book still takes place over a single year, but it flows together. The story Eliza tells in her head changed to reflect her situation. In the final draft she doesn’t generalize about “these days” or “recently” because she’s losing perspective and is stuck in a sort of perpetual “now.”
5. Tell us about your book’s title. How did you arrive at it?
The title references an old story and campfire song, The Cat Came Back. The difference in my novel is that a young woman goes away and a cat comes back.
6. Were there other titles which you were considering?
No, this was it, from the beginning. Usually a good sign, when the title comes that easily. You just know this story is waiting to be written.
7. What book are you currently reading?
I’m reading The Cabaret of Plants: Forty Thousand Years of Plant Life and the Human Imagination by Richard Mabey. And I’m reading it slowly because it’s so dense, but it’s fascinating. About the influence of plants on the human imagination—inspiring art, religion, literature, as well as medicine and the sciences. I’m interested in how plants exist, maybe even think, and that’s in there, too. Maybe I’ll write a book from a plant’s point of view someday!
8. Any project in the works?
A love story about a teenage girl with very strict, religious parents and a bi-racial young man from the “wrong side of the tracks.” I’m calling it Prayz Dorothy. Dorothy’s situation sort of resembles Eliza’s in A Cat Came Back, because Dorothy is also confined. Her home is also a sort of prison. She craves knowledge she’s forbidden to seek about subjects most people take for granted, such as botany, or chemistry. The young man works in the University library. Her relationship with him enables her to transcend her limitations, opens up her world. So I guess you could say love sets her free.
9. In your opinion, what makes a story “good”?
No shortcuts, no clichés. Careful observations and descriptions lend a story truthfulness and integrity. An honest story is a good story.
And now for a game of “Which Do/Would You Prefer?”
1. Dogs or cats?
2. Summer or winter?
3. Nights out or nights in?
4. Living in the city or living in the country?
Living in the country.
5. Having telepathy or having telekinesis?
6. Staying in a hotel or going camping?
Staying in a hotel, definitely!
7. Working in a group or working alone?
8. Being able to speak and understand every language known to humankind or being able to speak and understand every language known to animals?
9. To never speak again or to never eat solid food again?
Never eat solid food again.
10. Spending half a day locked in a coffin (there would be a hole for air, of course) or spending two days trapped at the bottom of a well?
Two days at the bottom of a well. Two minutes in a coffin would be worse.
11. To never again eat a piece of chocolate or to never again drink a cup of coffee?
I’d give up chocolate before coffee, but I wouldn’t be happy about it.
12. Being two inches tall or being two stories tall?
Two stories tall.