From Chester Himes to Judy Blume, 10 Writers and Their Cats
In Which Marlon James is Photobombed by Tom the Cat
The following is from a book called Writers and Their Cats, which is a book about writers and their cats by Alison Nastasi.
English author Angela Carter, known for her dark feminist stories, always told people that she wrote her first novel when she was only six years old. Bill and Tom Go to Pussy Market was “full of social realism: cats going about their daily business.” As a child, her favorite cat was named Charlie (a naughty kitty who liked to use her mother’s shoes as a litter box). She adopted a white cat with “lavender ears” and “bracken-colored eyes” with her first husband, Paul Carter. After winning the Somerset Maugham Award in 1969 for her novel Several Perceptions, Carter used the proceeds to travel to Japan following her estrangement from Paul.
During her two-year hiatus in Tokyo, she owned a tricolored black, white, and orange cat to stave off loneliness. At one point in her life, Carter also owned birds named Adelaide and Chubbeleigh. She allowed them to fly freely around her sitting room while cats Cocker and Ponce watched longingly from the garden of her London home. “I get on well with cats because some of my ancestors were witches,” she wrote in 1974. “Whenever we feel at home, we secure some cats.”
Cats featured prominently in Carter’s magical realist, picaresque tales throughout her too-short lifetime. Her subversive retelling of famous fairy tales in The Bloody Chamber includes a bawdy version of “Puss-in-Boots.” Comic and Curious Cats and Sea-Cat and Dragon King, her two children’s books, boast feline protagonists. Carter also channeled her artistic spirit through pencil and crayon drawings of cats on postcards she shared with friends.
Chester Himes, considered the father of the black American crime novel, wrote stories that mirrored the real-life violence and racism happening in the world around him. “American violence is public life, it’s a public way of life, it became a form, a detective story form,” he once said. “So I would think that any number of black writers should go into the detective story form.”
One reprieve from the chaos of everyday life was Himes’s cats, particularly his blue-point Siamese called Griot (pictured here). “Griot is named after the magicians in the courts of West African kings,” Himes said in a 1972 interview. Griot was Himes’s constant travel companion. When the If He Hollers Let Him Go author didn’t bring Griot along during his adventures, Himes paid the price. In a 1971 interview Himes gave while in Stuttgart, Germany, he claimed he couldn’t stay away from home too long since Griot would “certainly destroy [his] studio back home and chew up all [his] books.” After Griot passed away, Himes kept a kitty named Deros, who the writer loved for her sweet personality.
With a background in journalism and a childhood filled with books and horror movies (Psycho on repeat), Gillian Flynn was destined to become an author of novels that explore society’s dark undercurrent. Her international bestseller Gone Girl became a hit film directed by David Fincher. Flynn wrote the award-winning screenplay and earned a spot on the short list of authors who successfully translated their books for the big screen.
It seems fitting that Flynn, who has written about riveting female villains, serial killers, and deadly Satanic cults, keeps a black cat as her feline familiar, but she eschews the spooky stereotypes. Roy (pictured) is one of four black cats Flynn has called her pet since she was a child. “I have been a big believer that black cats are the best: affectionate, laid-back, and sweet,” she told me. “Roy is a cat-dog. He trots to the door when we come home. He lolls on our laps the second we sit down. You can hear his purr coming for you from three rooms away.” And if you’re wondering who crafted the most tense parts of Flynn’s gritty psychological thrillers, it was definitely Flynn’s sharp-clawed writing partner: “Roy has ‘helped’ me with my last two books and all my screenplays. He prefers to sit on the keyboard, so he can type things like GY*T^&$$^R^&h&&G!!! Now that I work on a tread desk he sits by me, watching. He’s a very sweet sentinel.”
Jorge Luis Borges
“You belong to another time / You are lord / Of a place bounded like a dream,” the Jorge Luis Borges poem “To a Cat” reads. The Argentine poet, essayist, and short-story writer who helped popularize Latin American literature shared his humble life with several cats, including a large white feline called Beppo, named after a character in a Lord Byron poem about a man who is lost at sea. Borges wrote his own poem for his companion: “The celibate white cat surveys himself / in the mirror’s clear-eyed glass, / not suspecting that the whiteness facing him / and those gold eyes that he’s not seen before / in ramblings through the house are his own likeness. / Who is to tell him the cat observing him / is only the mirror’s way of dreaming?”
Judy Blume, author of Are You There God? It’s Me, Margaret, has always shared her life with animals. “We had a wonderful Calico cat who lived to be 16,” Blume writes on her website. “Now our children have the pets and we get to visit them.” Blume even called her son Larry’s dog, Mookie, her “grand-dog.” Judy was photographed with her neighbor’s cat in 1978 (pictured). Sadly, Judy’s cat Chanel had run away around that time, but the young-adult novelist, known for her frank writing style dealing with challenging subjects like teenage sexuality, sometimes includes cats in her books, like 1977’s Starring Sally J. Freedman as Herself, which features Omar the cat.
“He had as much confidence in his cats’ opinions as in the judgments of literary critics,” said poet and translator Stephen Kessler of Julio Cortázar. Kessler helped bring the experimental Argentine novelist and short-story writer’s poems to English-speaking readers for the first time with the 2016 volume Save Twilight.
In Around the Day in Eighty Worlds, Cortázar offered some insight into his feline fixation: “I sometimes longed for someone who, like me, had not adjusted perfectly with his age, and such a person was hard to find; but I soon discovered cats, in which I could imagine a condition like mine, and books, where I found it quite often.” The book also mentions the Rayuela author’s real-life cat Theodor W. Adorno (pictured), named after the German sociologist and philosopher.
If anyone deserves the title of cat enthusiast, it’s Mark Twain. The Adventures of Tom Sawyer author once wrote: “When a man loves cats, I am his friend and comrade, without further introduction.” And, goodness, did Twain love cats—over thirty of them. Always the gifted raconteur, Twain’s autobiography is a must-read for fans of the cranky cat collector, who at one time put an ad out in all the newspapers when his beloved black kitty Bambino went missing. Lines of fans with random cats showed up at the Twain household just to get a peek at the famous writer.
Owning cats, however, wasn’t enough for Twain. He also rented them:
Many persons would like to have the society of cats during the summer vacation in the country, but they deny themselves this pleasure because they think they must either take the cats along when they return to the city, where they would be a trouble and an incumbrance, or leave them in the country, houseless and homeless. These people have no ingenuity, no invention, no wisdom; or it would occur to them to do as I do: rent cats by the month for the summer, and return them to their good homes at the end of it.
Twain was witty as ever when it came to naming his precious pets. He claimed that their elaborate monikers were chosen to help his children practice their pronunciation. The Twain menagerie included Abner, Motley, Stray Kit, Fraulein, Lazy, Buffalo Bill, Soapy Sal, Cleveland, Satan (found on the way to church)—who was renamed Sin when Twain realized she was a girl—Famine, Pestilence, Sour Mash (said to be his favorite cat who “had many noble and engaging qualities, but at bottom she was not refined, and cared little or nothing for theology and the arts”), Appollinaris, Zoroaster, Blatherskite, Babylon, Bones, Belchazar, Genesis, Deuteronomy, Germania, Bambino, Ananda, Annanci, Socrates, Sackcloth, Ashes, Tammany, Sinbad, Danbury, and Billiards (there is a photo of Twain tucking a kitten into the corner pocket of a pool table so it might entertain itself with the billiard balls).
Jamaica-born author Marlon James, whose 2015 novel A Brief History of Seven Killings won the Man Booker Prize, has described himself as a “write-every-day writer.” James wrote Seven Killings “all over the cities” in Minnesota—including the Aster Café on Main Street and the Espresso Royale on Hennepin. “I have to engage with the world when I write,” he told MinnPost in 2015. “I need the buzz of activity.”
Bookstore and coffee shop cats around the world love to greet and snuggle the author, but one was particularly crazy about him. James used to help care for Tom the Cat, who belonged to James’s friends Kurt and Camilla Thometz in Washington Heights, New York. “Kurt also ran a bookstore, so you could say [Tom] was one of New York’s legendary bookstore cats,” James told me. “I think he got used to me, since he would jump in my bed and photobomb shoots.”
Sadly, Tom (pictured here) passed away in 2017 after “a very long and pretty epic life.” The two friends shared such a strong connection that James was there during Tom’s final days. “Tom had lived a long life and was getting very old, and last year I got a message from Kurt saying that Tom was on his last legs but would love to see me,” James shared. “I was in New York so I went to visit. Kurt told me later that he wasn’t sure what I did, but the cat rallied for two weeks.”
Patricia Highsmith, author of The Talented Mr. Ripley and Strangers on a Train, didn’t have a reputation that gave people the warm fuzzies, but her gruff personality seemed to soften around her cats. She seemed to prefer them to humans. “My imagination functions much better when I don’t have to speak to people,” Highsmith once said. Still, she always looked to her pet to tackle the day head-on. “When I get up in the morning, I first of all make the coffee and then I say to my cat, we’re going to have a great day,” the author told Naim Attallah in an interview.
Highsmith shared her life with many cats, including her chocolate-point Siamese named Semyon (who loved to chase his tail), Sammy, Spider, Charlotte (who wouldn’t stop crying when Highsmith passed away), and an unnamed “brindle cat” she got for her birthday. Spider was eventually given to Scottish author Muriel Spark who said: “You could tell he had been a writer’s cat. He would sit by me, seriously, as I wrote, while all my other cats filtered away.”
Dogs never seemed to make it very far in a Highsmith novel, but cats always survived. Highsmith was also known to sketch her cats, despite spending most of her time with them curled around her typewriter. When asked what she always dreamt of having in life, Highsmith responded: “A charming two-story house, good martinis and a good dinner with French wine. . . . a wife, and books and a Siamese cat.”
Ursula K. Le Guin
Drawing on sociological, anthropological, and Taoist concerns, novelist, poet, and essayist Ursula K. Le Guin created genre fiction that was inspired by the landscape and profound elemental forces. Her first trip to the Eastern Oregon desert led her to write her 1970 novel The Tombs of Atuan. The 1985 feminist novel Always Coming Home reads in part like an anthropologist’s field notebook.
Even Le Guin’s feline companions demonstrate a strong connection to nature. Her former tabby Lorenzo, Bonzo for short (pictured), was born to a tiny cat Le Guin called Mother Courage. “She had to live feral at the old ranch, but had known better days,” Le Guin told me. “The children she brought up in the wilderness were cheerful, mannerly, intelligent, resourceful, brave hunters, affectionate friends. Bonzo was one of the great cats of my life.” When it was time to eat breakfast, Bonzo spared no mercy. “I was still asleep [and] he would walk delicately across my face, and when I opened my eyes there were his big golden eyes two inches away. Best alarm clock ever.”
Le Guin’s last feline friend was Pardner, nicknamed Pard. The author even wrote his autobiography, My Life So Far. “He sleeps a lot on the writing desk next to my computer,” she shared. “If I get very emotionally involved in what I’m writing (letter or fiction), it makes him uneasy and he comes over and sits on the mouse and purrs. Try writing with a cat sitting on your mouse.”
When asked why she was fond of cats, Le Guin said, “Because they are beautiful and funny and self-respecting and mysterious.” The author planted tongue firmly in cheek when asked why there seems to be a special relationship between writers and cats: “Maybe because writers don’t want to have to stop writing and walk the dog?”
From Writers and Their Cats. Used with permission of Chronicle Books. Copyright © 2018 by Alison Nastasi.