Q: What inspired you to write this story?
A: My husband and I took care of a feral cat colony in Flatbush, Brooklyn, for several years. A big part of getting a colony “fixed” is taking care of them in traps before and after surgery. We caught one very pregnant female who was mean and wild outdoors, but in the safety of her cage, became downright cuddly. She inspired the character of Gladys. We called her Juno. And yes, her unborn kittens were euthanized, for which one of the other cat ladies congratulated me at the mobile clinic.
This struck me, this moment of congratulation. Anyone who cares for feral cats is an animal lover, yet this love often manifests itself in measures like euthanasia in order to keep the population in check. Something about that irony felt, to me, like the hot center of a story. The cat lady congratulated me, and in my heart I knew I was doing the right thing by not letting the kittens be born, but I did not feel like congratulating myself.
My husband used to work as a vet tech at a shelter, and one of his first tasks was euthanizing kitten fetuses after a spay. He described it to me; an image I cannot forget and had to include.
I feel strongly that people benefit from taking care of animals. It makes you feel needed when the world of humans can sometimes have the opposite effect. I think this is why I introduced the character of Dwayne Junior, who many see as a burden but Lou sees for his ability to contribute. He is based, in part, on a kid I saw having a freakout in Duane Reade pharmacy. His mother was very calm through the whole thing, just let him express himself in the corner. He seemed feral, like he could not be handled. And yet she walked right over to him and picked him up when it was time to leave the store. He was nearly as big as her. I felt great sympathy for them both.
A: I did no research, other than living my animal-filled life, and looking up the names of Disney characters for the cats. I did get certified for feral cat trap-neuter-return (TNR), so I guess that is a kind of research. (I went to Neighborhood Cats in New York City, and they are a great resource if anyone wants to learn about TNR.)
The writing process for this story was interesting in a couple ways. It began as a NaNoWriMo that I used as a procrastination activity while avoiding another novel I was trying to revise. For those unfamiliar, NaNoWriMo is a goofy challenge writers of all levels give themselves to compose 50,000 words in the month of November. I did not hit the 50,000 word mark on this one.
It was a weird November for me to try it because I was also deeply involved in the study of writing with Gordon Lish. His classes were a unique format of interactive lecture. He would talk extemporaneously for about four hours, then go around the room and ask students to read sentences, one at a time, slowly, while he listened with his amazing ear for language. The goal was for him to let you continue reading. The opening sentences of this story were among those I read in class. When he heard a false note, he would shout, “Elliott! Stop!” then ask others in the class where I had gone wrong. It was nothing personal. He did the same thing to everyone in the room, even his pets. All we wanted to do was please him. And with good reason—many of his students have gone on to write great works.
Anyway, the Lish approach meant I wrote this story sentence by sentence, reading aloud, constantly aware of pattern in the language and its sounds. Each sentence needed to issue forth from the sentence preceding it. It made for a very slow writing process. It also showed me that the piece was meant to be a short story, not a novel. I wrote several stories this way while I studied with him, and they have all made it into print. My novels have not. The sentence-by-sentence approach has not taught me what I need to know about structure to accomplish a successful long work.
I had big plans for this story as a novel, involving a long plot with Occupy Wall Street and a hobo. Glad I abandoned that direction. That is not what “Strays” is about. And, had I not composed very slowly—had I managed to “win” NaNoWriMo, as they say—I would not have figured that out.
A: Lou is called a “crazy cat lady” by her neighbors. Why do you think people react to Lou’s compassion with disparagement?
A: Cat ladies are easy targets. I like to write about easy targets in a way that does not make fun of them. Perhaps that is my form of compassion for humans. I did feel I had to acknowledge that easy targetness of cat ladies. Did you know there is a crazy cat lady action figure? I have received them as gifts on multiple occasions.
So yes, I guess the bigger question is why do the majority of people find crazy cat ladies funny? Why does taking care of cats make you “crazy”? I’m not totally sure. There are all the stereotypes about social awkwardness and questionable fashion choices. They must be based on some kind of truth. And Lou, my protagonist, must seem “abnormal” to others, much like Dwayne Junior, the mentally disabled kid she hangs out with. People who are “abnormal” have to make their peace with how others react to them. That is why I included the tenant reactions to their activity in the basement. I believe that is an interesting moment in the life of the “abnormal” person, that moment when you accept the disparagement of others and continue to do what you feel is right for you.
But that does not quite answer your bigger question. I’ll ask another one. Why are these cat people not lauded as heroes? I think people who work in animal rescue are heroic. I aspire to be this heroic. You have to deal with blood and guts and mange and poop. You have to encounter the results of human cruelty and neglect. It is difficult to help animals who are in pain and may not ever trust humans. And there is the hard reality of euthanasia when a population is too large to feed and protect. Rescue is a complex thing. I know my limits. I can’t deal with the blood and death in person, but I suppose I can write about it.
Q: Which writers inspire you the most?
A: It may be obvious I love the stories of Amy Hempel. Her story “A Full Service Shelter” is an amazing piece about the emotional complexity of rescue. A must-read, especially if you love pit bulls. Her sentences are so full of turns and surprises, and her wit is never for wit’s sake. Hers is the kind of wit that makes the heart swell with recognition and humor and sadness. Her sense of economy is also amazing. And she is compassionate.
I may have been under the influence of Tobias Wolff when I wrote the last sentence. The repetition wasn’t necessary from an information standpoint, but I did want to create a literal echo or heartbeat at the end. So of course I think of his “Bullet in the Brain.”
Q: What do you hope readers will take away from your story?
A: Interestingly, the term “feral cats” has fallen out of use with the humane organizations. They are now called “community cats,” since they fall on a spectrum of friendliness. Similarly, the term “autistic” has fallen out of common use, and now people are “on the spectrum.” This is more than just linguistic evolution, I think. Individuals are hard to categorize. And there are so many different ways to relate to the world. “Normal” gets re-defined every day.
This is a feeling I hope to convey in the story. Whether a person or animal is “friendly” or “feral” is a matter of situation, the individual’s temperament, and whether those around them accept them as they are. Everyone has value.
Like Dwayne Junior, I’m sad about the loss of the kittens and his opportunity to raise them. I hope that sadness comes through. You have to turn off your childlike sympathetic side sometimes as you take care of others and make hard decisions on their behalf. I hope the sadness of that reality comes through too.
Q: Dwayne Senior is absent in this story. Where is he?
A: Somewhere as I wrote I decided that this would be a story about females and the creatures they take care of, reluctantly or not. So I decided to have the landlady blame her daughter for being a bad parent, almost as if the boy has no father at all. It is possible the father is alive, and should be stepping up to become a role model. It is also possible he is dead, or incarcerated. I just thought the story would work better if he were a notable absence, if the two women did not spend their hours talking about him. Yet the father’s absence is tacitly, constantly acknowledged, or the kid would just be Dwayne, not Dwayne Junior.
I am not a mother, so I am in no position to critique anyone’s mothering. I don’t necessarily agree with the landlady about her daughter’s inability to raise a child. I don’t necessarily agree with Lou about her mother’s cruel preference of a pedigreed cat over her own daughter. But I think these character perceptions are important to explore. Women often blame other women for the ills of the world. We are not wrong to do that, necessarily. It means that we have power that we may be misusing. It is a way of acknowledging our power.
I don’t think it’s a feminist story per se, but I am a feminist writer. And these are the things I ponder as I write.
Does feminism extend to the animal kingdom? I wonder. I do have extra sympathy for the female feral cats. Like Ceres in the story, the one who they have to keep letting go because she is lactating. All of her resources go to her offspring. There are parallels in the human world. Women in general have to figure out how to do more with less, and often carry the burden of rearing the young. But perhaps my sympathy for these female cats is a form of anthropomorphism. I often pay attention to the lives of female animals, whether as metaphor or not, I do not know.