EskieMama & Dragon Lady Reads Saturday Spotlight A Cat Came Back by Simone Martel
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A Cat Came Back
by Simone Martel
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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.
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- Robert Roper, author of the biography
Nabokov in America
Tell us about A Cat Came Back.
A Cat Came Back is a love story that explores the boundaries between people and animals. The novel relates the humorous and heartbreaking journey of a young woman whose near death experience traps her in the body of a cat. Struck by a car as she tosses her cat to safety, Eliza lies in the street, hazily aware of the transformation that occurs. She enters the living cat, witnessing her own death and watching her lifeless body taken away while her boyfriend, Stu, grieves. Though trapped in the mute shape of a cat, she is still herself, with her awareness intact. How can she make Stu see that she’s still alive?
What initially inspired you to write A Cat Came Back?
A Cat Came Back was inspired by my cat Ruby and it evolved from there. Our pets spend so much time watching us. As I looked at Ruby, and she looked at me, I asked myself, what is that cat thinking? One day I began making up an answer. What if you were trapped in the body of a cat, but you were still yourself, with your personality and experiences intact? From this “what if” situation comes the challenge at the heart of A Cat Came Back: What happens now, after this loss of self? How do you hold on to you are, when no one sees you as human?
Tell us little about the characters in A Cat Came Back.
Eliza, the main character, finds herself trapped in a cat’s body through a freak accident, so she faces some very serious limitations. Only her lover, Stu, knows what’s happened to her, that she’s still “alive.” This results in some funny misunderstandings with other characters, as well as some sad moments, for instance when her parents visit and she’s unable to communicate with them. Also as Eliza watches Stu interact with his own family, her perceptions of them change. She learns new things about people, but she can’t express what she’s learned. It’s all internal.
As the story goes on, Stu’s interest and attention become increasingly unreliable. She has to watch Stu become interested in a different woman, even bringing her into their bed! Eliza must confront the fact that she’s on her own in this predicament. And if the fate of the world does not hang in the balance, the fate of her world does. Her sense of person-ness is challenged in a very fundamental way.
What was the hardest part of writing this book?
Sticking to my own rules. A Cat Came Back is told from the point of view of the main character, who is trapped in the body of a cat, so her existence is quite limited! The main character struggles to transcend these limitations and hold on to who she is, her humanity, in the face of this terrible situation. For this story to work, you have to have clear rules about what the character can experience and see and know, and to respect those rules. I decided that Eliza’s situation limits her to the present tense. She has no perspective. So, for example, “Lisa rang the doorbell” becomes “The doorbell rings. It’s Lisa.” I want the reader to share this limited point of view and truly experience this strange, impossible story in all its quiet horror and absurdity.
What was your favorite chapter (or part) to write and why?
Imagining being in a cat’s body was fun for me, especially thinking about being a cat in a garden, creeping through plants, climbing trees. I observed my own cats (four of them!) for sure. I did some research, too, about how cats see color differently and hear more sharply than humans do. I also imagined how vulnerable cats are, how little. Eliza doesn’t always enjoy being manhandled by Stu, having her claws trimmed, being acted upon by him.
What are your future project(s)?
I’m just finishing a love story called Prayz Dorothy. (A Cat Came Back is more of a love story gone wrong!) And, like A Cat Came Back, this novel is about a strong female character who is imprisoned by her circumstances, who must also overcome some serious limitations, and whose prison, interestingly, is also the family home, an ordinary, everyday house. In this case her oppression is merely social, and quite realistic. This modern day Juliet must overcome her family’s controlling impulses. No magic realism moves this plot, but there is love. And Dorothy’s love for a biracial young Romeo from “the wrong side of the tracks” opens up the world for her in unexpected ways, especially to the wonder of nature, just outside her bedroom window. Like Eliza in A Cat Came Back, Dorothy undergoes an ordeal that, most of all, teaches her to look differently at the world around her and to think differently about her place in the world.
Is there anything else you would like to tell the readers about this book/series?
Maybe just the question of why this transformation happens to Eliza. Early on she says, “Before the accident if Stu had asked me (though he never would have), ‘Are you at home in your body?’ I’d have looked down at my hands, thighs, ankles and feet and said, ‘No, not really.’ Did I leave it so easily because I never belonged there, because I never felt at home in that human, female form?” Understanding a situation—and yourself—starts with asking the right questions. Eliza’s transformation in A Cat Came Back gets her asking a lot of questions, and hopefully will have the same effect on the reader.
Lisa leans against the counter eating olives out of a wooden bowl while Stu assembles the pizza. After he shares his pizza with her, I suppose he’ll share his body, too. I don’t know. I’m not sure what he has in mind for dessert.
I’ve been an idiot, so busy reassuring myself that I can live this way, I’ve never stopped to wonder whether Stu can go on as we are. I should’ve known he wouldn’t always be satisfied with his hand. Not even when he has a plump orange cat perched on his thighs, watching him through slitted eyes. No, even with an appreciative audience, he was bound to want the real thing, sooner or later.
If only I had a pussy. His word for it, not mine. Call it what you like, I’d like to have one now. Instead, what I have is a keyhole beneath a pink puckered o, if I remember correctly what the backside of a female cat looks like.
I have no ovaries. I am FIXED. Do I have a uterus? I don’t know. What do they take out of a cat when they fix it? It doesn’t matter.
I bet Stu and Lisa end up in bed.
“Toss me a couple shallots from that basket,” he says to her.
Lisa obliges, taking the opportunity to look around. She’s never been in here before so she’s curious. First she examines my botanical prints, then her gaze passes over a vase and a pair of candlesticks. Those objects won’t tell her anything about Stu, though. They’re mine. Stu cares more about function than beauty. He pays for quality cooking gadgets, but he’d never buy a vase. He doesn’t even see the vases I bought and have left around the house.
The room’s silent, with just the sound of Stu’s knife on the cutting board. Lisa looks as though she’s searching for something to say, but Stu’s comfortable with the silence between them. Today he’s doing one of his show-off pizzas: shrimp with artichoke hearts and Kalamata olives (setting aside a little pile of shrimp for me). Deftly he pits the olives, crumbles the feta.
“This was such a great idea, getting together,” Lisa says at last. “Can I help?”
Her question seems to amuse Stu, maybe because he remembers how I hated fussing around the stove at home after running in and out of the café’s broiling kitchen all day. I liked to putter outside while he made dinner.
“You can dice the red pepper, if you want.” Stu holds out a knife, studying Lisa closely—almost intimately—as she reaches for it. Her face goes all serious when she realizes he’s flirting with her. She takes the knife from him shyly. Then he turns his back on her and she looks confused; but I understand. The shallots are starting to caramelize.
While Stu deglazes the pan, he forgets Lisa’s there in the kitchen with him. She has a right to feel peeved, though really it’s just as well. This way he doesn’t see her struggling to seed and de-vein the pepper. Only I observe how awkwardly she wields the knife.
“That’s such a tame cat,” Lisa says after a several minutes.
Stu smiles to himself. “Not always.”
I jump onto the counter and stand near Lisa’s elbow, crowding her. She glances at Stu as she slides the cutting board away from me.
“Really?” Lisa asks in a high, cheerful voice. “That’s hard to believe.”
“She can be savage.”