Sunday, September 13, 2009

Killing Cats

Oh, noooo! Not the kitties!
Not to worry, although that’s my topic here on this guest blog, I would never, ever hurt a cat. In my books I’ll kill as many people as I like (usually one per book, and usually off stage). But even in the bloodless world of make-believe, I just could not ever harm a pet. Any pet, says the woman who as a girl had a toad named Dyatt, which she adored (he had lovely eyes).
Still, as I bop around promoting my new mystery, Shades of Grey, the launch of a new series, it has come to my attention that both of my mystery series start with a recently bereaved cat lover. To be specific, both start with a young woman mourning her beloved kitty.
I didn’t mean for this to happen. I certainly think my new heroine, Dulcie Schwartz, is fairly different from her predecessor, Theda Krakow. Where Theda was a semi-tough streetwise thirtysomething journalist and rock fan, Dulcie is a bookish grad student, a twentysomething scholar who prefers the depths of the library stacks to a loud club. But as their adventures open, they are both in mourning. For Theda, that grief is a spur to investigate a supposed cat hoarder, you know, a “crazy cat lady” in Mew is for Murder. Emotions play out differently for Dulcie, particularly when she thinks she sees her late, great cat, sitting on her front stoop – and warning her not to go inside. Has she seen a feline ghost, or is her grief getting the better of her? She’s a timid soul, but she’s smart enough to know that something is going on.
But what’s up with me and these departed felines? How did I end up doing this twice? Well, to some extent, that’s easy. I know from experience how hard it is to lose a pet, particularly when you have to be the one to make that final choice. And I know how real, how sharp that grief is – despite the dismissals of others who say, “oh, it was just a pet. Just a cat.” As if “just” somehow lessens the love and the loss. Unlike the more profound grief we may feel for the loss of a beloved human – and yes, I have lost both a parent and a sibling, as well as friends – the pain we feel at the loss of a pet is unalloyed, lacking the mix of conflict and relief we sometimes feel when a human passes, especially one who was suffering. Our pets are nonjudgmental and often present daily, which is more than we can say for many family members. Our grief, when it comes, is real.
And that makes such mourning rich ground for a fiction writer, especially one who wants to set up a story with a woman who is slightly unsettled, a little bit vulnerable. (Or one who wants to memorialize her own “Mr. Grey,” my late cat Cyrus.) The only danger lies in holding the sentiment in check. Because while I adore cats – and the people who love them – I don’t want to do them, or my readers, a disservice by getting all treacly on them. I don’t want my off-the-page feelings taking over the story. I don’t want to sacrifice plot and tension to itsy-bitsy, cutesy-wootsy descriptions of li’l pussums doing her li’l pussums thing, even if that is how I talk to Musetta here in the privacy of her own home. If I’m going to keep doing this, I need to focus on the uncertainty, the strangeness of the situation. Even the pain of pet love – and the inevitable pet loss.
In a way, writing about pets is like that writing rule, “Kill your darlings.” You know, the rule that says if a particular word or phrase sticks out, if you just adore it more than life (or your book project) itself, you should cut it? Well, I think to some extent writing about pets is the same way. I may love cats – I certainly seem to love writing about them – but they have to fit into the story. The emotions they evoke have to work in the plot, for my heroines and my readers. And to both those groups, I’ll make this promise: I’ll kill my darlings, but I won’t kill my cats.

Clea Simon is the author of the new Shades of Grey (Severn House) and the Theda Krakow mysteries. She can be reached at