The Cats in the Pages

Guest post by Clea Simon

“How’s Musetta?” These days, people I know ask about my cat more often than about me. “Is she still plump? Have you had her teeth cleaned yet?”  While I answer (well, yes, and soon again) with the facts about my real cat, the flesh-and-blood feline who often sleeps in a chair behind me as I work, snoring gently, I know that’s not who they really mean. These inquiries are often from readers, and they’re really addressed to my little pet’s black-and-white doppelganger: the feline heroine of my Theda Krakow series.

I started writing those books in 2003. By the time the first, Mew is for Murder, was published in 2005, the real Musetta – whom we adopted in 2001 – was already a full-grown housecat. But in the book, she’s still a tiny little tuxedo kitten, an awkward lost stray who wanders into my heroine’s life and steals her heart. She grows up in the subsequent books – Cattery Row and Cries and Whiskers – to the point where she has “fish breath” and needs that dental appointment in Probable Claws. And by that point, I have managed to not only endanger her person, Theda, and several of their two- and four-legged friends, but also Musetta herself, as my real kitty has never, ever been. When the fictional Musetta apparently gets lost in a wild winter storm in Cries and Whiskers, I had trouble writing. (The real Musetta is indoors only, though she did once creep up my apartment’s back stairs and gave me a scare.) When she gets into worse trouble – I’m not telling – I found that I was typing as fast as I could, and had to remind myself to breathe. Only the presence of the flesh-and-blood jellicle on the chair behind me reassured me, and helped me finish the scene.

In many ways, this literary version of my pet is restorative for me. After all, she was first introduced in my nonfiction book,  The Feline Mystique. She is the kitten I adopt after the death of my long-time pet Cyrus, the little bundle of love that begins to heal my broken heart. And I get to relive that reawakening, that healing, that warmth, every time I write about her, particularly every time I risk her in some fictional adventure – and then get to write about how happy she is, safe home at last, in Theda’s arms.

But there’s another side of feline love, and I have tried to bring that to the pages of my Dulcie Schwartz books: “Shades of Grey” and the new Grey Matters. These books deal with a beloved cat, very much like my Cyrus, who is no longer with us. But unlike the real Cyrus, who lives on in my heart and my memory, Mr. Grey remains a palpable presence in Dulcie’s life. As we so often hope our pets will, perhaps in part of our hearts believe they do, he stays with his person. A loyal cat to the last, Mr. Grey appears when Dulcie needs him – when she discovers her roommate’s body or falls out with her boyfriend, her professor, and her roommate –  and, unlike the real cats in my Theda books, he also dispenses advice, going over her various predicaments with the kind of bemused affection I always imagined a cat would have.

I wrote him like that because this is so often what I wanted, after Cyrus was gone. And it was so often what I felt I almost had – the voice I almost heard in the wind, the weight and warmth at the foot of the bed As for the rest, I figured that, as a ghost, he would be exempt from most of the restrictions placed on real cats. But because he is, after all, still a cat in spirit – if not in body – his advice would be enigmatic and loving, wise but never exactly direct.

While I have thoroughly enjoyed writing Theda and Musetta, and like to think that even without words, Musetta managed to make herself very well understood, I’m enjoying this new direction. Correction: I love writing a talking cat. It’s so much fun! Like our real pets, our fictional cats can have such distinct personalities. And since I’m now meeting them in the realm of fiction, I am free to let them express themselves however they want.  It is liberating.

A confession: At various times, I have spoken out against “talking cats” in mysteries – and now I’m living to happily eat my words. In fact, I am now sending around yet another mystery manuscript, a book in which the protagonist – a bad-girl animal psychic – takes a lot of grief from her cat, a crotchety tabby named Wallis. And I am also preparing to start on yet another Dulcie Schwartz book, too. So as I begin to think about “Dulcie #3” (as my publisher calls it  – I’m thinking “Grey Zone”), I find myself listening – an ear for the wind, for my real-life Musetta’s purr – hoping to catch Mr. Grey’s voice, once again.

Clea Simon is the author of the Dulcie Schwartz and Theda Krakow mysteries and the nonfiction The Feline Mystique – On the Mysterious Connection Between Cats and Their Women as well as several other nonfiction books.  For more information about Clea, please visit her website or her blog.

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