Coveting the Writer’s Cat

By Valerie Andrews

My cat, drawing by Theodore Blake Wegman

True Confession:  I married a man who co-opted my cat and stole my identity as a writer. Darcy, who had earned his nickname for his aristocratic airs, at first refused to sit on my pristine linen couch, saying it was “redolent of dander.”  Then when my wizened Maine Coon leapt up on on the bed, he hissed at her like an Old Tom, decreeing that when we lived together, there would be no cats. 

Part Bigfoot and part Coyote, Zoe had tangled with rattle snakes, faced down a beaver and been hit by a gravel truck.  After the vets put her back together, she  followed me to San Francisco, where  she slipped out the bathroom window, leaping from one rooftop to another in the evening fog.   

Over the years, this cat had seen me through countless lovers and host of book deadlines and there was no way I was about to give her up.  So before I agreed to move in with Darcy, I built a separate studio on the back of his garage with a sleeping alcove where I could curl up with the cat and a good book. But all this planning came to naught.  Zoe  expired on moving day,  just as the van arrived.  My theory: Darcy was going to be too much trouble so she skipped through her ninth life and walked straight into the Beyond. 

When I got to the new house, I kept looking down, expecting to find Zoe’s familiar shadow at my feet, realizing I was lost without her.  

What is a writer without a writer’s cat? A word-witch without her familiar?  Without Zoe I couldn’t work, and worse, I had no idea how to be.   I missed her tranquilizing purr and her quirky “meh-meh-meh,” the cat equivalent of “What, what, what?”   

 The reason I was at a loss?  I was half-cat myself.  Raised with kittens in lieu of siblings, I’d made them the center of my life—playing the piano for them, dressing them up in doll clothes,  telling them my favorite stories.  Over time, I developed a weird psychic bond with them, chatting away in Mewish, like some Tolkien fanatic who’d mastered the secret language of the Elves. 

When I couldn’t bear my catless state another day, I went online searching for the hypoallergenic kind.  The hairless ones wouldn’t do—they looked like starving rats. But then I discovered the distant cousins of the Maine Coon.  Siberians have fur like two-ply cashmere and produce no sneeze-producing dander.   So I made an appointment with a local breeder and plunked Darcy down in the middle of the room. He sat there in a state of wonder as twelve-week-old kittens climbed on his shirt, nestled in the pocket of his sweater, and balanced on his knees.  A  surprised smile spread across his face. This time there was no rash, no wheeze, no itchy eyes.  We put down a deposit and secured our place on a waitlist for the pick of next litter.  I wanted a male and  I’d even chosen a name for him:  Hermes, after the Greek god of invention who developed the alphabet, and generally came and went as he pleased.    

Now a convert, Darcy grew impatient. A breeder in Atlanta had posted a photo of a small gray kitten ready for adoption right away.  Her white-gloved paws crossed coquettishly, her head tilted to show off her golden eyes, she was posing for the camera like a practiced debutante.  Darcy took one look and fell  hopelessly in love.  Once so anti-cat, this man was now so smitten I was sure he’d feed her caviar and deck her condo out in Chintz.   When he flew cross country to pick her up, the unthinkable happened. He took her out of her carrier, settled her on his lap, and offered his right thumb as a pacifier. By the time they landed back in California, she was, irrefutably, Darcy’s Cat.

Our new kitten, Sophie, used my husband’s body like a tree, climbing up his cords and nubby sweater, settling on his shoulders, then wrapping her tail around his head like a fur hat—the kind you see on the steppes of Russia.  For naps, she favored the bookcase closest to Darcy’s desk, chewing on the spine of the Oxford English Dictionary (Volume A-L).  Other times, she draped herself over his easy chair. Now in possession of a writers’ cat, Darcy produced three historical novels in quick succession and that’s how I discovered this age-old truth: He who has the cat gets to write the books. 

Sophie, sketch by the author

There has always been a curious link between cats and creativity.  At midlife, Picasso turned to feline companionship—a tabby with a white bib resembling a zaftig French maid. Salvador Dali settled down with an ocelot named Babou whose striped coat echoed the lines of his trademark mustache.

In his later years, Jean Cocteau adopted a hyperactive Burmese with ears like satellite-receivers, and George O’Keeffe kept a serenely inscrutable Siamese.  Andy Warhol adopted 25 cats, naming all of them Sam, while photographer Edward Weston gathered an entire menagerie at his place called “Wildcat Hill.” 

Writers depended on these creatures, too. Colette, notoriously licentious with women and with men, was faithful only to her cats. Doris Lessing tried to communicate with her tabby telepathically, and Patricia Highsmith, known for her taut psychological thrillers, noted that her cats helped her hang on to her sanity. Joyce Carol Oates ascribed her prolific output to her cat.  “I write so much,” she says,  “because my cat sits on my lap. She purrs so I don’t want to get up. She’s much more calming than my husband.”

A cat’s purr begins in its brain. A neural oscillator then sends messages to the larynx, making its throat muscles twitch at 25 to 150 vibrations per second. The vocal cords then separate, producing double notes in an endless, circulating rhythm. When a cat is in the middle of a good purr-fest, its whole body vibrates and it passes that same sense of well-being onto us.

Ernest Hemingway, Edgar Allan Poe, and William Carlos Williams got mental massages from their furry muses. Raymond Chandler was even inspired by this reassuring sound to write some letters from his cat’s point of view.

A cat’s devotion to her human can be heart-rending:  Jack Kerouac dropped  his tabby off at his mother’s before taking off on his big adventure and that poor creature died of a broken heart when Jack went on the road. 

Newbery medalist Beverly Cleary wrote movingly about our childhood love of cats.  In Ramona Forever, Picky-Picky, the family kitty, dies. Two sisters hold a pet funeral and help each other come to terms with loss.  

(Below, Joyce Carol Oates, Truman Capote, Jack Kerouac, Beverly Cleary)

“Every writer needs a room of her own,” I told Darcy.  “Is it too much to ask for a cat of one’s own as well?”  I’d just gotten the news that Hermes had been born and we’d jumped to first place on the wait list. Why not have two?

“Sophie is enough,” Darcy countered.

 “But she won’t give me the time of day!”   

The truth was I couldn’t write without the feline gaze.  With every book, I’d depended on a cat to conjure the first sentence.  Now the Siberian was staring adoringly at my husband while turning her tail up at me.

 “Another cat won’t do you any good,” Darcy sniffed, setting up the fatal blow.

“Why not?”

 “Because you never finish anything.” 

And for good reason.  I was now working full-time as a journalist and in the evenings, I tightened up my husband’s manuscripts.  When was I supposed to tackle my own work?  I was so enraged I wanted to disembowel Darcy and drape his innards on a nearby hedge.   

That’s when I finally got it.  In my marriage, I’d become too eager too dog-like, too eager to please, and when I wanted time for my creative work—“woof!”— I sat up and begged. 

Cats don’t ask permission.  When something catches their attention, they pounce, attacking their prey with surgical precision—while shooting you a haughty sideways glance that says, “What did you expect?”

It was time to cultivate a feline ruthlessness.  For the next few weeks, I woke at dawn and headed straight to the computer, stalking my prose like a panther—while ignoring Darcy and conveniently forgetting about the housework and the garden.  Dishes piled up and so did the weeds, but I was on a creative streak.  

No longer the center of attention, Darcy resorted to alley-cat behavior—finding a new partner and moving out in record time.  In a last gesture of generosity, he left me the cat.   

The night before the movers arrived,  Sophie disappeared.  After calling for hours, I finally realized what had happened.  The air ducts had been cleaned and the metal grid in the bedroom had been left often.  She’d slid down that chute and was lost in the bowels of the house. At first, I tried to entice her with a roast chicken leg, holding it over the entrance to the HVAC system.  But she couldn’t crawl back up the metal chute. So I Googled, “Cat Stuck in Air Vent,” and tried lowering a terry cloth towel—giving her something thick enough to grab onto.  The towel was too thick, however, and took up too much of the crawl space. So I covered a thin, knitted scarf with catnip, and lowered it down to her.   When Sophie’s claws caught on, I pulled her up and out.  By the end of this mythic journey,  this creature and I had bonded. 

“You and I have work to do,” I murmured, stroking her behind the ears.  “My epitaph isn’t going to be, She never finished. It’s going to be,  She had a terrific writer’s cat.” 

Recommended Reading

Gigi and The Cat by Colette (Penguin Classics, paperback). The Cat is a love story with an unexpected triangle. 

Writers and Their Cats by Alison Nastasi

Of Cats and Men: Profiles of History’s Great Cat-loving Artists, Writers, Thinkers and Statesmen by Sam Kalda 

And to give equal time to other four-legged inspirations —– Shaggy Muses: The Dogs Who Inspired Virginia Woolf, Emily Dickinson, Elizabeth Barrett Browning, Edith Wharton, and Emily Brontë by Maureen Adams

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