“When a man loves cats, I am his friend and comrade, without further introduction.”
Writers and cats, man. Artists and cats in general. It has become something of a metatrope at this point, a trope about creatives rather than their creations, and it goes all the way back throughout history. Look at Huxley, Bradbury, Burroughs, Ginsberg, Lovecraft, Poe, the list goes on and on.
There’s a billion different theories about why writers seem to gravitate toward cats, and I’m sure each of them is true for at least one writer. They can be kind of a totem animal where you hope that the slightly aloof mannerisms may rub off on you and help you discard harsh criticism of your work, or maybe you simply like an animal that’s considered fairly self-sufficient and allows you to lose yourself in hours of writing between petting it. I’m not nearly arrogant enough to take a stab at why cats and writers go together in the broad sense.
For me, though, it’s because they’re such weird little creatures. Getting along with a cat is great exercise for getting into the minds of bizarre characters in my writing, because to understand what makes a cat tick you need to completely divorce yourself from how you see the world as a human and try to see it as a cat. With dogs there’s a certain amount of familiarity and transposing human emotions and desires upon them, because we played a pretty huge part in taking these already-pack-based animals and integrating them into our civilization, but cats rather domesticated us in comparison. And this isn’t to say that cats aren’t human, if anything I feel that some cats are more human than some of the people I’ve known in life.
I’ve always had cats in my world. Dogs too, but they were fewer and farther between – god knows I was completely wrapped around my golden retriever Ben’s paw for about 15 years before a combination of severe hip dysplasia, cancers and eye problems necessitated putting the old man down. But cats, my parents had cats that they brought over to the states with them from Germany where they were serving overseas. In the mid 80s. Along with me, as a small and noisy baby. I grew up with Tao and Chakra (my parents were hippies, as you might have imagined by this point), a pair of gorgeous mottled mutt-cats for many years. When they eventually passed from health issues my younger sisters had been born and were considered old enough to pick and start taking care of pets of their own, so we ended up with a trio of cats named Thomasina, Rainbow and Snow White that they accumulated over a couple of years while I focused on my new dog, Benjamin Franklin-Sisko, firmly consigning myself to the vortex of history and science fiction nerd-dom early.
The first cat I got that was truly “mine” instead of me helping take care of my siblings’ pets was the result of my mother driving back from the library one day and spotting some kids gathered around what looked like a skeleton on the side of the road. She pulled over and told them to get away from it, and it turned out to be a tiny kitten with pale tiger stripe coloring. She brought it home, thinking she would bring it to the vet to get it checked out and then hand it over to one of the local no-kill shelters. I managed to summon up all the charisma and pleading I could muster as a thirteen year old and convinced her to keep it, as long as I put in the lion’s share of work in rehabilitating the little guy. Which I did.
I named him Jasper because the coloration of his eyes really did look like little jasper marbles, and over the next several days and weeks I spent a ridiculous amount of time combing dead fleas and ticks out of his fur, hand-feeding him, keeping the other, older cats from beating him up and then litter training him. He was originally tiny enough to fit into the palm of my hand but over the years he grew into an absolute behemoth of a cat. I think at his fittest he was about 22lbs of pure muscle under just enough fat to make that muscle look flabby until he body-checked you. He used to do that with the dogs, particularly my sister’s yellow lab Gustav. He’d wait under the table, take a run-up and just t-bone the dog and wrestle with him until they both got tired and flopped down in a heap together.
He was a good cat. Completely bonded with me. Slept on my bed every single night, greeted me when I came inside, followed me around the house when I was doing my chores and liked to nestle up into my armpit when I lay in bed reading. We had a good nine or ten years before he started running into a lot of health problems, unfortunately most of them cropping up while I was out at university. The final straw was some major bladder issues that led to a domino of infections and other problems culminating in him just refusing to eat, and my parents had to have him put down during my finals week since he obviously wasn’t going to make it until I got home and I didn’t want them to prolong his suffering any. I was a complete emotional wreck for weeks afterwards, even forgetting my anniversary and pissing off my then-girlfriend. It was bad enough that I ended up just not getting another cat for myself, because it hurt too much to think about. By the time I had gotten over it I had moved around the country a lot and looked like I’d continue to do so for some time, and I didn’t want to drag an animal along with me. The closest I got to having another cat of my own was bonding with my sisters’ other new cat, an impulse-adoption named Oliver.
Oliver is essentially a ball of fur with two googly eyes crudely glued to the front. He is far and away the most scattered brained animal I have ever met in my life. He was taken away from his mother a little too young and most of his neuroses seem related to that, he’s extremely clingy and will “nurse” on your fingertips to calm himself down when he gets stressed out. I wouldn’t say he’s necessarily high strung, but higher strung than any cat I met before him. When he flops down on the bed he kind of grips it with all fours like it’s going to go flying off into the night at a moment’s notice. When I’m home he seems to prefer my room over anyone else’s and likes to stay within a few feet of my whenever possible. He’s one of the few things I really, genuinely miss back in Maine.
I have been partly adopted by a cat out here, though. My wife’s cat Chloe, who rather famously hates everyone except for my wife and her parents, tolerates me surprisingly well. She’s a cat who still runs and hides from my wife’s childhood best friend during visits but will now come curl up in my lap when I settle down in the lounge, and who even runs in front of me and flops down for the occasional belly pat. A steady stream of food bribes like cooked chicken slivers and fingertip-dabs of double cream brie have even gotten her to the point where she’ll let me pick her up and carry her around a little, which is practically unheard of for this cat.
It’s all about getting into their heads. The three cats I’ve used as examples here approached the world in entirely different ways. Show them each something and their takeaway from it wouldn’t just be different than mine, it would be different from each other. Cats as a whole are not some amorphous blob of uppity furballs, and when you don’t buy into the tropes and stereotypes about them they serve as neat little lenses through which to see the world, just like people. Unlike people, they’re just alien enough that seeing that world that way is great exercise if you want to write about non-human characters.
For example, intelligent weapons. One of my absolute favorite fantasy standbys is the old talking sword, or mace or axe or whatnot. Not even talking, necessarily, but intelligent and capable of influencing its wielder. Whether it be a cursed piece like the grandpappy Stormbringer out of the Elric novels, or its close cousin Gurthang from Tolkien’s backstories, and even further back into real-world mythology with the viking blade Tyrfing or the unnamed blade from the Finnish epic The Kalevala, which Kullervo uses to kill himself after holding a conversation with and finding that the blade simply seeks blood and doesn’t care if it comes from enemy or ally. Imagine an enchanted weapon that thinks and communicates like a cat, and how a hero would have to gradually learn to bond with or at least establish some kind of understanding with it. Instead of seeing its actions as if they were being committed by a human (“the cat brought me a mouse as a present, how nice”) the protagonist would have to read the deeper meaning of each action as they were intended by an intelligence somewhat alien to him (“the cat actually brought me a mouse because it thinks I am a giant, naked kitten that is literally too stupid to hunt its own food”). Sentient weapons and similar objects feature heavily into a few of my stories and I always go back to animal companions for inspiration instead of simply transposing human desires and voices over a magical blade or stone or what-have-you.
Drawing more on the themes of sentient weapons than cats today, my recommendation is The Half-Made World by Felix Gilman. It’s a story that is often classified as steampunk and looked over by people who aren’t fans of that particular subgenre, but that’s never the feeling I took from the setting. It’s a truly weird secondary world very much in the vein of China Mieville or Jeff Vandermeer. It’s a place where the world is still literally being made off over the horizon, where tremendous storms shape and reshape the landscape and nothing is solidified until it is named and mapped. Technology hovers somewhere around the wild west era with the exception of very advanced trains, headed by a council of sentient ones known as the Engines. The Engines are at perpetual war with a group of demonically possessed pistols who have come from a pocket dimensional hunting lodge to sow havoc and chaos in a world they see as becoming too tilted toward the side of rigidity. Neither side is particularly good. The agents of the Gun are romanticized but they’re bloodthirsty mass murderers and terrorists to a T and their major concern is feeding rivers of gore into the Lodge where they draw their power, while agents of the Line are more robotic than human, the Engines’ edicts having turned those in its employ into stunted grey emotionless figures. Into the eternal war between the two sides is drawn a ragged collection of protagonists who want to break the entire cycle and find themselves being pursued by everyone as they race through the unfinished landscape to find a mythological outpost where neither group holds sway and weapons are being developed using the raw energy of the world that might actually stand a chance against both the Engines and the Lodge. Mixed into this premise are themes of imperialism, the struggle between native peoples and invading cultures, questions of philosophy from a variety of stripes, and a lot of other stuff I’m not going to put here because they’ll just spoil it. Notable for inspiring me to include sentient guns in one of my own works, although less demonic and malevolent in scope, more agents of violence that enable the malevolent to do bad things more easily.