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February 22, 2013

The Literary Cat

“What greater gift than the love of a cat?” — Charles Dickens

There are literary cats and then there are Literary Cats.

Charles Dickens had a very famous Literary Cat named Wilhelmina. In his London house, you can see the desk where he and Wilhelmina worked and, if you get close enough, you can see the imprint of cat claws etched into the wood.

Whenever Wilhelmina needed attention or thought Dickens had been at it too long, she would raise a paw and scratch the desk. If this didn’t get the desired results, she would snuff out the candle.

I have three literary kitties and, while I love them equally, I am particularly bonded with Lulu. She, like Wilhelmina, is a Literary Cat of the highest order. Let’s just say she has more… exuberance… for working with me than any other cat I’ve known. (For more on that, you can read about a typical day with her in a blog I wrote for Penguin.)

As I spend upwards of 14 hours a day at my desk seven days a week, working feverishly toward a May 1 deadline (which feels as if it’s five minutes from now in terms of HOW LITTLE TIME THERE IS TO DO ALL I NEED TO DO), Lulu has rarely left my side. Sometimes this is good, sometimes… challenging (depending on what she’s occupying herself with), but when you’re deep in the writing cave, it’s wonderful to have the company.

And she makes me laugh.

Here is Lulu at work. I’ve tried to put them in sequence.

(Note: When she isn’t taking apart the printer or running away with post-its pulled from research books, she does a good bit of gazing at me. Sometimes lovingly, sometimes impatiently.)


(No, I didn’t tuck her in. She did that herself.)

November 26, 2012

George and the office supplies

Years ago, I was lucky enough to have a fluffy, white dirtball of a cat named George (and his pristinely gorgeous brother, Percy). George was truly the most remarkable cat I’ve ever known. He was a real man’s man cat. Even guys who thought cats were silly, guys who claimed they only liked dogs and real dogs– not baby, stupid ones– liked George. For one thing, he was dirty. He didn’t believe in grooming. He was like a Marlboro kitty. He swaggered when he walked, sometimes pulling out his back hair as he sauntered, spitting it aside like a cowboy chewing tobacco. He was naturally gorgeous, but his hair stood up in patches from the mats that he refused to tend to, and his feet were always dirty from walking in dirt during his supervised trips outside.

His voice was gruff and impatient. When the TV was too loud or I was talking too raucously, George gave me an earful. He didn’t like you to be loud. I had to always keep the television on volume 12. One notch higher, and George would chirp a blue streak.

You could carry on conversations with him. The two of us used to sit outside together under the cherry tree in our front yard and talk. I would talk, and he would answer. He would say something, and I would reply. Sometimes I said stupid things, and he would give me a withering look. He had a knack for making me feel stupid. He was the smartest creature I have ever met, feline, human, or otherwise.

When he was six, he was diagnosed with a heart condition by the man who invented animal cardiology. George was given six months to live, but he lasted– in true, stubborn George fashion– till fourteen with a heart three times its normal size. Teams of doctors studied him. He was a medical marvel.

For a while now, I’ve been collecting stories for a George book about his many, many lives. Here is one of my favorites…

Life Number Four– The Cat Bell

By the time George was three, I was a graduate student at the American Film Institute, where I was studying screenwriting. On May 12, 1995, it was my turn to deliver my first full-length script to my writing class, and I had all seven copies, including one for the teacher, ready and waiting by the front door. As I walked through the living room to the door, I passed by George, who was hunched up on the floor, wheezing like a bellows. Percy sat next to him looking concerned and faintly annoyed, and every now and then, he leaned over and licked George vigorously on the head. This only made George wheeze harder.

My first thought was: Dear God. What has he eaten now?

I watched him a minute to make sure this was really something and not just a false alarm, like the time I had skipped class to take George to the vet because he was limping. I had rushed him there, breaking all kinds of speed limits and making the clinic in record time, and when we arrived, the limp had disappeared.

When I was sure that this was in fact legitimate—that he really and truly couldn’t breathe—I called my friend and classmate Annie and told her I was having an emergency. She said, “What did George eat this time?” I laughed politely before hanging up the phone, then I wrapped George in a towel (since the age of two, he had refused to ride in a cat carrier), grabbed my purse, and ran to my car.

The ladies behind the front desk spotted us pulling into the parking lot and immediately readied our room for us before I had even reached the door. George and I were ushered back to the examination room and his wheezing grew worse. He looked at me as if asking why in the hell I wasn’t doing something about it. I talked to him, telling him everything would be okay, and that whatever he had swallowed or done to himself would soon be fixed.

George’s vet appeared. He was blond and handsome and looked exactly like Bjorn Borg. He frowned and studied George, then he ran his hands over George’s body, felt his chest, listened to his heart. “He appears to have eaten something he shouldn’t have,” he said. “I’m going to take some X-rays to see if we can figure out exactly what that something is.”

When he left the room with George, I sank onto a chair and resisted the urge to put my head in my hands and cry. How much would this visit cost? The adoption fees at Foster Friends for Pets had been $40 each for George and Percy. That had included neutering and shots and a free month’s supply of Science Diet dry food. I had thought it was such a bargain.

I looked at the anatomical and skeletal charts on the walls. I looked at the pictures that hung next to them—photos of smiling dogs and neatly posing cats. Their expressions seemed to say the same thing: “We are so well behaved. We are so normal. We have all our lives. We are not at all expensive. The people at Santa Monica Vet love us because we never put ourselves or our human parents in mental, emotional, or financial peril.”

Dr. Borg returned momentarily and set George down on the examining table. “I’ll be back,” he said.

George and I waited. “I just want you to know,” I said to George, “that I am not talking to you.” George’s wheezing was quieter. He picked up one dirty paw, pulled a remnant of a pink foam toy ball out from between his toes, and ate it. I didn’t even attempt to stop him.

Dr. Borg came back into the room, tanned and pony-tailed, and waved his hand. “Come with me,” he said, “and bring him with you.”

I picked up George and followed Dr. Borg into the next room where he slid the X-ray into a machine on the wall. He flipped the switch and the fluorescent lights came on, illuminating George’s tiny skeleton. There were his ribs, his spine, his lungs, his heart, and a mass of other objects I couldn’t recognize.

“Oh,” I said. “He is so cute. Look how little everything is.”

Dr. Borg frowned at me and then at the X-ray. “He has apparently eaten a cat bell,” he said. I thought immediately of Percy’s favorite toy—a white fluffy blob stuffed with cotton and a thin tail. A tail that used to have a bell. Dr. Borg pointed to the cat bell, which sat, quite clearly, in the middle of George’s stomach.

“Wow,” I said. “It really is clear as… well, as a bell.”

George squirmed and I tightened my hold on him. Please be good, I thought. Please do not shame me more than you already have. Especially not in front of this man who looks just like Bjorn Borg.

Dr. Borg moved his pen pointer away from the bell and toward the strange, indiscernible mass. “I don’t, however, think the bell has done as much damage as the rubber bands.”

Rubber bands?!

“How many are in there?” I said. I tried to sound as if we were talking about something ordinary, like the weather.

“I can’t quite tell. But that’s not all.”

“It’s not?”

“No.” He pointed just left of the mass. “Paper.” He pointed again. “Paper clips.” And pointed again. “Thumbtacks.”

The entire contents of my home office supply drawer were inside George’s stomach.

“I am afraid,” Dr. Borg said, his voice grave, “that your cat is orally fixated.” He made it sound shameful and frightening. The way he said it made a shiver run down my spine. Orally fixated. By his tone, I knew I should be mortified for both George and myself.

The front desk staff let me borrow the phone. I stood at the counter, George under one arm, and dialed my mother, who lived in another state. “George has eaten a bell,” I said. “And some office supplies. The doctor said he is orally fixated.” I whispered this last part, terrified that someone might hear me.

“Is he all right?” My mother’s voice was concerned.

“He will be. They can remove the thumbtacks and the paper clips, but they can’t do a full-fledged operation because of the rubber bands, so they said he will have to pass the bell himself. His body will either absorb the other things or not.”

“How much is it going to cost?”

“Eight hundred and sixty-eight dollars.” It was an amount that I, a poor graduate student living on student loans, could not afford, and an amount that I knew my mom could not afford either.

On her end of the line, I heard a shuffling of papers. I waited. “Well,” she said finally, her voice bright and positive. “There’s not enough on the emergency Visa, but there should be enough on the Optima card. You just tell George this is an advance on his Christmas present.”

Eight hundred and sixty-eight dollars later, George was thumbtack- and paper clip-free, and officially the most expensive cat we’d ever had. The rubber bands, Dr. Borg said, would have to stay there unless they came out of their own accord. We just had to hope that they wouldn’t wrap around any vital organs. The bell was placed too precariously near those vital organs to be moved. Dr. Borg gave George some medicine which would “encourage him to pass the bell,” and told me to check George’s litter box periodically.

I took George home and cut every bell off every toy and took the pile of them outside to the apartment complex dumpster to throw them away. I didn’t trust George not to get them out of the trash. Afterward, I locked my office supplies in a closet.

That night, George and Percy and I curled up on the couch, George on one side, Percy on the other. Percy, even though he hated being held, loved to snuggle. George did not. But that night, he put his paw on my leg and sat with me while I watched a movie. “You’re welcome,” I said.

The next day, I stood in front of the bathroom mirror, head upside down, drying my hair with the blow dryer. Something shiny caught my eye. There, in the litter box at my feet, sat an eight hundred and sixty-eight dollar cat bell.

November 16, 2012

Lulu helps me research

This is the first week back at my desk in a month’s time. Now that I’ve been to Ireland for vacation and to North Carolina for the Southern leg of my book tour, I’m happily at home with my computer gathering ideas for the next story.

As many of you know, Lulu is my self-appointed Head Literary Cat– of my three wonderful kitties, she is easily the bossiest, and, after all, the two of us are always velcro-ed together.

Yesterday, I paused a documentary I was getting ready to watch because the phone rang. When I took the call, Lulu pushed a button on my keyboard and the video began playing again, and then she settled in to watch. As you can see, she was riveted. (She is deeply interested in social issues.)

September 18, 2012

Rumi on my desk

Rumi was named for the Persian poet and mystic, famous for his poems of love, which is very fitting since Rumi the cat is the most loving creature I know. His purr runs all day and night– he doesn’t even turn it off at the vet. He’s been keeping me company at my desk since he was a kitten, and has seen me through every Velva Jean book. So with Becoming Clementine due to come out one week from today, here’s a little tribute to the sweetest literary kitty of all.

February 13, 2012

In Search of the Perfect Reading Chair

Filed under: writing — Tags: , , , , , , — jennifer @ 12:03 pm

Now that I’ve handed in the copy edits, here are the primary things I’m working on:

~ Creating, shooting, appearing in (!), and producing a book trailer for Becoming Clementine. (More on this later…)

~ Updating my website for Becoming Clementine, building web pages for the book as well as redesigning my homepage to feature the cover (which means I’ll be revealing the brand new cover soon!). (No, I don’t actually do the implementing and the building– my computer genuis boyfriend handles that.)

~ Researching and outlining Velva Jean’s adventure in Hollywood (hereafter referred to as “Hollywood”), which means sifting through volumes of material from that era, including book after book on everything from the studio system to Max Factor to Hollywood nightlife to the story of MGM to Los Angeles and the mob to every movie star biography/autobiography ever written about or by a star of the 1940s.

With all this researching and outlining, I’ve been reading at my desk, averaging two books a day, hunched over in my office chair, going back and forth between the book and my computer, where I’m inputting notes. At the end of the work day, my back feels 150 years old, and while yoga and Physique 57 certainly help, the next session at my desk seems to undo most of the good they’ve done.

So I am on the hunt for a cozy, comfortable reading chair– this is in addition to my office chair– something I can sink into and relax in, and something that will ideally be big enough to hold me and several books and maybe a literary cat or two at the same time. Of course, it also has to have a nice sense of style and look good in my office.

And, perhaps most important, the cats have to like it. After all, they spend almost all day every day with me in my office and they are always looking for new and exciting places to sleep. (Usually on top of my work or on the computer keyboard.)

Any recommendations? If so, I’d love to hear them.