Featured Interview With Simone Martel
Tell us a little about yourself. Where were you raised? Where do you live now?
I was born and bred in Berkeley, California, a university town with a colorful history of left wing radicalism: the free speech movement, Vietnam War protests, the Black Panthers next door in Oakland. I grew up in an atmosphere of social agitation and upheaval. People were questioning the most basic assumptions about how life ought to be lived. My family life was unconventional. My dad stayed home and took care of me, while my mom went off to work. I like to think all this had some effect on me, growing up. Nothing taken for granted. Anything possible. A useful beginning for any creative imagination.
As you might expect from the author of a novel called A Cat Came Back, I have cats. Four of them. Moo and Boo are the males, and the Ruby and Spooky are the females. So, yes, I’m a cat person. This affinity for cats probably was the original inspiration for this story. Cats spend so much time watching us. I asked myself, what are they thinking? One day I began making up an answer. What if you were trapped in the body of a cat, but you were still yourself, with your personality and experiences intact? Could my book have been written by someone who is not a cat person? Could this book have worked as A Dog Came Back? I don’t think so, much as I like dogs. They’re devoted, certainly. The sweetest creatures. But they haven’t a cat’s level of detachment, of observation.
At what age did you realize your fascination with books? When did you start writing?
My dad was a writer and editor, and my mom was a librarian at the Oakland Public Library, so books were a big part of my childhood. I have fond memories of the old Carnegie library where my mom worked. These libraries were built around the country, a steel tycoon’s gift to the nation. And they were special places, the sort of mansions rich people might live in, only devoted to books. This branch had high ceilings, beautiful wood paneling and floors, a fireplace, sofas. For ordinary children coming from ordinary homes, to come into this special place, a mansion devoted to the written word, how could you not think books were special?
My mom was the children’s librarian at this time, and I would go with her to work on Saturdays. The day often included a trip to McDonald’s across the street. My dad was a bit of a hippie in his long-haired days, a health food nut, and this was our weekly escape from the rigors of whole grains and homemade yogurt. Eating our forbidden burgers, my mom and I would discuss what books she should read for story hour. She had good taste. Only the best. Charlotte’s Web, the Miss Bianca books, about a detective mouse, A Cricket in Times Square. Interestingly, I don’t remember any princesses. The favorites I remember were about the small creatures, insects, things we might overlook in our everyday lives. Of course that small-scale perspective appeals to children, who often feel themselves underfoot in the adult world, a world of giants. Perhaps I was trying capture that alternate, sort of off-kilter perspective in A Cat Came Back.
Part of my unconventional upbringing was the hippie private school I went to. This school offered a different approach to education. No desks, no grades. We called our teachers by their first names. It was a low budget sort of experiment, in a church basement. PE was a walk to the public park nearby. Mostly school was reading and self-expression. Hours and hours of writing in a journal. We could write about anything, and I ran out of things to say about myself (I was only nine!). So I began making up stories. I remember one saga about a worm and a snake who have a very complicated relationship. Still no princesses! Perhaps I’ve always had a taste for fables. Or for stories that include alternate perspectives. A Cat Came Back could be seen as a modern day fable.
Who are your favorite authors to read? What is your favorite genre to read. Who Inspires you in your writings?
I’m a fan of Margaret Atwood’s speculative fiction—The Edible Woman and A Handmaid’s Tale—storytelling with feminist themes and moral purpose! I’m also a fan of Gabriel Garcia Marquez’s One Hundred Years of Solitude. I love the way the characters are not aware of the oddness or impossibility of what is occurring. That makes this kind of storytelling so powerful. The author is able to make metaphors come to life. It’s the difference between saying something is like something and saying something is something. I suppose magic realism has a peculiar appeal to me in the way it combines the ordinary and mundane with the surreal and impossible. To me that feels more truthful than pure realism.
A Cat Came Back tells a story in which something happens that you know intellectually could never happen, and yet emotionally I hope it feels like it could happen to any of us. Eliza’s strange transformation makes the character’s alienation real, or literal. This direct appeal of magic realism to the imagination has an emotional logic which I think is quite similar to those classic stories I read in childhood. There’s a sort of innocence, or directness, in this way of looking at the world without the usual preconceptions, the rules and regulations, without all the intellectual baggage we pick up as we grow older. I guess I like my stories to travel light. Light and agile as a cat.
Tell us a little about your latest book?
Eliza, the main character, finds herself trapped in a cat’s body through a freak accident, so she faces some very serious limitations! Only her lover, Stu, knows what’s happened to her, that she’s still “alive.” This results in some funny misunderstandings with other characters, as well as some sad moments, for instance when her parents visit and she’s unable to communicate with them. Also as Eliza watches Stu interact with his own family, her perceptions of them change. She learns new things about people, but she can’t express what she’s learned. It’s all internal.
As the story goes on, Stu’s interest and attention become increasingly unreliable. She has to watch Stu become interested in a different woman, even bringing her into their bed! Eliza must confront the fact that she’s on her own in this predicament. And if the fate of the world does not hang in the balance, the fate of her world does. Her sense of person-ness is challenged in a very fundamental way. How do you hold on to you are, when no one sees you as human? I think this is a story many people can relate to, especially women: to be not quite seen, or heard, or taken seriously, to be denied the dignity of a point of view, your person-ness, really, with thoughts and feelings.
A Cat Came Back has taken a long path to publication. I wrote the first draft—the main story and the characters—about 20 years ago, when I was near Eliza’s age. Then a year or so ago, I rewrote it extensively. It’s from the point of view of a very young woman and I tried hard not to change that perspective, but the structure and style evolved. At first I relied on traditional storytelling. But then I realized this isn’t a traditional story. So instead of dividing the novel into chapters and four sections—the seasons—I show Eliza losing track of time. Knowing it’s Christmastime when holiday cards arrive, for example. The book still takes place over a single year, but it flows together. The story Eliza tells in her head changed to reflect her situation. In the final draft she doesn’t generalize about “these days” or “recently” because she’s losing perspective and is stuck in a sort of perpetual “now.” I decided that Eliza’s situation limits her to the present tense. She has no perspective. So, for example, “Lisa rang the doorbell” becomes “The doorbell rings. It’s Lisa.” I want the reader to share this limited point of view and truly experience this strange, impossible story in all its quiet horror and absurdity. It is a crazy situation, after all.
I made the novel more focused, too. Most of the book takes place in the house Eliza shared with Stu and in Eliza’s increasingly unkempt garden. Eliza doesn’t go far, physically. Her journey is an interior exploration, and the truth pursued is self-knowledge. Coming to terms with who we are is the most fundamental challenge we all face, as human beings, and I hope this is a story many readers can relate to and enjoy.
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