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Author Interview: Caroline Paul and Wendy MacNaughton

LostCatToday I’d like to welcome my friends and colleagues here at the San Francisco Writers’ Grotto Caroline Paul, author, and Wendy MacNaughton, illustrator, whose book, Lost Cat: A True Story of Love, Desperation, and GPS Technology hit bookstores yesterday. The talented Caroline Paul has two previously published books, Fighting Fire, a memoir about the 13 years she spent as a San Francisco firefighter, and East Wind, Rain, a novel based on the true story about what happens when a Japanese pilot crash lands in a small Hawaiian village after bombing Pearl Harbor. The talented Wendy MacNaughton‘s illustrations have appeared everywhere from books and magazines to the Tumblr Pen & Ink, a collaboration with Rumpus managing editor Isaac Fitzgerald.

Wendy and Caroline

Today, Paul is here to talk to us about Lost Cat, its inspiration, and what she learned by putting a GPS tracker on her cat. Lost Cat begins when Paul crashes her experimental plane (hang glider + go cart) and falls into a dark depression while being laid up on her couch with a smashed ankle. One of her two cats, Tibia (the other is Fibula) disappears for five weeks, then returns. Feeling betrayed, Paul, with the help of her partner, MacNaughton, decides to follow the cat to find out where it’s been getting its free meals.

MW: What inspired you to write Lost Cat?

CP: When I told people the story of stalking my cat with GPS and other devices, their eyes would light up. You know you have a good story when people’s eyes light up when you’re talking to them. The truth is I would tell the story about my whole life during that year, and people weren’t that interested until I got to the part about going so lulu that I stalked my cat.

MW: What did you learn by putting a GPS tracker on your cat?

CP: I thought I was trying to learn where my cat went. But what I really was trying to learn was why he left me for five weeks, and that is something technology can’t answer.

MW: You did eventually learn where he went, but did you ever learn why he left you?

CP: I think I have a good idea, but it doesn’t have the metric that a GPS or a camera does. I think when you’re really hurt by someone or something, like a cat, you want answers. You want to know “Why did you leave me?” The truth is that they don’t want to be with you anymore, but that doesn’t make sense to you because you love them and you want to be with them. We tried GPS and we tried video cameras, and they promised real answers, but in the end, they didn’t give any. What I realized was that I was not good company during those months that I was recuperating, and my cat was smart enough to leave and come back when I was a little bit more healed.

MW: How did you come to that conclusion?

CP: I think I came to that conclusion like anyone who is struggling with a relationship issue they don’t want to face. I was full of denial initially, telling myself that he was shy and couldn’t survive without me, that I gave meaning to his life. But as time passed and the drugs wore off (Paul was on pain medication for her smashed ankle), and I started to follow him, I came to grips with the cat he really was, and I started to accept that.

MW: What would you recommend for someone who has lost a cat?

CP: If your cat is lost, don’t give up hope. I’ve heard so many stories of cats returning after 3 months, 5 years, 7 years. The longest I’ve heard was 13 years. Often they return because they are microchipped and are found hundreds or thousands of miles away. The address can be read by a scanner by the vet or at an animal shelter. You may not be sure it’s your cat, but the microchip will tell you for sure.

MW: What was your process for collaborating on this project with your partner, Wendy?

CP: Initially, while I was recuperating, I was really scared that I would never write again. The longer I didn’t write, I more I thought I would never write. So Wendy suggested I start a blog. I didn’t tell anyone the blog title. It was basically a blog for one person, and that was Wendy. It was freeing because I didn’t have to write well. I just had to write. Halfway through my blog, suddenly I got this comment from a man in Iceland who was a professor, and that was a shock because I didn’t realize anyone else was reading it. And then it became a blog for two people.

MW: How did that blog become a book?

CP: Here’s the true story. I actually wrote a pretty thick proposal for a memoir, and it was going to be about injury and what it does to you, and the stalking my cat piece was the central motif, but it was padded with a lot of other things about relationships and Wendy and healing. Oliver Sacks wrote a great memoir like that about almost losing his leg. I sent that (book proposal) around and nobody wanted it in that form. It was too quirky, they said. They couldn’t get a handle on the market because it was serious, but it also had this thread of stalking my cat. When it finally made the rounds and dried up, I decided I am not going to drop this story. And I knew the story that really interested people was the cat story. So I said to Wendy, let’s do this. Let’s do a short, illustrated book. The real story lay in the chase, and it took me some incarnations to find that out. I’m sure this happens to a lot of writers.

MW: What were some of the challenges you faced in collaborating on this project with Wendy?

I. The first challenge was that I had never collaborated before, and I wanted there to be a strict wall between the writing and the illustrations, and Wendy agreed. I thought I would write the whole thing and then hand it to Wendy, and she would illustrate it. But I soon realized that I would need to riff off of Wendy and treat it more like a conversation because the truth is, it’s half her memoir because she lived it too. So I would write a chapter and hand it to her, and she would illustrate it and then hand it back to me, and in that way we played off of each other.

II. Collaborations are hard to begin with, but they’re even trickier when you’re in a relationship together. We knew the book was going to be 50/50 because otherwise things get tricky. And that worked really well. We respected each other’s work so much that we knew we didn’t really have to comment on each other’s work. If you do collaborate with someone that you’re sharing your life with, you have to respect their work because otherwise they’ll know, and it will never work.

III. Wendy and I also work differently. Wendy has a different concept of time than I do. When I say that I’m going to meet you at a certain time, like 2 o’clock, I’ll be there. When Wendy says she’s going to meet you at 2 o’clock, that kind of means 2–ish. So that was a challenge for us. When I told my agent we could get this book in three months, Wendy agreed, not really thinking that 3 months meant 3 months. In the end we got it done a day over deadline, which for me meant we missed our deadline, and for Wendy meant we came in early.

IV. If you work together, it becomes a metaphor for the relationship. You can’t get away from the relationship when you’re working together, so I would hand her the writing and expect her to love it so much that she would read it eagerly and get back to me right away. When she didn’t, I would get hurt and immediately deduce that she no longer loved me.

MW: What did you learn about your self and your relationship by chasing Tibby?

CP: You can’t ever really know the one you love, and that’s okay.

MW: Are you referring to Tibby or Wendy?

CP: Everything a writer says is double layered, so I mean it all. This book takes place as Wendy and I become closer in our relationship, so it’s also about Wendy and me. Wendy was certainly not thinking that she was going to have to take care of me as an invalid after only six months of knowing me, but she did. Relationships will surprise you, and you have to go with the flow, which is hard for me.

MW: Do you have any plans to collaborate on another project in the future?

CP: We definitely had a great time doing this and we’re totally open to it, but Wendy is so busy, that I don’t know if we’ll fit it in. Right now we just want to see how Lost Cat does, kind of be in the moment.

You can listen to a more extensive interview with Caroline and Wendy on Michael Krasny’s Forum on KQED, which aired this morning.

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