I don’t actually like cats. I am, in point of fact, quite allergic to them.
here’s a weird thing you may never have thought about: i can tell whoever had this library book before me had at least two cats bc 1) hairs keep drifting out from the pages and 2) my allergies are worsening the longer i read this book… 😳— S.G. Wong: side-eyein’ from at least 2m away👀 (@S_G_Wong) August 17, 2019
Don’t get me wrong. I hold a healthy respect for cats and I wish them all well. And, as many of my cat-loving friends will attest, I’m willing to pet any cat in a friend’s home, though it costs me discomfort then and afterward. Cats instinctively know I suffer for my attentions to them, so of course, they seek me out.
Aside from the allergic aversion, though, I suppose I could trace my arm’s-length attitude back to an ill-fated housesitting job I took once, where I was instructed to leash the owners’ cat and attach said leash to a spike in the backyard for the cat’s daily constitutional. That poor animal detested me. And though I think it inhumane to de-claw cats, I have to admit I was grateful for that specific feline’s de-weaponized state every time she hissed and swatted at me. Reader, this happened a lot.
I didn’t blame her, though. How could I? She was at my mercy and at the mercy of her humans’ poor judgment. I, a first-time house-sitter with zero pet experience, was deemed the best person to care for their beloved home, cat, and dog for a breezy week in July. Yes, of course, they must’ve been quite desperate, but still.
(Full disclosure: I also “lost” their dog for about two hours one early evening when he shot out through the half-open front door. Luckily for everyone, he came bounding back when he was good and ready. I kept that confession to myself even as I handed over their keys—though I did admit to the détente between kitty and myself. … Have I mentioned their houseplants were ecstatically healthy?)
In the realm of writing and such, I also admit to an aversion for stories with animals as protagonists. It’s weird, I know, but I find it easier to understand inanimate objects come to life, than to ascribe human emotions or motivations to animals. I just find it arrogant to assume I might know what an animal’s thinking. I mean, really, I could never.
And yet. Here we are. In response to an invitation/call for submissions to an anthology about pirate cats, I decided to write a cat story.
In my defence, it was an intriguing challenge. For some reason, I immediately wanted to take a sci-fi approach. I’d never written anything close to sci-fi before, and this seemed a fun way to try it. Originally, I brainstormed feline aliens who controlled human-appearing simulacrums in a quest to pillage the galaxy of every last bauble and bright bit of yarn.
But that seemed a little too on the nose.
Then I decided sprinkling in a little something I was familiar with might be a better way into the story. So I thought of ghosts, of which I have aplenty in my novels and short stories—and about which, by the by, Rhonda Parrish writes so entertainingly in her recent non-fiction release, here. (See what I did there, Rhonda?)
The theme for the anthology clearly requested both cats and piracy. A swashbuckling adventure story (sci-fi or otherwise) seemed way too much fun to pass up. I just wasn’t sure about the cat portion. (As per my perfectly logical reasoning, above.) But once I hit upon a ghost cat, my discomfort at writing a feline protagonist just…dematerialized.
By then, time had become a factor. I had to squeeze in this story between a couple of larger projects, so I scrapped the space opera idea and narrowed down to something more manageable (ie., less research): a bit of light steampunk, my version of which has the added appeal of weaving a touch of fantasy magic into the sci-fi backdrop. Plus, since I am who I am, I envisioned the flying vehicles as junk boats of varying sizes and uses, from tidy 2-mast’ers to 9-masted treasure ships. I can’t adequately express in words how much I adored doing the real-world research on those, in order to dream up my steampunk-y versions.
All those elements coalesced in my mind over the course of a few weeks, but I still hadn’t figured out the framework for the plot. Somehow, pressured by the dwindling submission window, I suspect, my brain did a bit of a lateral jump and came up with the perfect setup: a burglary yarn. (I mean, really, I write crime fiction. How did it take me so long to figure that out?)
I spent a week creating an outline from all those ideas swirling in my fevered brain, two days drafting, and three days editing/revising. It was really chaotic and weirdly fun. My family were great sports about me wandering into the kitchen at meal times, or into the midst of their chatter, mystified at what I’d left my office for.
And so. Here we are.
“The Comeback Kitty,” my Chinese steampunk ghost cat heist story can be found in Swashbuckling Cats: Nine Lives on the Seven Seas (ed. by Rhonda Parrish, Tyche Books, 2020). Official launch day is May 26th, but please do pre-order here. The rumour is, if our publisher receives enough pre-orders, they’ll greenlight Rhonda’s idea for a volume of dog stories…
Now, wouldn’t that be a howl..?