By Catherine Wagley
By Channing Sargent
By L.A. Weekly critics
By Amanda Lewis
By Catherine Wagley
By Carol Cheh
By Keegan Hamilton
By Bill Raden
Deliberately ignored in The Catsitters is the kind of downtown “scene” one might expect to find in a novel written by a mordant star of America‘s glossiest publishing empire. There are no junkies, supermodels, media-world machinations, fashion designers or roman a clef gossip. The book is “old-fashioned” in other ways, too -- not least in its optimism about male-female relationships. The section in which two college-age girls -- the titular catsitters -- spend a drunken week with Johnny after their official catsitting duties have ended, has the kind of relaxed, witty sexiness that makes you feel, “God, if only life was always like that!” The episode ends in disaster, of course, when Amanda, Johnny’s very uptown, very marriage-minded girlfriend, arrives unexpectedly. But then Amanda and Johnny were never meant to be anyway -- or so decides Darlene, who turns out to be a much trickier character than we first realize.
Darlene may be a spiky cynic, but ultimately her advice boils down to the idea that women want to get married, and men do as well -- even if they don‘t realize it. By coating Darlene’s words with bile, Wolcott disguises the fact that what‘s being prescribed is a dose of gentlemanly good manners. “You’ve never been willing to do what needs to be done to keep a woman, Johnny. You‘re like most men, oblivious,” Darlene says near the beginning of the novel, and what follows is a complete course in How To Get a Woman To Marry You (from Johnny’s point of view) or How To Turn a Likable Schlump Into Something Worth Marrying (from Darlene‘s).
Wolcott himself has been married for seven years, to Vanity Fair writer Laura Jacobs. They live together on the Upper West Side with their three cats. He says that his novel is based on some of his own premarital dating woes. An edited version of our conversation follows.
L.A. WEEKLY: I liked the fact that The Catsitters was funny and witty but it wasn’t knocking itself out trying to be funny and witty.
JAMES WOLCOTT: I knew going in I did not want to write a jokey book, and I didn‘t want to write a book where the so-called funny lines are really sarcastic lines. I read these New York novels, and everybody in them sounds like they’re auditioning for Friends. I‘ll read novels set on the Upper West Side, and everybody talks in the same rhythms, with the same frame of reference. So I wanted to have characters that were funny, but people are not funny in the same way. Some people are funny because they are totally laconic and drop in a comment when you least expect it, and other people are funny because they go off on riffs like standup comics. Everybody’s different. I didn‘t want it to be one of those novels where everyone’s at a cocktail party and exchanging clever putdowns. A lot of downtown novels are like that, novels about the literary scene. The thing is, most of these are not novels that make it. If the characters are recognizable, the New York press will make a big thing about it, but the rest of the country doesn‘t care at all.
Your book struck me as being a very courtly, old-fashioned New York novel in a lot of ways. It’s certainly not Sex and the City.
I wanted the novel to be so old-fashioned it would seem new. One of the things I‘m really happy with is that it’s not a cliched New York novel. It‘s sort of an idealized portrait of New York. It’s the way I‘d like Manhattan to be, because Manhattan now is so money-insane. The other thing I strove to do was to create characters you can imagine holding their own in a separate book. In so many novels there’s a protagonist and narrator, and everyone else is kind of filler. I wanted people to feel that at any point Darlene could just take over and say, “You know what? It‘s my novel now.” Or Gleason. Or Claudia Prentiss. To me Claudia is a fascinating character. Because there are women like that. You can never quite figure them out.
Given that the majority of fiction readers are women, how concerned were you that the novel would appeal to them?
I definitely wanted The Catsitters to appeal to women, or at the very least not alienate them unduly. Publishing people are always puzzled when a new Philip Roth novel doesn’t sell up to expectations, given the rave reviews. I‘m not -- I’ve spoken to too many women who‘ve said they avoid Roth because they consider him so sexist and misogynist. Since I’m not a macho sort, I never intended to write a sexual-conquest novel, so it was never a matter of pandering to a female audience by betraying my own impulses or attitudes. The character who chafes on some women readers is Darlene, because she‘s so cutthroat in her comments and unsentimental. I’m happy to hear some readers don‘t like her, because I intended Darlene to be a divisive force -- she’s what keeps the novel from becoming too cute and cuddly.