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A Considerable Town

How 11 Cats Helped Sandi Tan Write a Novel

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Thu, Aug 30, 2012 at 10:30 AM

click to enlarge The heat kept away all but two of the neighbors' cats - NANETTE GONZALES
  • Nanette Gonzales
  • The heat kept away all but two of the neighbors' cats
Writers, novelists in particular, often have a cat or two attending them as they go about the terrifying business of setting words to blank page. Novelist Sandi Tan had 11. One by one the cats began to appear at her doorstep as she was writing her debut novel, The Black Isle.

Tan's novel is about a young medium who moves with her family from Shanghai to a remote, fictional Indonesian island called the Black Isle. The island is overrun with ghosts. Chaos ensues. The darker the scenes Tan worked on, the cuter the creatures that showed up in real life.

She scrolls through photos of them now on her iPad. "That's the thing about writing, you're just this grim creature," she says in her clipped, melodious, Singaporean accent. "And you post these cat pictures on Facebook. And suddenly you seem like less of a goblin, you know?"

Blue-eyed, dark-masked Bandit was the first. A few days later, he brought his wife. Then a Siamese. Then a tabby. Then another Siamese. And on and on. They belonged to the neighbors, these cats, but Tan gave them her own silly names.

In her upstairs office, there is a bulletin board tacked over with lurid, evocative pictures: a snarling dog, a scene from Lars von Trier's Antichrist, Saturn eating his children, a postcard of grizzlies dancing in a forest, scrawled with the words "Mental atmosphere is key." The pictures are inspiration, a warning not to write "Asian insipid crap." Tired of staring at them, Tan would drag herself downstairs to the porch and curl up with a clipboard. The cats sat beside her for hours.

At first, she was afraid of being bitten or scratched. But she got to like them. Then love them. Then rely on them. Eventually, she was editing by hand just to be near them. She'd pick them up, kiss their filthy fur and wind up with a face full of pimples. "She would come running down the stairs, giddy as a teenager whose boyfriend had arrived," says Tan's husband, film critic John Powers.

Tan grins. More scrolling. More cat photos. "It's just insane," she says.

While it is not exactly hauling rocks in a gulag, novel writing is still hard, lonely work. The method to the madness differs for each novelist. Tan lingers at her computer, browsing images. She is a shut-in, a recluse, a self-avowed misanthrope. She is also lucky.

Nobody at big publishing houses buys unfinished novels from novices. But Grand Central did. "I think the ghosts had something to do with it," she says in a shrugging way.

She sold the first half, with a skeletal outline for the second half. It was simple math from then on: Write 300 pages in a year, or 50 pages a month with time left over to edit. She set herself a daily quota of two to three pages.

That's an average, of course. Because there are bad days when all you write is one sentence, and there are worse days when you write none. Frantic days follow when you have to make up for it. "It became this great mathematical system. When you become your own personal factory, it really helps to have these irrational balls of fur come along."

The fur balls arrived in the mornings. She'd wake up to find them lounging at the porch, or arrayed at the window like a diorama. Different cats and combinations of cats appeared on different days. "I had it all recorded like a crazy person," she says, embarrassed.

They represented life, reminding her to take pleasure in small things.

Their disappearances moved her even more. Black-haired Taco showed up on Halloween, when Tan was doing final copy edits, then vanished months later. To this day, she regrets yelling at him the last time she saw him.

Then one night, coming home from dinner, she and her husband found their very first cat visitor, Bandit, lying dead in the street. He'd been hit by a car. She touched him gently. His body was still warm.

It's not that she associates certain cats with specific chapters in the book. "If I were wise, I would say yes and then make it up," she teases.

But they affected the plot in stealthy ways. "They made me aware of the animal world. It's not just about dead humans and living humans. It was about life of all kinds. The book is about the animal kingdom going awry as well."

Awry is right: An octopus has sex with a woman. Eels chew their way through a girl's womb. Sharks burst out of tanks and attack children, chomping their arms and legs. There are horrific graveyard situations, and uprisings of the dead, human and animal both.

"Can you imagine?" Tan says. "You're writing this grim book. It gets grimmer and grimmer, and then every day in real life, look at this! How could you not be delighted?" She holds up a photo of a cat in a chair, its expression goofy and insistent.

"You are your worst critic every single day," she continues, letting the iPad fall to her lap. She worried about being disciplined, about whether her film critic husband was judging her work habits: "That's what I mean by grim. Not just the plot. As you write, you get so tired and angry at yourself, and you're hating what you come up with. Cats are the counterforce."

Colleagues advised Tan to begin with a slim novel. But she hates slim novels. She is not one to start at her "late age" (she just turned 40) with a jewel that no one will read. She wanted a long, juicy tale. She scrolls now to a picture of a cat nestled in her manuscript box. Finished, the tome is 472 pages, hefty enough to use as a club.

It isn't Memoirs of a Geisha, or The Joy Luck Club. "It's not like your grandmother's Amy Tan books," she says, "where the Asian heroine is driven by grievance, or defined by relationships to husbands or parents or children."

The clairvoyant protagonist, Cassandra, is a crabby, complicated woman. If it were up to the author, the cover would be black and the title scrawled in chalk -- which would then sell 10 copies. (The publishers decided on a beautiful girl with pouty lips and flowing black hair.)

The book surely will please readers of historical fiction. There are even indications that it will appeal to the post-Twilight crowd. "I'm hoping to be a perfectly calibrated Venn diagram," Tan says. "As many circles as possible."

The Black Isle is an elegant, disturbing and satisfying read, both epic and intimate. Tan owes this, she believes, to the cats. They are thanked by name in the back of the book -- all 11 of them -- after her husband and agent.

"Maybe if they had human characteristics, I would like them less," she says. "But they don't, and that's great. They're my nonjudgmental friends. And they don't poop in my house."

At night, after a full day's work, she would send the cats back out into the world, fed, petted and adored. "OK," she'd tell them. "We've nothing more to say to each other. I've told you you're cute, like, 10 times today."

Now, she says, "They really did help me. I highly recommend the capture of other people's cats. Other people's cats is crucial."

Follow me on Twitter at @gendyalimurung, and for more arts news follow us at @LAWeeklyArts and like us on Facebook.

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