The Rumpus Interview with Caroline Paul and Wendy MacNaughton
A few years back, my friend Caroline Paul crashed her experimental plane and broke her body in ways it was painful to contemplate. She’s okay now—this is not one of those stories. Actually, it’s another kind of story altogether, one I didn’t see coming at the time, and one Caroline didn’t see coming, either. It’s about her cat, sort of. Immobilized and despondent, she fixated on her cat Tibby, who’d been a steady companion for thirteen years but who suddenly vanished during this difficult period. Five weeks later he returned—suspiciously well-fed. In a haze of betrayal and pain meds, Caroline set out to learn where he’d been going.
This past April, Bloomsbury published Lost Cat: A True Story of Love, Desperation, and GPS Technology, a collaboration between Caroline and her partner, the illustrator Wendy MacNaughton. The book has been a big hit. It’s funny and moving and it puts a smart paw on some interesting intersections: love and control and technology and neighbors and more.
On a recent morning, I sat down with them in their home in San Francisco’s hilly Potrero Hill district. Full disclosure: we’re all friends, the three of us. I decided to exploit that fact as best I could, with prying questions and the occasional intemperate remark.
The Rumpus: How often do you think about the crash?
Caroline Paul: More than thinking about the crash, I just think about how lucky I was. But I guess I’m reminded of it now and then because I still don’t walk perfectly. Really, I’d rather not remember. It was a very dark time.
Wendy MacNaughton: We did do a book about it.
Paul: Silly me…
Rumpus: This is a book with technology at or near its center. What was it like having tech become a prominent part of your lives in this way?
MacNaughton: Wasn’t it Marshal McLuhan who said all technology is an extension of ourselves? That’s sort of what it was for us. We attached GPS, kitty cams, and video to Tibby’s collar to find out where he went, but we were also soothing our own insecurities. We went super-analog, too. At one point, Caroline went to animal communications class, hoping to ask Tibby about his travels.
Paul: I was really pliable and open to everything during that time. Painkillers, and depression, does that to you. I even signed up for Facebook, which was something I swore I’d never do. But there’s something to be said for not being your usual self for a while.
Rumpus: How are you guys about monitoring each other’s movements?
MacNaughton: It would be so boring if Caroline GPSed me. I’d either be upstairs or at my studio.
Paul: I was put on the watch list a few years ago. So my movements have been monitored, and it’s not a pleasant feeling. Though in a strange way you also feel important. [Caroline has previously written about this for The Rumpus.]
Rumpus: This is also a book about neighbors. What’s your reputation in your neighborhood these days? How are you perceived?
MacNaughton: Cat ladies. The cats are like our kids. We fuss with them in the backyard like they’re our kids. So we probably seem a little…off. But we’re friendly, too. And more connected with our neighbors since the book.
Rumpus: Any self-consciousness about all the pet love?
Paul: No shame at all. Animals offer a connection that humans don’t. It’s an unconditional love, and it’s a love that’s less fraught than with humans.
MacNaughton: But I think the whole pet economy is insane. It’s a little bit irresponsible. People spending all this money on outfits for their pugs often don’t think twice about walking past someone on the street who has nowhere to live. It’s the fetishization that I have issues with. The people for whom pets are an accessory.
Rumpus: What are the themes readers are responding to in the book?
Paul: People are responding to the way our relationships with animals are very similar to our relationships with the world, and with humans. It’s not just a cat story to them.
MacNaughton: And how love goes through phases, and develops over time. And how there are certainties and uncertainties.
Paul: And of course the vagaries of long-term relationships. Tibby had been with me for thirteen years when this happened.
Rumpus: By the way, it occurred to me that you’ve rewritten Misery, the Stephen King book. Terrible accident, writer immobilized for a long time. But instead of someone jealously trying to control your movements, you’re trying to control your cat’s. Or at least you want to know where the hell he’s been.
Paul: That’s true. I didn’t think about that.
Rumpus: Have other new interpretations of the book dawned on you since it came out?
Paul: One thing that people have pointed out, which I was less aware of: the book speaks to the loss that’s implicit and inevitable in love—by breakup, or death, or a cat that runs away.
Rumpus: Not to out you two or anything, but you’re lesbians in a relationship. Have you picked up on any kind of response to that from your readers?
MacNaughton: We had a conversation toward the end about whether anybody would have any issues with us being a couple. Caroline and I have an age difference—I’m younger—and I think that affects how we understand sexuality and society. I totally take my sexuality for granted. It’s not the first identity I have when I walk in a room.
Paul: I grew up at a time when it was a huge deal to come out. I knew I was a lesbian since I was, like, two—and I didn’t come out until I was twenty-one.
MacNaughton: And for me, even in high school, it was no big thing.
Paul: When I wrote my first book in 1998, about being a San Francisco firefighter, I heard from the gay press that I’d written too little about being gay, and from the straight audience that I’d written too much. But this time around, nobody’s blinked an eye.
MacNaughton: We did get someone on Goodreads who gave us a lot of stars, but said, Be warned: they are lesbians and atheists.
Rumpus: Speaking of your relationship: if producing a book is this abiding fantasy for a lot of people, then doing it with your partner is the ultimate dream, right? Like when George Costanza wanted to watch TV and eat a sandwich while having sex. Talk a little about the reality of the experience.
MacNaughton: It was certainly stressful at times.
Paul: It was both. Like every aspect of a relationship anyway, parts are great and parts are tedious or upsetting.
MacNaughton: Mostly the tension would be around expectations. When issues came up, they weren’t about the work but the emotional read of the work.
Paul: Right. For example, when I handed a chapter to Wendy and she didn’t read it right away, I knew she didn’t love me anymore.
MacNaughton: There were some big “discussions” around prioritization. Which is a relationship issue, too, of course. We always want to feel we’re the priority to our partner, right?
Paul: Right. When I’d say, “The book is a priority,” what I’d mean is, “Am I the priority?” In some ways it was easy to work together because we really respected each other’s skills. That part was pretty seamless. In fact, we agreed early on that we would not edit each other. And that was fine, because I really liked everything of hers.
Rumpus: Oh, god. Get a room.
Paul: There were people who advised me not to do a book with my partner. Most of them were in bad relationships and bad marriages. My advice to others is to go into it with a solid foundation. You can’t treat the collaboration like the baby you have to try to mend your marriage. The book’s not going to fix anything—and it will make things worse, if you have problems.
I’d also say, try to make the collaboration as quick as possible. Our publisher expected us to do it in a year. I told them we’d do it in three months. It made the good and the bad more compact, which in hindsight was great.
MacNaughton: Yeah, I can’t imagine a couple writing a long novel together.
Paul: Agreed. We’ll work on eating a sandwich and watching TV while having sex first.
All artwork © 2013 by Wendy MacNaughton and featured in Lost Cat: A True Story of Love, Desperation, and GPS Technology.