Steve Liskow has published several short stories, and “Stranglehold” appeared in Alfred Hitchcock Mystery Magazine after winning the Black Orchid Novella Award for 2009. His first novel, Who Wrote The Book of Death?, came out last spring. A former English teacher, he still conducts writing workshops and is a contributor to Now Write! Mystery, Thrillers and Crime, due from Tarcher/Penguin in 2012. A member of both MWA and SinC, he lives in central Connecticut with his wife Barbara and two rescued cats and claims to be working on several projects. For more, www.steveliskow.com .
Steve is back today to talk about his delightful feline friends.
Ernie, a strawberry-blond Maine coon, was a year old when he was put into a Tennessee animal shelter that would have euthanized him in 48 hours. The people running that shelter called in some huge favors and a volunteer drove him and his playmate, Jewel, a shy Himalayan seven months older than he was, up to another facility in Connecticut. That ride probably traumatized the pair as much as losing their family in the first place.
The day they cleared quarantine, my wife saw Ernie’s picture on PetFinder.com in all his fluffy glory. We had spent the previous year—the only one of our twenty-seven together without at least one cat—mourning Persephone, who passed away at age twenty. We agreed that we wanted two young cats because they’d help each other acclimate to a new home.
Happily, the shelter insisted that Ernie and Jewel came as a team, so we called to arrange a meeting. Jewel spent the whole hour hiding under her bunk bed so all we saw was a fluffy gray tail, but Ernie played the perfect host, purring, climbing into our laps, and generally showing what a playful kid he was. Both cats responded to their names, so we knew we wouldn’t change them. That weekend, we returned with our cat carriers.
After another hour drive—experience has taught both cats that cars suck—Ernie approved our condo on sight, but Jewel hid under the coffee table in the basement. She let us pet her and talk to her, but it took a week before we saw her grooming in a living room chair and another week before she let us see her eating in the kitchen. By then, Ernie had figured out how to open our closet doors and how to walk across the armoire to adjust the Venetian blinds in our bedroom. A few weeks later, he knocked a fluffy mouse magnet off the refrigerator. That kill became his favorite toy and he would fetch it for as long as one of us would throw it. It disappeared a few months ago, and I think it got mixed in with the Christmas wrappings. He still knocks magnets off the refrigerator, but none of them have captured his fancy like that mouse.
Not quite two years since that drive from the shelter, Jewel sleeps between us on cold nights and Ernie drapes himself over my ankles. He looks like a tiny lion and has the heart of a golden retriever. He eats as much as a college football team, but Jewel, whom the shelter workers described as a “full-figured gal,” could wear a jersey with three digits on it. Himalayans are half Persian and half Siamese, so she also has a vocabulary of at least thirty-five distinct squeaks, yelps, chirps, and burbles. Watching UConn women’s basketball, she even makes a sound that might be “Maya Moore.” When she purrs, it sounds like the dishwasher is running downstairs, and, in spite of her size, she can dance lightly as a ballerina. When I’m writing, she curls up next to my gym bag, which is about the same size and shape. Ernie likes to sit in my lap while I read, and Jewel prefers to snuggle with my wife.
Both cats help me create character.
A character in Jodi Picoult’s novel House Rules claims that all cats have Asperger’s syndrome, and it may be true. If you have a cat, you know it’s always about them. Cats are narcissists at heart, and that fits well with some of my best villains. When they stalk prey, they show a focus that can be truly frightening, but they also convey a calculation that
works as well with sleuths as with villains.
Only my daughter has ever seen Jewel—dashing for the basement when that strange woman walked in the front door. She shares her birthday with Hank Williams—which may explain her quirkiness—and likes to sit on freshly-printed love scenes. Ernie, whose body language shouts “Dude!” urges me to write more car chases and gunfights. His joie de vivre shows up in the sidekick of my protagonist, too.
Pets don’t have to just be role models, though. They can help you depict character in other ways. How do you feel about someone who doesn’t like dogs or cats? Worse still, someone who will mistreat them? Several protagonists in long-running mystery series have cats, including Elvis Cole and Carlotta Carlyle.
In my novel Who Wrote The Book of Death?, protagonist Beth Shepard misses her tiger cat, Rufus, because she is living with a man who is allergic to cats. In an unsold series, my female protagonist Megan Traine lives with a tuxedo cat with double paws whom she calls “Clyde” (short for “Clydesdale”) and his calico sister, Bonnie. Meg gauges potential
boyfriends by how well the cats react to him and vice versa.
Ernie and Jewel change their favorite places to hang out with the seasons and keep finding new ways to amuse themselves when they don’t want attention or food. Since his mouse disappeared, Ernie has discovered shoe laces, so getting dressed in the morning has become one of my major projects. He also likes to climb into our entertainment unit and push the CDs out of the shelf so he can curl up there. As spring approaches, both cats like to sit on the desk and look out the office window. Ernie rests his forepaws on the sill like a guy bellying up to the bar. Jewel apparently recognizes every squirrel in the evergreen outside that window. She talks to most of them (in Squirrel, of course) just like a good neighbor.
And both cats have a great sense of perspective. No plot problem is so bad you can’t solve it by curling up in a sunbeam and sleeping on it.