Probably there are as many writers who are dog people as those who are cat people, but the idea of cats as the foremost literary familiar has long been entrenched and seems unlikely to be dislodged any time soon. (I have a friend who insists that if a person hates cats that person can’t be a writer.) Cat books are known to outsell dog books, and the average well-read person can rattle off a list of cat-besotted authors, from Mark Twain to William S. Burroughs to Patricia Highsmith. Conjure up an image of, say, Hemingway or Colette, and you may find that a cat has sneaked into the frame. In 1995, when A Cat was first published, I didn’t know the author well enough to know how he felt about my favorite animal. I do remember being surprised, though. The last thing I would have expected from Leonard Michaels was a cat book.
I had met him about twenty years before, when I accompanied a friend to the Berkeley campus of the University of California, where she had been invited to teach at a weeklong writers’ conference and Michaels, the conference organizer, was on the faculty. I was excited to meet him. I had read the brilliant, nervy, exquisitely written stories in his two collections, Going Places and I Would Have Saved Them If I Could, and I was a fan. He was forty-three, as handsome as his author photo, with luxurious dark hair, Mr. Rochester’s great, dark eyes, and a moody-looking, at times sullen, expression. His voice was also dark, the voice of a tough guy (I could have said thug), a voice you would not have wanted to hear raised at you, especially since it was obvious that beneath a gentle and self-deprecating surface was a very angry man.
From his stories I knew that he had a natural dry wit and a wicked sense of humor, but that week brought out little of that side of him. I was shocked at how openly miserable he was. Though, like his first book, his recently published second one had been widely praised, including on the front page of the New York Times Book Review, it had also been subject to a cruel and blockheaded attack by an unfortunately highly regarded critic in the New York Review of Books. Michaels made no secret of how much that review had enraged him, or how depressing he found the life of a writer. But in fact, much of the conversation I heard that week at the faculty club was in the same vein. The cheapskate publishers, the egotistical editors, the philistine readers, the lazy or malicious critics. You publish a book, said one writer, and it’s like you become a fire hydrant, there to be pissed on by any dog that comes along. Cats, as I recall, were never mentioned. Read More