Jul/Aug 2006  •   Reviews & Interviews

An Interview with Author Terry Bain

Interview by Elizabeth P. Glixman

Terry Bain's latest book, We Are the Cat: Life Through the Eyes of the Royal Feline, published by Harmony Books, will be released in August, 2006. If you have ever wondered how your cat sees the world, this is the book to read. You can get Bain's and his cat's takes on what felines thinks about the telephone, the kitchen rug, the neighbors, utility poles, litter boxes, veterinarians, dog messes, the closet door, their human families, and a whole bunch of other daily events and objects. Bain's reflections on why cats behave as they do are humorous, heartfelt and often poetic. What makes his book different than others in the humor genre is that Bain is able to unite the mundane and the profound in an appealing prose style. This is a book that will make you smile, laugh, reflect, and say ah ha. 

Bain is also author of You Are a Dog: Life Through the Eyes of Man's Best Friend (Harmony Books, 2004). He won an O'Henry Award for short fiction in 1994 for a story titled "Games," which was published in The Gettysburg Review. Bain lives in Spokane, Washington, with his wife, two children, two dogs, Sadie and Pretzel, and a cat.

Many famous writers have had cat companions. Steinbeck had Charley. Flannery O'Connor had Pea-fowl. Hemingway had his Polydactyl Cat. Terry Bain has Swiper, who has this to say about Terry:

Scratch is what we call the male adult Lap of our household. He pretends at times to be of some importance to rule or control. But there is little in the household that he actually rules or controls. Perhaps he rules and controls the extremely noisy and irritating car that nobody ever drives or rides but him. We do not know. (28)



EG     Hi, Scratch. I hope it is okay to call you Scratch?

TB     No problem.

EG     I think people who have trouble sleeping should read We Are The Cat. This is a compliment. It is a relaxing book you can think about when you wake up. It kind of curls around you like a purring cat.

Here is a passage from "Computer Monitor" from We Are the Cat, where your cat discusses sleep:

"Okay, Kitty," says Scratch. He lifts us and sets us on the floor, at which time we jump back up and approach the computer monitor, savoring what we are about to do. Up. Up on top of the monitor. So very. Warm. And full of the scent of sleep. The knowledge of sleep. The approach of sleep. The sound of sleep invading us. The taste of sleep. It is so lovely. This sleep. Full of dreams of scooping fish from a pond. Many fish scooped out onto the shore of the pond. Fish on which to gorge ourselves. So we gorged; we are soon sleepy. Sleepy even in our dreams, ready for sleep even in our dreams, another dream embedded inside the dream of fishing. A dream of what?" (152-153)

Do you like to sleep as much as Swiper does?

TB     What did you say? I think I drifted off. And yes. If it weren't for the irritating custom of large corporations of sending bills for things like electricity and internet usage, I likely would sleep most of the day. And maybe much of the night.

EG     From your book I sense cats are not only great sleepers but pragmatists.

TB     For the most part I would say this is true, but I would hate to make broad generalizations about felines. I suppose when you look at the worldview of almost any animal, it would be somewhat pragmatic. That is, any animal—dog, cat or pea fowl—might react to a given situation based on the utility or consequences of their actions, rather than dwelling on what is "good" or "right" or even "moving fast have to catch it." I also reserve the right to completely and utterly contradict myself at any time, so the entire statement above may be hogwash.

EG     What is a pea-fowl?  The word has appeared in this interview three times.

TB     Male pea-fowl are peacocks, Female are peahens. Both are peafowl.

EG     Was Swiper in the same room with you when you wrote We Are The Cat?

TB     Swiper is almost never in the same room with me, unless I find her sleeping, at which point I can pet and scratch and sit and listen and she doesn't move. Or, if I go into the bathroom, she will follow me in, hoping I will not leave again until she is finished eating. She likes company when she is eating, and I presume she believes that if I am not in the bathroom, there must be no food in the bowl. 

EG     Isn't it unsanitary to feed your cat in the bathroom? I mean really.

TB     Um, seriously? My cat brings dead things into my house. And she gets a shelf to herself in there below the towels. If it's unsanitary, then so are the towels.

EG     How much time do you spend writing?

TB     I try to spend the majority of my weekdays writing, but it doesn't always work out that way. I work at home, and try to keep myself open to requests and needs of my family (wife, kids, animals... not necessarily in that order).

EG     What do you write besides funny books on furry creatures?

TB     I write fiction and essays and blog posts (likely way too many of the latter). I've also been a book designer for several years, but haven't had much of an opportunity lately to do that... but since I'd rather be writing, I haven't really pursued it.

EG      Since you wrote a book on dogs and one on cats it is hard to tell if you prefer dogs to cats? I know Swiper was upset you wrote You Are the Dog first.

We also wonder why on earth he would choose to write about dogs before writing about cats; this we feel speaks directly to his character, and we therefore must assume that he is more seriously flawed than we previously thought (pg.19).

How could you do such a heartless thing? (I'm partial to cats at this moment.)

TB     I really didn't think about it much. In fact, I didn't intend to write a book about either animal. I started writing from the point of view of our dog, Pretzel, and had a heck of a good time with it. When I was finished with that, it seemed only natural for the cat to have her day. Of course, she didn't really want her day. She'd rather you simply open the door and let her out. There are birds out there making noise, and she has scentmarking to perform.

EG     I have to wonder. Are you part animal? Your take on how cats and dogs perceive the world makes sense to me. Do you turn into a cat at night?

TB     Well, I'm human. Humans are about as animal as we let ourselves be. Sometimes we let what we think we believe get in the way of what we believe, and this keeps us from understanding a lot of the world, including animals. So the more I can get my second thoughts to turn off, the closer I can come to my first thoughts—thoughts that don't necessarily have words but can nevertheless be described—so as to be compassionate with our animal cousins.

EG     I am not sure what you just said, Scratch.

TB       Hm. I think what I mean is that all of us are animals, but it's way too easy to forget that. Animals can help us remember, if we let them. I prefer to think that I'm simply compassionate with animals, and can therefore imagine them. I don't know if I come anywhere near the actual truth, but it might not matter. What is important to me is that I attempt to be compassionate on all accounts, to animals as well as to humans.

EG     I think you have a special connection with dogs and cats. Have you always had pets?

TB     The only time I didn't have either a cat or a dog was a brief and ugly educational stint... that is, while in college, I didn't have any animals. Also right after college I was animal-less, but once I was married and had children, it seemed the right thing to do.

EG     Do you kiss and hug your pets?

TB     Are there people who don't?

EG      When did your love affair with animals start?

TB     I don't know if I would call it a love affair... it seems more like a luxuriant necessity. Dogs and cats have adapted themselves to humans pretty darn well, so that they simply feel like a part of our lives whether we choose to accept them as such or not. I choose to accept them a such, and admire them for just exactly how well they fit. It's almost as if they act, in part, as a kind of putty to patch over our missing pieces. Of course, I can't really say that with a straight face, so maybe I'm just waxing sentimental.

EG     What do you mean by "missing pieces"?

TB     I start with the position that people are flawed, broken, imperfect—whatever language you want to use. As such, humans look to animals to putty over some of our cracks and crevices. They make us feel whole when we are broken. They look at us without judgment, which is a very different starting point for a relationship. I think a lot of people feel even more broken or judged than they actually are. Thus the popularity of pets. And thus the special place for dogs and cats, that each have adapted quite well to the "brokenness" we might feel. Ever come home to a dog who looks at you as if you are the beginning and end of the universe? How does that make a human being feel? In my experience it makes a human being feel pretty loved, and that goes a long way toward feeling less "broken."

EG     In return many many pet owners lavish all sorts of things on their pets beyond food and shelter. I was at PETCO yesterday watching dogs get groomed. What do you think they were thinking?

TB     At the groomer? Oh it could be anything. I know one of my dogs is likely thinking What have you done! What have you done! Why have you been given to these awful people with the machines making noise and the odors of thousands of dogs everywhere—so confusing—and how soon can you escape!? Other dogs might simply be wondering at all the scents. I'm under the impression that for dogs (and cats) that scent is much more vivid, perhaps akin to sound for us... and they "listen" to the lingering scent there... almost like reading the newspaper or listening to NPR. What happened here? What can I expect from this? Who has been here? How long has it been since my last meal? (A dog will naturally have some thoughts entirely disassociated from their surroundings.)

EG     Listening to the lingering scent... almost like reading a newspaper. Isn't there a word for that—for people who hear color?

TB     Synesthesia... I don't know if that's exactly what I mean. Synesthesia implies (I think) a "crossing of the wires," as it were, in that the senses get crossed. Animals use the scent in a different and more real way than we do. We might smell chocolate chip cookies and think chocolate chip cookies, but an animal is likely sensing a variety and strength of odor we simply can't imagine... and they use the information they collect this way, for more than just food seeking. When a dog stops to smell a telephone pole, for instance, he or she can tell within a few seconds how many dogs have been there, and how long it has been since they visited, and how regularly a scent is left on that pole. Similarly, a cat is always scentmarking her territory, making sure the community of cats knows what is hers and who she is and how long she's been here and how long she intends to stay. Think the cat rubbing up against your leg is just being friendly? Think again. She's leaving her scent, effectively telling you that you belong to her.

Evidence also suggests that dogs read human behavior especially well. It might just be that they were thinking, Oh, there's She Who's Trying To Decide What We're Thinking come to have a look. You wonder what it is she's thinking. Likely she's thinking, That dog looks hungry. Perhaps I should feed him. This is what you hope she is thinking. You sense there is a great quantity of food nearby. If you could only figure out how to work the can opener.

EG     How does your family feel about both books? The dog and cat told us things about your daughter Kitten Girl, your son Fly, and your wife Meoam.

TB     Well, it's a bit tricky, and I wouldn't say that those characters are actually pure representations of my family. Though they do resemble them an awful lot. If it bothers them, they've been good sports about it so far. Though I do get the occasional I do not do that, or I never said that. At which point I fall back to my previous position. I never intended for those characters to actually be pure representations of you. 

EG     Any new four-footed members in the family lately?

TB      We did get a dog since the publication of You Are a Dog. She's mentioned in We Are the Cat, and she's the one who gets along best with the cat. They fight like... oh, never mind.

I also have a new son, who's not quite crawling yet, so I don't think he counts as four footed either. Though he might be soon. Eventually I'm hoping he's two footed. But I won't hold it against him if he decides to crawl for a very long time. There are lots of friendly faces down there.

EG     Congratulations on your new son.  On another note, is there anything you would like to tell readers about We Are the Cat?

TB     It will be interesting to see how people respond to the book. It seems as if cat enthusiasts are a little more taken with their own opinion of what it means to be a cat, and I'm guessing I will rouse as much ire as enthusiasm. And I'm kind of looking forward to that. It should start some good discussion. Because I don't intend for the book to actually speak of every cat in the universe. It is one person and maybe one and a half cats. It's meant to make a person think. It's meant to make a person laugh. It is not meant to define cat-ness. And thank God for that. I could never, ever finish or even begin a book like that.

EG     "One and a half cats." Explain this, please.

TB     Oh, sorry. I used characteristics of other cats... some have been my companions, and some others. Not all of it comes from Swiper. So that's the half.

EG     Where do you go to get your pets? Do you support the view that people need to go to animal shelters to adopt homeless pets?

TB     My first dog as an adult (Pretzel) we got at a pet store, which I don't think I would do again. But the pet store in question only takes in either farm animals and breeders it's familiar with, though I can't be absolutely positive that they didn't come from some version of a puppy mill (except for the fact that she's a bit of a mutt). Our cat (Swiper) came from some friends who were taking care of a feral mother, so the kittens would likely go to a shelter. We decided to take the shortcut and adopt her. And Sadie we fell in love with from Petfinder and went to visit her at the shelter. Immediate love and absolute we are taking this dog home. I can hardly remember my life without her.

In any case, my view is that you are taking a risk at almost any pet store. Your pet may be from a puppy or kitten mill (though the problem is admittedly greater with puppies), and anyone who's ever seen the conditions at a mill will never, ever, ever adopt a pet from one. You are, of course, also taking your chances at a shelter, but at least you will likely be saving a dog's life. You have to be prepared for the unexpected no matter what, and be prepared to train your pet and care for it and not go into it haphazardly.

The third option is to find a reputable breeder. This can also be a tricky business. But if you are going to go to a breeder, I'd check sources on the internet. Google search the breeder. Ask friends. (And note that dogs especially have become a bit of a commodity lately, and the price for a pure breed dog can be outrageous... it makes me a little crazy.) Talk to breed specific groups. Or breed specific rescue groups. You may even find your pet directly through a rescue group. But don't—please don't—walk by the puppy in the window and decide on the spot that you need that puppy. You are asking for—and contributing to—trouble.

I'm afraid I'm getting preachy here. But sometimes a little preachy is good. Apparently you hit a nerve. Or at least that place on my back that makes me scratch my ear.

In the end it depends a lot on why you are getting a pet. If you're hoping to satisfy some "rescue" urge, then the choice is obvious. If you have specific needs in a pet, such as allergies, then you'll likely go to a breeder (poodles are well known to have the least effect on people with allergies, so you would want to find a good poodle breeder). Think before getting a pet. Please. The pets will thank you (in their own special way).

EG     Pet overpopulation and abuse are big issues. I think you can never get too preachy. On a lighter note how would two cats end this interview? Or a cat and a dog?

TB     Dog: Finished yet? Here's the Hurley. Throw the Hurley? Go for walk? Walk? Go for walk?

Cat: We've been waiting at the door for fifteen minutes. Did you not hear us calling you? Open the door now. Surely you are finished. And please, do something with the dog. She is driving us crazy.

EG     Thanks, Swiper and Scratch.


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