David Means on Writing Animals Truthfully

Your story in this week’s issue, “Chance the Cat,” is, as the title suggests, about a cat called Chance. When did this cat first come into your mind as a possible fictional character?

I based the cat in the story on a real cat. His name is Baudelaire, and he was found on the street in Chicago, not far from the Obamas’ house on the South Side. He lives in Boston now, but he was at our house recently and we spent some time together. So I’d had him in mind for a few years before I began writing the story.

Chance is discovered on the street by Kayla and William, two students at the University of Chicago who have just started dating. Kayla is Black and William is white. When you started writing the story, did you know there’d be an interracial relationship at its heart?

I began by imagining the cat and the landscape—not only that part of Chicago, the physical landscape, but the historical landscape—and, of course, my own limitations, when it comes to knowing what it’s like to be a cat. And then, early on, I saw Kayla and William bumping into each other and then, as I was writing, I was listening to them talking at the café. I knew early on that they were going to rescue the cat and make up stories about him. I didn’t know there was going to be this interracial relationship at the heart of the story, but it appeared as soon as they bumped into each other and shared information about what they were researching—and then they rescued the cat.

William is studying Henry Louis Gates, Jr., and writing a thesis on the theory of signification. He tends to lapse into lecture mode, which Kayla seems to tolerate. She’s studying Foucault, but doesn’t appear to be quite as assertive as William in discussing her theories. What did you want to convey about the day-to-day nature of their interactions? How important a role does Chance play in keeping them together?

I’m not sure if Kayla really tolerates William in his lecture mode—at least she doesn’t in the long run. William imagines the life of Chance on the street in one way, and she imagines Chance’s survival in other ways. There’s a certain point, and perhaps this is true of all human relationships, where one is tolerating the other, where the balance isn’t perfect. Sometimes love—I mean really passionate eros—is powerful enough to override this imbalance, but I’m not sure if they were really in love. That’s for the reader to tweeze out.

Kayla’s apartment, which William moves into, is near the Obamas’ house in Hyde Park. There are always Secret Service agents guarding the property. Partway through, the perspective of the story shifts, and we see events from the point of view of an agent called Dwight. Did you do any research on the Secret Service, or did you rely purely on your imagination when considering how he’d approach his job?

I had a family member who lived in that neighborhood, right down the street from the Obamas’ house, and when the President was in town the Secret Service personnel stopped everyone and checked their names against a list. I didn’t research the Secret Service, although I did see a video on Japanese trains and how operators are taught to say things out loud, to repeat operational instructions out loud even when they’re alone, and that got me thinking about these jobs people have—standing, watching, guarding—and the history behind that type of work.

Early on in their relationship, Kayla and William take a train to Michigan City, Indiana. Kayla, thinking back about this time some years later, is still a little troubled by the interaction they had with a white conductor. In Chicago, whenever Kayla and William are stopped by Dwight, he seems to give William a harder time. Is it difficult for Kayla and William to articulate their feelings about these encounters?

I imagine that Kayla can articulate what she felt in those encounters, because she’s writing something that will clarify the dynamic—and she’s had to think about this kind of encounter her entire life. With William, I’m not so sure that he’ll ever really be able to articulate what was happening to him, and of course he’s the one who talks the most. I saw William as someone who can easily talk himself into a corner, using academic jargon, and then just sit there for the rest of his life, perfectly content.

As the story unfolds, it seems to be Kayla’s story more than anyone’s, because we learn that she’s writing an essay that draws on this time in her life. But it’s also the cat’s story; this is the creature that embodies the narrative. Toward the end, though, an authorial “you” emerges more distinctly. Whose story do you think it is?

In a way, all stories, all art, are a confession of limitation, and that’s inherent in the fact that a story has to begin somewhere and end somewhere else. Personally—and this is just me right now, thinking about it—I want to believe that it’s Kayla’s story, but I also want to be honest enough to admit that it isn’t. I felt a call-and-response as I wrote and revised, a sense of wanting to pin down what mattered—I guess that’s obvious—but I also wanted to expose my limits, and let the cat take over.

Nearly every section of the story opens with a question or an answer about what matters. Were those opening refrains in your mind from the beginning?

I just let those questions and answers, which are the questions all writers ask as they create, or as they revise, into the narrative. Does this particular thing matter in the wider story I’m imagining? I let those bones stay on the surface. It’s the fundamental question we ask, or should be asking, all the time: does this matter? Doesn’t everything matter? Does that glance mean what I think it means? What can I imagine? What can’t I imagine?

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