Mother finds her way back to life with the help of ‘The Cat’

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Elise is a single mother whose only child is killed in a freak accident. Distraught, she at first wants to join her son —  but then realizes she must stay alive to care for his beloved cat, which gradually draws her back into life. “The Cat,” by award-winning Israeli-born author Edeet Ravel, got its start from the July 2011 news that a gunman had opened fire at a youth camp on a Norwegian holiday island, killing 77 people, setting off a compulsion that had her writing so rapidly she completed a draft of the book in six weeks. Ravel spoke with Reuters about her writing, loss and why she chose a cat to help her heroine return to life.

What got this book started?
I began writing the book on July 23, 2011, a day that I remember very well because it was the day after the horrific attack in Norway. I read about the terrible tragedy and I thought of the parents. Many writers try to understand these horrific events by writing about the event itself — the violence, the perpetrators, the victims — but I turned my attention to the bereaved parents, and friends and relatives, because their lives can never be the same, and I began writing “The Cat.”

With this novel, even though it was extremely hard to write — in fact, it was the hardest thing I’ve ever done in my writing career — I had at the same time a compulsion to tell Elise’s story. That was really unlike anything I’d ever experienced before. I simply couldn’t stop writing. I’d go to bed scratching sentences in the dark as I fell asleep. I woke up with sentences ready to go and I’d have to rush to the computer to get it all down before doing anything else. I had to leave my exercise class to scribble sentences in the margin of the schedule. Like the time that I left a bar mitzvah in the middle and I went to the ladies’ room and I began scribbling on the bar mitzvah program. It was going on constantly for about six weeks, until the first draft was finished.

Why was there such a compulsion?
I think it was something that had been on my mind for a very long time because I was close to two people who lost children, and because as a parent, like all parents, I live daily with my inability to protect my child from harm, try as I may. So it’s a very emotional topic and probably because it was so difficult to write I pushed it away and tried not to write it. I think there was a build-up. There will always be things we can’t control with our children, and yet the loss of a child is unimaginable — except that a parent lives with that possibility every minute of every day, from the minute our child is born.

What was your relationship with Elise through this intense process?
Elise took over the novel. I always have an entire world set up in my mind before I begin writing, but even more so in this case. It can take years but in the case of “The Cat,” it was almost instantaneous. I knew who Elise was, I knew where she lived, I knew her story and her son’s story, where she came from and what she felt about everything. So I would say that this was a case where the story led the way and I followed.

She came into your head fully developed?
Yes. It must have happened overnight because I read about the events and I went to sleep. I think I was thinking about what had happened all night. When I woke up, I just wrote on my computer screen “The Cat.”

When you were living so closely and intensely with that world, was that hard for you?
Yes. During the time that I was writing, I can’t remember what else I was doing. The novel took over my life and I was writing every free minute that I had, and it was very emotional. It was difficult. I was extremely involved in the story and I felt that I was not inventing events. In one sense I was creating a fictional world, but in another sense I was writing about something so real that happens, sadly, to so many people.

Why a cat, why not a dog?
I think that she would not have forgotten, even for a few minutes, that she had a dog to take care of. When she comes home from the hospital, she actually has forgotten that there’s a cat in the house. Of course, cats can hide away in a corner and be very quiet and unnoticeable; they can blend in. That beloved creature is the key to her survival, and the cat represents both the spiritual dimension that keeps her alive but also, I think, a more primal energy or instinct that gives us the energy to go on after a loss like that. … I was thinking in terms of both that instinct and the spiritual dimension.

Cats give you more space in general.
Yes. A dog can actually communicate more directly. Many dogs have that ability to communicate with humans, but with the cat there’s more guesswork involved. … [It's] a mirror of her isolation, the mystery and the inability to understand what has happened to her.


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