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In 'Catnip,' Love And Loss Sketched Out In Cat Cartoons

Michael Korda's new book Catnip: A Love Story is drawn from scribbles that amused in a time of anxiety. Korda's wife, Margaret, was diagnosed with a malignant brain tumor. She went riding most days of what turned out to be the last year of her life, and each day, he sketched cartoons of their cats on the back of old manuscripts in the tackroom.

Cats cooking and dining, cats in cowboy hats, cats playing musical instruments and dancing the cat-can. Margaret shared photos of those cartoons, drawn in love and intended to distract and delight. "I should make it clear ... that I am fond of cats, but I'm not a natural cat person," Korda says. The cats came via Margaret, who always had at least one. "And I've gotten used to cats, and even been very fond of some of the cats, though they were not always fond of me. And so when it came time to find something that would amuse her, I decided to do little cat cartoons."

Interview Highlights

On how the cats helped them

Margaret, once the first two brain surgeries had failed to halt the advance of the brain tumor, elected, very strongly desired to die at home in her own bedroom, in her own bed. And I made that possible, supported that decision. And the cats knew she was dying. And they absolutely were supportive of that, 24/7, there would always be one of them lying next to her in the bed, even though most of them resented the presence of a 24/7 nurse. But one of them always stayed close, to the very end. And I was very impressed by that, because you don't necessarily always think of cats as being warmly sympathetic, and cats do tend to be aloof in character. But Margaret's were not. And I wanted to somehow convey in this short book the feeling that was going on between the cats and Margaret.

On writing about the death of someone you love

It's difficult to do that without being either grim or lachrymose. I think Catnip tries to avoid both those things. It's not possible to write a funny book about death, but it's possible to write a book about death that in some way pays tribute to the living, and to life, even if it's through cats.

On how the cats are coping with loss

The cats are doing just fine. But you know, it's very interesting, they know Margaret is gone, and they miss Margaret. Ruby, for example, always liked to sit next to Margaret in the bathroom in the mornings, while Margaret put on her makeup. And she'll go and sit in that exact place every morning, at exactly the time Margaret put on her makeup. And wait. And you can't ascribe to animals feelings they don't have. But clearly she knows Margaret is gone, and she misses her, and she goes to that place. I think cats know more than we think they do.

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Scott Simon is one of America's most admired writers and broadcasters. He is the host of Weekend Edition Saturday and is one of the hosts of NPR's morning news podcast Up First. He has reported from all fifty states, five continents, and ten wars, from El Salvador to Sarajevo to Afghanistan and Iraq. His books have chronicled character and characters, in war and peace, sports and art, tragedy and comedy.