A Year of Cats and Dogs by Margaret Hawkins is a quirky yet emotionally engaging novel that dares to answer the eternal question: What happens when nothing happens? Fed up with her largely meaningless job as a “Keepsake Conceptualizer for Sentiments and Social Expressions” for a company that manufactures tasteless chatchkes, the novel’s protagonist, Maryanne, joins the ranks of the unemployed in an effort to rediscover some modicum of passion in her life. Yet even as Maryanne tries to get away from it all, life has other plans. Soon Maryanne finds herself working as a kind of “dog whisperer” for a local animal shelter and, as is often the case in real life, her relationship with the animals she loves allows her to reconnect with her own humanity. A witty and enchanting book, A Year of Cats and Dogs offers a refreshing perspective on life, death, and everything in between. Taking a break from her busy schedule, Margaret Hawkins recently took some time to chat with us about her book.
Tell us a little bit about A Year of Cats and Dogs. What is the novel about, and what inspired you to write it?
Well, philosophically, the novel is about death and change and how change is a kind of death. It’s also about cycles and opposites – life and death, cats and dogs, action and inaction, yin and yang – the old “ to everything there is a season” idea. Hence the cover.
But in concrete terms it’s also about love and relationships and animals and what they teach us. I was living with a dog and a cat when I wrote it and I was fascinated to observe them and just blown away by how smart and dignified and mysterious and affectionate they were. I wanted to explore ideas around that. Animals really do communicate – it’s interesting to me to consider how.
I guess my animals inspired me to write the book. I had the first sentence in mind for some time and finally I wrote it down and kept going, to see what would happen.
What drew you to the character of Maryanne?
I wanted her to be sympathetic but also kind of a mess, a comic foil and blank slate for everything that was going on around her. She’s ineffectual and frozen, emotionally, and it makes her a bit of an unreliable narrator. Of course I agree with a lot of things she says but sometimes she’s a little off and needs to rethink things. When she tells her sister not to call her feckless that’s when we know for sure she’s feckless. I wanted to work with a character that had a lot to learn.
Listening is a major theme in the novel, and a lot of the listening that Maryanne learns how to do occurs against the backdrop of her interest in Eastern culture — as exemplified by her reliance on the I Ching for guidance. Do you see a connection between listening and Eastern culture in general (and the I Ching specifically)? Conversely, do you see listening as a lost art in the Western world?
Yes, the book is about listening – that’s a really good point though I didn’t think of it as such until you said so. But it is. Maryanne goes into self-imposed isolation in which she’s waiting or listening for answers. Of course that is the Eastern way, not to be aggressive. It’s kind of funny though because while she’s trying to clear away all the noise and clutter in her life to hear subtle messages from animals and from beyond and from her dead mother and from the I Ching and other religious systems she is at the same time adding to the din by writing these corny pounding rhymes that crash on the ear. My hope is that finally she learns to be quiet and listen to her own heart a little bit.
On one hand, A Year of Cats and Dogs is ostensibly about “doing nothing,” yet for someone who’s doing nothing, Maryanne ends up doing an awful lot with her life. Do you think it’s possible to do nothing, or does life always seek us out and, in effect, force us to do something?
There is no such thing as doing nothing as long as you have a mind. Maryanne leads a rich inner life even if she doesn’t get a lot done in the world at first. Life always seeks us out but I think it’s important sometimes to withdraw a little and pay attention to what feels authentic rather than just keeping busy. Once she does that she knows what else to do.
Death is also a strong presence throughout your novel, and for the most part, Maryanne is fairly comfortable with the subject. For you, what is the relationship between life and death? How do they give each other meaning?
Of course death is an inevitable part of life though some people feel there is no such thing as death, just change. I’m interested that you think Maryanne is comfortable with death. I guess she is because this is the work she chooses but I still wanted the reader to understand how painful all these losses are for her – her relationship, her job, her father, her dog Bob, even her house – I just didn’t want to describe that. I wanted her grief to be so deep as to be inexpressible. It’s why she’s so frozen. I wanted to pull a curtain over her grief and give her some privacy rather than show her ranting and raving. Her losses make me sad. There are parts of this book I don’t reread because they make me too sad.
I’m curious about your decision to include recipes in the book. There’s something very communal about the idea of different readers sitting down to enjoy not just your book but some of the dishes that you describe. As a writer, why did you include the recipes, and have you actually made all of them?
I love the idea of readers sitting down to share the book by making the recipes – I would love it if that happened though they should feel free to change them to suit themselves. Of course I’ve made them! Most of these are things I make a lot, but I’ve made all of them at least twice. The measurements are approximations though – I don’t usually measure. And the recipes are supposed to be vague, to reflect Maryanne’s state of mind. I guess I always had a fantasy about being a food writer but I have no qualifications so this is my sneaky way of doing that and then I thought it would be interesting to include the thoughts of the cook, all the tangential and inappropriate things people think about while they’re cooking.
Your author bio mentions that you’ve worked as an art critic. How has your work in this field informed your literary aesthetic?
I think I look for the same things in art that I look for in writing – honesty, form, ideas, beauty, humor, a kind of tenderness or handmade quality, a willingness to take risks and break rules but then make up news ones and adhere to them. Probably though the main thing I’ve taken from writing about art for years has been the discipline to write to word count on a deadline every week.
Finally, there’s some debate in A Year of Cats and Dogs as to whether life has a plot. What’s your opinion on the issue?
I guess I was trying to figure that out when I wrote this. It’s really a question of whether there’s intelligent design. Do we have a purpose? A destiny? Does it matter what we do? In my darker moments I’m afraid not but mostly I believe yes life has a plot. It certainly is full of surprises though and I like not knowing the ending.