A Purrfect Tale of Love, Cats and Technology

BY Laura Sciuto  May 1, 2013 at 2:06 PM EST

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If you grew up with pets or have one now, you understand the unconditional love humans can feel for their animals, and animals for their owners. If you haven’t experienced this type of bond firsthand, you’ve most likely witnessed the power of a human-pet connection through someone.

“Lost Cat: A True Story of Love, Desperation, and GPS Technology” chronicles one example of this relationship via the tale of Caroline Paul and Wendy MacNaughton, the book’s author and illustrator, respectively, and Paul’s two cats, Tibby and Fibby.

“Lost Cat” begins with an experimental aircraft crash that injures Paul and renders her effectively on house arrest for months. During that time, her relationship with MacNaughton and her two kitties, Tibby and Fibby, are her main lifelines. When Tibby disappears for five weeks, Paul becomes distraught–after all, Tibby had been her cat for 13 years.

'Lost Cat: A True Story of Love, Desperation, and GPS Technology'Eventually, Tibby returns, but to Paul’s shock and dismay, he doesn’t seem the same kitty. Somehow he’s a different Tibby–a more adventurous, more sophisticated Tibby. Paul and MacNaughton find themselves wondering: Where was Tibby for five weeks, and what exactly did he find that so changed him? Thus ensues the tale of “Lost Cat,” which revolves around the couple’s quest to track Tibby as he embarks on subsequent mysterious travels. And, yes, there is “kitty GPS” involved.

Paul’s storytelling, combined with MacNaughton’s illustrations, some of which you can see above, add up to a thoughtful, kind and funny story about the love people can have for their pets and the weird places that this love and accompanying devotion can take them. But it also travels beyond the realm of human-pet relationships, offering commentary on all relationships and the roles of those we love, and sometimes don’t love, in our lives.

We recently talked to Paul and MacNaughton from their home in San Francisco about their book, and of course, Tibby:

ART BEAT: Caroline, you start off this story by describing this crazy plane crash you were in. How did that happen, and what was that like?

CAROLINE PAUL: Well, I fly an experimental plane, and it’s basically as I describe in the book: a hang glider. I tell people that when they say, ‘What’s an experimental plane? Sounds like something that can’t fly.’ Usually it does fly. It’s a hang glider with a go-cart underneath it and a lawnmower engine. And I’ve had some difficulties with it for a while, and I knew I was having problems, but I thought I could handle it. I was trying to fix it but not with probably as much enthusiasm as I should have, because I’m not very handy. I just thought I could sort of fly my way around it, and one day that didn’t work anymore.

ART BEAT: That’s definitely not an experience that everyone would live to tell about, so it’s an interesting way to start a book. Through your recovery you took on this cat-tracking adventure. How did you even think to start that?

CAROLINE PAUL: When Tibby left I was pretty devastated, and when he came back, I was happy. But as that sort of feeling began to fade, I started to feel all these emotions that I had never associated with my cat before: jealousy, betrayal. I think my world was already turned upside down by the plane accident, and I really thought that the one thing that I knew was my cats. So when he started to look like a completely different cat — not the shy cat that I had known but more of what I describe in the book as a “swashbuckling adventurer” — I was really turned upside down again, and I just wanted to follow him. I just wanted to find out what his secret life is, and Wendy is the person that said — because she was of the more rational mind at the time — she said, ‘Well, you know you clearly can’t. You’re on the sofa with pain killers and on crutches, so we’re going to have to figure out a technology that can.” So I went to a spy store. I didn’t really know what else to do. I figured the spies would know how to do something like track a cat.

ART BEAT: Yes, but that’s maybe not what everyone would think to do.

CAROLINE PAUL: Well, there’s a spy store in San Francisco! There’s one right there. I don’t know if it’s the only one the country, but it’s called the International Spy Store, and it’s got everything. I went right to the experts.

ART BEAT: Wendy, you suggested the technology, but your relationship with Caroline was fairly new at the time. What was going through your head at the beginning of this endeavor, and how did your thoughts about Caroline and kitties change throughout the story?

WENDY MACNAUGHTON: Well, when Caroline and I met and first got together, I was not that much of a cat person. In fact, I was not that much of a pet person in general. But I was pretending to be, as we are known to do when we are in the beginning stages of a relationship — anything that our new love loves we love, right? So I would pet the cat and do all that stuff. Then when the plane crash happened, everything really did turn upside down, and Caroline, like she just said, was in a pretty bad state. She’s a very adventurous, active person, and then to have that just turn around completely and be stuck inside, immobilized, was really hard for her. It was a difficult situation, so I was just trying to be as supportive as I could be, and encouraging as I could be. When she got interested in tracking the cat, it was actually this kind of sense of purpose. I’ve never been injured like Caroline was at the time but — and Caroline, you can interrupt me here at any time — but it seemed like she didn’t have much to do or much of a sense of real purpose when you’re recovering. Is that wrong? Is that ok to say?

CAROLINE PAUL: No, that’s completely true. Yes, I was adrift. I was afloat.

WENDY MACNAUGHTON: This quest to find out to what happened to these cats that she had relied upon for so long really gave her a sense a purpose, and I was definitely encouraging in any way shape or form. It was pretty incredible to watch that transformation, and I guess all the while I was spending time with these cats and getting to know them. I fell completely in love with them and ended up becoming, I think, as a crazy cat person — if, on occasion, sometimes not more than Caroline.

CAROLINE PAUL: We were both transformed, I guess.

ART BEAT: How did you both decide that this story would make a good book? And had you worked together before?

CAROLINE PAUL: Well, I’ll just suggest how it came into be in a book. I was on crutches for a long time, and I was hurt for at least over a year. It was obvious that I was injured. And some people would ask, and I would tell this long convoluted story that included a lot of things, like the injury and the recovery and how you recover from injury, and I would also talk about following Tibby. That’s when people’s eyes lit up. People would basically be bored with me until I started talking about stalking my cat, and then their eyes would light up, and that’s how you know you have a good story.

WENDY MACNAUGHTON: Well, yes, it was an adventure. It led from the GPS to the camera to the communication class and on and on. It was clear it was a good story. But we hadn’t collaborated on anything before. In fact, as an illustrator I’m used to working with people but not used to working with people who I’m close to, let alone in a relationship. And Caroline, as a writer I think you are used to working on your own, right?

CAROLINE PAUL: Yes, I’d never collaborated with anybody.

WENDY MACNAUGHTON: Yes, that’s how writers generally work. So this was a first for both of us, and it was a challenge because we have very different ways of working, and our sense of time is very different. Caroline is very punctual. She was a fire fighter and she’s a pilot, and you need to understand degrees and be very specific about things. If she says she’s going to be there in an hour, she is there in an hour. I say an hour, and I mean like in the afternoon — like generally around that hour. So we had to figure out systems to address that. And we did.

CAROLINE PAUL: Yeah, we did. We did well. I’d never collaborated, so as a writer I thought what I would do is write the book and hand it to Wendy and she would illustrate it. But soon I realized that really this was a conversation we were having with each other to make this book, because this was a memoir really from both of us. We ended up that I would write a couple of pages or a chapter and hand it to Wendy, and she would do an illustration, and then I would sort of change depending on the voice that she was offering in the illustration. It really became a sort of interchange along the way. The other thing is that because we both lived this, and being in a relationship, of course, the work becomes a metaphor for your relationship, so it’s different than a normal writer-illustrator collaboration. We had to be sensitive to that. So if I handed her something that I thought was brilliant and wanted her to read it and give me feedback or an illustration, and she didn’t do it within 10 minutes, well I realized that she no longer loved me. Basically.

WENDY MACNAUGHTON: We had to work that out. We’re happy with the way it ended up becoming kind of a conversation between the two, when neither could really stand alone. And it’s about 50/50 writing and illustration, so there’s an illustration on almost every spread. Like Caroline said, it does become a conversation between them.

ART BEAT: When you started tracking Tibby, what did you realistically think you were going to find him doing? In your wildest dreams, what would he have been doing?

CAROLINE PAUL: I was of two minds, honestly. Based in my ideal world, he never would have left. He loved only me, and he was a certain kitty in my mind. So when he became this completely other kitty — obviously he had a very active outdoor life with other interests and loves — that was a shock to me. When I didn’t know where he was, I wanted him in some ways to be far away, because if he was far away then he wouldn’t have heard me calling every night, and if he hadn’t heard me calling every night that would be why he hadn’t come home. But on the other hand, I wanted him close by so that he was safer, and yet I called for him every night he didn’t come home. The truth is I was like any parent. I didn’t want my kitty to have this other life. Or maybe I’m like anybody in a relationship; I want the creature that I love to love only me. It’s unrealistic, really, that their universe has me at the center of it, but that’s kind of what we want, especially with our animals, I think.

ART BEAT: In the last chapter, you offer your readers seven potential morals to this story. What was the most important lesson that you both got out of the actual adventure and then the reflection that may have come through the writing process?

CAROLINE PAUL: What I learned is that — and I think I say this in one of the morals — I’m not exactly sure how I say but, you really can’t completely know a creature that you love, be it a cat or a girlfriend or a boyfriend, or a child. You just cannot know and you have to be at peace with that. I think as humans we do want to control our relationships, and you can’t. It’s probably better that you can’t. That wouldn’t be a real relationship, and we’d never learn and grow. I think that in the end, I had let go of that — or at least I hoped that I had. I wasn’t actually going to know everything about Tibby, and I couldn’t really know anything about anybody that I loved. But I had to trust that there was still this very strong connection.

WENDY MACNAUGHTON: The other thing that we both came to understand and experience was the idea of loss and that try as we might to hold our loved ones dear to us, whether they be human or feline or whatever, it’s almost inevitable in one sense or another that there could be, and probably will be, some kind of loss temporary or inevitably permanent, and we have to grapple with that a little bit.

ART BEAT: So what is your current kitty ownership status?

WENDY MACNAUGHTON: Let’s talk about my cats. We ended up getting the two cats that Caroline said in the book that I was excited about. We did go to the pound and get two rescue kitties. They’re named Mia and Maxine; they’re sisters. One is black, one is black and white, and they are the center of the universe and luckily they love me and only me and will never leave.

CAROLINE PAUL: Of course. And Tibby actually accepted them pretty well. It was really beautiful to watch him be like, ‘Ok, well, at least it’s not something around my neck.’ He sort of bemusedly let us bring two more cats in.

ART BEAT: Is there anything else you’d like to share?

CAROLINE PAUL: We’ve gotten two big responses. One of them is that a lot of people come up to us — they come to our readings or they write to us and they say, ‘Thank you for the book, my cat saved my life.’ And that sounds hyper-dramatic, but they’re often teary when they tell us or quite emotional, and they mean it. In some way, the cat, their animals, have really brought something to their lives that no humans could. That love and connection is unique, I think, and people who own animals understand that.

WENDY MACNAUGHTON: The other thing we’ve heard is that the connection that people have with animals is directly related to the connections that people with have other humans. We had one person tell us just in a conversation about the book yesterday that it was through learning to love an animal, her pet, that she able to learn to love another person. So it does end up being a metaphor for larger relationships.