In Marc Labriola's Dying Behaviour of Cats (Quattro Books), Theo hasn't set foot outside in seven years. On the night of a violent hurricane, he swears he sees a leopard climb onto his roof. It turns out Theo's vision isn't a hallucination or a dream - it was real, and pretty soon his house is surrounded by media and onlookers. Both Theo and the leopard end up at the centre of a media circus, both unwilling to leave.
It's a dark and absorbing novella, which garnered the 2017 Klonsky Award. Labriola has also twice been nominated for the Pushcart Prize, with his acclaimed short fiction being widely published.
Today we're speaking to Marc about his exciting debut as part of our Lucky Seven series, which asks authors seven questions about their newest work. He tells us about how writing is like "knowing where to dig for bodies", makes a convincing argument for the value of squalor, and shares a gorgeous quote from Persian poet Hafez on how to measure the impact of a great book.
Tell us about your new book, Dying Behaviour of Cats.
It’s about a man and a leopard. Should I keep going? There’s this man named Theo who is a shut-in. He hasn’t set foot outside in seven years. So he knows nothing about the hurricane that eventually floods the city and allows the zoo animals to escape. On the night of the hurricane, out his window, Theo watches something that he first believes to be a drunken hallucination, but turns out real— a leopard climbs up a tree, and leaps onto his roof. The next day, crowds amass outside to get a glimpse of the leopard who won’t come down. The crowds are getting bigger and bigger until it turns into this sort of mass hysteria party for the end of the world. The whole time, Theo is barricaded inside.
Is there a question that is central to your book, thematically? And if so, did you know the question when you started writing or did it emerge from the writing process?
Trying to move your characters around a theme is like trying to dress a dead man. So rather than thematic questions, let’s talk about obsessions. I’m mostly obsessed with myth. I love telling stories out loud, and I guess this is ironic for an author, but in writing I’m not really that interested in “storytelling.” I think the really vital human stories are hidden, and that literature is an elaboration of the confrontation that occurs when something breaks in a human life, or breaks open, like a new love, a birth, and in this break we have to face the mythic, the divine. When the leopard climbs up onto Theo’s rooftop, it is a divine element that surfaces, something completely outside of himself, but also completely a part of him, an exaggeration of him. I think that reading a novel is also meant to be confrontational because it is a breaking point with your reality. The experience of the novel, or any art for that matter, recreates that same encounter in the reader.
Did the book change significantly from when you first starting working on it to the final version? How long did the project take from start to finish?
It’s hard to talk about changes. Writing is like learning where to look for lost things. Knowing where to dig for bodies. Sometimes coming up with a story is like chipping away at the paint on an alley wall where the graffiti has been covered over, or recognizing the sacred number on your motel room door. Every moment that you think is invention is really a moment of discovery. The plot emerges as a series of tiny revelatory acts. Writing a novel is kind of like an archaeology dig.
The book took me nine months to write. I can only work in gestation periods! I wanted to write it in 67 days—but the gestation period of a cat was just too ambitious. Even the 105 day leopard gestation didn’t work out. In the end I had to settle with Human.
What do you need in order to write — in terms of space, food, rituals, writing instruments?
I need love and squalor. A bottle of whisky around, and yesterday’s glass. My desk is usually covered with paper scraps. Ticket stubs, corners ripped off newspapers or envelopes, the bad half of an old photograph, a cigar wrapper. And they all have these seemingly cryptic messages scratched onto them. These are my notes. I write them compulsively, wherever I am, on whatever is within reach.
If I was found dead in the street without a wallet while writing Dying Behaviour of Cats, and they emptied out my pockets, they’d have to piece together my identity with scraps of paper with notes like: “tropical cyclone woman’s names…the posterior fontanelle…chatoyancy phenomenon…ancient orgiastic cult…catalepsy…bird embryos and household gods…catgut suture…names of planetary moons…apocalypse enthusiasts…puking as religious experience…Paleolithic way to say I love you…ram’s head with fallopian tube horns…Panthera pardus ciscaucasica.”
I also write for two months every year in Guanajuato, Mexico. I’ve got this desk there with sunflowers carved into the drawers that was borrowed from a motel room. I like to face the sun and drink tequila with agua mineral.
What do you do if you're feeling discouraged during the writing process? Do you have a method of coping with the difficult points in your projects?
I keep a flamenco guitar beside my desk. I found it in this town called Paracho, famous for guitar-making. When the words don’t come, I reach for the guitar. Playing guitar is kind of like typing turned inwards. It’s not the music that helps, it’s the sympathetic magic. There is another trick, but I’ll tell you when I know you better.
What defines a great book, in your opinion? Tell us about one or two books you consider to be truly great books.
So far the world has only come up with one acceptable definition for what makes great writing. And these words come from the Persian mystic poet Hafez. He says, “the gauge of a good poem is the size of the love-bruise it leaves on your neck.” Gabriel Garcia Marquez’ One Hundred Years of Solitude left the largest bruise. Notable bruises have also come from Milan Kundera’s Immortality, Franz Kafka’s The Metamorphosis, and Fyodor Dostoevsky’s Notes from Underground.
What are you working on now?
I’m working on a novel about a famous dead writer. In his will he stipulates that his body be buried in a small town where his cult novel was set. The writer used a fictional name for the town in his book, so when the real location is discovered, the town is inundated by fans and journalists who try to uncover the real people behind the now famous characters. They are particularly interested in the identity of the female protagonist. Hopefully the book will be done in less than 22 months. Anything longer than the gestation period of an elephant just seems obscene.
Marc Labriola’s short stories have appeared in literary journals throughout the US. His first novel, Dying Behaviour of Cats, is the winner of the 2017 Ken Klonsky Award. He lives in Toronto.