I am, little by little, telling the stories of the various novel ideas I’ve had along the way but did not pursue. Could I go back and finish them? Maybe, in at least some cases, but the issue is I don’t really want to. It’s not that I gave up, it’s that these projects never acquired the necessary vitality to come to term. And yet, each of them helped develop some aspect of my style or my process, or some theme or maybe a character that is part of my creative life, still.
These stories are part of my story.
I had been going in chronological order, but the last one I described dates from my late teens (my Star Trek novel-that-wasn’t), and there is another from my early adolescence I’ve skipped over. Here it is.
The Cat Story
This one never even had a working title, not that I can remember, anyway. It barely even had a plot. And yet there was a while when I was developing it alongside the unrelated Central American novel, and I was fairly sure both would be completed and published someday. Perhaps that’s what makes some of these memories so poignant–I had such high hopes. I was twelve.
The basic idea for the cat story was that ordinary house cats turn out to be a highly organized and hyper-intelligent species, and that at some point in the near future they simply decide to take humanity in hand. They decide, in essence, that humans have botched things up pretty badly and can no longer be allowed to run things.
So, the cats completely re-organize the United States (I don’t remember if the coup was worldwide or only in the US), and fix all our political economic, and environmental problems for us. Everything fixed, we’re allowed to regain our autonomy, presumably chastened.
I had a few scenes planed out involving the cats’ initial revelation of their abilities and intentions, as well as their visit to my my school: the Head Cat was touring various institutions to see which ones would be allowed to remain and which would be closed down or altered. He traveled in a car driven by an ape, who also held a red velvet pillow with gold tassels for the Head Cat to sit on when he wanted to talk to humans so that he could converse at eye-level with us. My teachers were nervous, but they eventually made the grade.
But that was about it.
I don’t know why I didn’t write in that humans would protest (of course, we would) or fight back. I don’t know why I didn’t give the cats some kind of force or method of coercion. Instead I had them more less announce “we’re in charge, now,” and humanity just said “ok.”
Probably, I just wasn’t interested in plot or character development or human reactions. I was interested in an alternate version of the United States. The cats, and the idea of the novel itself, were simply an excuse to day-dream about a better way to run my own country. I spent a great deal of time and energy figuring out all the changes the cats were going to make. I saw my book as a way to introduce my ideas to the world, and perhaps someone would act on them.
What were these ideas? I remember only two.
- There would be a lot more protected green space. To that end, there would be buffer zones several miles wide created along all state boundaries from which all traces of civilization, except maybe a few highways and train lines, would be removed. There would also be habitat corridors created to connect all parks and wildlife preserves to the buffer zones and to each other.
- There would be a second type of political subdivision of the country; in addition to the states, there would be communities, and each community would have its own citizens and its own laws, but not its own land. In essence, it was an optional tribal system, where you could join a separatist group, opt out of some (not all) of the American legal system, and opt into a separate system.
I remember having a bit of an argument over that second one. I was explaining the whole system to my mother’s boyfriend, and as an example of a possible separatist community, I suggested Nazis. He was not amused. I had no idea how to extricate myself, and I let the subject drop. But, really, I didn’t mean to imply support for racists and such–I was trying to choose a deliberately extreme example, to say even Nazis would be free to do what they want to other Nazis. That was the key. The separatist laws would only apply to group members, and you could leave a group any time you wanted, for whatever reason. The Nazis would be harmless, because no Jews (or Gypsies, or gay people, etc.) would opt to join the Nazi group.
I don’t remember why or when I let the project drop, or even how long I worked on it. I do know that by the time I entered boarding school, at age 15, I had all but forgotten about it. Only recently did I begin thinking about the project again–and realize that the ideas of the cat story have never really left me.
Where Did the Cat Story Come From?
The cat story sounds juvenile, in no small part because I was myself juvenile at the time, but it grew out of my conviction that there is a better way to run this country and my doubt that we will do the right thing voluntarily. I still hold that conviction and that doubt, and I still hope that fiction can prompt public conversation–and maybe action–in spite of that doubt.
My thought that the US could be different than it actually is came from a school assignment, one of the best classroom activities I’ve ever heard of. We had been studying American History and so we, as a group, started to rewrite the US Constitution. We pretended that our class was the original constitutional convention, and we debated, discussed, and voted on many of the questions that the real Constitution covers. Who counts as a citizen? Who gets to vote? Who can hold which office and for how long?
We never finished the project–I think the teachers ended it because it was taking too long, and the point had already been made; the way our country runs is not written in stone. It could have been different than it is, and it is not out of line for any American to think about ways it might be better.
I thought and thought…and the cat story was one early result.
Where Did the Cat Story Go?
I have not stopped thinking about how else things might be run. In fact, the book I’m writing now began as a variation of the same daydream, where an outside event pushes humans to make some major changes we would not otherwise accept. The only difference is that this time the outside force is a killer pandemic, rather than a coup by hyper-intelligent house cats.
This time the daydream remained a daydream. I did not pretend that a scenario could be a novel if it lacked a plot. But then one day a plot and some characters bloomed in the world the daydream had created, and I started writing. The new book is not a vehicle to talk about political fantasy, and in fact very little of the fantasy made it into the story. That post-pandemic America will one day have a tricameral legislature–or a new and improved (Nazi-free) version of my optional tribal structure–is irrelevant to the plot and does not appear in the book.
But daydreaming about a better Constitution remains a preoccupation of mine. It has been a fertile daydream, and maybe someday it will help, somehow.