People sometimes ask me how I write my books and articles and the answer these days, when COVID-19 has condemned many to lonely communion with laptops, goes like this:
Even before lockdown, I wrote at home or alone and sometimes both. Often enough, as a foreign correspondent for Reuters and The New York Times, I finished up tapping away in a far-flung hotel room in one city while my subject was in another.
I recall, for instance, trying to complete an African memoir at a hotel in Damascus. To help me concentrate, I closed the curtains. Opening them a couple of hours later, I was quite surprised to discover that I was not in Lubumbashi, the city I had been writing about in the country then called Zaire (now the Democratic Republic of Congo) thousands of miles away. The power of memory had been sufficient to transpose me, emotionally if not physically, to a distant place.
Once, in Zimbabwe, on the eve of independence, I worked in a Land Rover, scribbling messages by hand on the flimsy tissue paper that lined 30-packs of Madison cigarettes to be transmitted by carrier pigeon to Bulawayo.
Somewhere there’s a photo of me writing in a dug-out canoe on the Chari River separating Chad and Cameroon.
The loneliness of hotel life could be a blessing or a curse. One colleague whose phenomenal good looks drew comparisons to those of Peter O’Toole in ‘Lawrence of Arabia’ confessed that, if his room boasted a mirror above the writing desk, he would hang a bathroom towel over it to avoid being distracted, Narcissus-like, by his own image as he composed his dispatches.
Others, less fortunate, took solace in the hotel-room mini-bar (or the real bar) in the quest for inspiration. A famed hotel in Beirut, favoured by journalists, saw no harm in billing bar-tabs as laundry. What a well-turned-out press corps we must have been!
But when the tsunami of technology swept me up and I became a web-driven, breaking news editor-cum-rewriter in London, a newly acquired rag doll cat called Cohli became my desk companion, and I fell into that awfully familiar trap of anthropomorphisation that snares many writers.
Was she my muse, Beatrice to my Dante? Could she, in fact, read, or otherwise intuit my thoughts, inspiring me to fulfil the dreams of book-writing that haunt many reporters? Behind many a reporter’s byline in newspapers or on websites, there is a novelist straining to emerge, trading the harsh discipline of facts for the freedoms of the imagination.
It was one thing, though, to project my thoughts onto Cohli. What was she really seeing in return – a food-source, a familiar voice, a fellow-prisoner in the same North London apartment that we both knew as home? That led me to try to imagine how life looked from her point of view and what kind of adventures she might be yearning for.
As I wrote in Cat Flap, size was an issue. Imagine if we humans lived in a Lilliputian world, surrounded by giants in their cavernous habitats, dodging our way through thickets of human limbs as big and clumsy as the trunks of huge pine trees. Imagine if we took our responsibility for our personal hygiene to such intimate extremes as cats do. And conversely, imagine if we were blessed with a cat’s extraordinary athleticism, its acceleration, its ability to leap to great heights and land on all fours.
And, unbeknown to us, what incommunicable secrets did our pets guard behind their mews and purrs? What insights into the human condition did cats acquire?
As I began writing, thus, the dramatic personae of the book acquired a cast of humans to be observed by a cat, almost like humans in African safari lodges watching the fauna around them. The humans in the book acquired names, characteristics. They embarked on adventures that brought joy, fulfilment, suffering, regret, pain, redemption.
“What do you think of this, Cohli?” I would murmur as the book took shape. She never replied. But I suspect she was just being diplomatic.
Alan S. Cowell is an author, correspondent and, currently, obituarist for The New York Times. His most recent works have been fictional – a political thriller entitled Permanent Removal set in Nelson Mandela’s South Africa, and Cat Flap, a novel of feline whimsy set in COVID London. Both are written from first-hand knowledge.
His cat, Cohli, is a rag-doll.