When in the midst of writing one of her novels, Barbara often complained that her characters weren’t behaving at all the way she’d expected them to. (She’s not the only writer we’ve heard making this complaint.) It seemed that once she gave them life on the page, Barbara’s “people” developed minds and voices of their own, and refused to march along the lines she’d planned for them. It’s possible that some writers make outlines, sit down, and then follow the imagined developments of plot and character as planned. This was certainly not Barbara’s approach — although she always had voluminous notes in preparation for each book, and kept notes as she went along. But often the notes would take the form of questions — “Why did [so-and-so] just do this?” “What’s going to happen to [so-and-so]?” … or, more ominously, something along the lines of “It’s getting boring, time to kill someone off!” (Picture Will Farrell begging Emma Thompson for his life in “Stranger than Fiction,” a movie that made Barbara chuckle — particularly when watching Thompson’s struggles…)
How does this get us to her cats? Well, as any cat owner can attest, cats are just as ornery as any fictional character. And it turned out that Barbara’s cats could be just as unpredictable in terms of character development as the people in her books. Take her cat Emerson, for example. He began as a gregarious Maine Coon cat, happily scooting around her house along with his many feline siblings. (The numbers could rise as high as 7, if you counted the mostly-outdoors Sethos.) However, as he hit the equivalent of feline adolescence, he abruptly became reclusive and even paranoid. Barbara had several theories about why this happened. Her favorite theory was that Emerson’s paranoia began with his fear of a particular workman who was at the house doing repairs; this theory was bolstered by the fact that Emerson reappeared each afternoon at just about the time that workman left the house (even long after the work was finished). Whatever the cause, Emerson became one of the most cowardly of cats — a far cry from the bold Radcliffe Emerson character for whom he’d been named!
Yet another unexpected cat character in Barbara’s household was Vicky — named, of course, for her dashing heroine Vicky Bliss.
Vicky was one of two cats who arrived during Barbara’s final years, mostly because she wanted a few feline denizens who would actually hang out with her. (Sethos and Emerson, for example, would sometimes disappear for long periods of time…) Maybe it was unfair to expect Vicky to be both cozy and dashing — but she turned out to be, in Barbara’s words, one of the “most boring, unimaginative” cats she’d ever owned. That didn’t mean that Vicky was any the less loved or pampered. But it certainly made her name a bad fit! Vicky could frequently be found simply looking ahead with a somewhat blank stare. Was she thinking some dark and devious thought? (If it were Barbara’s cat Gandalf, for example, it would be plausible to imagine him planning how to knock the canoptic jars in the bathroom down the stairs.) Given that it was Vicky, who seemed to prefer things simple, probably not. There was always something a bit Victorian (in the more conventional sense) about Vicky’s sedate approach to life. Cozy, settled in her ways, known to slowly chase a ribbon (if dangled right in front of her nose) — but not too bright.
So much for an author’s attempt to control character development — whether in her books, or among her cats! (And yet both kinds of characters, while they could be frustrating at times, yielded a great deal of pleasure in the end.)